More Than Free Love and Sandals

The lives of six Victorian radicals shed light on the struggle to establish feminism, social reform and the Labour movement.

Helena Born and Helen Tufts Bailie under an umbrella, 1896.

This study of three British women, two men and one American woman – ‘six searchers who tried to change society and themselves’ –conveys vividly the ferment of radical movements in the late 19th century. 

The middle-class women were determined to abandon the shackles imposed by their gender and class. The men were working class and equally anxious to end the inequalities and exploitation experienced by people like them. They matured when socialism, feminism, anarchism, secularism and ideas of free love were developing, while the ideas of Henry David Thoreau in America and Edward Carpenter in Britain challenged the subordination of women, the suppression of same-sex desire, inequality and environmental pollution. They rejected materialism for a simple life, wore sandals and ‘rational dress’ and adopted a vegetarian diet. Hopes grew in people despairing of the lives they were expected to lead and of the societies and values which upheld them. A different world was possible. 

Rowbotham traces the lives of six ‘puzzled idealists’, who ‘sought to combine their quest for the personal development of individuals with the creation of a society based on cooperative association rather than competition and profit’.  She has reconstructed their stories from an impressive variety of sources, a process that began when she discovered a book by one of them, Helena Born. Helena grew up in a middle-class family, well-educated and aspiring to go to college, but this did not happen, as was the case for many such women at the time. In 1876, aged 16, she moved with her family to Bristol, then a centre of radical ferment. Her passions already aroused by the Romantic poets, she was inspired by women campaigning against the Contagious Diseases Acts and joined the largely working-class Bristol Socialist Society. Here she met one of the society’s favoured speakers, Edward Carpenter. Influenced by ideas of natural selection, Helena abandoned Christianity. She became a skilled public speaker and joined the Bristol Women’s Liberal Federation, campaigning for women’s suffrage, gender equality and multiple other causes. She settled in the slums of Bristol to organise reform.

She became close friends with another ‘rebel’, Miriam Daniel. From a prosperous family, Miriam was unhappily married to a respectable solicitor. She joined the socialists and women Liberals in Bristol. Later she met another of the six, Robert Allen Nicol, son of a shopkeeper, radicalised at Edinburgh University. She brought him to Bristol, where he became secretary of the militant new Gas Workers and General Labourers’ Union. She left her husband and they shared Helena’s ‘slum’ house. 

In 1890 all three moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, partly driven by local horror at Miriam’s unmarried pregnancy and frustrated by opposition to labour organisation. They encountered the very different character of American radicalism, which was more individualistic and anarchistic than British collectivist socialism. Robert was attracted to anarchism and Carpenter’s ideas of alternative rural living. They moved to the wilds of California, until Miriam died. Helena returned to Massachusetts, enmeshing herself once more in industrial action and other causes. Lonely after Miriam’s death, she met Helen Tufts, the only American among the six. Helen’s father was a Unitarian minister, her mother a suffragist who disapproved of socialism and ideas of free love which Helen, initially doubtful, had learned from Helena. She remained shocked by homosexuality and dubious about ‘darkies’, but they stayed close.

Helena formed another relationship, with William Bailie, originally from Belfast, where he was apprenticed in basket-making. Among Unitarians in Manchester, he discovered secularism, socialism and anarchism. He had migrated with his family to Boston, Massachusetts, joining individualist, anarchist circles. After his marriage failed, he and Helena became lovers. William, and increasingly Helena, became pessimistic that their ideals would be fulfilled and committed to practical social reform, which included campaigning successfully to persuade Boston city council to improve social conditions. Helena also focused on suffrage. William later married Helen and they continued campaigning for reforms on birth control, for peace and against extreme anti-socialism.

The sixth rebel, Gertrude Dix, grew up and was radicalised in Bristol. She trained as a nurse and, appalled by the conditions, campaigned for improved working environments for women. She wrote novels expressing women’s issues, moved to London and joined Fabian, Independent Labour Party and Christian Socialist circles. She met Robert Allen Nicol in Bristol, through their joint interest in Carpenter. In 1902 she joined him in California. They married and had two daughters. Like the other survivors into the 20th century, they remained ‘broadly on the left’, anti-fascist, supporting peace and social reform.

Rowbotham was drawn to these rebels because their ideals and gradual disillusion matched those of her youth in the 1960s and ’70s, challenged by market reforms and opposition to social solidarity from the 1980s. She conveys their stories movingly.

Rebel Crossings: New Women, Free Lovers and Radicals in Britain and the United States 
Sheila Rowbotham  
Verso  512pp £25

Pat Thane is Professor of Contemporary History at King’s College London.