Laura McLaren of Bodnant Garden
Laura McLaren (1854-1933) was a force of nature; not just an acclaimed gardener, gifted painter and astute businesswoman but also a passionate political campaigner with skills as a powerful orator and writer.
Her early life bore the hallmarks of great Victorian drama; her father a successful entrepreneur and radical Liberal, and her mother a pioneer of Women’s Suffrage, she grew up among the prosperity and poverty of Victorian Manchester. Four of her siblings died in childhood, she was eight when the Cotton Famine ravaged the northern mills, she witnessed her parents efforts to alleviate hardship of the working people in Salford and was attended the their political gatherings – as a teenager she was in the audience at the 1868 meeting of the Manchester National Society for Women’s Suffrage, the starting point for the campaign for women’s suffrage in Britain, where her father and mother gave speeches.
Laura shared her parents’ political drive and was active from an early age, attending public meetings, writing pamphlets, letters, and articles in the press – ranging from fashion to women’s rights. In 1877 she married into a Scottish Quaker family of equal campaigning credentials; her husband Charles was a barrister and nephew of celebrated Liberal MPs Jacob and John Bright; her mother-in-law, Priscilla, a campaigner against slavery and a pioneer of women’s rights.
In 1895 Laura inherited Bodnant following the disinheritance of her surviving brother (following an unsuitable marriage and a scandalous court case) and continued developing the estate and garden. In 1901 she handed the day-to-day care to her eldest son Henry, on his 21st birthday, in order to devote more time to political life.
From her London home she served with the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies lecturing, writing pamphlets and rallying government support; aided by her suffragist daughters Florence and Elsie, supported from sidelines by her mother and mother-in-law, all harnessing the political clout of the men of the family – both Laura’s sons Henry and Francis as well as husband Charles served as Liberal MPs.
Laura and the suffragists opposed militancy and campaigned for peaceful change. She was at the Albert Hall rally held in 1908 which descended into chaos and violence as suffragettes heckled Chancellor David Lloyd George when she appealed for calm:
“The suffragist party say they have declared a war but even in war there are things which are not done. One thing is to poison springs. I contend that by violence women poison that spring of pity and trust which wells up in the heart towards the unenfranchised sex.”
In 1909 Laura produced The Women's Charter of Rights and Liberties for the International Woman Suffrage Alliance. During WW1 she also ran a nursing home for officers in her London home in Belgrave Square, for which she was awarded a CBE.
In later years Laura went on to develop her celebrated garden at the Château de la Garoupe, in the south of France and was awarded the RHS Victoria Medal of Honour in 1931. She died at the Château in 1933 (followed a year later by her husband) and was returned home to Bodnant Garden where she is buried at The Poem alongside her family.
Laura was described in her obituary in The Times as one of the greatest horticulturists in Europe. The newspaper also recorded that she was: “a capable woman of business, with the ready grasp and the courageous power of decision that enabled her to weigh big problems with the brain of a man.”
To which we’ll let Laura have the last word: “What women hate is not mankind, but man’s thoughtless injustice, his complacent satisfaction – when he offers women dross for gold and calls it chivalry.”