Women and Power: Emily Massingberd

Photo of Emily Massingberd

As part of the National Trust’s commemoration to mark a hundred years since the passing of the Representation of the People Act when some women over 30 got the right to vote, we celebrate the life of Gunby's political and social pioneer Emily Massingberd.

Emily Massingberd (1847-1897)

Gunby's Emily was a tee-total political activist who campaigned for women’s rights and, for preference, dressed like a man. She was a keen amateur actor (preferring to take male parts) and played the violin. She had four children: Mildred, Stephen, Mary and Diana.

Emily's full name was Emily Caroline Langton-Massingberd from birth. She married her cousin, Edmund Langton, and was known as Emily Langton-Langton from 1867 to 1887. When her father died in 1887, Emily inherited his estate and re-assumed the surname Massingberd by royal licence. After that she went by 'Mrs. Massingberd' rather than 'Mrs. Langton'.

Emily Langton Massingberd with her family
Group portrait photograph of Emily Langton Massingberd with her young adult children
Emily Langton Massingberd with her family

The Pioneer Club

Her ethical and political beliefs were united in the Pioneer Club, an institution she founded in 1892. A socially levelling institution for women (men were permitted only at Social Evenings on Wednesdays) where all were identified by number rather than by name, it sought through lectures (every Thursday) and social campaigning to tackle issues of concern such as vivisection and explore new philosophies such as theosophy, but overwhelmingly it was concerned with improving the lot of women.

Club walls displayed artwork produced by members, and the club’s symbol was a silver axe. By 1893 it had 320 members, and went mixed by 1909. Members included Eleanor Marx, Sarah Grand, the children’s author L.T. Meade, and Mona Caird. George Bernard Shaw and Millicent Fawcett were speakers. The club was temperate, and egalitarian. Massingberd described the club as follows in February 1893: 'Here we have no social distinctions, we all meet together on the common ground of sisterhood […] We are of all creeds and politics, of different professions and of no professions, although most of us ‘do’ something, but united together in the desire to promote the advancement of women’s interests'.

Visit the first floor sitting room of Gunby Hall during house opening times from May onwards to explore a contemporary reinterpretation of the Pioneer Club.

Emily Massingberd 1847-1897
Emily Massingberd
Emily Massingberd 1847-1897

Temperance

Whilst the story of her lecturing her tenantry on the evils of drink from a boat moored on the ice house pond may be a myth, her lifelong hatred of alcohol had effects on Gunby that survive to this day. The Massingberd Arms Farm started life as a pub which Emily converted into a tee-total 'Temperance House', whereupon it went bankrupt and became a farmhouse. In the hall her youngest daughter Diana, as zealous as her mother, but married to a soldier who liked to drink, changed the library to create a sitting room in which drink could be taken whilst preserving the tee-total purity of her drawing room.

Visit Orchard Gallery during August and try one of the alcohol-free 'mocktails' that we hope Emily would have approved of in the tea-room.

Diana Montgomery Massingberd 1872-1963
Diana Montgomery Massingberd
Diana Montgomery Massingberd 1872-1963

Vote for Emily!

The 1888 Local Government Reform Act left it vague who had the right stand for election and who did not. So in the elections of January 1889 Emily stood for the ward of Partney, in her right as a landowner, and lost by only 20 votes. She was one of the first women in the country to stand for public office. 

Enjoy meeting re-enactors on our Vote for Emily! days
Suffragette reenactors
Enjoy meeting re-enactors on our Vote for Emily! days

On 6 and 7 May we held 'Vote for Emily!' days. Visitors stepped back in time on these two special days and met suffragettes and campaigners for 'Votes for Women' as well as finding out more about Emily Massingberd. There were demonstrations of Suffrajitsu: a martial art of the suffragettes to fight for women’s rights.

Enjoy demonstrations of 'Suffrajitsu': martial art for suffragettes
Suffragette re-enactors
Enjoy demonstrations of 'Suffrajitsu': martial art for suffragettes

Country Squire

Emily, who had been widowed in 1875, succeeded her father at Gunby in 1887. She enjoyed the life of a country squire up to a point, but found the isolation of Lincolnshire trying and, after a couple of years, let Gunby once again, retiring to live in Bournemouth (where she produced amateur theatricals with her friend Agnes Mangles) and London. Here she preferred to live at the Club in Bruton Street rather than with her teenaged children in the house she rented for them in Kensington Square. She died after an operation in 1897 aged only 49. 

After Massingberd’s early death, L.T. Meade wrote The Cleverest Woman in England (1898), which depicts Massingberd as Dagmar Ollofson, head of the suffragist ‘Forward Club’, who similarly dies early. The book pays this tribute to Ollofson/Massingberd: 'She was one of the pioneers in a great movement; and although her life ceased when her work was hardly begun, there are still some women in London and remember her, and can never forget her… who but would not have dared to break through the thraldom of the narrow walls of old prejudice, and those women still in memory hear her voice, and touch her hand.'

Emily Massingberd
Emily Massingberd
Emily Massingberd