Beatrice Gordon Holmes (1884-1951)

Sector: Financial Services

Beatrice Gordon Holmes (1884-1951) was the original Working Girl, making the leap from secretary to deal-maker seventy years before Melanie Griffith chopped off her hair and gate-crashed a wedding with Harrison Ford. Gordon, as she was generally known, was not the first woman to run a trading business in London but hers was the biggest financial services success story of the first half of the 20th century. A self-made woman, who prided herself on never having had a sixpence she hadn’t earned, she was not only a pioneer in her professional life, she was also an early advocate for better mental health services and established an organisation of working women that still thrives today.

Beatrice Gordon Holmes (1884-1951) financier and founder of the National Federation of Business and Professional Women in the UK.
Gordon Holmes, from her book ‘In Love with Life’, published 1944.

Gordon’s life from the age of twenty was ‘glamorous’ and ‘romantic’ but she had a difficult, cash-strapped childhood. She was born in London in 1884, the only girl in a family of three other boys (one her fraternal twin) and was brought up in a home where ‘the masculine tradition ruled rampant.’ Her father was an Irish doctor specialising in throat and ear conditions with a ‘morose disposition and violent temper’, who would rather have been an academic and was reluctant to turn up to his surgery for more than a couple of hours a day.

Unfortunately, he was unable to adjust his standards of living to match the income he was generating and Gordon’s South African-born mother was left trying to manage a stretched household budget, home-schooling each child until the age of 11 as well as cooking their meals and making their clothes.  When Gordon finally started school, she was in and out of the cheapest places her father could find, badly dressed and relentlessly teased, until she finished her formal education at the age of fourteen and found herself back at home, helping out her mother.

Gordon was clearly very smart, often winning class prizes at the end of terms she managed to complete. When she was in her early 20s, her mother’s sister and her husband moved to London for a couple of years and Gordon’s uncle introduced her to maths and science, pronouncing that his niece had a brilliant mathematical mind.  Up until then, she had continued to teach herself, getting up early to read Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill, immersing herself in Henry James and Olive Schreiner, or sometimes just staring at the New York skyline on the cover of Harper’s Magazine and wishing she was on the other side of the ocean. 

Starting at the bottom
Bored at home, Gordon finally persuaded her father to pay for a shorthand and typing course. Aged 19 and after a few false starts, she got a job in March 1904 in the London office of a Danish company that exported eggs, earning £1 a week. She learned about wholesale trading from listening to and then occasionally practising sales negotiations and by the time she left, eight years later, she was effectively managing the team of sales agents. They might have thought their instructions were coming from the boss, but they were really being written by the secretary.

She was also an early member of the Association of Shorthand Writers and Typists, one of the earliest trade unions. It was her first experience of both female solidarity and fund-raising.  Sidney Webb was president and speakers at their meetings included Emily Janes, organising secretary of the National Union of Women Workers, and George Bernard Shaw, who told them that all women working for a living ought to be trade unionists first, suffragists second and Socialists third. The Association was small, numbering around 200 members by 1910, but included Elizabeth Baker, whose 1909 play, ‘Chains’, about clerical workers was revived in 2007 by the Orange Tree Theatre.  Gordon became a published author herself in 1907, with a forgettable novel published under the name G.H. Breda.

Gordon’s other major interest was the Women’s Social and Political Union.  She sold newspapers, attended meetings, donated money and provided accommodation for other women who were travelling to London for the parades. ‘That Suffragette movement helped to make women of my generation’, she later reflected. ‘It taught us to value ourselves and our abilities and taught us to fight for those valuations in terms of pay and responsibility, public and private.’  The memory of that sense of excitement, of a new world opening up, stayed with her for the rest of her life and in the late 1920s, when she heard that Emmeline Pankhurst was in financial difficulty, she (anonymously) provided a small annuity to help her out. 

