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Slack [married name Saunders], Agnes Elizabeth (1858–1946), temperance advocate, was born at Station Road, Ripley, Derbyshire, on 15 October 1858, the second of three children of Thomas Slack (1802/3–1882), master brickmaker and owner of houses, and his wife, Mary Ann, née Bamford (1822/3–1903). Her parents were Liberals and Wesleyan Methodists, and the family home at Green Hill House, Ripley, was a local centre for discussion among those interested in religious work. Mary Ann Slack played the key role in her children's education, and it is said that she determined that they should be brought up teetotallers. Agnes Slack attended a day school at Ripley until the age of fourteen, after which she enrolled at a boarding school in Lincoln, where she studied for the Oxford junior and senior local examinations and qualified associate of arts. She also took organ lessons with the organist of Lincoln Cathedral, and became an accomplished organist, pianist, and harpist. She continued her learning in later life, attending summer schools at Oxford and Cambridge on biblical studies in 1910, 1911, and 1912.

Slack began her philanthropic work at the Ripley Wesleyan Church, where she was the organist and led the choir. Many of the women who attended the church were local colliers' wives, and she organized a weekly mothers' meeting, a clothing club, a summer outing fund, a banking fund, and a monthly tea (held at her mother's house). In the early 1890s she became active in local politics. In April 1893 she was elected to represent Ripley on the Belper Union board of poor law guardians, the only female guardian in Derbyshire. She also sat at this time on the executive of the Women's Liberal Association. As honorary secretary of the Midland Union of Women's Liberal Associations she spoke about women's role in local and national government, and addressed political meetings in England and Wales on behalf of Liberal candidates. She was a committed campaigner for women's rights; she supported W. T. Stead's campaign in the 1880s to increase the age of sexual consent and she joined the Central Society for Women's Suffrage in the 1890s, which became part of the non-militant group the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies in 1897. In 1904 she represented the Women's Liberal Association on the annual non-militant suffrage deputation to parliament. She was also connected to the movement pushing for the national organization of nonconformist churches, and sat on the executive of the National Free Church Council.

In 1895 Slack was appointed honorary secretary of the National British Temperance Women's Association (NBTWA). In the same year she became secretary of the World's Women's Christian Temperance Union (WWCTU), an organization that she served for nearly fifty years. She quickly proved herself as a dedicated and forceful worker, and in 1897 she became editor of the WWCTU's monthly journal, World's White Ribbon Bulletin. She travelled widely with the WWCTU, speaking at temperance meetings across the world and meeting leading international, political, and religious figures of the day. She enjoyed travelling as an opportunity to study other societies. On her first of many trips to America (1896) she was impressed with the new penology practised at the Elmira Reformatory in New York, while during a trip to Italy in 1913 (where she attended the International Temperance Congress in Milan), she became very interested in a ‘humanitarian school’, which instructed young women in cooking and handcrafts. In the 1890s she made several trips to Norway and Sweden to study the Gothenburg scheme of disinterested management, which aimed to eliminate the profit incentive from the sale of alcohol as an alternative to prohibition, although she came to reject it as a solution for Britain.

A conviction of the need to educate the individual—at the heart of the late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century Liberal humanitarian project—critically underpinned Slack's social thought. In early 1910 she clashed publicly with Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the militant suffrage organization, over the relationship between economic politics and the drink question, arguing that Pankhurst's concentration on lack of food as a cause of working-class women's poverty overlooked the role that drink played. Slack was also opposed to early twentieth-century socialist thought that regarded total abstinence from alcohol as a means by which employers would lower wages, which would thus lead to a fall in living standards. The NBWTA's invitation of Ramsay MacDonald to its annual meeting in 1915 caused her deep concern, and she worried whether the organization would ‘remain a strictly working Temperance Ass[ociation]’ or become ‘an appendage of the Labour Party’ (Tyrrell, 251). Her appreciation of the moral uplift brought by British rule in India in the early 1900s (she admitted that the tax on opium and alcohol was the ‘weakest spot in British rule in India’ (ibid., 163) was itself somewhat at odds with the WWCTU's anti-imperialist stance.

