Margery Spring Rice: Pioneer of Women’s Health in the Early Twentieth Century

 Margery Spring Rice: Pioneer of Women’s Health in the Early Twentieth Century Lucy Pollard
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This biography reveals the complex and unconventional life of the social campaigner Margery Spring Rice in fascinating detail. Spring Rice is known as a pioneer in the women’s health and family planning movement, and author of Working Class Wives, an important insight into inter-war social conditions. This biography weaves her many professional achievements and occasional set-backs into her often tumultuous and sometimes tragic private life, informed by the backdrop of the first and second world wars and the considerable social changes across the period. It is impossible not to become captivated by the story of this obstinate but remarkable woman.
—Dr Alice Reid, Director, The Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure

Here all is drama – love, death, affairs, court cases, divorce, blighted lives – set alongside the achievements of a life spent working to improve the lot of working-class women [...] This [contraception] was a subject shunned by the medical profession but one which she recognised as an imperative if poor women were to retain their health and any ability to care properly for the children they did bear.
—Elizabeth Crawford, Woman and Her Sphere.

Employing a considerable cache of letters and personal papers, Pollard’s book adds the story of another activist and agitator to the rich history of women's public health in the nascent 20th century. Pollard, who is her subject’s granddaughter, makes excellent use of disparate sources, from visitor’s books to Spring Rice’s own recollections, to chronicle this extraordinary life

—--J. M. Morris, Mount St. Joseph University, CHOICE Connects, February 2021 Vol. 58 No. 6

This book vividly presents the story of Margery Spring Rice, an instrumental figure in the movements of women’s health and family planning in the first half of the twentieth century. Margery Spring Rice, née Garrett, was born into a family of formidable female trailblazers – niece of physician and suffragist Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, and of Millicent Fawcett, a leading suffragist and campaigner for equal rights for women. Margery Spring Rice continued this legacy with her co-founding of the North Kensington birth control clinic in 1924, three years after Marie Stopes founded the first clinic in Britain.

Engaging and accessible, this biography weaves together Spring Rice’s personal and professional lives, adopting a chronological approach which highlights how the one impacted the other. Her life unfolds against the turbulent backdrop of the early twentieth century – a period which sees the entry of women into higher education, and the upheaval and societal upshots of two world wars. Within this context, Spring Rice emerges as a dynamic figure who dedicated her life to social causes, and whose actions time and again bear out her habitual belief that, contrary to the Shakespearian dictum, ‘valour is the better part of discretion’.

This is the first biography of Margery Spring Rice, drawing extensively on letters, diaries and other archival material, and equipping the text with family trees and photographs. It will be of great interest to a range of social historians, especially those researching the birth control movement; female friendships, female philanthropists, and feminist activism in the twentieth century; and the history of medicine and public health.

An interview with the author for the East Anglian Daily Times is now available here. 

Margery Spring Rice: Pioneer of Women’s Health in the Early Twentieth Century
Lucy Pollard | April 2020
222 pp. | 27 colour illustrations | 6.14" x 9.21" (234 x 156 mm)
ISBN Paperback: 9781783748815
ISBN Hardback: 9781783748822
ISBN Digital (PDF): 9781783748839
ISBN Digital ebook (epub): 9781783748846
ISBN Digital ebook (mobi): 9781783748853
ISBN Digital ebook (XML): 9781783748860
DOI: 10.11647/OBP.0215
Subject Codes: BIC: BG (Biography: general), BGT (Biography: science, technology and medicine), MBNH4 (Birth control, contraception, family planning); BISAC: BIO000000 (BIOGRAPHY & AUTOBIOGRAPHY / General), BIO022000 (BIOGRAPHY & AUTOBIOGRAPHY / Women), BIO017000 (BIOGRAPHY & AUTOBIOGRAPHY / Medical (incl. Patients)), BIO032000 (BIOGRAPHY & AUTOBIOGRAPHY / Social Activists); OCLC Number: 1152957827.

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Preface and Acknowledgements
Note on Sources
Family Trees

1. Cherished daughter (1887–1907) Download
Lucy Pollard

2. Independence (1907–1912) Download
Lucy Pollard

3. Loss (1912–1916) Download
Lucy Pollard

4. False Starts (1916–1924) Download
Lucy Pollard

5. Finding a Cause (1924–1931) Download
Lucy Pollard

6. A Single Woman (1931–1936) Download
Lucy Pollard

7. War Again (1936–1945) Download
Lucy Pollard

8. Matriarch (1945–1956) Download
Lucy Pollard

9. Running down (1956–1970) Download
Lucy Pollard

List of Illustrations

Lucy Pollard is a graduate of Cambridge University and of Birkbeck, University of London. She is retired from a career as a librarian, book indexer and teacher. She lives in Suffolk with her husband, a retired solicitor. Her interests are music, walking, travel and gardening. She is the author of The Quest for Classical Greece: Early Modern Travel to the Greek World (I B Tauris).

