Wood was born in 1847 in London into a middle-class family of Irish
origin. Annie was always proud of being Irish and supported the cause
of Irish self-rule throughout her adult life.
Her father died
when she was young and left the family almost penniless. Annie’s
mother was forced to support the family by running a boarding house
for boys at Harrow. She raised the money for a private tutor for Annie
in this way.
Annie was educated
privately by a female tutor as an Evangelical Christian. She was given
a strong sense of duty to society and an equally strong sense of what
independent women could achieve.
As a young woman,
Annie was also able to travel widely in Europe. There she acquired a
taste for Catholic colour and ceremony which never left her.
She was married
in 1867 in Hastings, Sussex to 26-year-old, clergyman Frank Besant,
younger brother of Walter Besant. He was an Evangelical Anglican clergyman
who seemed to share many of her concerns.
Soon Frank became
vicar of Sibsey in Lincolnshire. Annie moved to Sibsey with him and
within a few years they had two children: Digby and Mabel.
The marriage was,
however, a disaster. The first conflict came over money and Annie’s
independence. Annie wrote short stories, books for children and articles.
Frank took all the money she made: married women did not have the right
to own property. Politics further divided the couple. Annie began to
support the farm workers, who were fighting to unionise and to win better
conditions. Frank was a Tory and sided with the landlords and farmers.
The tension came to a head when Frank struck Annie. She left him and
returned to London.
Annie began to question
her own faith. She turned to leading churchmen for advice. She even
went to see Dr. Pusey, leader of the Catholic wing of the Church of
England. He simply told her she had read too many books. Annie returned
to Frank to make one last effort to repair the marriage. It proved useless.
She finally left for London. Divorce was unthinkable for Frank, and
was not really within the reach of even middle-class people. Annie was
to remain Mrs. Besant for the rest of her life. At first, she was able
to keep contact with both children and to have Mabel live with her.
She got a small allowance from Frank. Her
husband was given sole custody of their two children.
She fought for
the causes she thought were right, starting with freedom of thought,
women's rights, secularism (she was a leading member of the National
Secular Society alongside Charles Bradlaugh), birth control, Fabian
socialism and workers' rights.
Once free of Frank
Besant and exposed to new currents of thought, Annie began to question
not only her long-held religious beliefs but the whole of conventional
thinking. She began to write attacks on the Churches and the way they
controlled people’s lives. In particular she attacked the status
of the Church of England as a state-sponsored faith.
Soon she was earning
a small weekly wage by writing a column for the National Reformer, the
newspaper of the National Secular Society. The Society stood for a secular
state: an end to the special status of Christianity. The Society allowed
her to act as one of its public speakers. Public lectures were very
popular entertainment in Victorian times. Annie was a brilliant speaker,
and was soon in great demand. Using the railway, she criss-crossed the
country, speaking on all of the most important issues of the day, always
demanding improvement, reform, freedom
For many years Annie
was a friend of the Society’s leader Charles Bradlaugh. It seems
that they were never lovers, but their friendship was very close indeed.
Bradlaugh, a former seaman, had long been separated from his wife. Annie
lived with Bradlaugh and his daughters, and they worked together on
Bradlaugh was an
atheist and a republican. He was working to get himself elected as MP
for Northampton to gain a better platform for his ideas.
Besant and Bradlaugh
became household names in 1877, when they published a book by the American
birth-control campaigner Knowlton. It claimed that working class families
could never be happy until they were able to decide how many children
they wanted. It suggested ways to limit the size of their families.
The Knowlton book caused great offence to the Churches but Annie and
Bradlaugh proclaimed in the National reformer: “We intend to publish
nothing we do not think we can morally defend. All that we publish we
The couple were
arrested and put on trial for publishing the Knowlton book. They were
found guilty, but released pending appeal. As well as great opposition,
Annie and Bradlaugh also received a great deal of support in the Liberal
press. Arguments raged back and forth in the letters and comment columns
as well as in the courtroom. For a time, it looked as though they would
be sent to prison. The case was thrown out finally only on a technical
point: the charges had not been properly drawn up.
