Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 30 September 2023

Thomas [married name Mackworth], Margaret Haig, suo jure Viscountess Rhonddafree


Thomas [married name Mackworth], Margaret Haig, suo jure Viscountess Rhonddafree

  • Deirdre Beddoe

Margaret Haig Thomas, suo jure Viscountess Rhondda (1883–1958)

by Bassano, 1947

Thomas [married name Mackworth], Margaret Haig, suo jure Viscountess Rhondda (1883–1958), feminist and magazine proprietor, was born at Princes Square, Bayswater, London, on 12 June 1883, and baptized at St Matthew's Church, St Petersburgh Place, the only child of David Alfred Thomas, first Viscount Rhondda (1856–1918), Liberal politician and industrialist, of Llan-wern, Monmouthshire, and his wife, Sybil Margaret Thomas (1857–1941), fourth daughter of George Augustus Haig.

Marriage and divorce: the women's suffrage movement

Margaret Haig Thomas's formal education got off to a slow start. Until the age of thirteen she was taught by French and German governesses from whom, she said, she learned only 'trifles'. She then attended first Notting Hill High School for Girls, a flagship institution of the Girls' Public Day School Company, followed by St Leonards School in St Andrews. She received a sound academic education, but there really never was any serious expectation that a girl of her class would work for a living. On leaving school she took the next logical step in the career progression of an upper-class girl and ‘came out’. Chaperoned by her long-suffering mother, she endured three successive London seasons. Paralysed by shyness and incapable of small talk, she found this an agonizing experience and she took herself off to Somerville College, Oxford, primarily to escape the horrors of a fourth London season, but gave that up and returned after less than a year (1904–5) to live in the family home at Llan-wern. Bored by life at home and with no sense of purpose, she drifted into marriage. She married Humphrey Mackworth (1871–1948), son of Colonel Sir Humphrey Mackworth, sixth baronet, from neighbouring Caerleon, on 9 July 1908; he succeeded to his father's baronetcy in 1914. For a while at least she enjoyed being mistress of her own home and genuinely sought to fulfil the role of a country landowner's wife. But they were an ill assorted pair and the marriage ended, quite amicably, in divorce in 1923.

In her youth Margaret was very attractive, with fair curly hair, blue eyes, and a determined jaw and mouth, which was softened by a hint of ready laughter. Short in stature and quite sturdily built, she was, however, not physically a strong woman and frequently wore herself out with her many commitments to a broad range of interests. Her character was marked by determination, persistence, and an intense focus on achieving the goals which she set for herself.

Two events were to change Margaret's life and to save her from the existence of petty futility which she saw stretching before her. The first of these, which occurred within a fortnight of her marriage, was her discovery of the militant women's suffrage movement.

Margaret's introduction to the suffrage movement came through one of her mother's cousins, Florence Haig, who had already been to prison for the cause. Inspired by Florence, both Margaret and her mother took part in the great suffrage procession to Hyde Park, London, on 21 July 1908. Shortly afterwards she joined the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) and set up its Newport branch. Though she was a firm believer in the justice of the cause, it was the promise of activity and excitement which most appealed to her. At last here was something which brought her to life:

But for me and for many other young women like me, militant suffrage was the very salt of life. The knowledge of it had come like a draught of fresh air into our padded, stifled lives. It gave us release of energy, it gave us that sense of being some use in the scheme of things, without which no human being can live at peace.

Rhondda, 120

Between 1908 and the outbreak of the First World War, when the WSPU suspended its operations, Margaret ran the full gamut of suffrage activities. She organized public meetings, inviting down such speakers as Emmeline Pankhurst, and she herself spoke from public platforms on many occasions, often to hostile audiences. Accompanied by Annie Kenney, a star of the WSPU, she addressed the Liberal Club in Merthyr, her father's constituency, where they were both pelted with herrings and tomatoes. During the general election of 1910, following the militant policy of harassing cabinet ministers, she broke through a police cordon and jumped on to the running board of Prime Minister Asquith's car. By 1913 she felt it was her duty, as secretary of the Newport WSPU, to commit arson and thereby give a lead to the others in the branch. She burned the contents of a pillar box on Risca Road, was arrested, tried, and found guilty. Rejecting the offer to pay a fine—to Humphrey's horror—she was sent to Usk gaol, where she proceeded to go on hunger strike but was not forcibly fed; she was released after five days.

