An Autobiography by Catherine Helen Spence - HTML preview

PLEASE NOTE: This is an HTML preview only and some elements such as links or page numbers may be incorrect.
Download the book in PDF, ePub, Kindle for a complete version.

Britain, The Continent, And Home Again

I went by steamer to Glasgow, as I found the fares by that route cheaper than to Liverpool. Municipal work in that city was then attracting world-wide attention, and I enquired into the methods of taxation and the management of public works, much to my advantage. The co-operative works at Shields Hall were another source of interest to me. At Peterborough I stayed with Mr. Hare's daughter, Katie, who had married Canon Clayton. Never before did I breathe such an ecclesiastical atmosphere as in that ancient canonry, part of the old monastery, said to be 600 years old. While there I spoke to the Guild of Co-operative Women on "Australia." In Edinburgh I had a drawing-room meeting at the house of Mrs. Muir Dowie, daughter of Robert Chambers and mother of Minnie Muriel Dowie, who wrote "Through the Carpathians," and another at the Fabian Society, both on effective voting. Mrs. Dowie and Priscilla Bright McLaren, sister of John Bright, were both keen on the suffrage, and most interesting women. I had been so much associated with the suffragists in America, with the veteran Susan B. Anthony at their head, that English workers in the cause gave me a warm welcome.

London under the municipal guidance of the County Council was very different from the London I had visited 29 years earlier. Perhaps Glasgow and Birmingham have gone further in municipalizing monopolies than Londoners have, but the vastness of the scale on which London moves makes it more interesting. Cr. Peter Burt, of Glasgow, had worked hard to add publichouses to the list of things under municipal ownership and regulation, and I have always been glad to see the increasing attention paid to the Scandinavian methods of dealing with the drink traffic. I have deplored the division among temperance workers, which makes the prohibitionists hold aloof from this reform, when their aid would at least enable the experiment to be tried. But in spite of all hindrances the world moves on towards better things. It is not now a voice crying in the wilderness. There are many thousands of wise, brave, devoted men and women possessed with the enthusiasm of humanity in every civilized country, and they must prevail. Professor and Mrs. Westlake, the latter of whom was Mr. Hare's eldest daughter, arranged a most successful drawing-room meeting for me at their home, the River House, Chelsea, at which Mr. Arthur Balfour spoke. While he thought effective voting probably suitable for America and Australia, he scarcely saw the necessity for it in England. Party leaders so seldom do like to try it on themselves, but many of them are prepared to experiment on "the other fellow." In this State we find members of the Assembly anxious to try effective voting on the Legislative Council, Federal members on the State House, and vice versa. Other speakers who supported me were Sir John Lubbock (Lord Avebury), Leonard (now Lord) Courtney, Mr. Westlake, and Sir John Hall, of New Zealand. The flourishing condition of the Proportional Representation Society in England at present is due to the earnestness of the lastnamed gentlemen, and its extremely able hon. secretary (Mr. John H. Humphreys).

A few days were spent with Miss Jane Hume Clapperton, author of "Scientific Meliorism," and we had an interesting time visiting George Eliot's haunts and friends. Through the Warwickshire lanes--where the high hedges and the great trees at regular intervals made it impossible to see anything beyond, except an occasional gate, reminding me of Mrs. Browning's--

And between the hedgerows green, How we wandered--I and you; With the bowery tops shut in, And the gates that showed the view.

