Browne, Annie Leigh (18511936), educationist and suffragist, was born on 14 March 1851 at Fryern Street, Bridgwater, Somerset, the eldest daughter of Samuel Woolcott Browne (d. c.1870), merchant, and his wife, Thomazine Leigh Browne, formerly Carslake. Her parents were both from naval families and were of Unitarian and Liberal convictions. A second daughter, Thomazine Mary (18531943), became the second wife of Sir Norman Lockyer. The family settled in the Clifton district of Bristol. Annie and her sister had little formal schooling but received excellent tuition from visiting masters and governesses, while their home became a meeting place for men and women active in reformist politics. Both parents were involved in philanthropic and social work, and included among their friends the social reformers Mary Carpenter, Frances Power Cobbe, and Matthew Davenport Hill, all of whom were then living in the Clifton area.
In 1868 the family moved to London and the two girls went to Queen's College, Harley Street, although Annie attended as a regular student for only one year because she was needed at home. In that year, too, she attended her first women's suffrage meeting at the home of Dr John Beddoe and his wife (both associates of Mary Carpenter), and worked actively for the cause until 1918. She also helped her mother in the work of the Social Purity Alliance and the Moral Reform Union, and supported the efforts of two sisters, Maria Georgina Grey and Emily Anne Shirreff, to establish schools for academically oriented girls. To this end the National Union for the Improvement of the Education of Women of all Classes (generally known as the Women's Education Union) was established in 1871. On her father's death about 1870 Annie began a process of self-education, largely through the writings of Theodore Parker and the teachings of William Henry Channing and James Martineau. Four years later, mother and daughter accepted an invitation from Emma Paterson to promote the organization of women into trade unions and Annie continued to serve on the committee of the Women's Protective and Provident League until the early 1880s. At this time she became a friend of the working-class feminist Jeannette Wilkinson, who had worked as an upholsterer from the age of seventeen and in 1876 accepted an invitation to become a director of the Women's Printing Society, at a time when the trade excluded women.
From about 1880 Annie collaborated with her closest friend, Mary Stewart Kilgour (18511955), a Girton-educated maths lecturer who moved to London in 1877, in promoting the education of girls and women. Keenly aware of the lack of collegiate accommodation for women working at University College and the London school of medicine, during the winter of 1881 Miss Browne, her sister, and Miss Kilgour devoted their energies and their money to the establishment of a hostel for female students. Soon afterwards the women formed an organizing committee, of which Annie became honorary secretary, and by the autumn of 1882 College Hall was started in Byng Place, Gordon Square, with Miss Eleanor Grove and Miss Rosa Morison as its first principal and vice-principal, and two students. Subsequently the hall was enlarged by the addition of 2 Byng Place, and in March 1886 was established on a permanent basis when it was incorporated under the name of College Hall. In 1890 Annie resigned her position as honorary secretary to the council of College Hall and was succeeded by her sister; later came a much bigger achievement by the three women in the founding of College Hall, Malet Street, which Queen Mary opened in 1932. Two years later all three women assisted at the opening of an extension by Princess Alice in November 1934.
At the same time, Annie launched her personal crusade to promote women's work in local government when she brought together Mrs Amelia Charles, Mrs Evans, Caroline Biggs of the Englishwomen's Review, and Lucy Wilson of the Vigilance Association to form a Local Electors Association. The immediate objective was to secure female access to vestry politics, but the focus changed with the passing of the Local Government Act, 1888, which provided for the establishment of county councils. Early in November 1888 the Society for Promoting the Return of Women as County Councillors was formed, with the countess of Aberdeen (president of the executive of the Women's Liberal Federation) as president, Mrs Eva McLaren (formerly Muller) as first honorary treasurer, and Mrs Louisa Temple Mallett (unsuccessful candidate for the London school board) and Annie Browne as joint secretaries of the committee. Renamed the Women's Local Government Society (WLGS) in 1893, the organization was established on a non-party basis for promoting the eligibility of women to elect to, and to serve on, all local governing bodies. Apart from Annie, Mary Kilgour, and Louisa Mallet, its inner circle also included Emma Cons (late alderman of the London county council), Emma Knox Maitland and Ellen McKee of the London school board, as well as Eva McLaren (a former Lambeth Guardian), who had helped form the Society for Promoting the Return of Women as Poor Law Guardians a few years earlier. The WLGS played a prominent part in the feminist campaign against the Education Acts of 1902 and 1903, under which the directly elected school boards on which women had been effective members since 1870 were replaced by local education authorities, on which women were disqualified from serving. Although as a concession to the agitation the new education committees included some co-opted women members who were chosen for their involvement in education, they lacked the authority or public support of elected members. Hence Annie Leigh Browne continued to organize and fund the campaign to secure access to local politics, and in 1907 her persistence was rewarded with the Qualification of Women (County and Borough Councils) Act.
A prominent Liberal in politics, in the early 1890s Annie became honorary secretary of the Paddington Women's Liberal Association. She was also an original member of the Albemarle Club, as well as being a strong opponent of vivisection. She lived at 58 Porchester Terrace, London. Annie Leigh Browne died of bronchitis and pneumonia at 55 Lancaster Gate, London, on 8 March 1936. Her close friend Mary Kilgour then moved to Sidmouth, where she lived in retirement in a house left to her for her lifetime by Annie Browne. Reluctantly agreeing to be interviewed by the feminist Woman's Herald, Annie herself declared that she did not think personal details are of general interest (4 Feb 1893, 8).
A. M. Copping, The story of College Hall (1974) · Miss Browne, Woman's Herald (4 Feb 1893) · The Times (14 March 1936) · Vaccination Inquirer and Health Review, 38 (1936), 61 · P. Hollis, Ladies elect: women in English local government, 18651914 (1987); pbk edn (1989) · b. cert. · d. cert.
LMA, Women's Local Government Society MSS
photograph, 1893, repro. in Miss Browne
Wealth at death
£55,685 13s. 0d.: probate, 29 June 1936, CGPLA Eng. & Wales