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Women of Waterloo and Lambeth #3

In this weekly series, we are featuring prominent women in our local community, both throughout history and those shaping our world today.

We asked Lorraine Spenceley, from the Creative Curve Theatre Company, to write a set of fictional monologues which give a little insight into women's roles in Waterloo. Today, we meet Emma Cons (1838 - 1912), a social reformer and leading figure in the suffragette movement.

1897 - Scanned from The Idler (p. 325)


written by Lorraine Spenceley

A middle-aged woman who possesses determination and strength. She has a passionate sense of right and social justice. All she wants is to make people happy.

Emma is sitting in her parlour room drinking tea and reflecting on her life.


(Emma enters with a small tray with a tea pot, milk etc and put the tray on a small table) The stench was over whelming, a mixture of excrement, unwashed bodies, death and of course gin.I was young and immeasurably naive when Octavia asked me to help her manage the houses Ruskin had purchased.I can still smell the stench as I sit here today.Those slums were an urban gutter of disease, starvation, overcrowding, poverty and crime.Women would sell themselves for two - penny worth of gin while their children starved and drank sewage-infused drinking water. (Emma sets out her tea things and sits down).

From that moment, I dedicated myself to the betterment of the working classes in particular the lot of women and teetotalism. Ruskin and several like minded men had bought the worst slums with a view to improving conditions. But I knew one had to improve the minds of the working classes as well. Improve the mind and one improves expectations, improve expectations and one improves the living conditions. But before all this, conquer that insidious enemy – gin!

(Emma pours herself a cup of tea)

But, how to do this? Where to start?With the help of several wealthy friends I formed the Coffee Taverns Company.In the poorer parts of London, these establishments were set up so that men and women could take their leisure away from the temptation of strong drink.

(Emma pours milk into her tea)

Next, there were the Music Halls! Dens of vice! In Lambeth there was a music hall with a particularly bad reputation. No easy task to light the way from vice to art! I was determined the Old Vic would be a cheap and decent place of amusement on strict temperance lines. Even now, my young niece, Lilian, fills the theatre with Shakespeare and the very best actors. The dressing rooms, when the actors are not preparing for the stage, are used for education – reading, writing even science.

(Emma spoons sugar into her tea)

I am aware people look at me and say that “it was easy for her, she is privileged”. But that’s not so my father was ill and I had to work. The opportunities for a young girl to earn a living, support her family and stay respectable are few. Ruskin employed me restoring manuscripts but that was not enough and I needed to earn a decent living. The opportunity to work as a watch engraver and a stained glass designer presented itself, but the men resented me working with them and forced me to leave. This experience kindled an interest in women's suffrage but never committed myself to the cause until much later.

(Emma drinks her cup of tea)

Years later, I was asked to be an alderman on the London County Council – the first woman! I could be on the Council but not vote on Council issues. A position without power! Women work, pay taxes, support their families but have no say on the matters that concern them. Without the vote women are nothing but decoration and cheap labour. The moment the aldermen told me I couldn’t vote, I became a committed supporter of women’s suffrage.

(Emma begins to clear away the tea cup, milk jug, etc)

Strange to think (Emma pauses to think) there have been so many pivotal moments which have changed the course of my life... all I ever wanted was to help people attain a better life... to make people happy.

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