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Wilson [née Martin], Charlotte Mary (1854–1944), anarchist and feminist, was born on 6 May 1854 in the village of Kemerton, on Bredon Hill, Worcestershire, the only child of Robert Spencer Martin (d. 1896), physician, and his wife, Clementina Susannah, née Davies (d. 1903), who was from a distinguished clerical family. She received the best education then available to girls, going to Cheltenham Ladies' College and then to Cambridge University; there, from 1873 to 1876, she attended the new institution at Merton Hall, which later became Newnham College, and took the higher local examination. While at Cambridge she lost her religious faith and moved to the political left. On 21 September 1876 she married her cousin Arthur Wilson (1847–1932), a stockbroker. They lived for a time in Hampstead, where she was active in charitable and educational work, but she became a socialist and then an anarchist (influenced by Peter Kropotkin, who was serving a prison sentence in France), and at the end of 1884 they adopted the simple life and moved to a historic cottage at Wyldes on the edge of Hampstead Heath (about which she wrote Wyldes and its Story in 1904). Meanwhile she became active in several political organizations.

During 1884 Charlotte Wilson joined the two leading socialist bodies, the Social Democratic Federation and the Fabian Society, and began contributing to their papers; she also formed a group which met in her home to study socialist theory and history. She was the only woman elected to the first executive of the Fabian Society in December 1884, and for two years led the anarchist fraction in the society, giving talks and writing articles explaining anarchism to socialists. Early in 1886 she contributed the anarchist half of a Fabian tract entitled What Socialism is, and later in 1886 she spoke on the losing side in a debate at which representatives of the socialist organizations decided to take the parliamentary, rather than the revolutionary, road. She withdrew from the Fabian executive in April 1887 and concentrated on work within the anarchist movement.

Charlotte Wilson was associated from the start with The Anarchist, the first English-language anarchist paper in Britain, founded in March 1885 by Henry Seymour, with whom she formed the English Anarchist Circle. In January 1886 Kropotkin was released from prison and he settled in England, partly as a result of her invitation. At first Kropotkin and Wilson worked with Seymour, but in October 1886 they started another anarchist paper, Freedom, modelled on the French-language papers he had edited for several years in Switzerland. She was publisher, editor, and main contributor, with gaps caused by her illness, until she retired in January 1895 because of family illness. She remained associated with the paper until 1901, her last contribution being a ‘Short history of Freedom’, written in 1896 and published in December 1900. From 1888 she helped to produce a series of Freedom Pamphlets, some of which were translated or written by herself, the most important being Anarchism and Outrage (1893), a summary of the anarchist attitude to political violence. For a decade she also spoke to all kinds of audiences throughout the country, and she became a familiar figure as the leading native middle-class proponent of anarchist communism.

Charlotte Wilson was not directly involved in politics for the decade from 1895, during which both her parents died; her main public activity in these years was the campaign for the preservation of Hampstead Heath. In 1906 the Wilsons left Wyldes, and divided their lives between a London apartment and a house in Peppard Common, Oxfordshire. She then returned to political activity, this time in the women's movement. She joined several feminist organizations—the Women's Industrial Council, the Women's Local Government Society, the Women's Freedom League—and in 1908 she founded the Fabian Women's Group. She became its secretary, its meetings were held at her London home, and she led its ambitious programme of research into and publicity about women's social and political interests; she described it in Fabian Women's Group: Three Years' Work (1911). She also returned to the Fabian executive from 1911 to 1914. She withdrew from political activity for the last time at the beginning of the First World War, and turned instead to welfare work for British prisoners of war, for which she was appointed OBE in 1919. The Wilsons had no children, and after her husband's death in 1932 she was looked after by his nephew, Gerald Hankin. They moved to the United States, where she ended her life in a home, suffering from senile dementia. She died at Irvington-on-Hudson, New York, on 28 April 1944, just before her ninetieth birthday.

Charlotte Wilson played a leading part in two distinct episodes of the British left—establishing a serious and lasting anarchist paper at a critical time in the growth of the socialist movement, and encouraging serious and influential research into women's issues at a critical time in the growth of the feminist movement. In both areas she was distinguished by intelligence and industry, reticence and reliability, and she won the friendship of all who worked with her and the respect of all who knew her. John Henry Mackay described her in his documentary novel of the 1880s as ‘the most faithful, the most diligent, and the most impassioned champion of Communism’ (The Anarchists, 1891, 41), and Edith Morley described her as ‘the fount and inspiration’ of the Fabian Women's Group (Women Workers in Seven Professions, 1914, v).

Nicolas Walter

Sources  

S. D. Hinely, ‘Charlotte Wilson: anarchist, Fabian and feminist’, PhD diss., Stanford University, 1987 · H. Oliver, ‘Charlotte Wilson’, unpublished typescript, Internationaal Instituut voor Sociale Geschiedenis, Amsterdam · N. Walter, ‘Introduction’, in C. Wilson, Three essays on anarchism (1979) · N. Walter, ‘Charlotte Wilson’, Freedom (Oct 1986) · N. Walter, ‘Charlotte M. Wilson’, The Raven, 21 (Jan–March 1993) · H. Becker, ‘Freedom: people and places’, Freedom (Oct 1986) · H. Becker, ‘Notes on Freedom and the Freedom Press’, The Raven, 1 (April 1987) · Justice (1884–6) · The Anarchist (1885–6) · Freedom (1886–1900) · C. Wilson, Fabian Women's Group: three years' work, 1908–1911 (1911) · Labour Annual (1895–1901) · Reformer's Year Book (1902–9) · b. cert. · m. cert.

Archives  

Internationaal Instituut voor Sociale Geschiedenis, Amsterdam, Freedom collection |  BL, John Burns MSS · BL, A. R. Dryhurst MSS · BL, William Morris MSS · BL, G. B. Shaw MSS · BLPES, Fabian Society Archives · BLPES, Passfield MSS · BLPES, Wallas MSS · Internationaal Instituut voor Sociale Geschiedenis, Amsterdam, Alfred Marsh archive · Internationaal Instituut voor Sociale Geschiedenis, Amsterdam, Socialist League archive · Newnham College, Cambridge, archives · UCL, Karl Pearson MSS


Likenesses  

photograph, 1870–79, Newnham College, Cambridge