Emma Paterson (1848-1886)

Born: Emma Ann Smith

Sector: Support Services (Printing)

In 1980, the feminist artist Judy Chicago (b.1939) unveiled her controversial installation, ‘The Dinner Party’. Praised, criticised, satirised, this artwork, now housed in Brooklyn Museum, takes the form of a ceremonial banquet, honouring 1,038 women for their contributions to society, history and culture.  They are drawn from all periods of time, some are mythical, most are real.  Among them are well-known British women including Mary Wollstonecraft, Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Fry and Emmeline Pankhurst. A less-familiar name can be found on the ceremonial floor: Emma Paterson. As a brilliant networker, is is particularly fitting that she has been immortalised alongside so many other women.

Emma was only 38 when she died but in the last twelve years of her short life she made her presence felt, establishing unions, a printing company, a bank and a magazine all geared towards improving the economic position of women in paid work. After a disastrous accident on the Thames when a pleasure boat sank and many women, unable to swim drowned, she even set up a swimming club. She was one of the ‘most practical advocates’ of the early Woman’s Rights movement’, and it was ‘to the commercial rather than the political side of the woman’s question that she directed her efforts’.

Emma was born on 5th April 1848, the daughter of a schoolmaster, Henry Smith and his wife, also called Emma (née Dockerill).  The school her father ran was in the newly-developed area of Belgravia and was part of a network managed by the National Society for Promoting Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church in England and Wales – try fitting that on your letterhead. It still operates today as the more concise Church of England Education Office (CEEO). 

Henry Smith was probably paid no more than £60 a year (equivalent to £8,200 a year) and the pupils at his school would have been the children of domestic servants working in the newly-built cream-stuccoed houses or perhaps of the lower-ranked servants in nearby Buckingham Palace.  Emma’s education came directly from her father, to whom she was very close.  Under his tutelage, she learned German and Italian and she was soon helping out with school classes.  For a while she was apprenticed to a bookbinder, giving her a first taste of working life.

Emma was just 16 when her father died in 1864, leaving her and her mother in straitened circumstances.  Emma’s mother made a couple of unsuccessful attempts to set up her own school and Emma tried working as a governess but couldn’t stand it.  Eventually, in 1866, she found a position as secretary to an elderly woman and through her connections, took a job a year later in July 1867 as assistant secretary to the Working Men’s Club and Institute Union, whose supporters included Charles Darwin and John Ruskin.

This seems to be the only picture of Emma

It was here that Emma met her husband, Thomas Paterson (1835-1882),  a Scottish cabinet-maker. The Union faced a challenge common to Boards today: the committee overseeing it, drawn mainly from the aristocracy and middle-classes, was not representative of its working class membership base. It is likely that Paterson was the first ‘working man’ to make it onto the council. Also involved in the Union was Hodgson Pratt, (1824-1907), later a famed peace campaigner, who became one of Emma’s main supporters.

In 1872, Emma decided to take a job as secretary of the Women’s Suffrage Association, where she would have worked alongside Agnes Garrett. However, this did not work out and she only lasted a year. The official reason for her departure was her marriage. However, her friend, Francis Pattison revealed after Emma’s death that she had been sacked. ‘The ladies complimented me on my zeal,’ Emma apparently told Francis, ‘but they say my bodily presence is weak and my speech contemptible. So I must make room for someone who can represent them better.’ Her speaking skills were no impediment in subsequent years so perhaps it was her background, perceived as working class, that was really the issue.

She and Thomas Paterson were married on 24th July 1873 at Holborn Register Office and they left for an extended honeymoon in the United States, combining travel with fact-finding visits to trades unions and associations, among them the Parasol and Umbrella-makers Union and the Women’s Typographical Union.

Inspired by her experiences, when Emma returned in 1874 she published a call to action in April’s Labour News.  In an article entitled ‘The Position of Working Women and How to Improve It’, she clearly stated her position in the very first sentence: “It is seldom disputed that the rate of wages paid to women is, in many occupations, disgracefully low.” Employers were to blame, but women also needed to be more demanding. This was very difficult when they were relatively isolated: banding together was the answer, perhaps in ‘a general organisation of working women’. She laid out some practical steps that could be taken and ended by ‘earnestly’ begging ‘all persons interested in improving the social condition of women to communicate with her with a view to action in this matter and especially invites information and suggestions from women engaged in trades.’

