Katharine Glasier

Katharine Glasier

Katharine Conway, the daughter of the Samuel Conway and Amy Curling, was born on 25th September, 1867. Her father was a Congregational parson in Chipping Ongar, but when Katharine was a child the family moved to Walthamstow.

The Conways held progressive views and Katharine received an education equivalent to that of her brothers. After being educated at home by her mother until the age of ten, Katharine went to the Hackney Downs High School for Girls.

Amy Conway died in 1881 after giving birth to her seventh child. This was a devastating blow as Katharine was very close to her mother. She later told Ramsay MacDonald: "I was 12 when my mother died and until my father married again when I was nearly 16 I had no home happiness at all. His grief and loneliness put out the sunshine for us children. And the second wife was tenderly good to us."

At the age of nineteen, Katharine began her studies at Newnham College, Cambridge. At university Katharine came under the influence of the militant feminist, Helen Gladstone, the youngest daughter of Herbert Gladstone. Katharine also met Olive Schreiner, a woman who "encouraged every bit of courageous aspiration or rebellion she found in us." She finished her studies in 1889 and she was officially placed second in her College Tripos though Gladstone claimed she really come top. At that time Cambridge University did not grant woman degrees but for the rest of her life she always placed the initials B.A. after her name.

Katharine found work as a Classics mistress at Redland High School in Bristol. One Sunday in November, 1890, Katharine was on her way to church when she encountered a demonstration by low-paid women workers. Katharine asked the women about their problems and it was later claimed that it was the discussion with these women that converted her to socialism. Soon after this incident, Katharine joined the Bristol Socialist Society.

Most of the members of the Socialist Society were supporters of H. H. Hyndman and the Social Democratic Federation. Katharine found their views too revolutionary and left to join the Bristol Fabian Society. Uncomfortable with her position teaching at a selective school, Katharine resigned and took a job at a board school in St Philips, a working class district of Bristol.

In 1891 the Fabian Society began to arrange for members to travel around the country giving lecturers on Socialism. At the Fabian meetings Katharine impressed local members with her ability to argue the case for socialism that that it was suggested that she should become a Fabian lecturer. Over the next few months Katharine attracted large crowds to hear her talk on subjects such as Socialism and the Home, The Religion of Socialism and Why Working Women Want the Vote? One member commented: "It is possible that Katharine Conway was getting more applause than a woman less young and attractive might have got but that was all doing good to Socialism. She has a peculiar magnetic influence over her audiences, and larger audiences could be drawn for her than for almost any other lecturer."

At these meetings Katharine came into contact with important figures in the Fabian Society including Sidney Webb, Beatrice Webb, George Bernard Shaw and Robert Blatchford. Shaw proposed marriage but Katharine told him that she intended dedicating her life to socialism. Katharine also met Edward Hulton, who recruited her to write for his radical newspaper, the Manchester Sunday Chronicle.

In the autumn of 1892 Katharine attended the Trades Union Congress (TUC) meeting in Glasgow. One of those who heard her speak was Bruce Glasier, one of the leaders of the socialist movement in Scotland. They quickly became close friends and married on 21st June, 1893. George Bernard Shaw sent his congratulations reminding Katherine of what he had previously said about marriage and children. Katherine wrote back explaining she did not intend to have any children. Shaw replied with a postcard: "Invite me to the christening."

Katharine continued to lecture on socialism but had become critical of the Fabian Society approach to political change. Katharine was a Christian Socialist who once said that to her, "socialism was the economic expression of Christianity". The recently formed, Independent Labour Party, was led by Christians such as James Keir Hardie, Tom Mann, Ben Tillett and Philip Snowden. In 1893 Katharine joined the ILP and it was not long before she became the only woman on the party's National Administrative Council.

When Katharine and Bruce married they agreed not to have children so that they could devote the rest of their lives to the socialist cause. However, in 1896 Bruce Glasier and Emmeline Pankhurst were charged with speaking at an illegal meeting. Katharine was with Emmeline when she returned home after being found not guilty. Katharine was later to say that it was seeing Harry Pankhurst embrace his mother after discovering that she was not to be sent to prison, that convinced her to have children. Her daughter, Jeannie, was born the following year.

