Helena Mary Carroll Cobden Hirst 1880 – 1965

'The Last of the Cobdenites'

Saved by her Godfather

On February 16th 1880, Charles Henry and Helena Frances Peers Cobden’s daughter Helena Mary Carroll, was born in Yokohama, Japan. Frances died one month after giving birth, so the grandmother, Mary Ellen Green, looked after the young infant. However, the following year, Mary Ellen also died (at only 43 years of age). At this time Charles, a commercial clerk working for Jardine, Matheson and Co., trade and insurance agents of Yokohama, decided to leave Japan and return to Australia, leaving his young daughter Helena in the care of her godfather, James Dennis Carroll, an Irish/American businessman and ex-sea captain living in Kobe, who had been a close friend of her mother and grandmother. James Carroll, unmarried and running a busy ship chandler business, would have found it difficult to bring up a young girl. Wisely, he arranged for her to go to England to live with her relatives there. It seems Charles was either incapable of, or unwilling to take his daughter. Perhaps he could not be traced easily enough. As far as we know, Helena never saw her father again. In 1891 she would have received news of her father’s death in Australia, but also of the death of her godfather James Carroll, who had made her his main heir. On her father’s death, The Hay Standard and Advertiser (NSW) of June 3rd 1891 reported: 'by his first wife leaves a daughter about 9 years of age, living at Bombay, heiress to a large fortune.'


Yokohama, Japan 1890s, where Helena was born in 1880. Source: oldphotosjapan.com                                         

Progressive influences

Thanks to her inheritance from her godfather James Carroll, Helena was well provided for and must have been well cared for in England. She eventually became a student at Oxford and in 1901 according to the census, she was age 21 and a ‘visitor' at 10 Hereford Square Kensington, the home of one of her famous great-uncle Richard Cobden’s daughters, Emma Jane Catherine Cobden-Unwin, known as Jane. These family connections introduced her to the progressive intellectual circles in which Jane and her sisters were heavily involved. Jane was an active suffragist, who had worked hard to become an early female member of the London County Council and fighter for the rights of minority groups. Her husband was the progressive book publisher Thomas Fisher Unwin. 

The Cobden inheritance

At an early age, it seems that Helena's cousins (actually first cousins once removed) Jane Cobden-Unwin, Anne Cobden-Sanderson and Ellen Cobden Sickert, took her under their collective wing and kept her in the Cobden fold. In 1893, at the age of only 12, Helena with Jane and Ellen, attended the revived annual Cobden Club dinner held at the Ship Hotel in Greenwich. This club had been set up to continue Richard Cobden's philosophies of free trade, and promoting world peace. The last one had been in 1887 so this had been a particularly celebratory event and the Cobden women, Helena included, were seated in pride of place on either side of the chairman, Lord Playfair. Members and guests had travelled by steamer from the House of Commons to Greenwich, and guests included many international representatives as well as many Members of Parliament. This event must have made a huge impression on the young Helena.

At age 20, Helena was a member of The South Africa Conciliation Committee with Jane, Anne and Ellen. It was probably through her cousins' political associations that Helena met her future husband Francis Wrigley Hirst, who was heavily involved in the 'League Against Armaments and Militarism' that campaigned against the Boer War. The list of members' addresses of The South African Conciliation Committee in 1900 gives 10 Hereford Square Kensington as the address of Jane and husband Thomas, Ellen who was now divorced, as well as Francis and Helena.

A grand Heyshott wedding

Francis was from a wealthy Yorkshire family and trained as a barrister. However, he found greater success as a journalist and writer on economic affairs promoting the policies of Richard Cobden. He had also been a student at Oxford (1892-1896) just before the time Helena studied there. In 1899 he was a recipient of the Cobden essay prize for political economy. 

In 1903 Helena and Francis married at Heyshott, Midhurst, Sussex, the birthplace of her grandfather Henry Andrews Cobden, his brother Richard Cobden and many other Cobden forebears. The ceremony was held at St. James Parish Church where her cousin Jane had married eleven years earlier.