Business interests

The second event which was to change Margaret Haig Mackworth's life and was to bring her into even greater public prominence was her entry into her father's business. Shortly after her marriage her father declared that he needed someone whom he could trust absolutely to assist him in the running of his business empire, a cross between 'a highly confidential secretary and a right hand man' (Rhondda, 217). It was her mother who suggested Margaret for this role. It was a bold and unorthodox decision on his part to employ her since women, particularly young married women, were almost unheard of in business, but Margaret fitted the bill in terms of trustworthiness and she was familiar with the broad outlines of his enterprises, which he had long been in the habit of discussing with her. At a salary of £1000 a year she took up her position at his offices in the Cambrian Buildings on Cardiff docks. She attended conferences and board meetings, conducted research into special projects, drafted letters and memoranda, and accompanied D. A. (as he was generally known) on overseas business trips. She acquired a knowledge of finance, of the workings of the coal and newspaper industries, and learned the arts of negotiation and bluffing. By mid-1914 D. A. had passed his newspaper interests over to her, and as the First World War progressed and he was brought once more into the world of politics she took increasing responsibility for the running of all his businesses. By the end of the war she was a director of more than twenty companies. But despite her efforts to fit into this male world—wearing dark business suits and smoking excessively at board meetings—she felt at a disadvantage by the lack of a business-orientated education and by her exclusion from the informal gossip which the men traded daily, along with coal, at the Cardiff exchange. Ironically it was the single most traumatic ordeal of her life which gave her a great boost of confidence. In May 1915, returning with D. A. from a US business trip, she was aboard the Lusitania, when it was torpedoed off the Irish coast. Rescued after hours in the freezing water, she later reflected that the shipwreck had altered her opinion of herself. Having gone through that and faced death close up, she no longer feared anything.

The Lusitania ordeal made Margaret determined to play her own part in the war effort. She was appointed as commissioner of women's national service in Wales, as controller of women's recruiting and, before the war ended, to the Women's Advisory Council of the Ministry of Reconstruction, which was concerned with issues on which she felt strongly. She was committed to the idea that women should remain an integral part of the post-war workforce, and to that end she set up the Women's Industrial League in 1918 to campaign for the rights of women workers.

When the war ended Margaret was already thirty-five years old but it is only truly from 1918 that she emerged as the fully formed independent woman with a set of ideas that she would hold and try to implement for the rest of her life. Her father died in July 1918, having been promoted to the rank of viscount, with a special remainder to Margaret in the absence of a male heir. For Margaret his death was a devastating blow. He had been her closest friend as well as her father and he was the only man she ever truly loved. Thereafter all her closest relationships were with women, notably the novelist Winifred Holtby, Helen Archdale, the first editor of Time and Tide, and Theodora Bosanquet, the secretary of the International Federation of University Women, with whom she lived from 1933 to her death in 1958.

Margaret was left an extremely wealthy woman. Lord Rhondda's estate was valued at £885,645: she inherited his property, his commercial interests, and his title. The Directory of Directors for 1919 listed Viscountess Rhondda, as she now was, as the director of thirty-three companies (twenty-eight of them inherited from her father) and chairman or vice-chairman of sixteen of these. Already a famous figure whose activities were widely reported in the London press on account of her business career and of her increasingly leading role as a spokeswoman for feminism, her campaign to take her seat in the House of Lords attracted a great deal more publicity. Women had won a partial victory in the long struggle for the vote in 1918, when some women over thirty were enfranchised in parliamentary elections, but peeresses were not allowed to take their seats in the Lords. Lady Rhondda demanded that she be allowed to take her seat in what she regarded as 'the last feudal assembly in Europe' (Church Times, 10 March 1922). But although in 1922 she seemed to have won, when the committee of privileges accepted her plea for admission, the decision was reversed in May 1922 after a remarkable piece of skulduggery by the lord chancellor, F. E. Smith, who referred the matter back to a reconstituted committee and delivered a judgment which rejected the claim that a peeress was entitled to sit and vote in parliament. Women were kept out of the House of Lords, despite her continued efforts, until 1958. Her campaign to enter the Lords was based less on a desire for any personal aggrandizement than on the sense of obligation she felt to the feminist cause to pursue discrimination wherever she encountered it and to promote the cause of equal rights.

Time and Tide

Between the wars Lady Rhondda was arguably Britain's leading feminist. Equal rights were central to her philosophy and she put enormous efforts into promoting her vision. In 1920 she set up the feminist weekly journal Time and Tide; in 1921 she launched the Six Point Group, which focused on what she regarded as the six key issues for women (mainly relating to child custody, equal pay, and equal opportunities); and in 1926, along with other feminists, she set up the Open Door Council to campaign against ‘protective’ legislation for women. A proponent of the equal-rights tradition of feminism, she asked for no favours, only for a level playing field. She was involved in many initiatives both in Britain and internationally, but it was Time and Tide which was to play the greatest part in her life from this point.

