Annie Besant (1847–1933)

Annie Besant (nee Wood) led a long, varied and eventful life, and for a few years played a crucial role in industrial history. She was the daughter of an insurance underwriter in the City of London, and was educated until she was 16 by a governess, Ellen Marryat, sister of Captain Frederick Marryat, author of adventure books for boys. She had strong religious inclinations in her late teens, and was strongly influenced by the Oxford Movement. At the age of twenty she married a clergyman, Frank Besant (1840-1917), brother of the well-known author Sir Walter Besant (1836-1901), to whom she bore two children in 1869 and 1870.

After Besant was preferred in 1872 to the living of Sibsey, Lincolnshire, she was distressed at the prospect of a third pregnancy, but was told by E B Pusey, one of the leaders of the Oxford Movement whom she had previously respected, that she had read too much. She moved towards a free-thinking position, and after an ultimatum from her husband, left him in 1874 to live in London, where she worked for eleven years with Charles Bradlaugh (1833-91), the free-thinker and advocate of birth control. In 1885 she was introduced to the Fabian Society by the dramatist George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950). On 13 November 1887 she led a delegation from the East End of London to a demonstration in Trafalgar Square protesting against the decision of the police authority to close the Square to political gatherings. Rioting broke out and the incident was known subsequently as Bloody Sunday. At about this time she split with Bradlaugh and, with William Morris and others, joined the Law & Liberty League, whose journal she came to edit.

In 1888 she published an account of girl workers employed in the East End by the match manufacturers Bryant & May, and subsequently helped them to form a trade union which organised a strike for better conditions. For a few years she was a leading figure in the ‘New Unionism’, playing a prominent role in the organisation of unskilled female workers. She sought public office and was top of the poll in elections for the London School Board in 1889, but at that time women were ineligible for election to parliament or for the newly-formed London County Council. She became concerned increasingly with Theosophy and with eastern religions generally, and in 1893 went to India where she spent most of the remainder of her life. She was interned in 1917 by the imperial authorities after angry protests against the suppression of the Easter Rising of the previous year in Dublin, and for a time was a leading figure in the Congress movement advocating the end of British rule in the sub-continent. In the 1920s she was concerned principally with Theosophy, and travelled by air to many countries to advocate its principles.