The move to finance
In 1912, aged 28, Gordon made a decision that set her on a new course. Wanting a pay rise, she took a job for with William Thorold, who ran a merchant bank on Lombard Street, specialising in arranging and underwriting new share issues by Canadian and American companies. He had a reputation as the most difficult man in the City to work for and of the 8½ years Gordon worked for him ‘the first 5½ were among the most stimulating of my business life, and the other 3 years plain unmitigated hell.’ A key issue was his attitude towards women whom he believed ‘incapable of understanding financial matters’, words that would come back to haunt him. The Company Secretary was a totally different proposition. Richard Sefton Turner (1887-1957) was slightly younger than Gordon, aged 25, a man with ‘a first-class brain, a most disarming personality and..a knowledge of the intricate technicalities of finance.’ He and Gordon trusted and liked one another.

When war broke out two years later, Thorold returned to Canada and Turner went to war. Gordon was left running the business, selling hundreds and thousands of pounds of War Loans.  She was hard at work on the morning of Saturday 7th July, 1917 when the Germans launched a raid on central London. Everyone was so surprised to see the enemy aircraft flying over in their V formation, the first time many of them had even seen a plane, that they crowded on to balconies to watch. Then, before incredulous eyes, the first bombs fell and ‘we scrambled down five flights of stairs like bolting rabbits.’

Thorold eventually returned to London later in 1917 and Gordon’s working relationship with him became ever more fractious. In 1918, when she was off work for two months with a combination of appendicitis and exhaustion, he questioned how useful she really was. They had another huge row and she resigned.

The importance of mental wellbeing
Gordon went down to Brighton to recover and it was there that she met Dr. Helen Boyle (1869-1957), a pioneer in the field of mental health. Born in Dublin, Helen trained in London, Scotland and Belgium and then worked in Canning Town, where she decided to specialise in preventative action for women in the early stages of mental illness. In 1897 she relocated to Brighton to work as a G.P. and in 1905 founded the Lady Chichester Hospital for Women with Nervous Diseases, the first hospital of its kind in the country.

Dr Helen Boyle (1869-1957), pioneer in the field of mental health
Dr. Helen Boyle c.1890s

Gordon soon realised that ‘she was the most remarkable person I had ever met in my life’ and they quickly developed ‘a close friendship’ that lasted until Gordon’s death. Gordon was keen to support Helen’s work and she stayed with her in Brighton for a while, helping her to raise funds for the hospital and continuing to act as the hospital’s financial advisor for over 25 years. In 1922, Helen founded the National Council for Mental Hygiene with Sir Maurice Craig (which later became the National Council for Mental Health) and Gordon joined the Executive Committee. Then in 1939, Helen became President of the Royal Medico-Psychological Association.

Gordon was one of the few business women of this period to write her autobiography, published in 1944 and dedicated to Helen. Its title, ‘In Love with Life’, signals the predominant tone, a slightly breathless gallop through an action-packed life that accentuates the positives. However, while she deals lightly with the challenges of being a woman in a man’s world and says nothing about any prejudices she might have faced for loving women rather than men, she is unusually honest about her struggles to cope with depression, ‘black or grey periods ..overwhelming in their utter unrelieved misery’ and the terror of wondering if she would ever be able to go back to work.

Gordon made many fund-raising speeches in support of Helen’s work, which gave her plenty of opportunity to refine her thinking and this is reflected in a four-page ‘little homily’ that still resonates today. She clearly draws on her own experience, whether she is writing about the pain caused by feeling like a square peg in a round hole, the desperation felt by the suicidal or the importance of healthy levels of self-esteem. She makes a plea for the proper provision of mental health services in schools and the judicial system and stresses the mental health ramifications of economic insecurity and unemployment. She is authentic, she shows vulnerability, she is moving. If this is how she spoke, it is little surprise that donors got out their cheque books.

