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date: 07 October 2022

Kensington Societyfree

(act. 1865–1868)

Kensington Societyfree

(act. 1865–1868)
  • Ann Dingsdale

Kensington Society (act. 1865–1868), was a discussion society where issues of common interest were debated among women who had already campaigned separately for women's rights in marriage, education, and work, and who would go on to organize, and eventually achieve, women's suffrage, higher education, and property rights in marriage. Meeting at 44 Phillimore Gardens, the Kensington home of its president, Charlotte Manning, the society flourished between March 1865 and spring 1868.

Membership was by personal invitation. The secretary, Emily Davies, brought together women 'having more or less common interests and aims' (Girton College, Emily Davies papers, family chronicle). Many were already friends, or were relatives of members, like Charlotte Manning's stepdaughter, Adelaide Manning. Others had been involved in the English Woman's Journal and other enterprises at Langham Place, and had supported the campaign organized by Emily Davies to open the Cambridge University local examinations to girls in 1864. Some met and shared ideas at the society for the first time.

The object of the society was (as Emily Davies described it to a friend) 'to serve as a sort of link between persons, above the average of thoughtfulness and intelligence who are interested in common subjects, but who have not many opportunities of mutual intercourse' (Alice Westlake to Helen Taylor, 20 March 1865, BLPES, Mill Taylor papers, vol. 14, 103). The annual subscription was half a crown. Questions for debate were issued four times a year and members might speak at meetings or submit written answers. Corresponding members submitted papers that were discussed by those who could attend (and who paid a further half-crown for that privilege). By conducting its debates in a private arena, with apparently unminuted discussions, the society encouraged a frank exchange of views.

Nearly one half of the sixty-eight members spent some period of their lives in paid employment. Dorothea Beale and Frances Mary Buss were headmistresses of large girls' schools. Mary Eliza Porter, Elizabeth Wolstenholme [see Elmy, Elizabeth Clarke Wolstenholme], and Emily Harrison (b. 1838) kept private schools. Writers included Annie Keary and her sister Eliza Keary, and the journalists Frances Power Cobbe, Sophia Dobson Collet, Adelaide Manning, and the poet Isa [see Knox, Isabella], who edited the English Woman's Journal. Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon was a professional artist.

Several members were connected with politicians and thinkers of the day. Helen Taylor was the daughter of Harriet Taylor Mill and stepdaughter of John Stuart Mill, who had recently become an MP. She was invited to join the society by Katherine Hare (1843–1933), a daughter of the political reformer Thomas Hare. Katherine's sister Alice Westlake (1840–1923) also was a member. The husband of Emma Fitch, Joshua Girling Fitch, had supported earlier campaigns for women's education, and Emelia Gurney was the wife of Russell Gurney MP, who supported the Married Women's Property Bill. Fanny Heaton (1828–1893), wife of the Leeds civic leader John Deakin Heaton and sister-in-law of the art patron Ellen Heaton, came into contact with Emily Davies through the movement to open examinations to girls. Those who had experience of campaigning and even public speaking included Jessie Boucherett, Jane Crowe (b. 1832), and Gertrude King (b. 1834), all three of whom were associated with the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women, an enterprise associated with the Langham Place group. Lavinia Solly (1803–1871) of Clifton (probably a relative of Charlotte Manning) was one of several members of the society to have presented papers at the annual meetings of the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science.

The Kensington Society had strong connections with Bedford College and Queen's College, Harley Street, the London institutions for the higher education of women. There was an older generation of women, some of whom had been active in the anti-slavery movement, who had set up or supported these colleges by voluntary effort, as well as younger recent students. Nine members had been staff or students of Bedford College, including the lady resident, Frances Martin, and a trustee, Elizabeth Anne Bostock, and the past students Annette Susannah Akroyd [see Beveridge, Annette Susannah], Anna Swanwick, and Mary Ellen Nichols. The latter was a corresponding member from Petersfield, Hants., who worked as a daily governess and taught her brothers at home (Ellen Nichols to Annette Akroyd, [1865], BL OIOC, Beveridge papers, MS Eur. C. 176). The society also included women who were seeking to become doctors: Elizabeth Garrett [see Anderson, Elizabeth Garrett], who was the first woman to qualify in England, and two members of the Edinburgh Seven, who attempted to obtain medical education at Edinburgh University, Sophia Jex-Blake and Emily Bovell [see Sturge, Emily Bovell].