The scandal lost
Annie her children. Frank was able to persuade the court that she was
unfit to look after them and they were handed over to him permanently.
political prospects were not damaged by the Knowlton scandal. He got
himself into Parliament at last in 1881. Because of his atheism, he
refused to swear the oath of loyalty. Although many Christians were
shocked by Bradlaugh, others (like the Liberal leader Gladstone) spoke
up for freedom of belief. It took more than six years before the whole
issue was sorted out, in Bradlaugh’s favour) after a series of
by-elections and court appearances.
built close contacts with the Irish Home Rulers and gave them support
in her newspaper columns. These were crucial years, in which the Irish
nationalists were forming an alliance with Liberals and Radicals. Annie
met the leaders of the movement. In particular, she got to know Michael
Davitt, who wanted to mobilise the Irish peasantry through a Land War:
a direct struggle against the landowners. She spoke and wrote in favour
of Davitt and his Land League many times over the coming decades.
parliamentary work gradually alienated Annie. Women had no part in Parliamentary
politics. Annie was searching for a real political outlet: politics
where her skills as a speaker writer and organiser could do some real
For Annie, politics,
friendship and love were always closely intertwined. Her decision in
favour of Socialism came about through a close relationship with George
Bernard Shaw, a struggling young Irish author living in London, and
a leading light of the Fabian Society. Annie was impressed by his work
and grew very close to him too in the early 1880’s. It was Annie
who made the first move, by inviting Shaw to live with her. This he
refused, but it was Shaw who sponsored Annie to join the Fabian Society.
In its early days, the Society was a gathering of people exploring spiritual,
rather than political, alternatives to the capitalist system.
Annie now began
to write for the Fabians. This new commitment - and her relationship
with G.B.S. - deepened the split between Annie and Bradlaugh, who was
an individualist and opposed to Socialism of any sort. While he would
defend free speech at any cost, he was very cautious about encouraging
working class militancy.
a central issue of the time and in 1887 some of the London unemployed
started to hold protests in Trafalgar Square. Annie agreed to appear
as a speaker at a meeting on November 13. The police tried to stop the
assembly. Fighting broke out and troops were called. Many were hurt,
one man died, and hundreds were arrested. Annie offered herself for
arrest, but the police refused to take the bait.
The events created
a great sensation and the newspapers dubbed it ‘Bloody Sunday’.
Annie was widely blamed or credited for it. She threw herself into organising
legal aid for the jailed workers and support for their families. Bradlaugh
finally broke with her because he felt she should have asked his advice
before going ahead with the meeting.
Socialists saw the
trade unions as the first real signs of working people’s ability
to organise and fight for themselves. Until now, trade unions had been
for skilled workers - men with a craft which might take years to acquire
and which gave them at least a little security. The Socialists wanted
to bring both unskilled men and women into unions to fight for better
pay and conditions.
Her most notable
victory in this period was perhaps her involvement in the London matchgirls
strike of 1888. Annie was drawn into this first really important battle
of the ‘New Unionism’ by Herbert Burrows, a young socialist
with whom she was for a time in love. He had made contact with workers
at Bryant and May’s match factory in Bow, London, who were mainly
young women. They were very poorly-paid. They were also prey to horrendous
industrial illnesses, like the bone-rotting Phossy jaw, which were caused
by the chemicals used in match manufacture. Some of the match workers
asked for help from Burrows and Annie in setting up a union.
Annie met the women
and set up a committee which led the women into a strike for better
pay and conditions. The action won enormous public support. Annie led
demonstrations by ‘match-girls’. They were cheered in the
streets and prominent churchmen wrote in their support. In just over
a week they forced the firm to improve pay and conditions. Annie then
helped them to set up a proper union and a social centre.
