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Lovelock [née Northover Smith], Irene Mayfree

  • Elizabeth A. McCarty

Lovelock [née Northover Smith], Irene May (1896–1974), founder of the British Housewives' League, was born on 26 May 1896 at Wood Green, London, the elder daughter of William Northover Smith (1864–1953), ironmonger, and his wife, Florence Minnie Heath (1869–1943). She was educated at schools in Margate and Finchley, and at Birmingham School for Young Ladies. She married the Revd John Herbert Lovelock (1903–1986), a Church of England clergyman; they had three children. Irene Lovelock undertook a busy round of parish work in support of her husband. She became involved with the local Mothers' Union and helped with the Sunday school. It was a labour of love. She was a devout believer; her family joked that if St Peter would not let her enter through the gates of heaven she would have said 'Well, really!'

During the Second World War, Irene Lovelock's husband held the parish at Selhurst, London. In addition to her parish duties, Mrs Lovelock became an air raid warden and a firewatcher; she was subsequently awarded a civil defence medal for this work. During this time, too, both she and her husband's parishioners struggled with the difficulties of housekeeping in an era of rationing and shortages, experiences which undoubtedly provided the backdrop to her decision to establish the British Housewives' League (BHL).

The BHL was the best-known of a number of predominantly middle-class housewives' organizations which sprang up around Britain at the end of the war. According to an unpublished memoir written by Irene Lovelock later in her life, the idea for the BHL originated with her anger at the sight of women and children queuing for food one cold and rainy morning in June 1945. She called a meeting in her husband's parish hall in protest at the hardships of queuing. The meeting generated great local interest, and the league was officially constituted the following month. A BHL committee was formed, with Mrs Lovelock as chairman. In April 1946 she resigned from that post to become president of the league.

The league's interests quickly widened to embrace a range of issues affecting housewives and their families. Its main activities centred around the quality, quantity, and cost of food and other household commodities, concerns which, although rooted in an era of rationing and shortages, in many ways foreshadowed those of a later generation of consumer activists. In the immediate post-war period the BHL attracted national attention with a series of high-profile activities. It launched a ‘bacon and egg campaign’, to demonstrate dissatisfaction with aspects of the government's food policy; a ‘vegetable boycott’, to highlight what the league considered to be unacceptably high vegetable prices; a ‘campaign for cleaner food’, which focused on improving hygiene conditions in shops; and a protest against the use of agene in flour for bread. From the early 1950s the league waged a long battle against proposals to fluoridate drinking water.

The BHL also campaigned against what it termed 'over-control by the state'. Mrs Lovelock warned of the dangers of socialism in language which echoed much contemporary Conservative Party propaganda aimed at women: 'The sturdy independent character of the British Home is being lost in a welter of Control which the State does so badly and which the Mother, given the tools and opportunity, does so well' (British Housewives' League newsletter, July 1946). The league was often accused of being an offshoot of the Conservative Party, a charge it always vigorously rebutted. Like a number of other contemporary women's organizations, the league insisted that it was independent of party political allegiances, regarding this as a source of moral strength. Certainly, it sought initially to maintain a political balance of sorts. Both the Labour MP Edith Summerskill and the former Conservative MP Mavis Tate were involved with the league in its early days (although, significantly, Summerskill's relations with the league rapidly soured). However, the league's criticisms of the Attlee governments became increasingly vehement; in the second half of the 1940s it was supported by a number of prominent Conservatives. For their part, the Conservatives came to regard the BHL as something of a mixed blessing. The party was anxious that the BHL was drawing women away from its own women's organizations. It was also reluctant to be associated with the league's increasingly libertarian stance at a time when it was trying to emphasize its commitment to social reform.

The BHL did not view itself as a feminist organization. Its members none the less drew inspiration from the suffrage movement, and its methods—parades, deputations, demonstrations—recalled suffragette tactics. The league's advocacy of an expanded, public role for the housewife, albeit one grounded in a traditional view of women's domestic role, may also have issued an inadvertent challenge to contemporary conceptions of ‘a woman's place’.

In terms of membership, the league enjoyed its greatest success in the first few years of its existence. In 1948 it claimed to have in excess of 70,000 members, although it would appear that its newsletter, Housewives Today, had a circulation of about 3000 at the time. The membership dwindled from the late 1940s, partly as a result of a number of bitter (and public) disagreements among the committee over the finances and direction of the league.

Irene Lovelock's direct involvement with the league gradually declined, although she remained as president for many years. She maintained that the league's major achievement had been 'to make the nation “housewife conscious”'. Irene Lovelock died at George's Hospital, Tooting, on 9 August 1974. After cremation her ashes were deposited at South London crematorium, Streatham Vale.


  • I. Lovelock, ‘British housewife’, unpub. MS, not dated, priv. coll.
  • Housewives Today (1948)
  • circular to branches, British Housewives' League, not dated, priv. coll. [occasional pubn]
  • newsletter, British Housewives' League, July 1946, priv. coll. [occasional pubn]
  • Bodl. Oxf., conservative party archive [various]
  • d. cert.
  • private information (2004) [Keith Lovelock]
private collection
Crockford's Clerical Directory
Bodleian Library, Oxford