Members of the Kensington Society were united by the opportunity to debate issues in a private, yet formal, setting, and to ‘network’ with women who were eager for change. Practice in formal debating also built confidence for future public speaking. Typical of the range of questions discussed were 'What are the tests of originality?', 'Is it desirable to employ emulation as a stimulus to education?' and 'What form of government is most favourable to women?'—the last submitted by Jessie Boucherett. Between 1865 and 1866 seven members of the society (Frances Buss, Dorothea Beale, Emily Davies, Gertrude King, Frances Martin, Mary Eliza Porter, and Elizabeth Wolstenholme) gave evidence to the schools inquiry (Taunton) commission, and were among the first women to appear in person before a royal commission as expert witnesses. The transcripts display a confidence in expressing their views that belies the nervousness they recorded privately to each other.

The lasting achievement of the Kensington Society was the collection and delivery, on 7 June 1866, of a petition to parliament demanding women's suffrage. In November 1865 the question was debated: 'Is the extension of parliamentary suffrage to women desirable, and if so, under what conditions?' Of the five papers put forward, Emily Davies judged Barbara Bodichon's as furnishing the best basis for discussion, though she suggested some modifications: 'I don't think it quite does to call the arguments on the other side “foolish” … I should not mind saying a few indignant things at the meeting, but these papers travel about the country and go into families, where they may be read by prejudiced men' (Stephen, 108). As parliament debated the Reform Bill in 1866 members of the Kensington Society drew on their networks of friendship and shared experience to collect 1499 women's signatures. A young member, Harriet Cook (1843–1869), was employed as paid secretary. Twenty-nine members of the society were among the signatories, though among those members who did not sign were the headmistresses Dorothea Beale and Mary Eliza Porter, and the governess Mary Ellen Nichols. The list of names and addresses was distributed to press and MPs for publicity. Despite the suggestion being ridiculed in parliament, the links formed by the petition became the basis for the earliest women's suffrage societies.

The emergence of such more formal, specialized societies as the London Association of Schoolmistresses, and the early suffrage societies which included influential male supporters, tended to draw away members and supersede the Kensington Society, which was dissolved early in 1868. Contacts made through the Kensington Society nevertheless continued to prove significant in support of such causes as medical education for women, Girton College, the Girl's Public Day School Company, the attacks on the Contagious Diseases Acts, anti-vivisection, school board membership for women, and the National Indian Association among others.


  • A. Dingsdale, ‘Generous and lofty sympathies: the Kensington Society, the 1866 Women's Suffrage Petition and the development of mid-Victorian feminism’, PhD diss., Greenwich U., 1995
  • Kensington Society archive, Emily Davies papers, Girton Cam.
  • E. Crawford, The women's suffrage movement: a reference guide, 1866–1928 (1999)
  • B. Stephen, Emily Davies and Girton College (1927)
  • A. Rosen, ‘Emily Davies and the women's movement’, Journal of British Studies, 19/1 (1979–80), 101–21
  • P. Levine, Feminist lives in Victorian England: private roles and public commitment (1990)
  • J. Rendall, ‘The citizenship of women and the Reform Act of 1867’, Defining the Victorian nation: class, race, gender and the British Reform Act of 1867, ed. C. Hall, K. McClelland, and J. Rendall (2000)
  • O. R. McGregor, L. Goldman, and S. White, eds., ‘Catalogue of the published papers of the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science, 1857–1886’,, accessed 31 Aug 2006


  • Girton, Cam.
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Girton College, Cambridge