Striking out
When Gordon eventually returned to London, she and Thorold somehow managed to patch up their quarrel and she went back to work for him. She remained deeply unhappy but distracted herself by starting an occasional column for the Graphic, ‘Finance for Women’, which first appeared on 13th December 1919. However, in 1920, her old boss from the egg importers, Mr Ravens, suggested a more permanent solution. He offered to fund her in setting up her own business and started finding other investors. Richard Sefton Turner had survived the war and was also back at Thorold’s: he and Gordon agreed to form a partnership. In 1921, National Securities Corporation became the new kid on the block, the grand title somewhat at odds with the set up, with just the pair of them and in a couple of rooms with two typists. However the business soon took off, employing 140 people at its height.

When Gordon and Turner resigned from their jobs with Thorold, he turned down their offer to buy his British business. Seven years later, as the stock markets slumped, he came begging. Revenge was not something Gordon had sought and the experience of seeing Thorold pale-faced and desperate was far from sweet but she was glad to regain control of the business she had nursed through the war, even if it was now no longer in such a healthy state. 

A new sisterhood
On Thursday 12th June, 1924, Lady Falmouth introduced a new recruit to the Greater London Soroptimists. At Gordon’s first lunch she listened to Lord Leverhulme tell the room “if you have any successful business anywhere, cherchez la femme!” ‘For the first time I found myself mixing with other business women,’ she later wrote. ‘I had been so long a lone figure in the City..that I received a shock of happy surprise at finding myself surrounded by women who had pioneered as successfully in other directions of trade and commerce and the professions and public life as I had in finance.’ Three months later it was Gordon’s turn to provide the lunchtime entertainment at the Criterion. She laid out her journey from typist to business owner with an income running ‘well into four figures’, and urged women to consider a career in finance if they wanted economic independence.

The press loved it: when Gordon got home she found reporters camped out on her doorstep and from that point her profile started to rise. She did a radio interview in January 1925 on ‘Finance as a Career for Women’, wrote an article for Good Housekeeping in November on ‘Stockbroking and Finance’ and spoke at the dinner of Women’s Advertising Club of London in February 1926. By then the business was employing eighty girls. ‘I am very enthusiastic about girls in business, she told the assembled group. ‘They are so loyal and hardworking.’ A year later she was back at the top table in ‘coffee-coloured georgette and a string of immense pearls’ when David Lloyd George addressed the room. The press asked her views on everything from whether secretaries should wear short sleeves at work to her ideas for improving the customer experience in Post Offices and she made more headlines that year when she became a director of the City Savings Bank of Budapest, the only woman bank director in Hungary.

Living large
As business boomed in the mid to late 1920s, Gordon was regularly taking home the equivalent of £300,000 a year and enjoyed spending (some of) it. Scarred by the memories of her unfashionable childhood outfits, she now tended towards ensembles in silver greys, beige and cream, accessorised with matching fox furs, She was 5’9″ tall and cut a striking figure as she walked through the City. She eventually ended up living in Bedford Park, the prototype for later garden cities and suburbs developed in Chiswick in the 1870s by Jonathan Carr. In her last house at 9, Queen Anne’s Gardens, she installed central heating, hot and cold running water, rose-coloured carpets and heated glass towel rails. By now her mother was living with her, dependent on Gordon financially and emotionally, a difficult relationship to manage. 

Gordon loved going to the theatre when she was in London but her true passion was for travel. When she was 17 her mother had scraped together enough money for a trip to Bruges, and before she started work for Thorold she made her first trop to the United States, a country she fell in love with and to which she regularly returned. Now she was travelling for both work and fun. Her work trips took her to central and eastern Europe – Hungary, Romania and what was then Yugoslavia. She travelled to Geneva in 1929 for the League of Nations and to Russia in 1935 to see their mental health services. Way before Easyjet, she was an advocate for the weekend getaway, making 17 short trips to France, the Netherlands and Belgium in 1933 alone. Further-flung destinations included Turkey, Egypt and Morocco. She couldn’t drive so when she travelled by car she was chauffeured around by attractive young women ‘almost from the Sahara to the Arctic Circle’. Her train journeys were on the Orient Express and when she crossed the oceans in was in a luxurious first-class cabin.