1. Cherished Daughter: 1887-1907

This chapter outlines Margery Spring Rice’s background and early life. She came from a comfortable, middle-class family with a fierce streak of feminism: Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Millicent Fawcett and Agnes Garrett were her aunts. Her father, a solicitor, was instrumental in gaining access to the legal profession for women. Spring Rice’s education included continental travel and exposure to the arts.

2. Independence: 1907-12

Spring Rice’s further education at Girton College, Cambridge, brought her into contact with people who would have a continuing importance in her life, in particular the medieval historian Eileen Power. She also met Margaret Jones, who came from a strongly suffragist family of Canadian origin, and whose brother, Edward, she married in 1912. She started to train as a factory inspector, and engaged in Liberal politics, but at this stage was more committed to her social life than to anything else, although she saw herself as more left-wing than her immediate family.

3. Loss: 1912-16

Edward and Margery found themselves in Germany at the outbreak of World War 1, and this chapter describes their dramatic escape back to Britain, where Edward was enlisted. Two sons and a daughter were born in these years, but Margery’s infant daughter died of meningitis and, in 1916, Edward was killed on the Somme, leaving Margery a widow with two small sons at the end of the war. One of her brothers had been killed at Gallipoli. The pacifist tendencies of her youth were strengthened by these experiences.

4. False Starts: 1916-24

In the wake of her losses, Margery began to work as secretary to the League of Nations Society, but gave it up to marry Dominick Spring Rice, who came from a Protestant Ascendancy Irish family. This marriage produced two further children, but ran into difficulties very quickly, at least partly owing to Dominick’s alcoholism. Their friend, the novelist Stella Benson, has left a vivid account of Dominick in her diaries, which is discussed in this chapter.

5. Finding a Cause: 1924-31

The distress caused by her disintegrating marriage led Margery to look for something to absorb her considerable energies, as (in common with other middle-class families of her time) her children were largely brought up by nannies. Living in the London borough of Kensington, she was appalled by the poverty and deprivation at the northern end of the borough, which was brought to her attention by her charwoman. She found herself particularly sympathetic to the plight of women, who were often in poor health that was exacerbated by multiple pregnancies. This led Margery to her life’s work: together with a friend, she founded the North Kensington Women’s Welfare Centre, which eventually became the Family Planning Association. For over thirty years, she was to fight for the availability of contraception, at a time when that was a dirty word. This chapter describes the early history of the family planning movement. Alongside her public life, at this time Margery and Dominick became friends with the novelist Naomi Mitchison and her husband barrister (later MP) Dick, with whom Margery had an affair.

6. A Single Woman: 1931-36

Margery continued to work at the North Kensington clinic. She and Dominick had an acrimonious separation and eventually, in 1936, divorced. Margery’s relationships with her children were complicated: her character was so dominating that, to varying degrees, her children found it difficult to develop their own, distinct identities.

7. War Again: 1936-45

In 1936, Margery made a move she had been planning for some time, returning to her roots in Suffolk. She moved to the tiny village of Iken, on the river Alde between Snape and Aldeburgh. She continued to work for the clinic, and was an advocate of giving contraceptive advice to unmarried women at a time when that was still highly controversial. During the Second World War, she offered a home to several refugees, as well as running a nursery for children under five evacuated from London. She suffered further tragedies in her personal life, with the drowning of a daughter-in-law and the loss of her youngest son in a naval submarine. In 1939, she published Working Class Wives, based on material gathered by the Women’s Health Enquiry Committee, which had been set up a few years earlier.

8. Matriarch: 1945-56

Soon after the end of the war, Margery founded the Suffolk Rural Music School, in memory of her son. This brought her into contact with Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, who had returned from America and were living a mile or two away from her in Snape. Their friendship led to her involvement in the founding of the Aldeburgh Festival, on whose committee she sat for many years. The post-war years saw her flourish as a hostess, presiding over and cooking for large parties of guests. She did not give up her work on women’s health: she continued to travel to London for committees of the North Kensington clinic, and was co-opted on to Suffolk County Council’s health committee. During this period, she fought to keep local footpaths open; she was active as a grandmother to her (eventually) thirteen grandchildren; and she enjoyed foreign travel. In 1956, she gave up the large Iken house to move into Aldeburgh.

9. Running Down: 1956-70

In the late 1950s, Margery began to suffer from health problems of her own. She resigned from North Kensington. She moved briefly to live with her daughter in Oxfordshire, but the move was not a success, and she returned to Aldeburgh. Dementia gradually overtook her, and she died in 1970. This chapter reflects on her life and character and the significance of her work.
  • An interview with the author for the East Anglian Daily Times is now available here. 
  • Fighting for Women's Welfare: Lucy Pollard (Robertson 1962) reflects on the achievement of her pioneering grandmother Margery Spring Rice (Garret 1907) published for The Year, 2019-20, pp. 27-30. Click here to read.