Museum Week – Annie Besant, the travelling social reformer

It’s the penultimate day of Museum Week, a 7 day online celebration of museums, galleries and cultural institutions around the globe. This year’s theme is ‘Women in Culture’, and over the 7 days a different lifestyle topic will be used to explore and expand upon this year’s theme. Today the focus is on travel, a subject that’s obviously very relevant to us at EPIC! Follow the discussions as part of Museum Week online and on social media with the hashtags #WomenMW and #TravelMW.

During the nineteenth century, many women activists fought for change, both at home and on a worldwide spectrum. Annie Besant, featured in our ‘Leading Change’ gallery at EPIC, was born in London in 1847. Her parents, William Wood and Ellen Morris, had moved from Dublin in 1845 at the height of the Famine. Tragedy would befall the family when aged only 5, Annie’s father died suddenly. This plunged Annie’s family into relative poverty.

A friend of the family, Ellen Marryat agreed to bring up Annie and insured she received a full education. This allowed her to embark on a grand tour of Europe during her teenage years.

Besant seemed destined to fall into a normal, humdrum middle class life. However things were about to radically change. Just prior to marrying her husband, Annie become deeply involved with the blight of the working poor in Manchester. This led to her joining numerous socialist and workers societies, as well as joining the National Secular Society and renouncing her Christian faith. After she refused to take communion, they separated, with Annie taking custody of their daughter and her husband gaining custody of their son.

Besant would go on to become a widely-travelled social reformer who campaigned for Women’s Rights as well as a socialist, theosophist and writer. Besant was imprisoned along with good friend Charles Bradlaugh for publishing a book by birth control campaigner and supporter Charles Knowlton. Despite this, Besant persevered in her free-thinking methodology, becoming an important speaker for the National Secular Society, and was elected for the London School Board.

Annie Besant was also a prominent supporter of Indian Nationalism, and a member of National Secular Society for Free Thinkers as well as the socialist Fabian society. She was editor of The National Reformer which covered trade unions, education, women’s rights and birth control, a pamphlet of which caused her to be brought to trial. In 1893, Besant went to India and joined the Indian National Congress. After the First World War, she was a leading figure in the launch of the Home Rule League for an Indian democracy. Annie Besant not only supported Home-Rule in India, but in Ireland too.

Catch up on our special blog series for Museum Week. Read our first article on Isabella McDougall here, our second piece on Sarah Durack here, our third piece on Marie Narell here, our fourth piece on Edna O’Brien here, and our fifth piece on Margaret Mitchell here.