Born Louisa Catherine Sowdon. Also known as Louisa Samson / Mrs John Samson.
Sector: General Financial
Louisa Thomson-Price was a journalist, editor, artist and poet, a member of the Council of the Society of Women Journalists and the Journalists’ Advisory Board of the Lyceum Club. She was a political activist and one of the first women to join the Hampstead branch of the Women’s Freedom League (WFL). These aspects of her life are all worthy of more attention and I provide some of the highlights here, but I am focusing on the role she took on as a shareholder activist in her early 50s and the trail she blazed for women on boards.
Louisa’s attitudes were surely shaped by her early childhood. Her mother, Matilda, was born in Plymouth and married Louisa’s father on Jersey in 1860 when she was just 19. Within four years her husband had deserted her and she was left to cope on her own with three children. She filed for divorce in 1865, not a cheap option, so there must have been some money swashing around somewhere. After five more years as a single parent Matilda remarried and had another five children with her second husband, Thomas Caudwell, a commercial traveller.
Louisa must have received a good education because in 1886, aged 22, she published a book, ‘Comic Sketches and Sober Thoughts’. Two years later she married John Samson, a journalist and editor of the South American Journal, 16 years her senior. They lived in Stoke Newington, where Louisa became involved in the North Hackney Women’s Liberal Association. She was a gifted illustrator, providing drawings for books and newspaper features where she signed herself ‘L.S.’. She also edited the official magazine of the Ladies Needlework Guild, the Spinning Wheel for four years. The Guild had over 100,000 members and the weekly ‘penny paper’ was highly regarded for its literary content, positioning itself as The Queen in miniature.
In 1897, Louisa and John were living on Fitzroy Road in Primrose Hill, where Louisa hosted the wedding breakfast for one of her half-sisters, Jessie, in September. Jessie was also a writer and artist, signing her work ‘Jess C’ and her marriage to another magazine editor, Stanhope Sprigg, made for a wedding of ‘some interest in literary and art circles.’ Two of their children, Christopher and Theodore, also became authors.
By 1899, Louis and John had moved to Parkhill Road in Hampstead, the area where Louisa remained based for the rest of her life. Louisa wanted to register this address in her own name so that she could pay the rates and as a result be placed on the role of local electors. She was eventually successful and penned a letter to the local paper to inform other women of the precedent she had set, even it had been at the cost of ‘almost endless correspondence and many hours of valuable time, which, as a busy journalist I could ill spare, to say nothing of solicitor’s fees etc.’
John died in 1905 and in 1907 Louisa married George Thomson-Price and changed her name again. George moved in with her to the house she had shared with John. The information on him is scanty but he was clearly very supportive of Louisa’s commitment to the cause of women’s suffrage: he won a competition to see who could spend most on items sold by advertisers in The Vote, the official newspaper of the Women’s Freedom League, in 1910.
Louisa became a director of Minerva Publishing, which published The Vote, alongside Edith How-Martin, Charlotte Despard and Mollie, Countess Russell. She took every opportunity to campaign for the cause, designed a special W.F.L. hat and wrote a chapter on Women’s Suffrage in ‘Women’s War Work’, edited by Jennie Randolph-Churchill and published in January 1916. She was a member of the Women’s Tax Resistance League and had her goods seized and sold at auction for non-payment of taxes. She also pushed for men to be allowed to join the League on equal terms.
It was towards the end of 1915 that Louisa’s shareholder activism started attracting attention. Twenty years earlier, The Gentlewoman reported that women appearing at AGMs were viewed with suspicion: ‘the appearance of lady shareholders upon the scene is generally taken to mean that..things have got pretty nearly as bad as they can be. The fact of her presence at the meeting is sufficient to indicate that she possesses a tongue and knows particularly well how to use it.’ (3/6/1893). Louisa had a sharp tongue, a good brain and a thick skin: a triple threat or a triple benefit depending on whether you were a hapless CEO or a frustrated shareholder.
Louisa’s first target in her portfolio was Slaters, a food business that floated in 1889 and now had both food stores and branded restaurants in its portfolio. It had grown significantly in terms of its operations, but was in some disarray from a financial and governance perspective. She pushed for a Committee for Investigations to be set up, and to be on it. When its report was presented in December 1915, the Chair refused to vacate his position and a trip to court in March was needed to implement a new governance structure. Four new directors were appointed, including Louisa, though several reports at the time say all four were men and one refers to her as Mr Thomson Price.
In June of that year, George died, Although mourning her husband, Louisa stayed focused on the improvement agenda at Slaters. At the board meeting in December 1916, she shared that one economy ‘which should have been put into place twenty years ago’ had already released c.£100k (equivalent). She supervised the buying, created new colour schemes for the restaurants and brought in new uniforms for the waitresses. She promoted increasing the vegetarian options available and reducing food waste, still topical issues today.
