Edith Beesley (1879-1960)

Born: Edith Anne Beesley

Sector: Insurance

Edith Beesley was an insurance agent between the wars who used her own success as a platform to encourage other women to follow in her footsteps. She wrote numerous magazine articles and spoke to women up and down the country, sharing her own career story and promoting insurance as a great industry for women. As a result of her career achievements, she was given the title by one newspaper of the ‘Insurance Queen’.

Dark-haired and vivacious, Edith clearly loved her work but guarded her privacy. She remains quite mysterious and was not above a little misdirection about her personal life so although this is probably the most complete picture of Edith’s life so far, it is still partial. Please get in touch if you can fill in any of the gaps.

‘Domestic, secretary, teacher, “land girl”, chauffeuse, insurance agent, stockbroker’s clerk and now branch manager to an insurance company is not a bad record for a woman still in [her] early thirties’ ran a headline in the Birmingham Gazette on 5th January 1927. Indeed. Except at this point Edith Beesley was actually 47. She was born in Wirksworth in Derbyshire on 20th July 1879, the only girl in a family of eight, with three older brothers and four younger ones. The great inventor and entrepreneur Richard Arkwright set up one of his mills in Wirksworth and it was believed that Edith’s father, Henry, was an illegitimate direct descendant, the result of a fling between Arkwright’s great grandson Albert and Anne Wigley, daughter of the estate gardener.

In interviews in January 1927, Edith said that she and her father had frequently spent their summer holidays walking in Wales and that there were few holidays more enjoyable than tramping North Wales with her father. However, he could also be a difficult man and other members of the family described him as bad-tempered. Was Edith glossing over the truth or as the only girl, did she get off more lightly?

‘Edie’, seated in the centre of the picture, surrounded by her brothers, parents, a sister-in-law and a cousin,
c. 1902. Courtesy of Edith’s family.

Edith was a pupil at the local school in Wirksworth until she was 16 and then attended Bedford High School for the sixth form, presumably as a boarder. She was still living at home in 1901, but with no occupation listed, while the brother to whom she was closest, Lawrence, was off completing a degree in Natural Sciences at Caius College, Cambridge.  The family moved to Sheffield in around 1908 when her father retired but within two years he was dead.  Edith’s mother moved south to Kent and Edith joined Lawrence in London, where she was now, at the age of 31, an art student.

In around 1912, Edith decided to make a big change in her life and moved to Cape Town. There is nothing to suggest she had family or friends there so this was a brave choice. In April, Lawrence set sail to visit his brother in Canada, intending to carry on to South Africa afterwards, presumably to see Edith. He decided to go via New York and the ship he boarded was the RMS Titanic. Initially reported drowned, he was one of the few men travelling in second class to survive and he wrote about his experience almost immediately, in a book that became a bestseller.  Like Lucy Duff Gordon, he is a character in the 1957 film ‘A Night To Remember’.

Edith spent her first year in Cape Town teaching but after a chance conversation at a lunch party she switched to selling insurance. She worked as an agent, on commission alone, first in Cape Town and then in Johannesburg. When war broke out, she came back to the UK and took her driving test so she could start working as a chauffeur. She took a job in Chester for the Crosland Taylor family in Chester. Mrs Crosland Taylor was a member of the Women’s Freedom League as was Edith – whether she was involved before she left the UK and this is how she found the job or joined as a result of Mrs Crosland Taylor’s influence is not clear.

With men disappearing to the Front, many businesses, including insurance, were short-staffed and Edith saw an opportunity. In January 1916, Votes for Women reported that ‘Miss Edith Beesley of Cape Town’ had been appointed inspector by the Norwich Union Life Assurance Company, ‘the first woman to act in such a capacity in this country’. Edith was responsible for appointing and managing new agents, working across a range of life insurance products. Although attached to a branch in the west end of London, she travelled further afield, trying to build up the number of canvassers, who would write business and collect premiums.