The Sussex Agricultural Express of August 1st reported:

And a very detailed report from the Whitby Gazette was published on July 31st:

'….The bride wore a beautiful dress of white crepe-de-chine over silk, both bodice and skirt being trimmed with sprays of chiffon flowers with velvet edges. She had a veil of tulle, a wreath of orange blossom in her hair, and also wore a string of pearls, and carried a bouquet of white roses and carnations, gifts of the bridegroom. Given away by her cousin Mr. T Fisher Unwin, she was attended by eight bridesmaids….. All the bridesmaids wore gold and enamel ‘Liberty' brooches, the gift of the bridegroom. …….. when the happy couple were leaving the church, ten little girls from Heyshott, dressed in pink, scattered flowers in front of the bride…….. the churchyard and village green being crowded with well-wishers whose presence testified to the esteem in which Miss Cobden and her family are held in the neighbourhood.'

After the reception at the Unwin’s, Helena and Francis left for their honeymoon.

'…the first part of which is being spent in the  neighbourhood of Malvern. The bride’s going-away dress was of pale green viola, the bolero having a wide collar of real lace and a vest of cream silk. Her hat was a black picture one, with ostrich feathers. Later in the afternoon, Mrs. Fisher-Unwin (Jane), entertained the Heyshott school children at tea in honour of the event.'

A huge list of wedding presents was listed. Among them were a piano from Jane and her husband Thomas, and a Dove’s Press edition of Tennyson’s poems from Anne’s husband who was one of the owners of the avant-garde printing press.

Suffragette movement

Around this time, Helena was becoming very involved in the movement to gain women the right to vote. No doubt, from her early teens she would have been exposed to all the discussions, literature and demonstrations surrounding the suffragist cause in which her cousins Jane, Anne, and Ellen were heavily involved. Through Jane, Helena was introduced to important women such as the American Susan Brownell Anthony, president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, who wrote in 1904 from New York to Jane: 

'I was very much pleased with your niece, Mrs Hurst [sic]. She came in to see us at the Hotel, and we were all more than charmed with her.'

and later:

'My niece was so disappointed when she saw Mrs. Hurst [sic] that she had missed the good times we had with her at your house. She was charming….'

Sexism at home

But Francis, although liberal thinking in most other respects, was not at all charmed with his wife’s suffragist opinions or activities. Another American friend, the law reformer Charles Culp Burlingham, wrote:

'Despite having two intelligent sisters and an intelligent wife, Francis Hirst believed that women were fundamentally irrational and therefore should be denied the vote. His wife disagreed, but they had a pact that neither would take a public stand on the issue. But in private the disagreement sometimes boiled to the surface.'

Their friend Abbott Lawrence Lowell, President of Harvard University, wrote: 

'I first knew then at the time she was a suffragette; far from being suppressed by him, he seemed to be a little afraid of her breaking loose on the subject, and asked us not to refer to it at a dinner he was giving – which did not prevent somebody else doing it and getting some lively expressions of opinion from her. And I remember the amazement, to say the least, when she admitted that she should prefer to avoid burning the house of an anti-suffragette friend, but would do so if necessary.'

This echoed the sentiments of the suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst who had stated that suffragettes held human life sacred, but 'if it was necessary to win the vote they were going to do as much damage to property as they could.'

Arrested at protest

Helena’s close friend Mary Agnes Hamilton, writer and later Yorkshire Labor MP, wrote in her book Remembering My Good Friends

'The one division between husband and wife arose on this issue: in 1913, Helena, deeply stirred by the Pankhurst campaign, took part in a Militant demonstration: threw a stone at a Minister’s window; and was arrested.' 

The Yorkshire Post, January 29th 1913 reported:

At the end of the report Helena's name was in a list of women arrested, but misspelled as 'Elena Hurst'. She had become a true suffragette and had participated in what was to become the most violent year of suffragette protest. Anne Cobden-Sanderson was more militant than Jane, and had been involved in many demonstrations, arrested and imprisoned in 1906 for her actions, although it was for being obstructionist rather than violent. 