Despite being a mother, Katharine Glasier continued to tour the country making speeches on socialism. In 1900 she lectured in over thirty different towns. Bruce Glasier was also in great demand as he had recently been elected as chairman of the Independent Labour Party.

Katharine continued to write and as well as having a regular column in the ILP newspaper The Labour Leader, she contributed to other socialist journals and newspapers such as The Labour Womanand The Workman's Times. Katharine also wrote a feminist novel, Marget: A Twentieth-Century Novel and Tales from the Derbyshire, a collection of short-stories.

Katharine was not active in the women's suffrage movement. She disagreed with the NUWSS policy of a limited women's suffrage bill and totally disapproved of the militant tactics used by the WSPU. Like most members of the Independent Labour Party, Katharine supported the campaign for complete adult suffrage.

In 1916 Katharine Glasier became editor of the Labour Leader. The anti-war stand that its previous editor, Fenner Brockway, took was continued. At first this caused sales to slump but this eventually attracted a larger readership from young people disillusioned by the war. By the summer of 1917 sales of the newspaper under Katharine's editorship, reached an all-time peak of 51,000. The Independent Labour Party was so pleased that they raised her salary from £2.17.0 to £3.5.0 a week. As editor she clashed with Philip Snowden over his anti-Bolshevik writings.

Helen Wilkinson heard her speak during this period: "It was a memorable meeting. I got a seat in the front row of the gallery. It seemed noisy to me, whose sole experience of meetings was of religious services. Rows of men filled the platform. But my eyes were riveted on a small slim woman her hair simply coiled into her neck, Katherine Glasier.... To stand on a platform of the Free Trade Hall, to be able to sway a great crowd, to be able to make people work to make life better, to remove slums and underfeeding and misery just because one came and spoke to them about it - that seemed the highest destiny any women could ever hope for."

After the death of Bruce Glasier in 1920 Katharine continued to work for the Independent Labour Party. Katharine joined the Society of Friends and sent her son Glen to the Quaker school at Ackworth. Glen Glasier was a brilliant scholar who had just been awarded a scholarship to Oxford University when he was killed while playing football in 1928. Her son's death inspired the writing of The Glen Book.

Other political campaigns that Katharine was involved in included the fight for pit-head baths for miners and the abolition of the Poor Law. A close friend of Margaret MacMillan, the two women worked together in the fight for school meals and nursery education. Later Katharine was to play a major role in the forming of the Save the Children Fund.

Katharine Glasier was appalled by the behaviour of her old ILP colleagues, James Ramsay MacDonald and Philip Snowden in 1931. However, when the ILP broke away in 1932 Katharine remained with the Labour Party and continued to be active in the movement.

After the first majority Labour Government was formed in July, 1945, she wrote in her diary "the joy of the Harvest". Katharine still had the energy to campaign for causes she believed in. This included forming the Margaret McMillan Memorial Fund that raised nearly a quarter of a million to build the Margaret McMillan Training College at Bradford.

In 1947 Katharine celebrated her eighty birthday by giving a lecture to over a thousand people at the Bradford Co-operative Assembly Hall on her most popular subject: The Religion of Socialism.

Katharine Glasier died on 14th June, 1950. Her home, Glen Cottage, in the village of Earby, where she lived from 1922 until her death on 14 June 1950, was preserved in her memory by the labour movement.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Katharine Glasier was deeply influenced by reading England's Ideal by Edward Carpenter.

Edward Carpenter woke a new power of love and worship within me. It was as if in that smoke-laden room a great window had been flung wide open and the vision of a new world had been shown me: of the earth reborn to beauty and joy, the home, to use Edward Carpenter's own words, "of a free people, proud in the mastery and divinity of their lives". As I went back to my Clifton lodgings, I vaguely realised that every value life had previously held for me had changed as by some mysterious spiritual alchemy. I was ashamed of the privileges and elaborate refinements of which I had previously been so proud; the joy of comradeship, the glory of life, lost and found in the "agelong, peerless cause" had been revealed to me, dimming all others.

(2) W. S. De Mattos described Katharine Glasier's success as a Fabian Society lecturer.

