Monday, 25 April 2011

‘A bonnie fighter’: Jenny Foster Newton (1853-1937)

Years ago I researched an early female social campaigner in Richmond and wrote an article for the Local History Society journal. This is an edited version of the piece:

Miss Foster Newton played a considerable part in the religious, political and social life of Richmond was part of a remarkable generation who shook up towns and villages up and down the country.  They did not have the high profile of the suffragettes, such as the Pankhursts, but it can be argued that these women played as big a part in gaining the vote through their good work at local level.
That they could do this largely came about because of an anomaly in electoral law which gave women who were ratepayers, normally spinsters, the right to vote in local elections and to stand for election as councillors, poor law guardians and for local education boards.  From the 1870s a small number of strong-minded women took advantage of this loophole to gain places on these various bodies where they principally successful in trying to humanise the poor law and improve the lot of the poorest in society.
Jenny Foster Newton was born into a prosperous nonconformist family in Brighton.  Her family moved to Richmond in 1866, when she was thirteen.  Her early years were not untypical of young ladies of her class and generation.  She later recalled

Before I became a thoughtful woman I spent my time in riding, boating, and other amusements… I used to scamper across the Brighton Downs with my father, and even now I think I could ride across country with any pack.

Like so many from her social background she was drawn into social work through visiting the poor in Holy Trinity parish which she began at the age of 24 in 1877. 
As she grew older she became involved in many of the charitable causes in the town.  She became secretary of the Princess Mary Adelaide Home for Servants (which was on Richmond Green), the Sanitary Aid Association, and of a branch of the Christian Police Association.  She also served on the committees of local branch of the National Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the Rescue Home.
It was perhaps inevitable that she would be drawn towards the poor law.  During the 1880s a few women were being elected as guardians of their local poor law union.  Miss Foster Newton was elected in 1888 when she came top of the poll with a majority of 495.  It is likely that the local Liberals encouraged her candidature.  She herself later suggested that:

public opinion was right for this movement; the support of an influential committee, together with the valuable support of the Press secured  this position for women, which I feel more and more convinced, is amongst the useful spheres for women’s work.

Even though she admitted she knew nothing about the duties of the poor law guardians on her election, Miss Foster Newton threw herself into her new role with considerable force.  She was a breath of fresh air insisting for example, the right of guardians to visit the workhouse at any time.  Miss Foster Newton took a particular interest in pauper children, many of whom came from broken homes.  She set up a scheme whereby they were boarded with foster parents in Westmoreland.  For the youngest orphan children she insisted that the guardians provide a nursery ‘as bright as possible.’  
As a result of her hard work she was regularly re-elected.   Her example also encouraged other women.  By 1900 there were three other lady guardians.
Miss Foster Newton’s concern for the poor was intimately bound up with the temperance movement.  In mid-Victorian England drink was a major destroyer of people’s lives especially amongst the poorest in society.
At the same time that she took up district visiting she also took over responsibility for a British Workingman’s Coffee House, known as the Traveller’s Rest, in Sheen Road.  She later said that the Traveller’s Rest was started to meet the demand ‘for temperance refreshments.  At the same time there was great difficulty in obtaining refreshment at other than licensed houses.’
She established the Richmond Branch of the British National Women’s Temperance Association.  The annual reports tells the reader as much about Miss Foster Newton as it does about the work of the Association itself.  She ruled the branch with a rod of iron, which may help explain the high turnover of members, and entered into the somewhat disputatious affairs of the Association nationally with enthusiasm. 
Despite early successes such as organising ‘a happy day for the working classes’ in Petersham which was attended eight hundred people and placing an advertisement on the bus which ran between Richmond and Kingston, it is quite clear that the Association had little influence in the town.  The town council almost always rejected her suggestions for closing pubs or reducing licensing hours. 
Every year there was a symbolic vote about providing alcohol at the Christmas luncheon for the paupers in the workhouse.  Occasionally Miss Foster Newton secured enough support to prevent beer and other stimulants being served, but this was rare.  It became quite an issue with candidates supported by local licensees standing against her at election time.  In turn she mobilised women electors urging:

all women who have votes for the election of guardians and town councillors to see that they make use of their privileges and cast their votes in favour of candidates who will support measures of temperance reform.  A large number of people now living on the rates would not be in our workhouse were it not for the excessive use of strong drink.

Although a number of local clergy and the concerned middle classes supported her, she had little support amongst working people.  One annual report of the Association noted:

By the courtesy of Rev G.G. Normadale, the Primitive Methodist Schoolroom was opened from 12 to 1 o’clock for the free use of the men working on the roads.  Coffee was on sale at 1d a cup. The response was so indifferent the effort was soon discontinued.

Campaigns for prohibition in Britain, unlike America, had little real impact.  Too many of its supporters were cranks.  And, sadly, to their number must be added Miss Foster Newton.  She must have lost a lot of support with such small-minded actions as:

Just before Xmas Day [1902] your secretary wrote and issued in circular form nearly 2000 letters to residents in Richmond and the neighbourhood pointing out the dangers of giving alcoholic refreshments to carriers, dustmen, postmen and others which is often thoughtlessly done at this season of the year.  Several replies were received expressing approval and promising co-operation in the effort to promote sobriety amongst the working classes.

As she got older she seems to have become rather a lonely person, opinionated and difficult to deal with.  She never married, although she lived for a number of years with a Miss Rachel Sanders, ‘a great and intimate friend’ who died unfortunately early in 1896. A Gorham bedstead with fittings was given to Richmond Royal Hospital in her memory.
Women like Jenny Foster Newton no longer exist.  She was a lady of independent means with firm views which she had the confidence to advocate.  In a less certain age we can only admire her for this.  When she took up a cause, as with temperance, she gave her all.  An admirer, Miss Anne Hall, JP of Wanstead, told the press after her death:

What a bonnie fighter she was!  This year, at 84 years of age, she went straight from her bed after an illness, to the court at Richmond to plead for a cause she was interested in. Nothing deterred her, she would beard a cabinet minister, face a court, or write to the press with equal fervour if, in her opinion, the case was good, and needed a defender.

Richmond is the poorer for no longer having people of the strength of will and opinion as Miss Foster Newton.  She fought for what she believed and left a legacy of good work behind her. 

Biographical note
There is some material about Jenny Foster Newton at the Richmond Local Studies Library in the Old Town Hall (  In particular there is a thin file of press cuttings.  The other useful source at the Library is the annual reports of the Richmond Branch of the British National Temperance Association (1894-1923).  She is also mentioned in Patricia Hollis’s Ladies Elect: women in English local government, 1865-1914 (London, 1987) which is where I can first came across her.

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