Marriage tension

Helena’s stone throwing and consequent arrest caused much tension in her marriage, and possibly embarrassment for Francis as he was a distant relative of Prime Minister Asquith but also it was at a time when he was building a strong public profile as a writer on economics. By the 1910s Francis 'was one of the most powerful Liberal voices of Edwardian Britain' (A Howe*). 

Apparently Francis and Helena separated briefly over her radical actions. To heal the rift, Francis had to enlist the help of their close friend Sir John Simon, to mediate between them. 'Poignant at the time, this rift in the end deepened their unity.' according to Mary Hamilton. 

An international woman

One very strong area of agreement between Helena and Francis was the issue of world peace. They had both been opposed to the Boer War in South Africa and the war in the Balkans. Just as strongly they were against Britain joining in the war against Germany. In 1914, Helena and Anne signed the Open Christmas Letter from the Manchester Suffragettes to the women of Germany and Austria, expressing sorrow at the war between their two countries and acknowledging the tragic price paid by non-combatants in wartime.

Because she was born in Japan into an international community of ex-patriots, and migrated to England when still a child (possibly via Bombay), Helena was no stranger to foreign parts or travel. There is a shipping record of her travelling to South Africa on at least two occasions, many times to New York, and in 1923 with her friend Mary Hamilton, she took a holiday to Vienna, Budapest and Prague.

Helena sometimes accompanied Francis on his many trips to the USA and travelled there many times after his death. They had made friends and acquaintances with socially progressive Americans: the suffragist Susan B. Anthony; A. Lawrence Howell, President of Harvard University who believed in integrating social classes at Harvard; and the law reformer Charles Culp Burlingham. Others included James Grover McDonald who worked to encourage programs to resettle Jews after the end of WWII and Felix Frankfurter, one of the founders of the American Civil Liberties Union. In 1934 James Grover McDonald wrote in his diary: 'At the Frankfurters’ met Mrs Francis Hirst to whom Frankfurter was very anxious that I should talk frankly about the German situation. This I did. She is said to be an intimate of Sir John Simon.'

Eleanor Roosevelt

Another friend was Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of American President Franklin D. Roosevelt and known for her outspoken opinions to promote civil rights for African and Asian Americans, as well as women’s workplace rights. An article in The Citizen newspaper on February 4th 1946 written by Eleanor Roosevelt whilst on a trip to London, includes this reference to Helena and Francis:

Perhaps it was due to her international experiences, possibly an ability to speak Japanese, or the social circles in which she mixed, that led her to be invited to a luncheon given by the wife of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Snowden, at 11 Downing Street. The Dundee Courier February 1930 reports:

Other political and social life

From about 1908, the Hirsts lived at 27 Campdon Hill Square, Kensington. Here, in January 1913, a week or so prior to Helena’s arrest on the 29th, they hosted the wedding of Francis’s sister, Helen Garnett Hirst to John Ernest Allen at their home. Gifts from several Women’s Liberal Associations were received showing that family and politics were not far apart.

During the 1920s, the Hirsts lived at 36 Ladbroke Grove, Kensington. Later in this decade Francis, with a long family history in Yorkshire, decided to run as the Member for Shipley in the 1929 General Election. He was unsuccessful, but Helena had worked hard to support his campaign, doing such things as fundraising and public speaking on his behalf. In September of 1929 the Shipley division of the Women’s Liberal Council presented her with antique jewellery in appreciation of her services at the General Election. Helena had been involved with the Women’s National Liberal Federation and in 1928 she attended an 'At Home' fundraiser given by past president, and now Member of Parliament, Mrs Hilda Runciman. The Hirsts were among the 500 guests at Hilda’s daughter’s 'coming out' ball at the Mayfair Hotel in London that year. In 1932, at a Liberal County Conference at Glastonbury, Francis was the opening speaker. Helena participated in discussions and was acknowledged as a descendant of Richard Cobden.