Like Shelley Gulick, Edith was keen to encourage women into the industry. During this period of the late 1910s and early 1920s there were similarities between advertising and insurance. In both industries there was a growing realisation that with more women working and taking control of the family finances, women were potentially important customers, with different priorities to men when it came to product selection. They were seen as less likely to buy life insurance but potentially more interested in products that would ensure they had an adequate pension or would support their children’s education. In 1919 Eagle Start opened up a Women’s Section, headed up by a Mrs Marjorie R Verden. Staffed entirely by women, it developed products for women and Dr Christine Murrell acted as the medical officer.

After a year as a stockbroker’s clerk, Edith became the manager of Standard Life’s Women’s Advisory Department in 1920, able to advise without being attached to any one company in particular. That same year she was reputedly the first woman to take a flight for business, flying to Paris in the morning, with a one hour client meeting and was back at her desk at 3pm. She even managed to sell a fellow passenger an insurance policy on the way.

By now, Edith was active in the Women’s Freedom League, writing columns for their newspaper and speaking at member meetings. At some point she clearly decided to write down her ideas and in 1922 published ‘How to Succeed as an Insurance Agent’, with sections on How to Become an Agent, Principles of Success, Method of Procedure and The Art of Interviewing. Reading through this pamphlet, even as someone who knows very little about insurance, it is remarkably clear and accessible. There is a section on Women and Insurance but at no point does ‘E. Beesley’ indicate that ‘the practical whole time Insurance Agent’ who has written this is a woman.  Surely, though, she is drawing on her own experience when she writes:  

‘The possibilities of Insurance are such as to offer anyone who is really enthusiastic, tactful and painstaking, a means of building up a remunerative connection in a very few years. A good all-round broad education, plenty of energy, a certain amount of courage, a love for his fellow man, combined with a keen sense of the meaning of the term “playing the game” are, in the writer’s opinion, the main essentials to an Agent’s stat in the Insurance world.”

Edith’s pamphlet, published in 1922 (c) Lizzie Broadbent

Edith goes on talk about dealing with discouragement, the importance of gratitude, building confidence and maintaining optimism before she gets into planning and how to organise your day around its ‘golden hours’, which everyone should identify for themselves: ‘Everyone works differently..think out your own particular form of working.’ Much of what she wrote nearly a century ago could be lifted and replicated today in a Linked In post about resilience or personal effectiveness.

After Edith’s article on ‘Insurance as a Career for Women’ appeared in Good Housekeeping in July 1923, one newspaper said she had ‘done more than anyone else in Great Britain to popularise life insurance and endowments for women’ and had shown how much opportunity there was for women who wanted to pursue a career in that space.

Edith in 1927

In January 1927, Edith was appointed manager of the West End branch of the Southern Life Association Assurance, a South African company which opened its first UK office in 1925. It was widely reported as the first appointment of a woman into this kind of job, i.e. one where she was in charge of the business and leading a team of men and women.  One woman immediately challenged this: Betty Forster Bovill, who also claimed a salary running ‘well into four figures’, was quick to point out that she had been appointed agency manager for the African Life Assurance Society in September 1926. The wife of an old Cambridge soccer blue, she also had started her career during the war, working first as a typist for Sun Life Assurance of Canada, then working her way up to clerk, secretary and general manager of the life department by 1922. She also disagreed with Edith’s optimism about the opportunities for women in the sector, saying the had ‘no chance’ unless she is ‘as good as or a little better than men’ and felt that ‘many women in business spoil their chances by emphasising the feminine quality of their achievement.’

However, there is little more about Betty in the press after that and plenty about Edith.  In another section in her 1922 pamphlet, ‘Social Life’, she said that ‘one never knows whence the next proposal form will come, sometimes it seems to drop from the skies.  Therefore, it is of very vital importance that you should cultivate a large number of acquaintances and get to know them, as people usually want to do business with people they know and trust’.

