While visiting Liverpool PETER FROST – a Scouser by self-adoption – popped into the magnificently refurbished library and saw an exhibition dedicated to the city’s proudest daughter.
On a recent visit to Liverpool, the city and its people were in fine form. They had just heard the news that, after far too long, they had won justice for the victims of the disgraceful Hillsborough disaster that had taken the lives of 96 Liverpool football fans and injured 766 others at a match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest at Hillsborough Stadium, Sheffield, in 1989.
The police, Margaret Thatcher, her spin doctor Bernard Ingham, Rupert Murdoch, Kelvin MacKenzie and his rag of a newspaper the Sun were among those who had blamed the disaster on drunken and badly behaved Liverpudlians. Now at last the truth has been established and the city has some kind of justice.
I love Liverpool, the bustling waterfront, ferries ’cross the Mersey and wonderful welcoming people with their unique Scouse sense of humour and sense of social justice.
The other thing I love about Liverpool is its politics. All five of Liverpool’s MPs are Labour and there isn’t a single Tory on the Liverpool City Council, nor no bloody Ukippers. There are four Greens, two old-fashioned Liberals, two Liberal Democrats, one Independent and, oh yes, 81 Labour councillors. And it shows.
Since David Cameron became Prime Minister almost 350 libraries — a quarter of the total have been closed. Worse, a further 111 closures are planned this year.
So when my old Liverpool mate Les asked if I wanted to see how his city had spent £55 million and three years improving its central library I leapt at the chance. The results of the restoration and development are stunning.
Three historic libraries and reading rooms now open to the public for the first time. Redevelopment took 10 years of planning and over four million items, including documents and books, are now rehoused in the library.
Since it reopened in 2013 over two million people have visited to use the amazing new facilities which include information floors, a cafe, meeting rooms and an amazing atrium and roof terrace with fine views over the city.
The library, on historic William Brown Street has retained its classical 1860 appearance alongside the spectacular domed Picton Reading Room of 1879. Inside, however, the building has been opened up with breathtaking space flooded with light from a new glass dome.
This year the library is paying tribute to one of Liverpool’s proudest daughters. She is Eleanor Rathbone who died 70 years ago in January 1946. Panels and exhibition cabinets told the story of this remarkable campaigner for women’s rights and for the family allowance.
In 1897, aged 25, Rathbone became the honorary secretary of the Liverpool Women’s Suffrage Society, campaigning for votes for women. In 1913 she co-founded the Liverpool Women Citizen’s Association to promote women’s involvement in political affairs.
She worked alongside her radical father to investigate social and industrial conditions in Liverpool. He died in 1902. Father and daughter spoke out against the second Boer war and the British concentration camps established in that conflict.
In 1903 Rathbone published a report on the conditions of labour at the Liverpool docks and in 1905 she assisted in establishing, and lectured at, the School of Social Science at the University of Liverpool. They still have an Eleanor Rathbone building, lecture theatre and chair of Sociology.
She was elected as an independent member of Liverpool City Council in 1909 and served until 1934.
At the outbreak of WWI she organised the Town Hall Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Families Organisation to support wives and dependants of soldiers. She started to argue for a system of family allowances paid directly to mothers. It would be a lifetime’s fight.
Rathbone was a strident voice against the British army’s violent repression of rebellion in Ireland after the 1916 Easter rebellion. She also campaigned for women’s rights and against child marriage in India and forced marriage in Palestine and played a key part in negotiating the terms of women’s inclusion in the 1918 Representation of the People Act.
In 1919, Rathbone became the president of the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship — what had been the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies.
Three years later in 1922 she stood for Liverpool East Toxteth in the general election as an Independent candidate. She lost to the sitting Unionist MP but in 1929 won a parliamentary seat as MP for the Combined English Universities. One of her first speeches was on Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) Kenya. She would remain an MP until 1945.
As unemployment stalked the streets of Liverpool in the Depression, she campaigned for cheap milk and better benefits for the children of the unemployed.
She opposed the Italian invasion of Ethiopia.
In 1936, Rathbone annoyed some on the left when she signed a letter to the Manchester Guardian defending Trotsky’s right to asylum.
In 1938 she correctly predicted a future alliance between Hitler and Stalin. Some on the left scoffed but the prediction, surprisingly, would prove all too correct.
Increasingly concerned about nazi Germany, Rathbone opposed the British government’s policy of appeasement and instead called in her 1937 book War can be Averted for an alliance with the Soviet Union.
In April 1937 she, Ellen Wilkinson and the Duchess of Atholl travelled to civil war-torn Spain on a fact-finding mission. The group was horrified by the suffering caused by German Luftwaffe bombing.
And in May she joined others to establish the Dependents Aid Committee, an organisation which raised money for International Brigade families — later she would help establish the National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief.
Such was her vehemence in her attacks on various aspects of British foreign policy hypocrisy that ministers and Foreign Office civil servants would duck behind pillars when they saw her in the House of Commons.
In September 1938, she denounced the Munich accords and demanded that Parliament aid the Czechoslovaks and grant entry to Britain for German and Austrian Jews escaping from the nazis. By the end of the year this had become her parliamentary committee on refugees to take up individual cases from Spain, Czechoslovakia and Germany.
In 1942 she demanded the government make public evidence of the Holocaust.
Just a few months before her death early in 1946, Rathbone saw the Labour government pass the Family Allowances Act. It was the culmination of her campaigning that had begun in 1917.
Seventy years after her death and the introduction of her lifetime ambition — the introduction of Family Allowance it’s time the whole nation, not just the fine folk of Merseyside, paid tribute to this remarkable woman.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star 27 May 2016.