Updated: Nov 10, 2020
Picture Source - Eleanor Rathbone Charitable Trust
Nestled in between the bohemian Smithdown Road and the lazy suburbs of Mossley Hill, Liverpool, sits the small but beautiful Greenbank Park. Once upon a time the park formed part of the Rathbone estate, so when Liverpool City Council decided to honour local social reformer Eleanor Rathbone, Greenbank Park was an obvious choice for the tribute.
Inside the walled garden visitors can find Eleanor’s inspiring words hanging from the walls in the form of 3 metal artworks created by artist Lu Lu Quinn.
‘the overmastering desire of all these poor victims is to find some place where they can be allowed to settle down, to feel at home, to live the remnant of their wrecked lives in peace and safety.’ Eleanor Rathbone, 1945
‘the whole business of begetting, bearing and rearing children, is the most essential of all the nation’s businesses.’ Eleanor Rathbone, 1924, from The Disinherited Family
‘the struggle for the right to become politicians in itself made women into politicians’ Eleanor Rathbone 1931
Picture source - Instagram - liverpool_tourists_blog
A hop skip and a jump away from the park on Greenbank Lane, you will find Greenbank House, the former family home of the Rathbones. The house was bequeathed to the University of Liverpool and now forms part of the Greenbank Student Village.
Picture source - asenseofplace.com
On the side of the house you will find a blue plaque dedicated to Eleanor and her father William Rathbone. William Rathbone VI was a respected businessman and philanthropist. He championed and supported the introduction of District Nursing.
In 1860 William Rathbone wrote to Florence Nightingale regarding the recruitment and training of nurses. Upon Florence's advice William set up a training school for nursing in Liverpool. His work campaigning for district nursing possibly prompted the choice of Florence as Eleanor's middle name.
Who was Eleanor Rathbone?
Eleanor Rathbone was a formidable political force. She dedicated her life to improving the lives of others. She never gave up or backed down. Her story is truly inspirational, and, in this blog, I hope to celebrate her key achievements.
Eleanor Florence Rathbone was born in 1872 to William Rathbone VI and his second wife Emily Acheson Lyle. The Rathbones were a prominent Quaker family, residing in Greenbank House in south Liverpool.
From an early age a strong sense of civic duty and responsibility was instilled into Eleanor. The Rathbone family motto was ‘What ought to be done, can be done’. Eleanor was expected to use her wealth, privilege and influence to effect real social change.
In 1893 Eleanor secured a place to study Philosophy at Somerville College, Oxford. Her studies reinforced the values of social responsibility and civic duty and upon finishing her degree (unable to graduate because of her gender!) Eleanor was determined to put theory into practice in her hometown of Liverpool.
Eleanor volunteered with various charitable organisations including the Liverpool Central Relief Society, Women’s Industrial Council and Liverpool Victorian’s Women’s Settlement. The latter is where Eleanor met her lifelong companion Elizabeth Macadam. Together they re- organised the settlement and in 1905 established the Liverpool School of Social Science and Training for Social Work. In 1910 the administration of the school was taken over by the University of Liverpool.
Suffragist, Local Politician, & World War One
Eleanor was a committed suffragist and passionately campaigned for women to gain the right to vote. In 1897 she was appointed Honorary Secretary of Liverpool Women’s Suffrage Society (LWSS). LWSS was a local branch of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Society (NUWSS).
Picture Source Eleanor Rathbone Charitable Trust
As a suffragist Eleanor favoured peaceful and law abiding forms of campaigning. She believed that the more militant and extreme acts carried out by suffragettes, in the long run were counterproductive. Eleanor argued that women needed to gain positions of power at a local level so they could lobby for the vote from within the political system.
In 1909 Eleanor put her theory to the test, ran for public office and won. She was the first female to be elected to Liverpool City Council. Eleanor’s victory was a real coup for the suffragists, by winning a seat on a local council Eleanor proved that women could run a successful campaign and gain positions of political power. Her win also gave the suffrage campaign an official voice in a local government.
Photo of Eleanor Rathbone in 1910 - Source manuscriptsandmore.liverpool.ac.uk
Eleanor’s first act in office was to secure a pledge from the council to publicly support the enfranchisement of women. Over the next twenty-six years, as a councillor she campaigned for better working conditions, child welfare reform and the abolition of slum housing.
During World War One (WW1) Eleanor led Liverpool’s branch of the Town Hall Soldier’s and Sailor’s Families’ Organization, known today as the military charity SSAFA. This organization was set up to help military families during the war.
Post WW1 Eleanor and Elizabeth re launched the Council of Voluntary Aid, this was quickly renamed the Personal Services Society (PSS) The remit of the organisation was to respond to the crises of the day. PSS still operates today and has helped develop organisations such as Age Concern, Legal Aid and Citizens Advice Bureau.
MP & Refugee Campaigner
The 1920’s witnessed Eleanor lobby for further social reform for women and make two attempts to become a MP. Her first attempt in 1922 was unsuccessful. Undeterred, in 1929 she made another bid for Parliament and was elected the Independent MP for the Combined English Universities seat.
As a MP, she championed a whole host of campaigns including Refugee rights, the end of Child Marriage in India and the abolition of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in Kenya
By the mid 1930's Eleanor's focus shifted to British Foreign Policy. She was deeply troubled by the rise of Hitler and publicly denounced the government’s Appeasement policy.
As a member of the League of Nations Union Eleanor undertook investigative trips with other female MP’s to Eastern Europe. In 1937 Eleanor coordinated the rescue of 4000 refugee children from the Basque region of Spain.
Picture Source - rememberingeleanorrathbone.wordpress.com
Eleanor felt a deep sense of moral obligation to campaign for the Jewish and political refugees of Czechoslovakia and Nazi occupied Europe. In 1938 she created a cross party parliamentary committee to champion the rights of Refugees.
Post World War Two (WW2) The Children and Youth Aliyah Committee wanted to pay tribute to Eleanor. With the support of the London Rathbone Memorial Committee, funds were raised for a memorial and in 1949 the Eleanor Rathbone School at the Youth Aliyah Farming Institute near Tel Aviv was opened.
Social Reformer & Legacy
In 1924 Eleanor wrote The Disinherited Family, in the book she argued that women should be financially compensated for their work inside the home. Finally, in 1945 after years of campaigning, the Family Allowance Bill was announced. However, there was a problem, the proposed bill stated that the payment would be made to the males in the household Eleanor passionately objected to this and threatened to withdraw her support for the bill. Eleanor argued that Family Allowances were fundamentally a women’s rights issue and it was imperative that the payment be made to women.
Picture Source - archive.senatehouselibrary.ac.uk
Her objection was noted, the bill was quietly amended and passed into law in June 1945. The Family Allowance Act was a massive victory for Eleanor, she had been campaigning for it for over twenty years. The payment still exists today in the form of Child Benefit.
Eleanor passed away from a heart attack in January 1946. She left behind a powerful and inspiring legacy. A trail blazer of the British women's rights movement, a pioneering social reformer and a Refugee champion - Eleanor is a true Merseyside Shero!
To learn more about Eleanor Rathbone
Eleanor Rathbone and the Politics of Conscience by Susan Pederson (2007)
Eleanor Rathbone : A Biography by Mary Stocks (1949)
Rescue the Perishing Eleanor Rathbone and The Refugees by Dr Susan Cohen (2010)