Ever since the decision was made for the Women’s Library to move to LSE (now open as the Women’s Library @ LSE) I have been writing posts that draw attention to the many locations associated with the women’s movement in the area around Aldwych and the Strand. My hope is that researchers in the Women’s Library, when taking a break from their labours, will welcome some information that will allow them to see the surrounding area with fresh eyes. Today I would like to direct your attention to Craven House – on the north-east side of Kingsway.
I had long thought that I must find out more about the rather intriguing life – and death – of the woman whom I knew to have been in business there, but the building has spent a long time under scaffolding and it was only when it recently re-emerged that I turned my attention to it. To my pleasure – and rather to my relief – I then discovered that the research has already been undertaken. For Stephen Walker, of the Cardiff Business School, has published an excellent short study of the life of Mrs Ethel Ayres Purdie in Critical Perspectives in Accounting, vol 22, issue 1, 2011. I would most heartily commend this article to all those interested in practical suffragism. (I see that a copy of the journal is available for consultation in the LSE Library.)
It was in Craven House that around 1908 Mrs Ethel Ayres Purdie put up a brass plate to indicate that her accountancy practice was open for business. A few months later, in May 1909, she was elected a member of the London Association of Accountants and thus became the first woman in Britain to be admitted to an accountancy organisation. (The LAA is now subsumed in the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants, based close to the Women’s Library at 29 Lincoln’s Inn Fields.)
Rather as Elizabeth Garrett was able to qualify as a doctor only by finding and exploiting a fault-line in the medical educational system, so Mrs Ayres Purdie was only able to obtain membership of a professional organisation because the LAA was recently formed and not yet entrenched in tradition. It had been called into being in 1904 to address the needs of accountants debarred for one reason or another – such as the inability to serve a long period of articles – from the senior organisations. Mrs Ayres Purdie had, of course, on account of her sex, already been rejected by the senior, more prestigious, accountancy associations. In fact even the LAA rejected her on her first application, but a few months later more enlightened elements persuaded the Association to accept her. Yet another barrier that convention had erected against working women had been breached and another, potentially lucrative, profession was now open to them.
Who was Mrs Ethel Ayres Purdie?
She had been born Ethel Ayres in Islington in 1874. The 1881 census shows her, the elder daughter of Henry William Ayres, an ‘engineer toolmaker’, living at 14 Owen’s Row on the borders of Islington and Clerkenwell – coincidentally only a few doors away from where I live and where I am writing this piece. No 14 is long-since demolished and the space it occupied is now the site of City and Islington College. As was the case with all the houses in Owen’s Row, no 14 was in multi-occupation – although the Ayres shared with only one other family (my own house, admittedly rather taller, was home in 1881 to 16 people). By 1893 the Ayres had moved down the road to the more leafy surroundings of 15 Northampton Square, the central area of which had been recently re-designed (1885) by Fanny Wilkinson for the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association. (For much more about Fanny see Enterprising Women: the Garretts and their circle and here.)
After leaving school Ethel Ayres was employed in the Telegraph Department of the Post Office, just the kind of occupation to appeal to a lively, ambitious girl. of the skilled artisan class.
In 1897 she married Frank Sidney Purdie, who lived in Coptic Street, in the shadow of St George’s Bloomsbury, where the couple were married. Frank Purdie was the son of a silversmith and worked as a commercial traveller. He was probably then employed by his father but later became a traveller in educational supplies. The couple moved out to Willesden – and when the 1901 census was taken were living at Sellons Avenue with their first son, 3-month-old Harold Ayres Purdie. A second son, Desmond Tremeer Purdie (Tremeer was Ethel’s mother’s maiden name) was born in the autumn of 1902. A year later the family had moved to 11 St Alban’s Road, Harlesden.
Over the next four years, while caring for two young children and running her household, Ethel Ayres Purdie attended accountancy classes run by the Society of Arts, passing her final exam in 1906. By then she and Frank had left Harlesden and were living with her parents at 13 Stock Orchard Crescent, Lower Holloway. (This is evidenced in the London Local Electoral Register. On the night of the 1911 census Frank is at home with her parents – and there is no trace of Ethel, who was clearly evading the enumerator, presumably taking her young sons with her.) It may be that they moved specifically so that the children might have the care of their grandmother while their mother was studying.
Mrs Ayres Purdie certainly used 13 Stock Orchard Crescent as her first practice address before, very soon, becoming sufficiently confident of her professional future to rent an office (no 52) in Craven House. Kingsway had been formally opened in 1905 but building was slow to progress and the street was still lined with hoardings disguising unsold lots. Craven House was one of the first of the new – imposing – Kingsway buildings and by choosing to set up her office here Mrs Ayres Purdie was positioning herself at the heart of London’s most modern development. The choice of Kingsway may have also, of course, been influenced by its proximity to many of the women’s organisations in which Mrs Ayres Purdie was now interested.
Having personally advanced the woman’s cause in her chosen line of work, she was clearly a woman sympathetic to the newly-energised suffrage movement. In fact she was able to both provide financial advice and to earn fees by supporting a range of women’s organisations. For instance she was financial adviser to the Women’s Social and Political Union and, later, to the East London Federation of Suffragettes, auditor to the Women’s Freedom League, to Minerva Publishing (the proprietor of the WFL paper, The Vote), and, from the First World War to 1920. of the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance. In addition she was a founder member and leading light of the Women’s Tax Resistance League, which held many of its early meetings in her Craven House office.
