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A woman for all seasons – Georgiana Burne-Jones

Frederick_Hollyer_portrait_of_Georgiana_Burne-Jones_c1882Steve Williams has written an account of the political activity of the remarkable Georgiana Burne-Jones in Rottingdean, near Brighton, from her arrival there in 1880 until her death in 1920. Here Peter Willsman who worked with Steve at the head office of public sector union NUPE (now part of Unison) has digested his account together with material from William Morris to assemble the following summary for readers.

Georgiana (née MacDonald) was married to the artist Sir Edward Burne-Jones. Edward (just plain Ted Jones at this time) and William Morris were students and best friends at Exeter College, Oxford in the 1850s. A number of the Oxford colleges have stained glass windows designed by Morris and Burne-Jones and, of course, there are the ceiling murals in Oxford Union Library which was the outcome of a collaborative effort of the two men and their friends led by the established pre-Raphaelite artist, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Through Edward, Georgiana grew close to Morris and they remained mutual confidants until Morris’s death in 1896. A friend once remarked that between them there was a ‘spiritual affinity’.

Searching for a retreat from their busy London lives, Edward and Georgiana bought a small house in Rottingdean in 1880, and soon established reputations in the village as independent minded and supportive of local charities. However, it wasn’t until 1894, following the reform of local government, that Georgiana’s emerging political awareness and activity was put into practice when she stood successfully for the newly created Rottingdean Parish Council. The sleepy village witnessed an explosion of local democracy. There were effectively two slates, the progressives and the local establishment. As we might expect, the latter accused the former of ‘bringing party politics into the village’. Georgiana held meetings, knocked on doors, and circulated an Open Letter to the Electors of Rottingdean, which impressed Morris. The Brighton Argus reported that “the contest has excited the greatest interest in the village. Poems and pamphlets were flying about in all directions, and considerable feeling was manifest on both sides.” After a 79 per cent turnout, eight progressives, including Georgiana, were elected while the establishment side only mustered three successful candidates. Among those defeated from the establishment side were a baronet, a retired colonel of the Indian army and a clergyman. Morris, although not convinced of electoral politics as a way of advancing the socialist cause, congratulated Georgiana on her victory.

The stated priorities of the first Rottingdean Parish Council were close to those set down by the Fabian Society in 1894 emphasising improved public health, provision of libraries and reading rooms, regulating local charities and encouraging allotments. Despite Georgiana’s zeal and that of the Parish Council’s chairman, E.A. Ridsdale, who went on to become Liberal MP in Brighton, the progressives found it difficult to implement electoral promises because of opposition from those with vested interests who resented the passing of the old parochial arrangements which had guaranteed their eminence. In one example of this unchecked arrogance, a landowner and his tenant farmer had colluded in 1889 to enclose waste land across which villagers had walked for centuries. The Parish Council objected to this at its opening meeting and attempted to secure legal redress through the more powerful District and County Councils only to be stymied by delay and then a loss of the progressive majority in 1896. Nonetheless, Georgiana kept up her personal crusade against the enclosure conducting an annual personal trespass which was met by the farmer’s wife soaking her in water jets.

Georgiana was saddened by these political setbacks but redoubled her efforts to encourage working people of the village to participate in decision making. She was behind the formation of a village based credit society based on co-operative principles and she made a special appeal to working women to voice their aspirations, especially on public health and housing matters.

(this digest will be concluded next week)

Image credit: photograph of Georgiana Burne-Jones c1882 by Frederick Hollyer in public domain

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