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Bowerman, Elsie Edithfree

  • Elizabeth Crawford

Bowerman, Elsie Edith (1889–1973), suffragette and lawyer, was born on 18 December 1889 at Barnsbury Lodge, Garden Road, Tunbridge Wells, the only child of William Bowerman (c.1825–1895) and his wife, Edith Martha Barber (1864–1953). She was educated at Wycombe Abbey School (1901–7), in Paris, and then at Girton College, Cambridge (1908–11), from where she graduated with a second-class degree in medieval and modern languages and a distinction in oral French.

Elsie Bowerman and her mother, now Mrs Chibnall (she had remarried in 1907), both joined the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1909. Elsie founded a branch of the WSPU in Girton, inviting such speakers as Lady Constance Lytton to address the undergraduates, despite lack of co-operation from the college authorities. Her mother was active in the WSPU branch at St Leonards, Sussex, and was injured while taking part in a WSPU deputation to the House of Commons in November 1910. Having graduated Elsie Bowerman returned to St Leonards, as a paid organizer for the WSPU. On 15 April 1912, while travelling as first-class passengers to America for a holiday, she and her mother survived the sinking of the Titanic.

In September 1916 Elsie Bowerman sailed to Russia as an orderly with the Scottish women's hospital unit, at the request of the Hon. Evelina Haverfield, a fellow suffragette whom she had known for several years. With this unit she travelled via Archangel, Moscow, and Odessa to serve the Serbian and Russian armies in Romania. The women arrived as the allies were defeated, and were soon forced to join the retreat northwards to the Russian frontier. While awaiting her passage home, in March 1917, Elsie witnessed the ‘February revolution’ in St Petersburg. A diary that she kept, recording her experiences with the hospital unit, is held by the Women's Library, London.

On her return to England Elsie Bowerman joined Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst's campaign for industrial peace, holding meetings at pitheads and factory gates in Sheffield, Manchester, and south Wales. At the general election of 1918 she was Christabel Pankhurst's agent in Smethwick and, after that defeat, was one of the founders, and took a leading part in the campaigns, of the Women's Guild of Empire (WGE), which denounced trade unions and family allowances and called for an alliance of capital and labour. Elsie Bowerman was honorary secretary of the WGE from 1920 to 1929, and edited the guild's Bulletin. She joined the Middle Temple in 1921, read for the bar, and was called—one of the first women barristers—in 1924. She practised on the south-eastern circuit from 1928 until 1946, was involved with the Sussex sessions from 1928 until 1934, and wrote The Law of Child Protection (1933). In 1938, with Lady Reading, she founded the Women's Voluntary Service, and from 1938 to 1940 edited its Monthly Bulletin. During the Second World War she worked for the Ministry of Information (1940–41) and was liaison officer with the North American Service of the BBC (1941–5). After the war she spent a year in charge of the status-of-women section of the United Nations in New York. She was a governor of Wycombe Abbey School and wrote Stands there a School (1965), a history of the school and its founder, Frances Dove.

After a long and active life Elsie Bowerman suffered a stroke, and was declared dead on arrival at the Princess Alice Hospital, Eastbourne, on 18 October 1973. She never married, and left the residue of her estate to the Dove–Bowerman Trust, a fund that she had established to help educationally disadvantaged young people.



  • Women's Library, London, papers

Wealth at Death

£143,007: probate, 29 Jan 1974, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]