Time and Tide was for Lady Rhondda the fulfilment of a childhood dream. It was her grand passion, to which she devoted all her energies, at the expense of her business interests and her health. Though it was nominally owned by a limited company (the Time and Tide Publishing Company) and incorporated with £20,000 capital, Lady Rhondda subsidized the journal from the outset. She controlled 90 per cent of the shares, was at first vice-chairman, then chairman of directors, and from 1926 she took over as editor. In that year she attracted a great deal of publicity as the first woman president of the Institute of Directors. She subsidized the magazine throughout its existence, paying between £5000 and £10,000 per year in the early days and more than £250,000 in the course of her lifetime. It was her magazine: the all-female board of directors, for the most part, did her bidding. It reflected her views—liberal, feminist, egalitarian, and individualist.

Time and Tide covered politics, economics, social issues, literature, and the arts. To ensure that the journal was taken seriously Lady Rhondda gathered around her a distinguished group of women writers, who in the 1920s included Virginia Woolf, Vita Sackville-West, E. M. Delafield, Rose Macaulay, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Rebecca West: she was eager to promote young women writers such as Winifred Holtby and Vera Brittain. She could call too on distinguished male literary figures: G. K. Chesterton, Gilbert Murray, and George Bernard Shaw were always supportive. H. G. Wells, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Aldous Huxley, E. M. Forster, and George Orwell were contributors and, as she had with the women, she encouraged young male writers: W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, and Christopher Isherwood published some of their early pieces in Time and Tide. The literary contributors, whether established or at the outset of their careers, form an impressive list, but Time and Tide also published the work of important scholars such as Harold Laski, G. D. H. Cole, C. V. Wedgwood, and Eileen Power.

Politically the journal, like its proprietor, moved to the right over the years. The feminist element was reduced, especially after 1928 when equal suffrage was secured. But before and during the Second World War it stood firmly against fascism, and when in 1945 the Nazi blacklist (of those to be detained when the Germans invaded) was published, it paid Lady Rhondda the compliment of marking her down for immediate arrest. During the war the circulation of Time and Tide had hit a high of some 30,000 copies a week but by the 1950s sales had dropped to some 16,000, and the journal was losing between £400 and £500 every week. Lady Rhondda's personal fortune was almost exhausted and she was forced to appeal to the readers, who rallied to her call: donations to the tune of £25,000 came in.

Lady Rhondda's commitment to Time and Tide meant that she spent most of her time in London but she retained her links with Wales. She kept on her mother's old home at Pen Ithon, visiting whenever she could, and served on public bodies in Wales. She was president of the University College of Wales, Cardiff, from 1950 to 1955 and was awarded the honorary degree of doctor of law in 1955. In her seventies she continued to drive herself hard and ignored her own failing health. When she became ill with cancer she refused medication on the grounds that Time and Tide demanded a clear mind. She died in the Westminster Hospital, London, on 20 July 1958. Her ashes were buried at Llan-wern.


  • Viscountess Rhondda [M. H. T. Mackworth], This was my world (1933)
  • S. M. Eoff, Viscountess Rhondda: equalitarian feminist (1991)
  • The Times (21 July 1958)
  • Western Mail [Cardiff] (21 July 1958)
  • C. Law, Suffrage and power: the women's movement, 1918–1928 (1997)
  • M. Pugh, Women and the women's movement in Britain, 1914–1959 (1992)
  • H. L. Smith, ed., British feminism in the twentieth century (1990)
  • WWW, 1951–60


  • Harvard U., Theodora Bosanquet collection
  • Hull Central Library, Winifred Holtby collection
  • IWM, women's war work collection
  • NL Wales, D. A. Thomas collection


  • BFINA, documentary footage


  • A. M. Burton, oils, 1932, Trust Houses Forte Ltd, London
  • Bassano, photograph, 1947, NPG [see illus.]
  • S. J. Solomon, oils, Pen Ithon, Radnorshire
  • photographs, Mansell Collection, London
  • A. M. Burton, oils, 1931, Parliamentary Art Collection

Wealth at Death

£85,458 1s.: probate, 12 Aug 1958, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Page of
British Film Institute, London, National Archive
Page of
Harvard University
Page of
G. E. C. [G. E. Cokayne], , 8 vols. (1887–98); new edn, ed. V. Gibbs & others, 14 vols. in 15 (1910–98); microprint repr. (1982) and (1987)
Page of
, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)
Page of
Imperial War Museum, London
Page of
Page of
National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth
Page of
National Portrait Gallery, London