One of her occasional travelling companions was Lilian Baylis (1874-1937). Lilian’s parents had emigrated to South Africa when she was 16 and there they had got to know some of Gordon’s mother’s family. When in her early 20’s Lilian made a trip to London, the 12-year old Gordon had met her a few times at the house of her aunt, Emma Cons, in Kennington and been taken by them to a Saturday night music hall show at the Old Vic. The age gap at that point meant they had not stayed in touch but they reconnected in the late 1920s and became close friends. Lilian introduced Gordon to the ballet and occasionally joined her and her mother for trips over to Europe. In 1927, when the company from the Old Vic de-camped to the Lyric Hammersmith so the theatre could be re-furbished, she would have supper with Gordon and her mother once a week in Chiswick.

The Federation of Business and Professional Women
In 1936, Gordon was invited to Paris by lawyer and activist Dr Lena Madesin Phillips (1881-1955) to speak on ‘Women in Finance’ at the 2nd Congress of the International Federation of Business and Professional Women in Paris. Madesin Phillips had founded a National Federation in the United States in 1919 and decided to create an international organisation in 1930. Lilian Baylis had also been asked to speak about ‘Women in Theatre Management’ and they travelled over together in late July.

Lena Madesin Phillips (c) Encyclopaedia Britannica

They joined an illustrious group of women including: Caroline Haslett, the photographer Yevonde Middleton, the barrister Helena Normanton and the M.P. Irene Ward from the UK; Frances Perkins, the U.S. Secretary of Labour; and the Czech feminist and activist Františka Plamínková.

Topics on the agenda included equal pay for equal work, increased participation in Government and abolition of sex labels in professional occupations. ‘We don’t want to be known as women chemists, women artists and women teachers,’ said Dorothy Evans. ‘We are chemists, artists and teachers and we have the right to the salaries appropriate to those professions’. French women still did not have the vote and so the conference was made even livelier by verbal protests and women chaining themselves to their chairs.

Gordon was totally inspired both by this organised group with a clear agenda for change, which took her back to her suffragette days, and by the ‘highly magnetic’ Lena. Rather than staying in Paris for two days and carrying on to Amsterdam as she had planned, she remained in Paris for the conference and then stayed on for further meetings. She immediately volunteered to help deal with some of the financial challenges they faced, becoming Finance Chairman of the International Federation.

At this point, there was no National Federation in the UK. A proposal was made to the Soroptimists that they take on this role, but this was rejected at their national conference in 1937. In 1938, Gordon decided to do it herself. A brilliant young American lawyer, Zonola Longstreth (1903-1972), came over to help get things going. In her southern drawl, she announced she had come to bust eight myths:

  1. Women work for spending money, not of necessity
  2. Women stay in business only until they get married
  3. Women lose more time through sickness than men
  4. Women not have to support others
  5. Women are handicapped in their business or profession by having to take care of a home
  6. Women are too emotional to hold an executive job
  7. Women are not as well qualified for the jobs as men
  8. Women are not fitted for government positions

‘If anyone can prove those statements are true’, Zonola added, ‘we want to start correcting the conditions that breed them.’ More than seventy years later, a few of these remain sadly sticky, particularly if you swap the words ‘married, ‘sickness’ and ‘home’ for children, highlighting how hard it can be and how long it can take to change the systems within which we live and work.

Gordon and Zonola started with just three clubs, Westminster, City of London and Thames. On 30th November 1938, forty members from these clubs met to agree to form a National Federation, with Gordon as President, a role she retained until 1947. Phyllis Deakin, journalist and later founder of the Women’s Press Club, was honorary secretary and Margaret Lappage was treasurer. Margaret’s sister, Dorothy (later Hall) was also at the meeting and later took on the full-time role of secretary. Another key player in these early days was Marjorie Hayward, who worked for ICI and introduced Elsa Schiaparelli to the zip or, (as it was initially called, ‘the lightning fastener’). When war broke out and Zonola returned to the US, Nancy Anderson, a former school-teacher from Newcastle took over the role of recruitment and worked tirelessly to encourage women in towns up and down the country to set up their own clubs.

