Eleanor Acland – a neglected Liberal activist

By Paul Auchterlonie

Eleanor Acland was born Eleanor Margaret Cropper in Westmoreland in 1878, into a family with political connections. Her paternal grandfather, Sir James Cropper, was Liberal MP for Kendal from 1880 to 1885, while her maternal grandfather was Lord Knutsford who had been a Conservative MP and secretary to the colonies from 1887 to 1892. After studying at Oxford University, in 1906 Eleanor married the rising Liberal politician, Francis Acland of Killerton in Devon, who was elected MP for Richmond (Yorkshire) the same year. Although Eleanor was principally engaged in bringing up her family before the First World War (she had three sons and a daughter), she was also heavily involved in suffrage and Liberal politics in her own right.

She campaigned vigorously for the parliamentary vote for women, travelling the length and breadth of England in support of women’s and adult suffrage, and was Vice-President of the South-West Federation of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies from 1910 to 1914, as well as being on the committee of the People’s Suffrage Federation. She joined the Women’s Liberal Federation in 1911 and the following year organised support among Women’s Liberal Associations for the Conciliation Bill of 1912, which proposed to give a limited number of women the vote. However, the Bill failed by 14 votes, and Acland, frustrated by the Liberal Government’s lukewarm attitude to women’s suffrage, was instrumental in 1913 in creating the breakaway Liberal Women’s Suffrage Union, which tried to ensure that anti-suffragists were not selected as Liberal Party parliamentary candidates.

During the war, most of Acland’s activities were non-political and she spent the bulk of her time working for Belgian refugees. Her husband Francis had lost his post as Financial Secretary to the Treasury when the Asquith Government fell in 1916, and in 1919 she and her husband Francis moved from London to the family estate at Killerton. Eleanor, like Francis, was initially an Asquithian, and even favoured a Lib-Lab coalition at one time, but gradually became reconciled to Lloyd George after he ceased to be Prime Minister in 1922. Indeed, in 1925, Lloyd George launched the landmark Liberal rural land policy, The Land and the Nation, from the steps of Killerton.

Once the war had ended, Eleanor Acland became very active in supporting the twin causes of women’s issues and international peace. On the home front, she was President of the Exeter Women’s Welfare Association, and of the Exeter and District Society for Equal Citizenship, and campaigned for a maternity and birth control clinic in Exeter, which was eventually established after her death. Nationally, in 1921, she made a controversial visit to Ireland on behalf of the Women’s National Liberal Federation, which resulted in a report which criticised the British Government’s methods of military reprisals. Later in the decade, she was President of the Peacemakers’ Pilgrimage of 1926 in which 3000 women from fifty societies marched to London from seven different starting points which culminated in Eleanor leading a delegation from the Pilgrimage to the Foreign Secretary, Sir Austen Chamberlain. In 1928, she helped to form and then chaired the Anglo-American Women’s Crusade in support of the international Kellogg-Briand Pact ‘on the Renunciation of War as an Instrument of National Policy’.

Despite all these activities, her principal concern from 1918 until her premature death in 1933 was the Liberal Party. Not only did she support her husband who was MP successively for Richmond (Yorkshire), Camborne, Tiverton, and North Cornwall, and the several candidacies of her son Richard Acland, (he eventually became a Liberal MP in 1935), but she herself was selected as the Liberal candidate for Exeter in the General Election of 1931. She stood on a principled platform of support for the National Government while advocating free trade, and although she finished in second place with only 23% of the vote, this was a considerable improvement on the result in 1924, when the Liberal candidate had only received 17% and finished behind Labour (In 1929, the local Liberal Party had been unable to persuade her to stand against the popular Independent MP for Exeter, Sir Robert Newman, because she ‘found [herself] in general sympathy with his views on public questions,’).

Eleanor Acland also played a part in Liberal Party policy-making. She was the President of the Women’s National Liberal Federation from 1929 to 1931, was invited to the special policy meetings at Lloyd George’s house at Churt in the 1920s, and became the first woman member of the Advisory Committee of the Liberal Party. Much less well-known than contemporary Liberal women activists, such as Margery Corbett Ashby (1882-1981) and Eva Hubback (1886-1949), Eleanor Acland (who became Lady Acland in 1926, when her husband succeeded to the baronetcy) was in many ways as quietly influential as they were. Her death in 1933, at the age of 55, as a result of complications following a routine appendectomy, robbed the Liberal party of one of its most dynamic women activists in the inter-war period.  Indeed one obituary considered that ‘she was the most gifted woman Liberal in the country’ at the time of her death, and her contribution to Liberal politics should not be undervalued.

For more information see Eleanor Margaret Acland (1878-1933) by Mitzi and Paul Auchterlonie, which is one of eight biographical chapters in Devon Women in Public and Professional Life, 1900-1950;  Votes, Voices and Vocations (University of Exeter Press, 2021).