In 1917, Louisa was made a director of S. Hildesheimer and Co, an arts publishing business now best known for its postcards which can still be found on eBay. Again she was the only woman on the Board, and by 1925 was Vice Chair. Even where she did not have a board position, she was a regular attendee at shareholder meetings. In June 1920, she attended the AGM for Ebbw Vale Steel Iron and Coal, one of a small number of women in the room. She stood up to make a proposal that it should be easier for some its 34,000 employees to become shareholders: ‘quite a few companies have arranged for their employees to be paid a certain commission on their earnings, such commission to be translated at the end of the year into shareholdings… I think such a scheme would be very valuable one.’
The Chairman replied with a couple of thinly-veiled ‘jokes’ about women taking charge to general laughter and stated that ‘anything worth having is worth paying for and if workpeople want to be shareholders in public companies they must do as you and I do – start in and buy the shares and take their chance’. He was Frederick Mills and six months later on 1st January 1921 he was made a baronet. Given the economic downturn and mass unemployment that was coming, being a shareholder would have been at the bottom of the priority list for any colliery workers and let’s hope Louisa sold her shares after that particular run-in.
In 1922, unhappy with the performance of her holding in the Smithfield and Argentine Meat Company, which had not paid a dividend the previous year, Louisa agitated for an investigation and finally got her way. A committee was finally set up, which she headed, and after ‘four months of hard labour’, brought a damning report and a series of recommendations to the Board in November 1922. She was promptly added to the Board. In this case, however, it seems to have little effect: seven years later the company was yet to restart its payments.
Alongside these business activities, Louisa was also a Governor of the Universal Cookery and Food Association, set up in 1885 to broaden the understanding of available foods and how to cook them. At their exhibition in 1889, opened by Angela Burdett-Coutts, a wide variety of cooked and uncooked food was on display ‘from turtles (!) to sterilised milk..from wedding cakes to breakfast rolls.’ In 1905, they had a splendid 20th anniversary celebration: it is highly unlikely that Louisa was involved then but I can’t resist sharing the details.
Source: New York Public Library
Any money raised from the annual exhibitions went towards free cookery lessons, developing low-cost recipes and providing scholarships for training. Louisa also enjoyed making a more direct contribution to fund-raising: she could be relied upon to perform ‘psychic delineations’ at the WFL’s annual Green, White and Gold Fairs (reflecting their campaigning colours).
The Vote followed Louisa’s activities with interest but made the mistake of repeating in their 22nd June issue a story that had been printed in a daily newspaper about Louisa’s exploits, including the errors. Louisa was quick to take the editor to task: ‘My name is not “Mrs Samson-Price” and I did not “join” the Board of the Company.. in order “to be of service to the men Directors”..[but] in the interests of shareholders.. [and] I was unanimously elected..as one of the Directors. This, I think, you will agree, is not quite the same thing as “joining” or being co-opted..’ Quite!
In May 1925, the Chair of Slaters, William Catesby, died and Louisa, now Vice Chair, replaced him. ‘Woman as Chairman of Company’, shouted the headlines nearly 100 years ago. It was as noteworthy then as it is now. Louisa had less than a year to enjoy this position, dying on 14th June 1926, a much mourned ‘splendid colleague’. She left the equivalent of over £2m in her will.
What would Louisa think if she saw the composition of the boards now? She might wonder why the percentage of women on FTSE 100 boards in 1999 was only 7% but pleased to see it was now standing at 34.5%. She would be sure to highlight that only eight FTSE 100 companies have a woman chairing the Board and she would be pushing for more BAME board members, men and women. And she would be horrified at a survey by King’s College that found 33% of women at board or executive level reported being on the receiving end of disrespectful or insulting remarks compared to 13% of men.
So there is still lots of room for improvement, in the FTSE 350 and beyond: schools, chariteis and the sports sector all want more diverse board. If you want to be part of the continued drive for change, Women on Boards, Getting on Board and Inclusive Boards are three great places to start.
Sources: Despite Louisa pulling them up on their sloppy reporting, The Vote has been an valuable source, particularly issues dated 22/5/1914, 15/5/25, 16/7/26 and without its assiduous reporting of Louisa’s varied achievements, she probably would be lost to history. In addition: The Gentlewoman 18/8/1897; Hampstead and Highgate Express 7/10/1899; Daily Telegraph 11/3/1916; Birmingham Daily Post 30/12/1916; The Globe 17/6/1920; The Argentine Refrigerated Meat Industry by E.G. Jones (1929) Economica No.26 P.156-172.