Ellen Oliver – a Suffragette activist
by Adrian Bean
Ellen Frederica Oliver was born on 16th July 1870 in Guernsey, one of nine children. Her background was perhaps a common one for middle-class women who became interested in equality for women. Both her parents were from wealthy families. Her father, a Captain in the Royal Artillery, retired at 40 after service in the Far East and Mauritius and became a respected antiquarian, explorer, and botanist. Her grandfather had been a clergyman, and the family as a whole was deeply religious. Her mother was born in Mauritius, where her family had been involved in the government for many years. Due to the needs of Army service they had frequent moves (with their three servants) from Guernsey to Devon, Londonderry, and Hampshire. She didn’t learn to read or write until she was 11, but in her teenage years seems to have been encouraged to study formally and have a wide-ranging education. After her parents died, she lived with her married sister, and then by herself in Buckinghamshire. She travelled quite extensively, to Mauritius, New Zealand and possibly Jamaica and France. Travel “opened her eyes to the world’s miseries.” She never married or had a job, and she lived off her family investments.
When she came back she joined the Women’s Franchise Movement. She was an active member of the Worthing branch of the WSPU between 1912 and 1914, was the Secretary of the Worthing branch, and made financial donations to some of its causes. She was intensely religious, and for several years had illnesses including what appears to be depression, as she mentions “months of persecution with no wish to live.” She associated herself with various Social Purity movements, believing in the importance of men practising Chastity, and the abolition of prostitution. In a letter, she commented on how women are in good health until the day of their wedding. Later, she seems to have been put in Holloway prison, sharing a cell with a Mrs Doggert, after involvement in a petition to do with Women’s Suffrage. Like many other activists, she experienced hostility and abuse from men opposed to the suffragettes, especially at peaceful meetings, which were sometimes disrupted. Her response was a firm and sarcastic letter to the local newspaper about one such meeting she had attended, pointing out the “courage and manliness” of the men of Worthing. She was also a member of the Church League for Women’s Suffrage, a group for Church people and suffragists of all shades to gain votes for women.
For her, the struggle for Women’s rights was a spiritual as well as a political one. At a suffrage meeting in 1914, she learnt about a prophet called Joanna Southcott who had died a hundred years before, and Ellen used her money to help finance publication of Southcott’s writings. Intelligent and religious women like Ellen could find no official place for themselves in the Anglican church of the time, but Ellen could do her best to publicise the works of a female prophet.
Through a mutual interest in Southcott, Ellen began corresponding with a Bedford widow, Mabel Barltrop, who formed a largely female community of millenarians, called the Community of the Holy Ghost-later it became the Panacea Society. Ellen determined that Mabel was, in fact, the Daughter of God, and she moved to Bedford to join the Community. She was one of the most important and knowledgeable of the early members, helping set up and administer it. Mabel appointed her an “Apostle.” She lived at several addresses in Bedford, ending up in Adelaide Square. She suffered ill health, and died July 8th 1921.
On the day she died, members reported seeing angels and cherubs flying in the sky around Mabel’s house in Albany Road, and unusual cloud formations-surely an indication that the Day of Revelation was close. She was buried in Foster Hill Road cemetery, in the section just below the chapel: the “posh” bit.
The inscription on the stone is from the Book of Revelation. Panacea members considered her as the eighth angel of the Revelation. On her deathbed, she was asked to recite the names of all the 144 members at that time, and had the written prayers of the members on a silver plate at her side. She was to present these prayers when she went to Heaven.
She was buried next to Mabel Barltrop’s aunt, Fanny Waldron.
Grave Section F.320
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