Julia Sarah Anne Cobden-Sanderson 1853-1926             Socialist and Suffragette    

Early days

Julia Sarah Anne Cobden, the seventh child of Richard Cobden and his wife Catherine Williams, was born at Westbourne Terrace, Kensington, London, on March 26th 1853. Anne (or Annie), as she was known, spent her early childhood at the family home “Dunford House” near Heyshott in West Sussex. After her father died in 1865 she and her sister Jane attended the Warrington Lodge School in Maida Hill London, and later Anne completed school in Germany.

In 1869 Anne’s mother went to live in her native Wales, leaving Anne and her sister Jane to live in London amongst family friends such as George McDonald (author, poet and minister of religion) at “The Retreat” Upper Mall, Hammersmith, which later became the designer William Morris’s Kelmscott House. Anne later wrote that living there was “full of excitement and interest. Meals were erratic; but no one complained, for self-forgetfulness was the rule of the house. The belief in Divine Guidance carried us over the difficulties”. She also said later after William Morris took ownership: “the days of Christian Socialism came to an end at Hammersmith, to be succeeded for a time in the same house by the more strenuous days of Marxian Socialism”. She was to later join Morris’s Hammersmith Socialists.

Anne also displayed an adventurous spirit. In 1874 she and her sister Ellen travelled to Algeria to join Sir Robert Playfair’s expedition to the Aures Mountains.

Marriage to Thomas Sanderson

Anne and Jane Cobden were friends with the Arts and Crafts Movement’s leader William Morris and his wife Jane. In 1881, the three women travelled to Siena for a holiday, where Anne met her future husband Thomas James Sanderson, also a friend of Morris’s, who was in Siena for respite from his work as a barrister (this may not have been their first meeting, as one writer in the New York Periodicalsays Anne met him at the house of the painter Burne-Jones). The two had much in common sharing progressive social and political views and Thomas was an admirer of Anne’s father. The next year on August 5th they married in Marylebone, London, each taking the hyphenated surname Cobden-Sanderson. This was quite unconventional for the time, but as Anne had no surviving brothers, she wanted to ensure the continuation of her father’s name, and as Thomas said, she didn’t want to lose her name.

The Doves Bindery

Thomas became dissatisfied with his profession and in 1883, wanting to engage in manual work, he turned to bookbinding at the suggestion of Jane Morris. Anne was very supportive, and persuaded him that if they were careful, they could live on her income. Thomas soon learned the bookbinding craft, and also taught Anne who assisted him when she could, combining this with rearing two small children: Richard born in 1884 and Stella Gabrielle born in 1886. In 1893, through Anne’s vital financial support, Thomas was able to establish the Dove’s Bindery at “The Nook” 15 Upper Mall, Hammersmith, just down the lane from Kelmscott House. Thomas made bindings for some of Morris’s books, including copies of the famous Kelmscott “Chaucer" and Morris leased some rooms from the Cobden-Sandersons for the Kelmscott Press. Anne and Thomas sometimes lunched with the Morris’s and spent time with them at Morris’s countryside Kelmscott Manor.

Thomas was an excellent craftsman however he was also an obsessive perfectionist causing him to overwork, becoming physically strained and generally unwell, resulting in the need for many holiday breaks. He also suffered frequent bouts of depression that must have impacted on Anne and the children. From 1897 to 1898, Anne stayed with the children in Lausanne, Switzerland. Thomas accepted this as Anne’s need for freedom: “the freedom of her life suits her” and that it was “the better way for ourselves and our children”.

Doves’ type dispute

In 1900, with Anne’s financial support of £1600, Thomas and the photo-engraver and printer Emery Walker, set up the Dove’s Press with the bindery (the nearby Kelmscott Press had closed in 1898, a few years after Morris’s death). Here they created the elegant Dove’s typeface, demonstrated most famously in their print of the English Bible. Their work achieved international recognition and was, and still is, highly prized by dealers and collectors.

However, the partnership with Walker did not work out and in 1909 when the partnership was dissolved, a nasty dispute began centring on the ownership of the Dove’s typeface. Breaking a previously agreed arrangement, Thomas was determined that Walker should not have the type, so without Anne or anyone else’s knowledge, he stored it away and finally between 1916 and 1917, dumped (or in his words “bequeathed”) the type into the River Thames from the nearby Hammersmith Bridge.

After Thomas’s death in 1922, Emery Walker sued Anne for the cost of producing the typeface and for lost earnings. They disagreed on whether the Dove’s typeface made the books famous or the books made the typeface famous, Anne arguing the latter. The matter was settled out of court, Anne paying Walker around £700.


Blue Plaque at 15 Upper Mall Hammersmith commemorating Thomas Cobden-Sanderson. Anne is not mentioned!