At the time, the
matchstick industry was an immensely powerful lobby, since electric
light was not yet widely available, and matches were essential for lighting
candles, oil lamps, gas lights, etc. (Only a few years earlier in 1872,
lobbyists from the match industry had mananged to get the British government
to change its planned tax policy.) Besant's campaign was the first time
anyone had successfully challenged the match manufacturers on a major
issue, and was seen as a landmark victory of the early years of British
During 1884, Annie
had developed a very close friendship with Edward Aveling, a young socialist
teacher, who lived in her house for a time. Aveling was a scholarly
figure and it was he who translated the important works of Marx into
English for the first time. Annie seems to have fallen in love with
Aveling, but it is not clear that he felt the same way. He was certainly
a great influence on her thinking, and she was a great support to his
work. However, Aveling left Annie to live with Eleanor Marx, daughter
of Karl Marx. This led to permanent ill-feeling between Annie and Eleanor
and probably pushed Annie towards the rival Fabians at that time. Aveling
and Eleanor joined the Marxist SDF but they distrusted its leader, Henry
Hyndman. Soon they left the SDF to join the Socialist League, a small
Marxist splinter group which formed around the artist William Morris.
It seems that Morris
played a large part in converting Annie to Marxism, but it was to the
SDF, not his Socialist League, that she turned in 1888. She remained
a member for a number of years and became one of its best speakers.
Strangely, she was still a member of the Fabian Society. Neither she
nor anyone else seemed to think the two movements completely incompatible
at the time.
Soon after joining
the Marxists, Annie stood for election to the London School Board. Because
women were not able to take part in parliamentary politics, it is often
thought that they did not have the vote until 1918. In fact, women householders
had been brought into the local electorate in 1881, and soon began to
make a mark in local politics.
Annie drove about
with a red ribbon in her hair, speaking at noisy meetings. “No
more hungry children,” her manifesto proclaimed. She made clear
that her Socialism had a feminist side too: “I ask the electors
to vote for me, and the non-electors to work for me because women are
wanted on the Board and there are too few women candidates.” Astonishingly,
Annie came top of the poll in Tower Hamlets, with over 15,000 votes.
Annie wrote in the National Reformer: “Ten years ago, under a
cruel law, Christian bigotry robbed me of my little child. Now the care
of the 763,680 children of London is placed partly in my hands.”
Annie was also closely involved in the struggle for the "Dockers’
Tanner". The dockers were poorly paid for hard and dangerous work.
They were casual labourers, only taken on for one day at a time. Ben
Tillett set up a union for dockers. Annie was crucial in this. She helped
Tillett to draw up the union’s rules and played an important part
in the meetings and agitation which built up the organisation. Tillett
led the dockers in a fight for better wages: sixpence (2½p.)
an hour. Annie spoke for the dockers at public meetings and on street
corners. Like the match-girls, the dockers won a lot of public support
for their struggle. Even Cardinal Manning, the head of the Roman Catholic
Church in England, came out on their side. After a bitter strike, the
‘dockers’ tanner’ was won.
Besant was a prolific
writer and a powerful orator. In 1889, she was asked to write a review
on The Secret Doctrine, a book by H.P. Blavatsky. After reading it,
she sought an interview with its author, meeting Blavatsky in Paris.
In this way she was converted to Theosophy. Annie's intellectual journey
had always involved a spiritual dimension, a quest for transformation
of the whole person. As her interest in Theosphy deepened, she allowed
her membership of the Fabian Society to lapse (1890) and broke her links
with the Marxists. When Blavatsky died in 1891, Annie was left as one
of the leading figures in Theosophy. Her most important public commitment
to the faith came in 1893, when she went to present it at the Chicago
Soon after becoming
a member of the Theosophical Society she went to India for the first
time (in 1893). After a dispute, where William Quan Judge, leader of
the American section was accused of falsifying letters from the Masters,
the American section split away. The remainder of the Society was then
led by Henry Steel Olcott and Besant and is today based in Chennai,
India and is known as the Theosophical Society Adyar. Thereafter she
devoted much of her energy not only to the Society, but also to India's
freedom and progress. Besant Nagar, a neighborhood (near the Theosophical
Society) in Chennai is named in her honor.