Edith practised what she preached.  She was a member of the Pioneer Club and involved in the Women’s Engineering Society, the Women’s Electrical Association and the Women’s Provisional Club.  She was chair of the Social Group of the Cowdray Club and a member of the Prince’s Golf Club at Mitcham. She had a wide pool from which to draw the guests for the lunch she held to celebrate her new job, where one of the speakers said “..that since the announcement the week before she had received no less than nine offers of marriage – all of which she had turned down.”

That same year, 1927, a budding author was working at Heal’s when she became aware of a ‘tall, slim, dark young man’ who did a variety of jobs including acting as the Advertising Manager. His name was Alec Beesley and he was Lawrence’s eldest son. That author was Dodie Smith and in her autobiography she wrote that ‘an aunt had given him an introduction to Heal’s’. Could this have been Edith? Dodie and Alec were married in 1939 after a long friendship. They both loved dogs, keeping Dalmatian as pets and I think we all know what happened next. Perhaps Edith played some tiny part in the chain of events that resulted in a much-loved children’s books and its many film incarnations.

In December 1927, The Woman Engineer carried an ad for Edith’s latest idea, a journal called Expert Woman ‘which will deal with women who have arrived in various professions’.  The next month, the Daily News featured ‘Eminent Women of To-day’ telling how they began their careers. Edith was one of the women telling her story, alongside fellow W.E.S. members Laura Annie Willson and Caroline Haslett and the actress Sybil Thorndike. In the spring, the Six Point Group drew up a lecture programme on ‘Equal Occupational Rights and the Modern Girl’. Kicked off by Lady Rhondda, other speakers included Caroline Haslett on engineering, Alice Mortimer on advertising, Storm Jameson on publishing, Chrystal Macmillan on the legal profession and Edith ‘who will, of course, deal with Insurance’.

In August 1929 Edith was one of the women chosen to host a delegation from the National Federation of Business and Professional Women of America and when in the autumn the members of the Junior Council of the London and National Society for Women’s Service, a large network for business women, wanted to learn something about the world of insurance, it was inevitably Edith who came to speak to them.  That same year Elsie Lang featured Edith and her four-figure salary in her book on ‘British Women in the Twentieth Century’.  

Edith decided to take advantage of all this momentum to set up her own business. In September 1921, now aged 52, she announced the formation of Women’s Insurances Ltd, to be run by women for women. This was seen as totally in keeping with her pioneering spirit. What is more surprising is what happens next: nothing. It is the last we hear of Edith.  She continued living and working in London and when war broke out in 1939 described herself as an insurance broker but there is no more about her in the press.  Was the business unsuccessful?  Were other stories more interesting?  Did Edith have other reasons for now keeping a lower profile?  We do not know.

In 1927, Edith said her dream was to build a cottage on the edge of a golf course and play golf all day. She might have making trips to the golf course but she ended her days in Maida Vale in 1960, where she was frequently visited by Lawrence’s children.  Perhaps as more records are digitised, parts of the gaping holes in Edith’s story, between 1897 and 1911 and 1931 and 1960 will be filled in, but what we know of those twenty years between 1911 and 1931 is already enough to show that she was remarkable woman.

With special thanks to archivists Karyn Williamson at the Standard Life Aberdeen archives, Emma Mackenzie at Bedford Girls School and Anne Locker at the IET and the members of Edith’s family who have all helped piece together Edith’s story.

Sources include:

Sheffield Daily Telegraph 17/4/1912; Votes for Women 7/1/1916; Sheffield Daily Telegraph 4/3/1916 The Vote 16/1/1920; 11/3/1921; 1/4/1921; Montrose Standard 6/7/1923; Liverpool Echo 4/1/1927; 5/1/1927; Dundee Evening Telegraph 5/1/1927; Western Mail 5/1/1927; 6/1/9127; The Shields Daily News 6/1/1927; The Sunday Post 9/1/1927; Daily News 31/1/1928; Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer 6/2/1928

The Woman Engineer Dec 1927 Vol II No 13

‘The Loss of the Titanic: I Survived the Titanic’ by Lawrence Beesley (1912) with new introduction by Nicholas Wade (2011); ‘Look Back with Astonishment’ by Dodie Smith (1979)

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