On 8th July 1874, Hodgson Pratt chaired a meeting of around 20 people at which Emma’s ideas were discussed. Among the attendees were Rev. Charles Kingsley, Rev. Stewart Headlam, Harriet Martineau and Emily Faithfull. Out of this came the Women’s Protective and Provident League (WPPL), with Emma as the Honorary Secretary. She set off around the country to drum up more support for her mission and gradually groups started to form, from jute-workers in Dundee to staymakers in Portsmouth. The aim was for each union to be self-supporting. Members paid an entrance fee and a weekly subscription that created a benefit fund, which women could draw on when out of work or sick.

Many of them were not very big. The 1871 census suggests that nearly 1.5m women were working in the ‘industrial classes’ but only a sub-section of them were in the skilled occupations Emma was targeting. Using census data, Emma estimated that tailoring, where c.38,000 women were employed, was one of the biggest trades and offered the biggest long-term opportunity. However, the first society she got off the ground was in the much smaller profession of bookbinding, where c.7,500 women were employed. She managed to attract 300 members to the The Society of Women Employed in Bookbinding and then handed over the role of secretary to Eleanor Whyte (1823-1914) who held that position for another 40 years. Other trades where she had success were: upholstery, where Jeanette Wilkinson (1841-1886) became secretary; shirt and collar makers, run by Edith Simcox (1844-1901); dressmaking and millinery; and the trade for binding, sewing and trimming men’s hats. In 1875, Emma and Edith Simcox were the first women to attend the Trades Union Conference, held that year in Glasgow and Emma spoke or read papers at all the subsequent congresses.

A busy year: 1876

In 1876, Britain was in the midst a roller-skating craze.  Fashions changed to make it easier for women to embrace the new fad. Rumours even circulated that the Royal Albert Hall was going to be turned into a roller-skating rink. 

But Emma was too busy to strap on skates. In January, she held a meeting with the recently formed league of shirt and collar makers, presided over by Headlam and also attended by Jeanette Wilkinson.

Embed from Getty Images

In February, she published the first issue of the Women’s Union Journal. She wrote a lot of the content herself but also published fiction, poems and profiles of other women. The magazine was an advocate for the nascent rational dress movement, in which Ada Nettleship was also involved.

When in June 1876, the Investors’ Guardian published details of new companies registered, alongside Barrow Skating Rink and Empress Skate was the Women’s Printing Society (WPS), capitalised at £2,000 in £2 shares. Later that year more details were emerged: the Society provided ‘special facilities for the thorough training and employment of Girls and Women in type setting and other light branches of printing’. It offered a three-year apprenticeship and operated on quasi co-operative lines, capping shareholder dividends at 5% and paying a bonus to employees of 5-7% based on annual profitability.

Stewart Headlam and Emma’s husband, Thomas, were both directors. Also on the board was Annie Leigh Browne (1851-1936), who became a prominent feminist, focusing on education and representation of women in local government. They were joined by Mary Louisa Bruce (1843-1929), niece and later biographer of early suffragist and translator, Anna Swanwick (1812-1899). Since the company was formed before the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882, Emma could not be a company director as she had no legal status in her own right. Initially the offices were in Holborn but by 1878, they had moved to 21B Great College Street in Westminster, which would have placed it close to the businesses later established by Nancy Bailey and Cecil Gradwell.

Emma also tapped into the Langham Place network. She received support in the set up from Henrietta Muller, a wealthy student at Girton College. The first employees of the Women’s Printing Society came from Emily Faithfull’s Victoria Press and the Society for the Promotion of Employment of Women (SPEW) championed the business. The Englishwoman’s Review emphasised that, with ‘several ladies of position’ on the Board of Directors, there was no reason for parents to be concerned at the prospect of their daughters working there.

Class concerns aside, there was a lot of resistance from men to women working in the trade of printing, which is why a business run by and for women was needed. In November 1879 it was reported that the London Society of Compositors had forbidden its members to touch work on which women had been employed or to remain in offices where they were working. As a result of this ‘arbitrary’ edict, a number of women were summarily thrown out of their jobs ‘the only alternative being a strike on the part of the men’ in objection, which was clearly not going to happen.