Together with Charles
Webster Leadbeater she investigated the universe, matter and the history
of mankind through clairvoyance. The two became embroiled over Leadbeater's
advice to young boys to masturbate. At the time such advice was highly
controversial. He had to leave the Theosophical Society over this in
1906. In 1908 he was taken back into the fold through the agency of
Besant, who had been elected president of the Theosophical Society in
1907 upon the death of the previous president Henry Steel Olcott.
Up until Besant's
presidency, the society had as one of its foci Theravada Buddhism and
the island of Ceylon, where Henry Olcott did the majority of his useful
work. Under Besant's leadership there was a decisive turn away from
this and a refocusing of their activities on "The Aryavarta",
as she called central India. Besant actively courted Hindu opinion more
than former Theosophical leaders. This was a clear reversal of policy
from Blavatsky and Olcott's very public conversion to Buddhism in Ceylon,
and their promotion of Buddhist revival activities on the subcontinent
(see also: Maha Bodhi Society).
Annie set up a new
school for boys at Varanasi: the Central Hindu College. Its aim was
to build a new leadership for India. The boys lived like monks. They
spent 90 minutes a day in prayer and studied the Hindu scriptures, but
they also studied modern science. It took 3 years to raise the money
for the CHC. Most of the money came from Indian princes.
Soon after Besant's
inheritance of the presidency, in 1909, Leadbeater discovered Jiddu
Krishnamurti on the private beach that was attached to the societies
headquarters at Adyar. Krishnamurti had been living there with his father
and brother for a few months prior to this. This discovery started years
of upheaval in the Theosophical Society in Adyar, as the boy was proposed
as the incarnate vessel for the Christ. Jiddu Krishnamurti and his brother
Nitya were brought up by Theosophists from that moment on, with a subsequent
lawsuit filed by his father.
Eventually, in 1929,
Krishnamurti ended up disbanding the Order of the Star of the East,
which had been founded to support him and of which he had been made
the leader.  This destroyed Besant's spirit, as it went against her
As well as her
religious activities, Annie continued to participate in concrete political
struggles. She had joined the Indian National Congress. As the name
suggested, this was originally a debating body which met each year to
consider resolutions on political issues. Mostly it demanded more of
a say for middle-class Indians in their own government. It had not yet
developed into a permanent mass movement with local organisation.
In 1914, war broke
out in Europe. Britain needed the support of its Empire in the fight
against Germany. Annie said: “England’s need is India’s
opportunity,” a clear echo of an Irish nationalist slogan. As
editor of a newspaper called New India, she attacked the (British) government
of India and called for clear and decisive moves towards self-rule.
As with Ireland, the government refused to discuss any changes while
the war lasted.
In 1916 Annie launched
the Home Rule League, once again modelling demands for India on Irish
models. For the first time India had a political party to fight for
change. Unlike the Congress itself, the League worked all year round.
It built a strong structure of local branches, enabling it to mobilise
demonstrations, public meetings and agitations. In June 1917 Annie was
arrested and interned at a hill station. She flew a red and green flag
in the garden to show her defiance. Congress and the Muslim League together
threatened to launch protests if she were not set free. Annie’s
arrest had created a focus for protest, giving those who wanted lon-term
independence for India a chance to work together for a simple, achievable
The government was
forced to give way and to make vague but significant concessions. It
was announced that the ultimate aim of British rule was Indian self-government
and moves in that direction were promised. Annie was freed in September
to a tremendous welcome from crowds all over India. In December she
took over as President of Congress for a year. It was perhaps the greatest
honour she received in her lifetime.
After the War, there
could be no going back. A new leadership emerged around Mohandas K.
Gandhi - one of those who had written to demand Annie’s release.
He was a lawyer who had returned from leading Asians in a peaceful struggle
against racism in South Africa. It was Annie who first called him Mahatma,
Great Soul, using the vocabulary of Theosophy. Nehru, Gandhi's closest
collaborator, had been educated by a Theosphist tutor.