Gordon was still committed to her business and her partnership with Richard Sefton Turner. In late 1936, Sir Archibald Bodkin, former Director of Public Prosecutions, chaired a committee to look into share pushing and the role of finance houses that operated without being members of a Stock Exchange. Since Dublin was the only Stock Exchange at this point that allowed women members, changing the rules around registration, as Gordon pointed out, would also require changes in the Stock Exchange membership rules. Instead the committed opted to leave arrangements broadly as they were and instead set up an Association of Stock and Share Dealers. Sefton Turner was the first Chair. Women were finally admitted as members of the Stock Exchange in 1973.

However, it was the National Federation that absorbed most of Gordon’s remaining energy for the last thirteen years of her life. The war did not stop her work to build the club network, travelling all over the country and driving home late at night from Euston or St Pancras stations ‘with the flares falling and the bombs dropping.’ She inspired women with her own story and called on them to play their part in the business and civic life of a nation at war and together the team were setting up a club every three weeks. In 1941, she flew to the United States and Canada for a four-week coast-to-coast speaking tour, triggering donations of clothing as well as more funds to support the Federation’s work in the UK. In 1944, with membership up to 5,000, the first annual convention took place in Newcastle.

Gordon’s health forced her to take a step back from her role as President in 1947, but she still found time for random acts of kindness. One was to donate a sculpture by Dora Gordine to the Holloway Prison maternity unit in 1947. She had been at an event where she heard a lecturer say that there was nothing beautiful in the jail’s maternity ward. Sometime later she was in Gordine’s studio and when she saw a cast of a bronze smiling baby, kicking her legs in the air, she decided it would be perfect. The two women went together to present the sculpture to the maternity unit, where the women crowded around to see it. ‘They all wanted to know how she thought their children compared with the baby in bronze,’ Gordon recollected.

Gordon died at her home in Queen Anne’s Gardens on 21st November 1951 after an eight-month illness, her legacy a network of 200 clubs with nearly 14,000 members. Helen Boyle, Caroline Haslett and Phyllis Deakin were among those who paid tribute to her at a memorial service in the City of London. ‘Britain has lost one its most dynamic citizens and women everywhere a staunch champion’, wrote Lena Madesin Phillips.

The Federation Gordon founded, nurtured and championed continues today, connecting women national and internationally and focusing on four action areas that Gordon would surely fully support: equal pay, women on boards, women in public life and gender-friendly employers. Given her love of writing and speaking, it feels right that the last word should come from her.  

‘All things will happen in time but we can make them happen sooner. If you have an idea, a cause, something that seems to you worthwhile, don’t be afraid to start it because its initial impulse must be so tiny. If it is worthwhile you will get help. Remember Emerson’s great sentence: “The genius of life is friendly to the noble and in the dark sends them friends from afar.”‘

This post is dedicated to the memory of another great City girl, Sarah Emly (1974-2017)
Friend, colleague, all-round good egg
Much loved, still missed

Sources include:
The Londonderry Sentinel 28/11/1907; Truth 2/3/1921; The Daily Telegraph 12/2/1926; The Queenslander 8/6/1938; the Standard 5/4/1941; Birmingham Gazette 27/10/49; The Daily Telegraph 22/11/1951; The Times 22/11/1951; 01/12/1951; 12/1/1952; 22/10/1962; The Chronicle 7/3/1964

‘Helen Boyle’ by Emma Milliken in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

‘In Love With Life’ by Gordon Holmes (1944); ‘Making Things Happen’ by Dorothy V Hall (1964); ‘Lilian Baylis: A Biography’ by Elizabeth Shafer (2006); ‘Singled Out’ by Virginia Nicholson (2007)

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