Dunford House centre for economics and peace

Jane Cobden-Unwin gave her father Richard Cobden’s old home, Dunford House, to the London School of Economics in 1920 and then in 1928 donated it to the Cobden Memorial Association. Over the 1930s, Helena and Francis lived at 13 Kensington Park Gardens but Dunford became the Hirst’s home away from London. With the Cobden-Unwins, Francis helped continue the Cobdenite causes of free trade, peace and goodwill by turning Dunford House into a conference and education centre for furthering these views. Many conferences and events were held there, including efforts to raise money to maintain the house and property, which was said to be struggling despite the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace making a large contribution towards its upkeep. Some of the events reported in the newspapers included: a summer fete in 1930 to raise funds; and excursions and tours of the house and property. For example in 1933, The Northern Division, Women’s Liberal Association, toured Dunford for their annual outing: 

'Mr T Fisher Unwin (Jane’s husband), who is now 87, gave the party a cordial welcome, and a talk on the many things of history in the house where many rooms are furnished as in Cobden’s time. It is now a well-furnished and equipped place of residence with modern comforts and ready for holding conferences and the reception of visitors. Tea was served to the Portsmouth party on the lawn in front of the house by the housekeeper and the visitors were afterwards shown over the house and grounds.'

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Dunford House, Midhurst, Sussex. Source: Gravel Roots                                                               


Drawing Room at Dunford House - note the portrait of Richard Cobden above the fireplace. Source: Gravel Roots                                                                                                            

The Cobden-Unwins were too elderly to continue the workload. When Jane’s husband died in 1935, Francis took over the responsibility of Dunford House and its conferences organized by the Cobden Memorial Association. These included gatherings on world peace and local and international economic issues with speakers such as the radical politician Lord Snowden, economist Sir George Paish, Professor A. S. Turberville and radical French politician M. Joseph Caillaux. 

Little is known about Helena’s life during the Second World War. Later, in 1947, her last remaining Cobden cousin Jane, died at the age of 97 (Anne died in 1926, Ellen in 1914, and their elder sister Kate, in 1916). Only Helena and Francis were left to carry on the Cobden cause. In 1951, it was decided to transfer Dunford House and property to the National Council of the YMCA, for its continued use as an educational venue. The YMCA still runs the property today***.

Article in the Evening News, August 7th 1952.                                                                  Source: British Newspaper Archive


International students working at Dunford House 1952. Source: dunfordhouse.org.uk                                                 

Francis’s death

This decision may have been at least in part due to Francis’s poor health, which had been declining for several years. In the winter of 1952-3, Francis was suffering from influenza, and on February 22nd 1953 at the age of 79, he died at the Drove Hotel in Sussex. On March 5th a memorial service was held for him at the chapel of his old university college Wadham in Oxford. In her will, Helena made a bequest to Wadham College in his name.

No ordinary ‘housewife'

Helena became 'the last of the Cobdenites'. Author and journalist Arthur Ransome and his wife Evgenia, were very close friends of the Hirsts. Arthur consoled Helena after the death of Francis, reminding her of what a great support she had been for her husband:

'Everybody who knew him knew how enormously valuable to him was the support from you on which he could always count. . . . He had a happy life and you gave it him.'

After Francis’s death, Helena now into her 70s, moved to 44 Downhills Way Great Cambridge Rd London and continued to travel to New York, keeping in touch with her many old friends there. But her travels weren’t purely social. In 1961, at the age of 81, she was invited to speak in New York at the banquet of the Henry George** School of Social Science. Alexandra Tolstoy, daughter of the famous author, was one of several other speakers. On the shipping passenger lists Helena's occupation was variously given as ‘retired’ or 'home duties' or 'housewife'.

Helena died at the age of 85, on December 27th 1965 at Aldingbourne House, Aldingbourne near Chichester, West Sussex. This was probably a nursing home. Helena and Francis did not have children of their own, but in Helena’s will, she remembered her many godchildren.  She and Francis are buried at the Saffron Walden Cemetery in Essex.

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Aldingbourne House where Helena died in 1965. Source: TuckDB Postcards                                                    


*Anthony Howe is Professor of Modern History at the University of East Anglia.

**Henry George (1839-87) a philosopher and political economist

*** As of 2019/20 the YMCA have put Dunford House up for sale and potential buyers may look at turning the property into a wedding venue, hotel or apartments. This is contrary to the wishes and terms of the endowment from the Cobden family. See the Cobden Foundation Appeal https://www.cobdenfoundation.org/