Making progress
As well as being a director, Headlam was a client. In 1878 the Women’s Printing Society issued a copy of the speech on ‘Theatres and Music-Halls’ that got him sacked from his job as well as a book written by his wife, Beatrice. Headlam later said that he wanted to support women in earning their own living and back businesses that treated their employees fairly. But the WPS did not rely on its social purpose for business: it had a good reputation for promptness and professionalism, issuing a pamphlet of customer testimonials in 1888 in support of their service.

Although Emma’s primary focus was progressing the feminist agenda through employment rather than suffrage, there continued to be a strong crossover in the groups interested in these two. agendas. In March 1879, a conference was held at the Chapter House of St Paul’s Cathedral on ‘The Organisation of Women’s Industry’, bringing together campaigners for better working conditions and extending the suffrage. At around this time, Emma also established a Women’s Halfpenny Bank, offering women an alternative option for saving money and accessing low cost loans. It attracted over 250 depositors.

Emilia Francis Pattison (1840-1904) was a great supporter of Emma’s work. The two women are likely to have met through the Women’s Suffrage Association in 1872, of which Emilia was an active member. Smart, and unhappily married to the rector of Lincoln College, Oxford, she embraced Emma’s agenda, and was involved with the WPPL from the start, attending meetings of the WPPL in London in the 1870s and establishing an Oxford division of the WPPL in 1881.

Emilia Francis Pattison, later Lady Dilke, friend and supporter of Emma Paterson
Emilia Francis (née Strong), Lady Dilke by Sir Hubert von Herkomer
Oil on canvas, 1887, NPG 5288 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Thomas Paterson died in 1882, insolvent and intestate. Emma poured her grief into editing and publishing his memoir, ‘A New Method of Mental Science.’ She cut back further on her expenditure, trying to live on 6d (six old pence) a day, and it was a salary from the Women’s Printing Society that was key to keeping her solvent. She kept up a busy schedule but her health started to deteriorate as a result of what was later diagnosed as diabetes.

She was treated by Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and although a recuperative trip to the Channel Islands in January 1886 brought some respite, she died in November 1886. It was reported that her death ‘deprives working women of one of their most practical friends.’

Stewart Headlam conducted Emma’s funeral service as she was laid to rest in Paddington Cemetery on a cold December day, lowered into the same grave as her husband.

Emma Paterson (1848-1886) memorial stone
Emma Paterson’s memorial stone in Paddington Cemetery, north west London.

Emma’s legacy
It is for her role in pioneering modern women’s trade unions that Emma is best remembered. The organisations Emma started during her short life might still have been small when she died but her legacy was long-lasting. After Emma’s death, Emilia, now Lady Dilke, took over the running of the WPPL, which changed its name to the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL) in 1890. She was supported by her niece, Gertrude Tuckwell (1861-1951), who edited the journal, which had become the Women’s Trade Union Review. In 1903, Mary Macarthur, another woman who died young, became honorary secretary of the WTUL. She dramatically increased the membership and went on to found the National Federation of Women Workers in 1906, an organisation of which Emma would have firmly approved.

The Women’s Printing Society also had a long life. Margaret Weede became manager and the late 1880s saw the launch of more newspapers owned and run by women. One was the Women’s Penny Paper, owned by Henrietta Muller and she, like man others, chose to use the WPS as her printer. The growth in the suffrage movement in the 1890s gave the business another boost and by 1893 it was printing for two women’s suffrage societies, the Women’s Liberal Association, the Women’s Liberal Unionist Association, Bedford College, Queen’s College and the Theosophical Society. It continued to operate until 1955.


More information about Emma Paterson and the role of women in trades unions can be found at the Working Class Movement Library in Salford.


Sources include:

The Boston Guardian 28/6/1873; Labour News April 1874; Dundee Courier 8/1/1876; The Examiner 21/10/1876; 11/11/1876; ‘Women Printers and Editors’ in Englishwoman’s Review September 1876; Exeter and Plymouth Gazette Daily Telegram 27/6/1878; Pall Mall Gazette 10/4/1884; Bristol Times and Mirror 7/12/1886; The Standard 6/12/1886; Pall Mall Gazette 6/12/1886 Fortnightly Review June 1889; The Queen 21/10/1893

‘Emma Paterson’ by Harold Goldman (1974); ‘Women Making News: Gender and Journalism in Modern Britain’ by Michelle Elizabeth Tusan (2005)

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