In the later part of her campaigning career Slack witnessed significant changes in public policy on drink. The heightened anxiety surrounding the effects of drink during the First World War provided a timely context for her work in England, where she visited YMCA rooms and war canteens, addressing soldiers on temperance. After the war she became convinced of the importance of the League of Nations. She was the last president of the NBWTA (1925–6) and the first president of the National British Women's Total Abstinence Union (1926–8), which formed in 1926 following the reunion of the NBWTA and the Women's Total Abstinence Union. The legal successes of international prohibition reformers in the 1920s provided a vital context for her post-war interventions, and as president of the National British Women's Total Abstinence Union she advanced the logic of empowering local communities to legislate on drink, running the slogan ‘Local option’. In 1927–8 she implored every home to be used for small meetings of people outside the union. She also wanted to give men associate rights within the union.

Slack was not an easy personality, and some of her colleagues in the NBWTA and WWCTU resented her ‘autocratic’ tendencies, but she also developed very close relationships with temperance women, notably in the 1890s with her American ‘mother’, Lillian Stevenson, and in the 1910s with the Boston-born WWCTU assistant secretary, Anna Gordon. Aged eighty-five Slack married on 20 July 1943 another octogenarian, Charles Saunders (d. 1944), an architect and surveyor; her husband, a widower, was the son of James Saunders, farmer. They settled at Kettering, where she died on 16 January 1946.

Her brother Sir John Bamford-Slack (1857–1909), politician, was born at Ripley on 11 July 1857. Educated at Wesley College, Sheffield, and University College, London, he graduated BA from London University in 1876 and was admitted a solicitor in 1880, heading the London partnership of Slack, Monro, and Atkins. On 15 March 1888 he married Alice Maude Mary Bretherton (1857/8–1932), a schoolteacher and BA of London University, daughter of Edward Bretherton, produce merchant. They had one daughter. In 1887 he became town clerk of the newly incorporated borough of Ilkeston and from 1889 to 1902 represented Ilkeston on the Derbyshire county council. A prominent member of the Wesleyan conference, he was president of the Local Preachers' Association and assisted Hugh Price Hughes at the West London Mission. He was for many years treasurer of the Wesleyan Connexional Temperance Committee. He began his political career as vice-president of the City of London Liberal Association and as a member of the executive committee of the National Liberal Federation. At a by-election in 1904 he won the normally Conservative parliamentary constituency of St Albans by a narrow margin, though he was defeated in the general election of 1906. He was knighted in that year. John Bamford-Slack was an active member of the Alpine Club. Latterly he hyphenated his name. He died at his London home, 10 Woburn Square, on 12 February 1909. His widow, who took part in deputations of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies, married in 1914 the architect Sir Banister Flight Fletcher.

Eve Colpus

Sources  

A. Tillyard, Agnes E. Slack: two hundred thousand miles travel for temperance in four continents (1926) · E. P. Gordon, Women torch-bearers: the story of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (1924) · S. Holden, The glittering prizes of public speaking (1925), 79–80 · J. S. Blocker, D. M. Fahey, and I. R. Tyrrell, eds., Alcohol and temperance in modern history (2003) · I. Tyrrell, Woman's world/ woman's empire: the Woman's Christian Temperance Union in international perspective, 1880–1930 (1991) · A. Walters and C. E. Walters, Sir John Bamford-Slack: preacher and politician (1910) · b. cert. · m. cert. · census returns, 1881, 1891, 1901 · The White Ribbon, later The White Ribbon and Wings (1910); (1927); (1929) · The Women's Signal (1895) · The Times (12 Feb 1909); (19 Jan 1944); (18 Jan 1946) · Leicester Chronicle and the Leicestershire Mercury (23 June 1894), 11 · Boston Evening Transcript (9 July 1910), 33 · WWBMP

Archives  

Castle Howard archives, Yorkshire, Rosaline Howard papers · National British Women's Total Abstinence Union archives, Rosalind Carlisle House, Solihull · Women's Christian Temperance Union Headquarters, Evanston, Illinois, Frances Willard Memorial Library · Women's Library, London, Josephine Butler papers


Likenesses  

Bassano, whole-plate glass negatives, 1929, NPG, London

Wealth at death  

£14,444 0s. 2d.—John Bamford-Slack: probate, 20 March 1909, CGPLA Eng. & Wales