--we saw the homestead known as "Mrs. Poyser's Farm," as it answers so perfectly to the description in "Adam Bede." I was taken to see Mrs. Cash, a younger friend of George Eliot, and took tea with two most interesting, old ladies--one 82, and the other 80--who had befriended the famous authoress when she was poor and stood almost alone. How I grudged the thousands of acres of beautiful agricultural land given up to shooting and hunting! We in Australia have no idea of the extent to which field sports enter into the rural life of England. People excused this love of sport to me on the ground that it is as a safety valve for the energy of idle men. Besides, said one, hunting leads, at any rate, to an appreciation of Nature; but I thought it a queer appreciation of Nature that would lead keen fox hunters to complain of the "stinking" violets that throw the hounds off the scent of the fox. I saw Ascot and Epsom, but fortunately not on a race day. A horse race I have never seen. George Moore's realistic novel "Esther Waters" does not overstate the extent to which betting demoralizes not only the wealthier, but all classes. There is a great pauper school in Sutton, where from 1,600 to 1,800 children are reared and educated. On Derby Day the children go to the side of the railroad, and catch the coppers and silver coins thrown to them by the passengers, and these are gathered together to give the children their yearly treat. But this association in the children's minds of their annual pleasure with Derby Day must, I often think, have a demoralizing tendency.

While in London I slipped in trying to avoid being run down by an omnibus and dislocated my right shoulder. I was fortunate in being the guest of Mr. and Mrs. Petherick at the time. I can never be sufficiently grateful to them for their care of and kindness to me. Only last year I went to Melbourne to meet them both again. It was the occasion of the presentation to the Federal Government of the Petherick Library, and I went over to sign and to witness the splendid deed of gift.

I have left almost to the last of the account of my English visit all mention of the Baconians I met and from whom I gained valuable information in corroboration of the Baconian authorship. In some circles I found that, to suggest that Shakspeare did not write the plays and poems was equal to throwing a bombshell among them. As a Baconian I received an invitation to a picnic at the beautiful country house of Mr. Edwin Lawrence, with whom I had a pleasant talk. The house was built on a part of a royal forest, in which firs and pines were planted at the time of the great Napoleonic wars when timber could not be got from the Baltic and England had to trust to her own hearts of oak and her own growth of pine for masts and planks. Mr. Lawrence had written pamphlets and essays on the Baconian theory, and I found my knowledge of the subject expanding and growing under his intelligent talk. His wife's father (J. Benjamin Smith) had taught Cobden the ethics of free trade. It was through the kind liberality of Miss Florence Davenport Hill that a pamphlet, recording the speeches and results of the voting at River House, Chelsea, was printed and circulated. When I visited Miss Hill and her sister and found them as eager for social and political reform as they had been 29 years earlier, I had another proof of the eternal youth which large and high interests keep within us in spite of advancing years. Miss Davenport Hill had been a member of the London School Board for 15 years, and was reelected after I left England. Years of her life had been devoted to work for the children of the State, and she was a member of the Board of Guardians for the populous union of St. Pancras. Everyone acknowledged the great good that the admission of women to those boards had done. I spent a pleasant time at Toynbee Hall, a University centre, in the poorest part of London, founded by men. Canon and Mrs. Barrett were intensely interested in South Australian work for State children. Similar University centres which I visited in America, like Hull House, in Chicago, were founded by women graduates. Mrs. Fawcett I met several times, but Mrs. Garrett Anderson only once. When the suffrage was granted to the women of South Australia I received a letter of congratulation from Dr. Helen Blackburn, one of the first women to take a medical degree. Nowadays women doctors are accepted as part of our daily life, and it is to these brave pioneers of the women's cause, Drs. Elizabeth Blackwell, Helen Rackburn, Garrett Anderson, and other like noble souls, that the social and political prestige of women has advanced so tremendously all over the English-speaking world. It only remains now for a few women, full of the enthusiasm of humanity and gifted with the power of public speaking, to gain another and important step for the womanhood of the world in the direction of economic freedom. Before leaving England I was gratified at receiving a cheque from Mrs. Westlake, contributed by the English proportionalists, to help me in the cause. This was the second gift of the kind I had received, for my friends in San Francisco had already helped me financially on my way to reform. Socially I liked the atmosphere of America better than that of England, but politically England was infinitely more advanced. Steadily and surely a safer democracy seems to be evolving in the old country than in the Transatlantic Republic. I left England at the end of September, 1894.