The new leadership
too was committed to action that was both militant and non-violent,
but there were differences between them and Annie. Despite her past,
she was not happy with their socialist leanings. Until the very end
of her life though, she continued to campaign for India’s independence,
not only in India but on speaking tours of Britain. In her own version
of Indian dress, Mrs Besant remained a striking presence on speakers’
platforms. She produced a torrent of letters and articles demanding
She tried to accommodate
views into her life, but never really succeeded. The two remained friends,
though, until the end of her life. Annie Besant died in 1933 and was
survived by her daughter, Mabel.
Annie Besant, the
daughter of William Wood and Emily Morris, was born in 1847. Annie's
father, a doctor, died when she was only five years old. Without any
savings, Annie's mother found work looking after boarders at Harrow
School. Mrs. Wood was unable to care for Annie and she persuaded a friend,
Ellen Marryat, to take responsibility for her upbringing.
In 1866 Annie met
the Rev. Frank Besant. Although only nineteen, Annie agreed to marry
the young clergyman. By the time she was twenty-three Annie had two
children. However, Annie was deeply unhappy because her independent
sprit clashed with the traditional views of her husband. Annie also
began to question her religious beliefs. When Annie refused to attend
communion, Frank Besant ordered her to leave the family home. A legal
separation was arranged and Digby, the son, stayed with his father,
and Mabel went to live with Annie in London.
After leaving her
husband Annie Besant completely rejected Christianity and in 1874 joined
the Secular Society. Annie soon developed a close relationship with
Charles Bradlaugh, editor of the radical National Reformer and leader
of the secular movement in Britain. Bradlaugh gave Annie a job working
for the National Reformer and during the next few years wrote many articles
on issues such as marriage and women's rights.
In 1877 Annie Besant
and Charles Bradlaugh decided to publish The Fruits of Philosophy, Charles
Knowlton's book advocating birth control. Besant and Bradlaugh were
charged with publishing material that was "likely to deprave or
corrupt those whose minds are open to immoral influences". In court
they argued that "we think it more moral to prevent conception
of children than, after they are born, to murder them by want of food,
air and clothing." Besant and Bradlaugh were both found guilty
of publishing an "obscene libel" and sentenced to six months
in prison. At the Court of Appeal the sentence was quashed.
After the court-case
Besant wrote and published her own book advocating birth control entitled
The Laws of Population. The idea of a woman advocating birth-control
received wide-publicity. Newspapers like The Times accused Besant of
writing "an indecent, lewd, filthy, bawdy and obscene book".
Rev. Besant used the publicity of the case to persuade the courts that
he, rather than Annie Besant, should have custody of their daughter
In 1880 Charles
Bradlaugh was elected MP for Northampton, but as he was not a Christian
he refused to take the oath, and was expelled from the House of Commons.
As well as working with Bradlaugh, Besant also became friends with socialists
such as Walter Crane, Edward Aveling and George Bernard Shaw.
After joining the
Social Democratic Federation, Annie started her own campaigning newspaper
called The Link. Like Catherine Booth of the Salvation Army, Annie was
concerned about the health of young women workers at the Bryant &
May match factory. On 23rd June, 1888, Annie published an article White
Slavery in London where she drew attention to the dangers of phosphorus
fumes and complained about the low wages paid to the women who worked
at Bryant & May.
Three women who
provided information for Annie's article were sacked. Annie responded
by helping the women at Bryant & May to form a Matchgirls Union.
After a three week strike, the company was forced to make significant
concessions including the re-employment the three victimized women.
Besant also join
the socialist group, the Fabian Society, and in 1889 contributed to
the influencial book, Fabian Essays. As well as Besant, the book included
articles by George Bernard Shaw, Sydney Webb, Sydney Olivier, Graham
Wallas, William Clarke and Hubert Bland. Edited by Shaw, the book sold
27,000 copies in two years.