Photo: Euan McGillivray 2016

Community work and socialism

Anne and her sisters were brought up to have a social conscience and to assist their local community. This began with engaging with their local village in Heyshott where they grew up. As teenagers the girls helped out at the local school and workhouses. Later from 1910-1922 Anne would become a Poor Law Guardian at Hammersmith where she lived. In 1879, the Cobden sisters founded the Working Men’s Club at Heyshott that provided a coffee house and recreational and meeting venue for the local farm labourers.

In 1890 Anne joined the Hammersmith Socialist Society that had been established by William Morris and Emery Walker. In 1902 she joined the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and became treasurer of their metropolitan branch in London, and in 1906 was one of five women delegates at the 6th annual conference of the Labour Representation Committee. In 1905 she was a founding member of the Right to Work committee of the ILP that drew attention to unemployment problems. (In 1909 she and other women socialists led a march of the wives and children of the unemployed of London.) Also in 1905 the ILP published a pamphlet she wrote on her father: “Richard Cobden and the Land of the People”, which included a foreword by the Labour leader Kier Hardie, and represented Cobden’s views on land reform. Anne took these a step further by promoting public ownership of land and in 1909 she organised a lecture at Dunford to establish a movement for the public ownership of land.

Health reforms

A particular passion of Anne’s was children’s wellbeing and she did a lot of work assisting the poor in London’s east end where the problems were the greatest. She was an active supporter of the ground-breaking Bow Children’s Clinic (established by fellow socialists, the sisters Margaret and Rachel MacMillan) that provided health services, including dental, surgical and general health and fitness education. With the MacMillan sisters Anne campaigned for compulsory medical inspections and the provision of nutritionally designed school meals:

From The Cornishman May 27th 1909      Source: British Newspaper Archive

Anne with Margaret McMillan wrote a pamphlet for the ILP entitled “London’s Children. How to Feed Them and How Not to Feed Them”. She emphasised that “the feeding of children…….. is a NATIONAL question”.


From a young age Anne was very interested in issues concerning the environment and animals, and so from the age of 20, she became a vegetarian. Years later, with several other concerned women, Anne established the New Food Reform Movement that aimed to draw people’s attention to the health and environmental problems of the traditional meat-based English diet. She asserted that the traditional English diet was wasteful, harmful to health and the digestion. In 1908 she wrote “How I Became A Vegetarian” printed at the Dove’s Press.

The suffragette “I am a law breaker because I want to be a law maker”

Part of Anne’s socialism was the need to affect changes in the status of women, who at that time did not have the right to vote. In the late 19th century women had been gradually taking part in local governance by being permitted to stand for office in areas such as school boards and parish councils. (In 1889 Anne’s sister Jane was one of the first two women to be elected to the London City Council.) There was also growing agitation to draw public attention to improving women’s pay and working conditions through the establishment of organisations such as the Women’s Trade Union League set up in 1888, and protests such as the strike by the women working at Bryant and May’s match factory.

Anne’s mother had progressive views concerning women’s status and had signed the women’s suffrage petition (known as the “Ladies Petition”) in 1866, one of the initial actions that sparked off the organised women’s suffrage movement. This inspired Anne and her sisters’ involvement in the cause for women’s rights and in 1871, while still a teenager, Anne attended the Women’s Suffrage Conference in London. In 1897 The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) was formed, and Anne became a member. Their purpose was to achieve the vote for women through lobbying political MPs and parties.

Time and again, liberal politicians promised their support, but if not voted down in parliament, they backed away for other political reasons. Anne lost patience with the NUWSS’s lack of success in affecting any change, and so in 1905 she joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), a group run by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters, who were prepared to use militant and illegal tactics to achieve their goals. Some of their strategies included civil disobedience such as protesting in and around government buildings, violence such as window smashing and setting mailboxes alight, and hunger strikes when imprisoned. In the press this group was termed “suffragettes” and their motto was “Deeds not words”.

Hammermith WSPU banner

Source: Museum of London

Convict E28

Anne was a true suffragette, however as a pacifist she did not engage in violent demonstration, but instead demonstrated through civil disobedience and making many public protests. In 1906 on October 23rd, Anne was one of ten women with Emmeline Pankhurst to be arrested for protesting in the lobby of the House of Commons. The women were charged with `using threatening and abusive words and behaviour with intent to provoke a breach of the peace' and sentenced to two months in Holloway Prison. The sight of such respectable middle-class women being arrested, prosecuted and sent to prison, quickly got the attention of the press and gave the cause an even higher profile. George Bernard Shaw, a friend of Anne’s, wrote a letter to The Times, expressing his disgust that Anne was "one of nicest women in England suffering from the coarsest indignity". Her friend Millicent Garret Fawcett, a leader of the NUWSS, also wrote to The Times: "I have known Mrs Cobden-Sanderson for 30 years. …….. I find it absolutely impossible to believe that she bit, or scratched, or screamed, or behaved otherwise than like the refined lady she is." She also visited Anne in prison and described the conditions: “not even a chair to sit on and only three potatoes for supper as she was a vegetarian.”