It is possible that Katharine Conway was getting more applause than a woman less young and attractive might have got but that was all doing good to Socialism. She has a peculiar magnetic influence over her audiences, and larger audiences could be drawn for her than for almost any other lecturer.

(3) In January 1893, Katharine Glasier described the formation of the Independent Labour Party in her diary.

On January 13th, 1893, the Independent Labour Party sprang into being, and, as a child of the spirit of Liberty, claims every song that she has sung - in whatever land - as a glorious heritage. Life, lover, liberty, and labour make liquid music. The Labour Party is in league with life, and works for liberty that man may live. The Socialist creed of the 'One body' is a declaration that liberty grows with love, and that therefore life is love's child.

(4) Edward Carpenter sent a message of congratulations to Bruce Glasier when he heard he was to marry Katharine.

I think Katharine is a true and noble woman - she can hardly be otherwise considering all she has done and sacrificed. So I wish you heartily all happiness - and I think you together will be like a fire and the sword to the Philistines and the capitalists.

(5) In her book Myself When Young, Helen Wilkinson described hearing Katharine Glasier speak at an Independent Labour Party meeting in Manchester.

It was a memorable meeting. I got a seat in the front row of the gallery. It seemed noisy to me, whose sole experience of meetings was of religious services. Rows of men filled the platform. But my eyes were riveted on a small slim woman her hair simply coiled into her neck, Katherine Glasier. She was speaking on "Socialism as a Religion". To stand on a platform of the Free Trade Hall, to be able to sway a great crowd, to be able to make people work to make life better, to remove slums and underfeeding and misery just because one came and spoke to them about it - that seemed the highest destiny any women could ever hope for.

(6) Katharine Glasier, speech (May, 1905)

Socialism sought the ending of the selfish individual and class struggle that was going on for wealth, and the gratification of brutal instincts. It required not only the land and capital should be socialised, but that all the means of life should be socialised - science, art, health, leisure, and human sympathy. It sought to establish a commonweal in which all should give freely of the service of their hands, their means, and their hearts.

(7) In 1909 Elizabeth Evans described Katharine Glasier.

Katherine was dressed in a sort of livery - a home-made one piece gown. She has a slim, almost girlish figure, her features are regular, and her cheeks are of the ruddy hue so frequent in British matrons - and she smiles and smiles and smiles. And she speaks without let or hindrance in language at once forceful and picturesque and unique, and she speaks all the time. Her everyday talk is like a lecture, and her lecture is like her everyday talk.

(8) Katharine Glasier, letter to Ramsay MacDonald after the death of Margaret MacDonald (December, 1912)

I am gathering courage to tell you how over the fire one night we two wives searched our hearts together & fearlessly said to one another that love like ours had no room for one jealous throb. Mary Middleton had spoken to us unfalteringly of her hope that Jim would "love & live" again in all fullness and I said to Margaret that I knew Bruce's need of the love & sympathy of a true woman so well that were I to go from him my last words would be seek and soon another woman who would mother both him and the bairns for me. And Margaret put her check against mine - a very unusual demonstration - you know - and said, I think it was - "And so would I" - But anyhow I never doubted but we were wholly in sympathy. The feeling that I have to tell you this - almost as if she herself were insisting on it - has been with me for weeks past and I have not dared... But I am too sure of what she would have wished... not to have courage to speak-out now. I was 12 when my mother died and until my father married again when I was nearly 16 I had no home happiness at all. His grief and loneliness put out the sunshine for us children. And the second wife was tenderly good to us. And Margaret - what of her motherhood? It is her will that you live - live to carry on the noblest Socialism in the world today - to live gloriously down every mean aspersion of personal ambition and to accomplish the creation of a strong sane Collectivist Party in Britain capable of government in every sense of the word... She believed in your future and she knew your need of sympathy and help. She told me much of your mother. You know both of us had special reason to love and honour our husbands' mothers and learn from their sorrows and struggles a fiercer morality than any ordinary world holds. We both believed in real marriage: in men and women working shoulder to shoulder - you yourself record that. And here I will stop - proudly holding out both hands to you because I know that she who is gone loved and trusted me and showed me glimpses of her innermost soul.