In 1938 Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, one of the leaders of the Women’s Social & Political Union (WSPU), published her autobiography, My Part in a Changing World. In it she noted, “My thanks are due also to my secretaries, Miss Esther Knowles and Miss Gladys Groom, for turning their task of typing the MS into a labour of love”. In 1943 her husband, Frederick Pethick-Lawrence, who had worked with her in the WSPU and was subsequently a Labour politician and Secretary of State for India, published his autobiography, Fate Has Been Kind. In his acknowledgements, he wrote, “I tender my grateful thanks…to my secretaries, Miss Knowles and Miss Groom, who have assisted my labours with their advice and technical skill”.
There’s nothing unusual in this. It seems almost every book you pick up contains thanks to the woman who did the typing. Often, tapping into the traditional role of the unpaid female amanuensis, she’s a wife, mother, daughter, etc, and thus her work is closely linked with her domesticity and personal relationship to the author. Esther Knowles and Gladys Groom diverge from this pattern because they were professional secretaries. Furthermore, as personal political secretaries, they were at the top end of their profession, far removed from the typing pool.
This blog will focus on Esther Knowles who, of the two, had the more consistently professional role. She worked for Frederick, and her work was shaped by his political career. Gladys worked for Emmeline, and her work was more personal and domestic. As well as typing Emmeline’s personal letters, Gladys cooked, gardened, helped Emmeline dress and undress, and looked after her when she was ill.
Esther Knowles was born into a working class family – her father was a printer – in London in 1895. Her relationship with the Pethick-Lawrences began when she was three years old. She was selected by Emmeline and Mary Neal to join an under-fives group of their Esperance Club which taught girls folk singing and dancing.
Esther attended a London Board School until she was fourteen. She was a devoted suffragette, and played truant from lessons to attend WSPU meetings. After leaving school, she passed the Civil Service examinations which required proficiency in English, arithmetic, spelling and typing. However, when Emmeline asked her if she would like to work for the WSPU at the Clement’s Inn offices, she happily abandoned the Civil Service.
Esther started in the WSPU Editorial Office working for Frederick, who edited the newspaper, Votes for Women. She moved to the General Office, became a switchboard operator, and finally a junior typist. Esther was present in April 1913 when the police raided suffragette headquarters, which had by then moved to Lincoln’s Inn. She saved £50 of the campaign funds from seizure by stuffing a bag of petty cash in her bloomers.
The Pethick-Lawrences left the WSPU in 1912 after a disagreement with Mrs Pankhurst and Christabel Pankhurst largely focussed on the escalation of militancy. Esther supported the Pethick-Lawrences and later rejoined them as their secretary. In 1924 she was joined in the office by sixteen year old Gladys Groom, who took over Emmeline’s work. Esther continued to work for Frederick, who was by then an MP.
Their office was in Lincoln’s Inn, in the same building as the Pethick-Lawrences’ flat, and it was in their home that much of their work was done. Gladys Groom, speaking to Brian Harrison in 1976, recalled that a telephone summons to the flat meant climbing sixty-two steps up and sixty-two steps down. The two secretaries also frequently stayed and worked at the Pethick-Lawrences’ country house in Surrey.
Esther accompanied Frederick on trips to Edinburgh and helped him run an advice bureau for his constituents when he was MP there. She ran the London flat and country house, paid the staff wages, dealt with income tax, and when she was not busy typing Frederick’s correspondence and speeches, she helped Gladys with Emmeline’s correspondence. The Pethick-Lawrences often communicated by memorandum, which their secretaries had to type and file.
Both women worked long hours, starting at half past eight in the morning. Esther commuted from Harrow, and often did not get home until after ten o’clock. They worked Saturdays and weekends. If Frederick needed something doing, Esther, who suffered from migraines, would keep going even when she was ill.
As the acknowledgement to Frederick’s autobiography hints, he relied on more than their typing skills. Frederick, Esther and Gladys often discussed his drafts, when he would ask for for their opinions and ideas. Some of their suggestions were accepted.
When Frederick was raised to the peerage in 1946, Esther found the work less interesting and missed working with his constituents. Nevertheless, she remained devoted to the Pethick-Lawrences until their deaths and beyond. She started a Pethick-Lawrence memorial fund and organised memorial ceremonies in Dorking and Peaslake. She worked with Vera Brittain on her biography of Frederick. And, as Esther’s niece Mrs Needham told Brian Harrison, she talked incessantly about the Pethick-Lawrences.
Because she did not believe the Pethick-Lawrences’ contribution to the suffragette campaign had been properly appreciated, Esther initially kept her distance from the Suffragette Fellowship, which focused on the Pankhursts. She did join eventually, when her friend Grace Roe, who had been Mrs Pankhurst’s chief organiser at the WSPU, became a member. Esther went on to become SF secretary.
Esther, who left home when she was eighteen, never married. She had her own house in Harrow and lived an independent life. She was killed in a car crash in 1974.
Esther Knowles is acknowledged in at least two other books. She “so kindly typed” Cicely Hale’s autobiography, A Good Long Time (1973). In The Militant Suffragettes (1973), the late Antonia Raeburn wrote, “Miss Roe and Miss Knowles have worked with me tirelessly on the script and Miss Knowles gave hours of her time to typing all the preliminary drafts of the book. From my friendship with them I have learnt a great deal – not about the Suffragette movement alone.” It is a fitting tribute to Esther Knowles, one of the women who did the typing.
Lucienne Boyce is an award-winning historical novelist, women’s suffrage historian, biographer, and blogger. Her books include The Bristol Suffragettes, and contributions to Suffrage Stories (Stevenage Museum); Bristol and the First World War (Bristol Festival of Ideas); and The Women Who Built Bristol (Tangent Books). Lucienne is a member of the Historical Novel Society, and is on the steering committee of the West of England and South Wales Women’s History Network. She is grateful to the Women’s History Network for awarding her an Independent Researcher Fellowship which has enabled her to carry out research for her biography of Millicent Price. www.lucienneboyce.com
Picture Credit: WSPU Editorial Office, The Women’s Library on Flickr, No Known Copyright Restrictions
Brittain, Vera, Pethick-Lawrence: A Portrait (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1963)
Hale, Cicely B, A Good Long Time (London: Regency Press, 1973)
Harrison, Brian, Interview with Mrs Nita Needham, 31 May 1976, The Women’s Library at the LSE, 8SUF/B/090
Harrison, Brian, Interview with Mrs Gladys Groom-Smith, 9 June 1976, The Women’s Library at the LSE, 8SUF/B/092
Pethick-Lawrence, Emmeline, My Part in a Changing World (London: Victor Gollancz, 1938)
Pethick-Lawrence, Frederick, Fate Has Been Kind (London: Hutchinson, 1943)
Raeburn, Antonia, The Militant Suffragettes (London: Michael Joseph, 1973)