In 1889 Annie Besant
was elected to the London School Board. After heading the poll with
a fifteen thousand majority over the next candidate, Besant argued that
she had been given a mandate for large-scale reform of local schools.
Some of her many achievements included a programme of free meals for
undernourished children and free medical examinations for all those
in elementary schools.
In the 1890s Annie
Besant became a supporter of Theosophy, a religious movement founded
by Madame Blavatsky in 1875. Theosophy was based on Hindu ideas of karma
and reincarnation with nirvana as the eventual aim. Annie Besant went
to live in India but she remained interested in the subject of women's
rights. She continued to write letters to British newspapers arguing
the case for women's suffrage and in 1911 was one of the main speakers
at an important NUWSS rally in London.
While in India,
Annie joined the struggle for Indian Home Rule, and during the First
World War was interned by the British authorities. Annie Besant died
in India in 1933.
Born in London on
October 1, 1847, Annie Besant soon came to be known all over the world
as one of the most famous women of her day (West 9). She was an educational
and social reformer, an editor, a feminist, and the first woman to speak
openly in favor of birth control (Nethercor 1). Arthur H. Nethercor
describes these and the many other facets of Besant’s life in
two books entitled The First Five Lives of Annie Besant and The Last
Four Lives of Annie Besant.
At the age of five,
Besant’s father died, and without the financial resources to secure
her upbringing, her mother entrusted her to Ellen Marryat, a family
friend (Lewis np). Though she was born in England, Besant always resented
this part of her heritage, claiming that “three quarters of [her]
blood and all [her] heart was Irish” (Taylor 1). Nevertheless,
she would come to be known as one of England’s most prominent
In 1866, she married
a young clergyman, the Reverend Frank Besant. Together they had two
children, but when Annie refused to attend communion, she was ordered
to leave the family home. After the separation from her husband, Annie
rejected Christianity altogether, and in 1874 she joined the Secular
Society where she met a man by the name of Charles Bradlaugh (Lewis
Bradlaugh was the
editor of a newspaper called the National Reformer, and Annie received
a job working under him writing articles about women’s rights.
Later, the two wrote a book advocating the use of birth control. The
work, however, was judged to be “obscene libel” and Besant
and Bradlaugh received a six month prison sentence (Lewis np). The sentence
was eventually overturned on appeal, and Besant wrote a second book,
The Laws of Population, on the subject (Lewis np).
and rights were not, however, the only subjects that Besant addressed.
In the later years of the 19th century, she addressed such issues as
the unsafe industrial working conditions found throughout London, low
wages for employees of factories, and the need to provide for the city’s
poorer children (Lewis np)
Annie Besant had
turned away from Christianity when she left her husband, the Reverend
Frank Besant, but it wasn’t until she met Madame Blavatsky
in 1887 that she officially converted to Theosophy and became a powerful
speaker for the religion (Lewis np).
In November 1893,
Annie Besant left England for India where she planned to study Hindu
and the ideas of karma, reincarnation, and nirvana. She ended up living
out the last forty years of her life in India trying to bring about
an “irreversible shift in India’s political direction”
(Taylor 277). She purchased a newspaper that she renamed the New India,
and she used it to further advance her political objectives in the country.
In 1914, she was chosen to be a delegate to the Indian National Congress,
and in the following years she continued her work for India’s
freedom (Devi np). Annie Besant also began the Home Rule League on September
1, 1916, and in 1917 she became President of the Calcutta session of
the Indian National Congress (Devi np).
believe,” Besant wrote, “that the future of India, the greatness
of India, and the happiness of her people, can never be secured by political
methods, but only by the revival of her philosophy and religion. To
this, therefore, I must give all of my energies” (Besant qtd.
Besant gave all
of her energies to that cause for the last forty years of her life—until
she died in India in 1933. Besant’s life was, indeed, a splendid
adventure that she lived bravely and gallantly. And it is for those
reasons that she is remembered today as the greatest woman speaker and
activist of her day