Edith Maurice Vance (née Emma Morris Vince) was a freethinker and radical whose life was animated by her involvement with innumerable progressive movements. Secretary of the National Secular Society for over three decades, Vance was also on the Executive Committee of the Adult Suffrage Society and the Rational Dress League, prominent in the Legitimation League and the National Democratic League, and – blind for the last twenty years of her life – in the National League of the Blind. In 1919, newspapers supposed that she might be ‘the first blind woman in this country to be elected to serve on a Board of Guardians’ as a successful candidate in St Pancras.
Vance was born in St. Pancras in 1860, the daughter of John Vince (a cab proprietor) and Harriet Morris. For the first thirty years of her life, she lived on Caroline Street (now Carol Street), and she never moved away from the borough of her birth. A sketch of her earlier years was given by fellow freethinker Joseph McCabe in his 1920 Biographical Dictionary of Modern Rationalists (albeit in the ‘supplementary list’ in its back pages). Here, she was described as having been a Sunday school teacher at 17, even praying for the conversion of notorious freethinker Annie Besant, before undergoing a conversion of her own – to atheism. ‘Revolting against parental bigotry,’ we are told, ‘she left her home and toured the provinces with a theatrical company’. She would later put this theatrical bent to use in her political life, through the Socialist Dramatic Society, for which her longtime partner Kathleen Beulah Kough was Honorary Secretary.
Edith Vance’s candidacy for the St Pancras Board of Guardians was supported by the National League of the Blind and run by a committee of six blind men. Vance herself had been blind for ten years, a fact widely reported by papers covering the election. The Western Times, quoting from a letter of support written by George Bernard Shaw, reported his assurance that ‘your misfortune is the voters’ opportunity’, and Vance saw a responsibility to use her own experience to advocate for the rights of the blind. She led the poll for her St Pancras ward, and was already known as the ‘blind guardian’ when she stood, later in the same year, for election to the Borough Council. She told The Daily Mirror that ‘only a person who is similarly afflicted can understand the needs of the sightless, and now that the borough councils will be called upon to take a more direct interest in the welfare of the blind… I feel it my duty to come forward and do all I can.’ She continued:
The London County Council should be urged to provide special technical training schools to fit these afflicted people for remunerative work in municipal workshops, where certain articles for the use of the public could be made by them at a real living wage on a scale agreed by their trade union, the National League of the Blind.
In this, she mirrored the call made by organisers and participants in the landmark ‘blind march’ on London the following year: social justice, not charity. Since its formation in 1899, the National League of the Blind had agitated for state aid and improved conditions for the blind, including blind workers, then largely reliant on charities, with many thousands living in poverty. The march, and a deputation to the Prime Minister led by the League’s chief architect Ben Purse, would act as a catalyst for the enshrining of the Blind Persons Act of 1920, requiring local authorities to ‘promote the welfare of blind persons’.
In the years following her election to the Board of Guardians and Borough Council – and in spite of a physical infirmity which left her confined to a bath chair – Vance gained a reputation as an indefatigable worker, attending more meetings of the Board than any other representative. She acted as Deputy Chairman of St Pancras’ Public Health Committee, and was particularly acknowledged for her support of women and mothers. Kathleen Beulah Kough, who lived with Vance for many years and was also a Labour councillor, was similarly concerned with the rights of women and children. Echoing the arguments of the Legitimation League (of which Vance had been an active member during its existence in the 1890s), Kough maintained that ‘whether a baby is born in wedlock or out it should have every opportunity of becoming a self-supporting and self-respecting citizen’.
Edith Vance died on 7 July 1930, having retired from her role as secretary of the National Secular Society and Secular Society Ltd. only three years earlier. No longer the ‘blind guardian’, her Daily Herald death notice referred to her as ‘the freethinker’. Ben Purse devoted a poem in his collection Moods and Melodies: A Book of Verse (1931) to Vance, expressing a belief (which Vance would not have shared) in a ‘comradeship renew’d’ after death. The Literary Guide (now the New Humanist) mourned the loss to the humanist movement of ‘one of its oldest and most energetic representatives’, but called her death ‘a welcome release’ from years of suffering faced, nevertheless, ‘with infinite patience’. The companionship of Kathleen Kough was noted too: a woman ‘whose devotion was extraordinary, and indeed almost unexampled’.
Vance, Kough, and countless other women in the humanist and secularist movements of the 19th and early 20th centuries have been largely overlooked in organisational – and wider social – histories. Where these figures have been remembered, their unorthodoxy in religious matters is frequently ignored, downplayed, or seen as inconsequential. But the humanist motivations of individuals like Vance, and her counterpart in the Union of Ethical Societies (now Humanists UK) Zona Vallance, figured centrally in their political and social spheres. Believing in no life beyond this one, they acted on the principle that change was important in the here and now, perhaps nowhere better exemplified than in Vance’s work as a Guardian and borough councillor.
Madeleine Goodall is Heritage Coordinator for Humanists UK, which celebrates its 125th anniversary this year. Since 2019, she has been researching the history and influence of humanism and freethought in the UK, and developing the Humanist Heritage website to document it. She is particularly interested in the often overlooked role of women within the humanist tradition.
Image credit: image of the 1920 ‘Blind March’ from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blind_Persons_Act_1920#/media/File:1920_blind_march.png
 Weekly Dispatch (London), 13 April 1919
 Joseph McCabe, Biographical Dictionary of Modern Rationalists (1920)
 Western Times, 1 April 1919
 Daily Mirror, 28 October 1919
 100 Years Celebration of struggle and achievement: National League of the Blind and Disabled Centenary Review 1899-1999 (1999)
 Daily Herald, 9 July 1930
 Ben Purse, Moods and Melodies: a Book of Verse (1931)
 The Literary Guide, August 1930