We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Shearer [née Downing], Helena Paulina (1839x47–1885), socialist and suffragist, was born in Dublin, the daughter of Washington Downing, journalist, and his wife, Mary Frances, née McCarthy; she was the niece of McCarthy Downing, MP for County Cork. Nothing further is known of her early life or education, but her family settled in London, where a sister was born in 1848 and a brother in 1850. An experienced suffrage lecturer with a special interest in factory legislation and the employment of women, from 1875 she served on the committees of the Women's Protective and Provident League (formed by Emma Paterson in 1874 to encourage the organization of women into trade unions) and the Vigilance Association for the Defence of Personal Rights and for the Amendment of the Law in points wherein it is Injurious to Women. Formed to fight the Contagious Diseases Act in 1871, the Vigilance Association was a women's rights organization made up primarily of middle-class egalitarian feminists and libertarians, who also opposed the introduction of further factory legislation specific to women.

Much later, in his 1923 memoir of a life in the organized labour movement, Francis Soutter recalled that Helena Downing also helped keep The Radical (the organ of the Anti-Coercion Society) financially solvent in its early days. In particular, he paid tribute to her reputation as a speaker at a time when the practised woman orator was a rarity. Looking back, he attributed her success to the fact that she always understood her audiences and paid careful attention to their composition when considering questions of style and delivery, all of which effectively ensured that her ideas were accessible to all her listeners. As a consequence he suggested Helena Downing was always ‘at home’ with her audience, even when they did not share her views: ‘This happy faculty, in conjunction with the most charming Irish brogue, made her one of the most successful speakers I have ever met’ (Soutter, 123–4).

In the autumn of 1879 Helena contested the division of Tower Hamlets in the third triennial elections for the London school board. Standing on a programme of free secular education and greater democratic control of the board schools, her electoral address included a pledge to secure ‘a fair proportion of working men and women on the local school management committees’ (Englishwoman's Review, 15 Oct 1879, 444). At the time her most prominent supporters were Herbert Burrows (a trade unionist and leading member of the Social Democratic Federation, who contested Tower Hamlets six years later) and Helen Taylor (the socialist and feminist, who represented Southwark in 1876–85), both of whom campaigned vigorously on her behalf. None the less, Helena Downing finished bottom of the poll, and the feminist press attributed this unexpected defeat to over-confidence among her friends, who split their votes rather than casting them as a block as they were entitled to do. On 24 November 1881 she married John Ronald Shearer, a 32-year-old accountant. It seems likely that she was the Mrs Shearer who in 1881–2 served as an executive committee member of the Married Women's Property Committee. Undeterred by her failure at Tower Hamlets she turned her attention to the administration of the poor law, and in 1884 was returned as a guardian of the poor in Islington. However, her success was short-lived because she was disqualified from serving. Conscious of the fact that poor-law guardians had to be ratepayers, the couple placed their London home in Helena's name, but when she tried to pay the rates they were refused, and her election was disallowed. Less than a year later she died of consumption at Cold Blow, Queen Elizabeth's Walk, Stoke Newington, on 8 March 1885. Her death certificate gave her age as forty-five; on her marriage in 1881 she had given her age as thirty-four.

Jane Martin


F. W. Soutter, Recollections of a labour pioneer (1923) · Englishwoman's Review (15 Sept 1879) · Englishwoman's Review (15 Oct 1879), 444 · Englishwoman's Review (15 Nov 1879) · Englishwoman's Review (15 Dec 1879), 561 · m. cert. · d. cert. · P. Hollis, Ladies elect: women in English local government, 1865–1914 (1987) · L. Holcombe, Wives and property: reform of the married women's property law in nineteenth-century England (1983) · census returns, 1881 · b. cert. [Washington Downing]


BLPES, Mill-Taylor MSS