The Charitable Work of Eleanor Clark in the 1850s and the 1870s: Quaker Women's Networks, Sisters and Philanthropy

Anna Vaughan Kett

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Conference proceeding with ISSN or ISBNChapterpeer-review


    This essay is a version of a paper delivered at the Annual Conference for Quaker Historians and Archivists in 2016. It concerns the diverse philanthropic and anti-slavery work of Eleanor Stephens Clark (1812-1879), the Quaker wife of James, the shoemaking pioneer and founder of Clark’s Shoes in Street, in Somerset, in the west country of England. Although much has been written about Clarks’ shoes, far less has been published on the activities of Eleanor Clark. Thus this essay directs attention to a lesser-known Quaker woman, and reinforces the idea that influential women were often invisible in the nineteenth century.
    Using archival evidence in the Library of the Religious Society of Friends in London, the Alfred Gillett Trust in Street and the Library of Haverford College, Philadelphia, the essay outlines some of Clark’s charitable, humanitarian and anti-slavery activities in the 1850s and the 1870s. It explains the important, but hitherto unknown, place that Eleanor held within a number of female Quaker networks linking women across the UK and USA. These operated as efficient, interconnected webs, connecting large numbers and multiple, charitable and practical humanitarian campaigns.
    It begins with a brief introduction to the ‘Penny Offering’, a collection to raise funds for Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). Instigated by Hannah Sturge, Eleanor’s close friend at the Birmingham Ladies’ Negro’s Friend Society (Britain’s largest female anti-slavery society), the Penny Offering achieved national importance. The essay then outlines the ‘Weims Campaign’, a manumission drive to free John Weims and his enslaved family, as instigated by Quaker kinswoman Anna Richardson of Newcastle.
    The essay focuses on the ‘Street Olive Leaf Society’ or ‘Circle’, set up in the village of Street by Eleanor, and one of a network of 150 all-female societies across the UK. Founded by New England activist Elihu Burritt, Clark and her kinswomen or ‘League Sisters’ met monthly, primarily to sew goods for ‘Grand Charity Bazaars’, in order to provide funds for Burritt’s League of Brotherhood, a global peace network, promoted by Quakers in commerce and industry. The League also campaigned vigorously for the anti-slavery movement, its angle being that slavery could be defeated via consumer boycotts of slave-made goods and their replacement with ‘free produce’ alternatives – this was emphatically the domain of female consumers. In addition to the UK, some crafted items were directed to anti-slavery fairs in America. Printed flyers provide insights into taste and commerce within Quaker philanthropy at the time; a rich melange of ‘most saleable’ goods such as ‘Plain and fancy needlework … Clothing for the Poor … dressed dolls … Relics of Antiquity … marmalade and articles for the work box, desk and dressing case.’ All ages were encouraged to make items; daughters used the opportunity as training in sewing techniques. In addition, the Olive Leaf Society had an educational remit through its publication, The Olive Leaf or Peace Magazine for the Young. Editions included illustrated essays by female authors, on for example, the wickedness of greed and cruelty to slaves and the importance of peace, charity, plain clothing and Temperance. Aimed at family and ‘Sabbath’ readership, they had an emotive appeal. Whilst being under the radar of public scrutiny, the Olive Leaf Society and its activities facilitated women’s influence in philanthropy and morality; they offered a space through which women could segue between private and public domains, and allowed them to weave together the seemingly conflicting identities of home-maker and tireless campaigner for peace and freedom. Burritt recognised the crucial role of the huge body of ‘Sisters’ that were mobilised and he inspired a loyal following among them. Whilst not permitted full membership of the League, it was through fundraising that women found public, active, autonomous and influential roles.
    The final part of the essay moves to charity directed towards freed African Americans, following the Civil War. ‘Freedmen’s Aid Societies’ proliferated in the UK in the 1860s, but as Clare Midgley points out; ‘Only a handful of activists maintained an interest in the plight of free blacks after the 1860s.’ Eleanor Clark was part of this tiny minority. Until her death in 1879, assisted by her daughter Sophia Sturge Clark, Eleanor collected donations of clothing and textiles to ship to Kansas, where numbers of ex-enslaved had gathered. The so-called ‘Exodus’ saw destitution and starvation among the migrants; a plight that the Clarks could not ignore. This reinforces Eleanor Clark’s commitment to charitable works, and the continuum of philanthropy that was passed from mother to daughter.
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationNew Critical Studies of Quaker Women 1800-1920
    EditorsRobynne Healy, Carole Spencer
    Place of PublicationOxford
    PublisherOxford University Press (OUP)
    Publication statusAccepted/In press - 2020


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