One day last week, while thunder raged outside, I spent some time researching an archive at the William Morris Society premises in Upper Mall, Hammersmith. Just before I left I remembered that close by was the home of Thomas and Anne Cobden Sanderson – the former a renowned Arts and Crafts bookbinder and the latter a campaigner for women’s suffrage, constitutional in the 19th and militant in the 20th century.
The rain had stopped by the time I emerged from the William Morris basement, but the sky was lowering and the Thames was high and rushing fast the other side of the embankment wall as I walked towards the alley onto which the Cobden Sandersons’ house fronts. Passing the Dove – the pub which gave its name to the Doves Bindery and later the Doves Press – I came to 15 Upper Mall and the gate through which so many radical worthies have passed.
Anne Cobden Sanderson was born in 1853 into a leading Liberal family – her father was Richard Cobden, founder of the Anti-Corn Law League – but by the end of the 19th century she had joined the Independent Labour party.
She supported the women’s suffrage cause from an early age but, in 1906, after Annie Kenney and the Women’s Social and Political Union had arrived in London, she joined the militants. She received her first term of imprisonment – two months – in October 1906 after organising a protest meeting in the Lobby of the House of Commons. At her trial she declaimed that ‘I am a law breaker because I want to be a law maker’.
However in 1907, perhaps dismayed by Pankhurst autocracy, Anne joined Charlotte Despard in the breakaway Women’s Freedom League. In January 1909 she and her husband did, however, present Emmeline Pankhurst with an address written on white vellum in purple and green ink and bound by the Doves Bindery to celebrate her release from prison.
Anne Cobden Sanderson proved to be one of the WFL’s most tireless campaigners, speaking at outdoor meetings and continuing to take part in militant protests.
She was arrested in August 1909 while picketing the door of No 10 Downing Street in order to present a petition to Asquith. During the ‘Black Friday’ demonstration in Parliament Square in November 1910 Winston Churchill, who knew Anne Cobden Sanderson well, encountering her during the fracas called a policeman and ordered, ‘Drive that woman away’!’. The structure of society must indeed have seemed perilously close to crumbling when such an action was deemed necessary against a friend of one’s family and erstwhile hostess.
Anne Cobden Sanderson continued to campaign for women’s causes for the rest of her life – and in the 1918 General Election supported Charlotte Despard when she stood as the Labour candidate for North Battersea. In 1926 she was present, a few days before she died, at a dinner given to celebrate the silver wedding anniversary of Frederick and Emmeline Pethick Lawrence.