She wrote the text for several WTRL leaflets – including No Vote No Tax. For it was in the realm of tax law and advice that Mrs Ayres Purdie excelled – fighting against the unfair treatment of married women in the British income tax system. All her battles are clearly set out in Stephen Walker’s comprehensive article and illustrate how imperative it was (and is) to augment political campaigning with concrete action. Thus Mrs Ayres Purdie brought cases to court to test the boundaries of tax law, as well as representing individual women who refused to pay tax while they were denied the parliamentary vote. She was the author of a play, Red-tape Comedy, published in The Vote in November 1912, which was based on the case she had conducted for Dr Alice Burns, a married woman doctor.
Mrs Ayres Purdie advertised her services in suffrage-related papers such as The Common Cause ,The Vote, and The Englishwoman – the only woman entitled under the Revenue Act 1903 to appear on behalf of clients before the Special Commissioners of Income Tax. She named this part of her practice ‘The Women Taxpayer’s Agency’ to make her area of expertise quite explicit.Her practice was so successful that she was able to employ three or four clerks and In 1914 took on a female pupil who served five years’ of articles under her.
After the WSPU window-smashing campaign of March 1912, which affected businesses in the area, Mrs Purdie’s landlord objected to the notice advertising the Agency that she displayed in a window of Craven House but, rather than removing it, she merely moved her office across Kingsway to new premises in the most happily named, Hampden House (John Hampden being the ‘patron saint’ of tax resisters).
In 1914 she was personally involved in the case of Edwy Clayton, the scientist accused of producing explosives for the WSPU. Not that Mrs Ayres Purdie was a bomb maker – but she was accused of trying to help Clayton save some of his possessions and thereby deprive the Treasury of its dues – see The Times, 2 April 1914, for the delightfully intricate details of this trial. Amazingly enough she was acquitted. With the WSPU ensconced in Lincoln’s Inn House – very close by, on the same side of Kingsway – Mrs Ayres Purdie was conducting her business at the heart of militancy – both physically and metaphorically.
With the outbreak of war Mrs Purdie found new organisations to advise – for instance she was auditor to the Women’s Auxiliary force. In the post-war world she became auditor to the Association of Women Clerks and Secretaries, whom we have already encountered on a previous Walk, and In 1919 appeared in front of the Royal Commission on Income Tax to argue that the income tax system was not fair in its treatment of married women. She apparently told the Commissioners that, as the letters about her business that the tax authorities sent to Hampden House were addressed to her husband, they remained unopened as he did not visit the premises. She was reported as saying that ‘I have never yet made a return of my income, and no tax has ever been paid on it’. I must say I do find this rather extraordinary – surely the tax authorities were not so lax as to ignore this potential windfall? I wonder what was the repercussion of divulging this information to the Royal Commission?
In 1919 Ethel Ayres Purdie moved her office further south down Kingsway, on the same side of the road, to no 84. She and Frank had moved during the War from Stock Orchard Crescent to nearby Hillmarton Road (no 34). Her father died in October 1922.
On 21 February 1923 Mrs Ayres Purdie gave a lecture – ‘If I were Chancellor of the Exchequer’ – at the International Women’s Franchise Club in Grafton Street, Mayfair. But clearly all was not well. Barely three weeks later, around 16 March, there was an incident at Gillespie Road tube station (now Arsenal) when she had to be restrained from falling in front of a train. Gillespie Road is a station on the Piccadilly line -the line that she would have used to travel to her office – but not the nearest to her home. Holloway Road station, also on the Piccadilly line, is very much closer to Hillmarton Road. This ‘incident’ was obviously not an aberration for ten days later, on 26 March, at Covent Garden station, the ‘work’ end of her Piccadilly line journey, Mrs Ayres Purdie, as her death certificate states, ‘jumped in front of a train’ and shortly afterwards died of her injuries at Charing Cross Hospital. An inquest was held on 29 March and a verdict of ‘Suicide while of unsound mind’ was recorded.
The inquest reports have been destroyed and the only information that can now be gleaned comes from newspapers. The Evening Standard reported, 29 March 1923, that Frank Purdie had revealed that ‘his wife had been suffering from nervousness and insomnia, and feared that she was losing her mental power, and would be unable to carry on business’. The Daily merely commented that tube stations were an incitement to suicide.
Who can know what was in Ethel Ayres Purdie’s mind? There is no mention of a suicide note. Was ‘business’ to her so central to life that the possibility of ‘failing mental power’ would be a total disaster. Possibly. She was only 48 years old, her mother was still living (d 1931) and her sons were in their very early 20s.
The Vote, 13 April 1923, devoted its front page to an obituary of Mrs Ayres Purdie – including the only photograph of her that I have seen – telling nothing of the cause of her death – only that it was ‘sudden’ and ‘to be deplored’ (but I think that what was meant that her death itself was deplored not its execution). In the general manner of such tributes the piece is relentlessly upbeat – describing her as having a ‘winsome, cheery personality’ (though one would have hoped that some of her fellow members of the WFL might have noticed that she had been less ‘cheery’ of late) and noting that she was a devoted mother and the “‘best of chums’ to her husband”.
Naturally one should not be purient but I could not help noticing that barely two years later Ethel’s ‘chum’ remarried – choosing as his second wife a young woman (Muriel) who, aged 25, was only two years older than the elder of his sons. However around this time the names of Frank and Muriel Purdie, together with that of Ethel’s son, Harold, are all listed together on the London local electoral register as occupiers of 84 Kingsway, Mrs Ayres Purdie’s former office, suggesting, perhaps, that the second marriage had not caused any family dissension. Life can be so much more surprising and shocking than a novel or a narrative history (suffrage or otherwise) that has all the players concentrating on the one goal little regarding the specifically personal factors that may, in reality, be overwhelming their thoughts.