In court Anne made the statement: "We have talked so much for the Cause now let us suffer for it... I am a law breaker because I want to be a law maker." Her sisters Jane and Ellen supported her during her court appearance. The two-month sentences were later halved, but during Anne’s one-month imprisonment, in a cell 12 by 6 feet (approx. 3.6 x 1.8 metres), she managed to bring about two important reforms: ensuring clean bed linen was provided and the option of a vegetarian diet (hopefully including more than potatoes). Her prison diary describes the boring routines and isolation of prison life and the effects it had on her health. On the last pages she restates her beliefs that in order for the current industrial situation to be improved, women must play a role and therefore must have the means to do so – the vote. She also continued to make public protests from her prison cell:


From the Sheffield Evening Telegraph November 23rd 1906 Source: British Newspaper Archive

On November 24th, the suffragettes were released from prison and on December 11th, the NUWSS gave a banquet to celebrate at the Savoy Hotel. Anne was a guest of honour, and her sisters Jane and Ellen were there in support.

The shortened sentences seemed to be due to the fact that a by-election for the new Liberal government was soon to be held in Huddersfield, Yorkshire, and that the imprisonment of someone such as Anne with her liberal pedigree would not help the campaign. So, directly after her release from Holloway, Anne travelled to Huddersfield to continue her protests. Having these middle class, and a few upper class women at the forefront of the militant women’s movement, gained much publicity and encouraged interest across social divides as well as gaining more financial support. Anne and Thomas also donated to the WSPU.

Women’s Freedom League 1907

The famous suffragette family of Emmeline Pankhurst and daughters Christabel, Sylvia and Adela led the WSPU. But their autocratic decision-making was increasingly off-siding some of their fellow members, as well as the promoting of arson as a protest tactic. In October more than 70 women left the WSPU to form the Women’s Freedom League (WFL) to pursue their own non-violent militant campaign. Anne was one of these defectors and a hard worker for the WFL making many outdoor speeches and continuing street protesting. (The WSPU had also withdrawn their support from the Labour Party, and Anne was still an ILP member.)

Source: Museum of London

The campaign by all women’s suffrage groups was ramping up. In 1908 on June 13th the NUWSS invited the WFL to participate in its street demonstration. A week later on June 21st“Women’s Sunday”, 250,000 people gathered in London’s Hyde Park, in support of women’s suffrage. The rally was organised by the WSPU, and it is interesting that Anne was not amongst the 80 speakers that addressed the huge crowds, especially as she had recently returned from a successful lecture tour in the USA (more of that later). Perhaps there was still some acrimony on the part of the WSPU regarding the WFL split the previous year. However Anne knew the WSPU leader, Emmeline Pankhurst well, and when Emmeline was released from prison in January 1909, Anne and Thomas presented her with a message of support in purple and green ink on white vellum, and bound at the Dove’s Bindery. The physical state of Emmeline due to her several gaol sentences over the previous year, worried Thomas, who was concerned that Anne would be arrested again. He wrote in his diary:

1 February 1909
On Sunday afternoon, yesterday, Mrs Pankhurst called. She was gentle and affectionate, but, as it seemed to us all, tired. The prison immurement seemed to have damped her fire. . . . This is an odious result of prison, and an argument against its use as a weapon of revolt. Annie must not go again.

Further arrests

But Anne’s activism continued. The WFL’s non-violent militancy included picketing, street protests, pamphleteering, refusal to pay taxes and refusal to fill out the census form (Anne is missing from the 1911 census). On August 19th 1909 Anne was arrested with fellow WFL member Charlotte Despard, whilst picketing outside No. 10 Downing Street with the objective of handing a petition to Prime Minister Asquith. Without Anne’s consent, someone paid her fine so she avoided another prison sentence. Was it her husband?


Source: National Portrait Gallery London

On Friday November 18th 1910 Anne was hand picked by Emmeline Pankhurst to be one of nine other women in the vanguard of a protest march in Parliament Square. The protest was in response to the government shelving debate on the Parliamentary Franchise [Women] Bill.  “Black Friday” as it became known, was notorious for the violent methods, physical and sexual, in which the police dealt with the female demonstrators. As Home Secretary, Winston Churchill was blamed for the police actions. His wife was a close friend of Anne’s, and when he saw Anne in the melee, he called to police to “Drive that woman away!” However she was arrested but not imprisoned, because without her consent, Churchill paid her fine. She later wrote a letter to Churchill, published in the newspapers, demanding an apology from him for falsely claiming she was trying to throw stones at the PM.