My intended visit to Paris was cancelled through the death a short time before of the only friend I wished to meet there, the Baroness Blaze-de-Bury, and I went straight through to Bale. I made a detour to Zurich, where I hoped to see people interested in proportional representation who could speak English. An interesting fellow-worker in the cause was Herr Karl Burkli, to whom I suggested the idea of lecturing with ballots. The oldest advocate of proportional representation on the Continent, M. Ernest Naville, I met at Geneva. In that tiny republic in the heart of Europe, which is the home of experimental legislation, I found effective voting already established in four cantons, and the effect in these cantons had been so good (said Ernest Naville) "that it is only a matter of time to see all the Swiss cantons and the Swiss Federation adopt it." In Zurich Herr Burkli was delighted that they had introduced progressive taxation into the canton, but the effect had been to drive away the wealthy people who came in search of quiet and healthy residence. Progressive taxation has not by any means proved the unmixed blessing which so many of its advocates claim it to be. In New Zealand, we are told, on the best authority, that land monopoly and land jobbery were never so rampant in the Dominion as since the introduction of the progressive land tax. One wondered how the three million Swiss people lived on their little territory, so much occupied by barren mountain, and lakes which supply only a few fish. My Zurich friends told me that it was by their unremitting industry and exceptional thrift, but others said that the foreign visitors who go to the recreation ground of Europe circulate so much money that instead of the prayer "Give us this day our daily bread" the Swiss people ask, "Send us this day one foreigner."

In Italy I saw the most intense culture in the world--no pleasure grounds or deer parks for the wealthy. The whole country looked like a garden with trellised vines and laden trees. Italian wine was grown, principally for home consumption, and that was immense. Prohibitionists would speak to deaf ears there. Wine was not a luxury, but a necessity of life. It made the poor fare of dry bread and polenta (maize porridge) go down more pleasantly. It was the greater abundance of fruit and wine that caused the Italian poorer classes to look healthier than the German. In Germany, which taxed itself to give cheap beet sugar to the British consumer, the people paid 6d. a lb. for the little they could afford to use; and in Italy it was nearly 8d.--a source of revenue to the Governments, but prohibitive to the poor. There were no sweet shops in Italy. England only could afford such luxuries. I visited at Siena a home for deaf mutes, and found that each child had wine at two of its daily meals--about a pint a day. It was the light-red wine of the country, with little alcohol in it; but those who warn us against looking on the wine when it is red will be shocked to hear of these little ones drinking it like milk. Those, however, who live in Italy say that not once a year do they see any one drunk in the streets.

I reached South Australia on December 12, 1894, after an absence of 20 months. I found the women's suffrage movement wavering in the balance. It had apparently come with a rush--as unexpected as it was welcome to those whose strenuous exertions at last seemed likely to be crowned with success. Though sympathetic to the cause, I had always been regarded as a weakkneed sister by the real workers. I had failed to see the advantage of having a vote that might leave me after an election a disfranchised voter, instead of an unenfranchised woman. People talk of citizens being disfranchised for the Legislative Council when they really mean that they are unenfranchised. You can scarcely be disfranchised if you have never been enfranchised; and I have regarded the enfranchisement of the people on the roll as more important for the time being than adding new names to the rolls. This would only tend to increase the disproportion between the representative and the represented. But I rejoiced when the Women's Suffrage Bill was carried, for I believe that women have thought more and accepted the responsibilities of voting to a greater extent than was ever expected of them. During the week I was accorded a welcome home in the old Academy of Music, Rundle street, where I listened with embarrassment to the avalanche of eulogium that overwhelmed me. "What a good thing it is, Miss Spence, that you have only one idea," a gentleman once said to me on my country tour. He wished thus to express his feeling concerning my singleness of purpose towards effective voting. But at this welcome home I felt that others realized what I had often said myself. It is really because I have so many ideas for making life better, wiser, and pleasanter all of which effective voting will aid--that I seem so absorbed in the one reform. My opinions on other matters I give for what they are worth--for discussion, for acceptance or rejection. My opinions on equitable representation I hold absolutely, subject to criticism of methods but impregnable as to principle.