Madeleine Symons: Social and Penal Reformer and Trade Unionist

Madeleine Symons, c. 1924. Courtesy Emma Corbett

Madeleine Symons, c. 1924. Courtesy Emma Corbett

Guest blogger Martin Ferguson Smith writes about Madeleine Symons and the use he made of the TUC Library Collections when researching her for his book Madeleine Symons: Social and Penal Reformer, published on 27 October 2017 by SilverWood Books, Bristol, ISBN 978-1-78132-719-7 (paperback), 978-1-78132-748-7 (ebook). Martin is an emeritus professor at Durham University and has a website at

Madeleine Jane Symons – Robinson after her marriage in 1940 – had a privileged upbringing. Born in 1895 to wealthy parents, she was educated at a private boarding school and Newnham College, Cambridge. But from the time she left university until her death in 1957, she worked tirelessly to improve the lot of those who were less fortunate than herself.

In her last year at Newnham she was president of its Society for Women’s Suffrage. In May 1916, just before she completed her studies, the Society was addressed by Susan Lawrence on the position of women in industry during the war and on the need to extend trade union membership among women. A few weeks later Madeleine became an officer in the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL) and its sister organisation, the National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW). Lawrence was one of her senior colleagues. Others included Mary Macarthur, general secretary of the WTUL, Gertrude Tuckwell, president of the NFWW, Margaret Bondfield, and Jimmy Mallon. Madeleine soon gained a reputation for being an outstandingly successful negotiator. To Macarthur she became not only an invaluable colleague, but also a close friend, and, after Macarthur’s early death on 1 January 1921, she was much involved with the care of Macarthur’s young daughter, Nancy Anderson.

On 28 July 1925 Madeleine turned thirty and became eligible to vote for the first time. It is quite a thought that by that time she had not only been a trade union officer for nine years, but also served on the executive committee of the Labour Party, as a Justice of the Peace, and as a member of the Royal Commission on Lunacy and Mental Disorder.

The following year, her trade union career was ended by pregnancy and unmarried motherhood. Her lover and the father of her daughter was Jimmy Mallon, a married man and the warden of Toynbee Hall. He had been a professional colleague of hers since 1916. Madeleine adopted the child in 1927 and, two years later, adopted a boy, of whom she was not the biological mother. When she returned to public life in 1932, it was as a juvenile magistrate in London. For the next twenty-five years she gave outstanding service not only to the juvenile courts, but also to the Howard League for Penal Reform and other welfare organisations and to the work of departmental committees.

With my daughter, Lucinda Smith, an archives assistant, I had the privilege of spending a day and a half in the TUC Library Collections in January 2016, investigating Madeleine’s career, mainly the earlier part of it. I am most grateful for the kind permission to do this, and for the expert guidance of Jeff Howarth, Academic Liaison Librarian.

The research was concentrated on three collections:

1. The WTUL Minute Books, 1911-1921, catalogue no. HD 6079. The first mention of Madeleine is in the minutes of an executive committee meeting on 8 November 1917. Her “excellent work … in the matter of negotiations with firms etc” was reported, and it was agreed that she be invited to join the EC. From January 1919 on, there are frequent references to her efforts to improve the pay and conditions of many groups of women workers, including laundresses, waitresses, and makers of tinned foods, aerated water, tin boxes, safety pins, perambulators, and umbrellas. In the summer of 1921 the WTUL ceased to exist. The minutes of the EC meeting of 26 May 1921 record its agreement that the work of the WTUL be carried on by the Parliamentary Committee of the TUC. Several months earlier, in early February, the NFWW had amalgamated with the National Union of General Workers, with Margaret Bondfield becoming chief secretary of the Women Workers’ Section and Madeleine its assistant secretary and head negotiator.

2. The Gertrude Tuckwell Papers, especially catalogue no. 701, a valuable collection of press cuttings that includes many items relating to Madeleine’s trade union work in the years 1918-1920. The cuttings sometimes confirm and often supplement information in the WTUL minute books. They document not only Madeleine’s efforts on behalf of poorly paid or unemployed women workers, but also her participation in delegations and conferences and her concern about the situation in Europe after WW1.

3. The Mary Macarthur Holiday Trust Archive, specifically Minute Books 001 and 003 and Folder 006. Very soon after Macarthur’s death, her close colleagues decided that the most appropriate way to honour her memory was to establish a holiday home for working women. Its patroness was Queen Mary, who had long taken an active interest in the problems of the poor and in women’s employment. Madeleine was a member of the Committee of Management and assistant honorary secretary. She left the Committee in 1928, but returned in 1934 and thereafter was closely involved in its work for most of the rest of her life, from December 1949 as chairman.

The contributions Madeleine made to the women’s trade union movement during and after WW1 and to the promotion of social justice and penal reform throughtout her adult life were significant and admirable, but until now have been largely overlooked. The material about her in the TUC Library Collections much helped in the writing of the first biography of her, published sixty years after her death.


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