The Telegraph (Qld.) November 21st 1910                           Source: Trove (National Library Australia)

American tour

Anne’s earlier prison reputation was useful in gaining publicity and interest overseas in the suffrage movement. Suffrage societies in the USA, wanted to learn about the English protest methods, so in November 1907 at the invitation of American suffragist Harriot Stanton Blatch, Anne went to the USA to give a lecture tour sponsored by the Equality League for Self-Supporting Women and the College Equal Suffrage League. In her lecture "Why I Went to Prison," given at Bryn Mawr, the women’s college in Pennsylvania (Thomas was also invited to speak on “The Book Beautiful”), she emphasised the working class and trade union origins of the suffrage movement and her dismay at how upper-class women, particularly Americans, in their comfortable lifestyles did not support equal suffrage:

“The opposition here is not from the men, but from the women of the upper classes, who say they have everything they want, and do not care for the sufferings of others.”

Always appreciative of her own privileged upbringing, Anne could not tolerate the well-off denying others opportunities. Going to prison was one way of making, what she considered for her, was a small sacrifice for the greater good:

“When you have a cause, the ideal seems real, and all the discomfort, all the ridicule, all the blame sink to nothing.”

Due to her “criminal” record it seemed safer to Anne to enter the US via Canada, and in December during her tour, she was threatened with deportation. However these threats only served to create more publicity for her lectures. She and her daughter Stella visited the USA in 1913 to give another suffrage lecture tour.

Militants excluded

There was international division between suffrage societies about the use of militant tactics. At the International Women’s Suffrage Congress in Budapest in June 1913, Charlotte Despard and Anne gave speeches protesting the exclusion of the “militant” suffrage groups from full voting rights at the congress. News reports indicated they had a lot of support amongst the attendees, even if the organisers refused to budge on the issue.

Tax resistance

Anne and Charlotte also spoke at rallies in England to defend women, who as a civil disobedience protest method, refused to pay taxes and therefore had received penalties from the government, such as having their property seized. The Women’s Tax Resistance League (WTRL), that Anne helped to found in 1909, protested “No vote, no tax”. In the WFL’s newspaper “The Vote”, Anne wrote many articles on the subject and spoke at many street rallies in defence of these women and men.

Open Christmas Letter 1914

In August 1914 Britain declared war on Germany. Many suffragists (but not all) including WFL members were pacifists like Anne. Over December and January, Manchester suffragist Emily Hobhouse circulated an “Open Christmas Letter” addressed to the women of Germany and Austria declaring their abhorrence of war and their desire to stay united internationally over the women’s suffrage issue, no matter what conflict there was between their countries. Known as the “Sisterhood of Sorrow” letter, it was signed by 101 women including Anne and her cousin Helena Cobden Hirst.

Votes at last! .... for some

Finally, after the end of the war in 1918, and with support of the new PM, David Lloyd George, the franchise was extended to some women. The Representation of the People Act was passed that allowed women over the age of 30, with property or university qualifications, to vote. Also the Parliamentary Qualification of Women Act was passed to enable women to stand for parliament. That year a General Election was held and Anne worked to support Charlotte Despard, who stood as the Labour candidate for North Battersea.


Anne’s daughter Stella, also a suffragist and author, married in 1910 and son Richard, who became a publisher, married in 1912. In June 1922, both children divorced - their spouses were having an affair with each other. Richard later remarried. Then in September, Thomas aged 81, died at home in Upper Mall, Hammersmith. Anne had also experienced the loss of three of her sisters: Margaret in 1891, Ellen in 1914, and Kate in 1916. Anne continued to be active through her 60s and into her early 70s, and remained a dedicated socialist and member of the Labour Party. As a Hammersmith Poor Law Guardian, she concentrated on the needs of the poor in her local area, and brought their issues, particularly that of unemployment, to the public’s attention in the local paper, the Hammersmith Pioneer. In June 1926 she visited old friends and supporters in California, and a few days before she died, she attended the silver wedding anniversary of suffrage friends Frederick and Emmeline Pethick Lawrence.

On November 2nd 1926, Anne died at home at Upper Mall, Hammersmith. Her ashes were placed with her husband’s in a wall near the bottom of their garden, and have since been washed away by floods from the River Thames. Sir Nigel Ross Playfair, nephew of Sir Robert Playfair with whom she travelled in 1874, commemorated her work by setting up the Anne Cobden-Sanderson Fund.