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‘She has never let her faculties grow dull’: Constance Chellingworth Radcliffe Cooke – Clare Wichbold

Born in London in 1877, Constance Chellingworth Radcliffe Cooke was the eldest child of Charles and Frances Radcliffe Cooke. The family moved to Herefordshire in 1881 when Charles inherited Hellens at Much Marcle.

After an unadventurous rural upbringing Constance challenged convention and joined the suffrage movement, becoming an active member of the Women’s Social and Political Union. Her father was an MP and anti-suffragist who publicly rejected votes for women, but Constance wrote that Charles told her: ‘as a suffragette, you ought to have the vote’.[1] Despite their political differences, Constance and Charles remained affectionate to each other until his sudden early death from coronary heart disease in May 1911.

The house and estate passed to Constance’s younger brother Robert, but she had Monk’s Walk Cottage built in Much Marcle so she could remain near her beloved Hellens. However, Robert died in 1924 and Constance moved to the Isle of Wight to provide a more suitable climate for her indifferent health and avoid the ever-growing procession of tenants at Hellens. It was eventually sold to Lady Helena Gleichen in the early 1930s who kept in touch with Constance for many years before she, too, moved towards the end of the Second World War. Hellens then passed to the Munthe family who still own it today.

Monk’s Walk Cottage, Much Marcle, Herefordshire. (Image credit: Herefordshire Archives and Records Centre, E69/453)

Constance began to keep a journal in June 1929 while living at 51 Argyll Street in Ryde. It was certainly not a diary, as the entries are extremely sporadic. However, what she wrote is a detailed account of her political and personal life. It is owned by a family member who generously gave me access to the journal, for which I am very grateful. Some of what she writes about is of local interest, but she also offers her own analysis of global events.

She does not record the start of the Second World War, but on December 3rd 1939 she writes during the ‘Phoney War’: ‘I as Vice Chairman of Ryde Labour Party proposed that all municipal and Parliamentary elections should be resumed in spite of the outbreak of war, difficulty in blackout of getting to the polls, evacuees, etc. Resolution carried unanimously’.[2]

Black and white photograph of a woman standing in a garden.
Constance Radcliffe Cooke Firewatching, Ryde 1941. (Image credit: Herefordshire Archives and Records Centre, E69/453)

She later vividly records the bombing of the Isle of Wight in December 1941: ‘There is so much noise and bombs dropping in the near neighbourhood – the house jumps under one’s feet’, and her involvement as a fire watcher on Argyll Street, organising people to undertake their duties. ‘4th March 1942: some months ago I organised this road of 62 houses for fire-watching, a number of men having failed to do so. When asked why I should do, several said ‘It’ll be done if you do it’. So I just got going with Barbara Blunt to help in running about and we got 28 people and watch once a fortnight’.[3]

Towards the end of the war she wrote movingly about the loss of President Franklin Roosevelt on Apr 14th 1945: ‘Austerlitz killed Pitt; the Battle of France killed Neville Chamberlain, the troubles of Europe have killed Franklin Delano Roosevelt, President of the USA. His death leaves a grieving blank in our lives. He was our friend one felt instinctively. Winston Churchill will feel his right hand gone – a grievous loss to the Peace when it comes’.[4]

Before, during and after the Second World War Constance was involved in many organisations, with just one journal entry from 29th April 1951 mentioning her participation in a Worker’s Educational Association (WEA) event in Newport, attending the National Labour Women’s Conference at Brighton, giving a talk to the Isle of Wight Archaeological Society, and representing Binstead at the National Federation of Women’s Institutes Conference in London.

Three years later, an organisation for which Constance was a great advocate drew to an end. On December 1st 1954 she wrote: ‘The Women’s Cooperative Guild of Ryde which has been going for 34 years from March the 18th 1920 closed down today. I was their first secretary on that day and for several years after. I have been their delegate on many occasions and to several organisations and I owe a great deal to the efficient way they do business. I feel sad that the Guild may have had its days. It is and was a fine organisation’.[5] Constance had attended the International Co-Operative Women’s Conference, Stockholm in August 1927, and represented the Guild at many events in the UK, missing out on a trip to Russia in summer 1954 as her nomination was sent in too late by the local branch!

Constance moved back to Much Marcle in 1956, her journal soon recording her involvement in local activities, speaking at WEA classes about her suffrage experiences, joining the local branch of the Women’s Institute and advocating for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. She also made plans about what would happen to her linguistic research papers after her death, but not those relating to the suffrage campaign, her personal correspondence, diaries and photographs. The quote in the title  – ‘She never let her faculties grow dull’[6] – was written by her former headmistress in 1928 but could have been written at any time during Constance’s long and busy life.

One of the final journal entries is rather poignant: a trip to Bristol Zoo in September 1962, almost sixty years to the day before the zoo closed. Constance enjoyed her day at Clifton, commenting: ‘fortunately for this miserably wet summer it was a lovely day and the zoo was most interesting with many rare animals and birds’.[7]

Constance died on 30th September 1963 at the age of 86, her will stating the destination for her language collection as the University of London. Her other papers were fortunately rescued by Meryl Jancey, the County Archivist, who immediately dashed from Hereford to Monk’s Walk Cottage after Constance’s death to prevent everything being consigned to a bonfire! All her papers are now held by Herefordshire Archive and Records CentreI will be fully cataloguing and researching the collection in 2024 and drawing on her journal to write a book about Constance in due course. Watch this space….

[1] BH29/15, Herefordshire Archive and Record Centre.

[2] Constance Radcliffe Cooke’s personal journal, Cooke family collection.

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid

[6] E69/447, Herefordshire Archive and Record Centre.

[7] Constance Radcliffe Cooke’s personal journal, Cooke family collection.

 

Clare Wichbold MBE has recently finished working as a professional fundraiser in Herefordshire to take more time on research and writing. A former archaeologist, she became interested in the women’s suffrage campaign as chairman of the Hereford Three Choirs Festival centenary celebration of votes for women in 2018. Hard Work – But Glorious: Stories from the Herefordshire Suffrage Campaign is her first book and was highly commended in the Alan Ball Awards for Local History Publication of the Year 2021. It is available online and in store from Ledbury Books and Maps.
Image credit for top image: author’s own image. Hellens, Much Marcle, Herefordshire.

 

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