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Alice Acland

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Founder and first general secretary of the Co-operative Women’s Guild, 1883.


The future Lady Alice Acland (1849-1935), daughter of Reverend Francis Macaulay Cunningham and his wife Alice, grew up in comfortable circumstances in Hampshire and Oxfordshire.  Educated at a local church school, she later did voluntary work as a district visitor in poor districts.  In 1873 she married Arthur Dyke Acland, an Oxford don and the youngest son of a baronet, who shared his father’s interest in educational reform.  Amongst the couple’s friends were EV Neale and Thomas Hughes, both prominent supporters of co-operation in the latter half of the nineteenth century.  (The future Sir Acland would join Neale and Hughes as a well-known co-operator, co-authoring Working Men Co-operators, with Benjamin Jones, in 1884. He went on to represent Rotherham, Yorkshire as a Liberal MP from 1885-99.  He remained supportive of co-operatives throughout his life, and endowed a scholarship fund for young co-operators at his death in 1926.)

In 1875 Acland, a staunch advocate of working-class education through the university extension movement, travelled north on a speaking tour of industrial towns and working-men’s clubs – a trip that included a visit to Rochdale.  Accompanying her husband on the trip, Mrs Acland became increasingly aware of the lack of opportunities available to working-class women, and began to discuss ways they might become more involved with co-operation.  In 1882, with support from editor Samuel Bamford, Mrs Acland wrote a series of articles about women’s lives for the Co-operative News.  The following year, Bamford inaugurated the News’ “Woman’s Corner”, with Mrs Acland as its editor.  In her very first column, she criticised the status of women in the movement and called for a women’s organisation:

What are men always urged to do when there is a meeting held at any place to encourage or to start co-operative institutions?‑ Come! help? vote! criticise! act! What are women encouraged to do? ‑ Come and buy! That is all.  We can be independent members of our stores, but we are only asked to come and “buy”. A bitter truth, and it is our fault. … In this matter of co-operation, for instance, why should not we women do more than we do? Why should not we have our meetings, our readings, our discussions? Why should we not have co-operative “mother’s meetings” when we may bring our work and sit together, one of us reading some co-operative book aloud, which may afterwards be discussed? Are we not as important as the men? Are we not more than half the nation? … Women can do great things. Let us do them.  (Co-operative News, 6 January 1883)

Several women responded to her call, and later that year the first branches of the Co-operative Women’s Guild were established.

Mrs Acland served as the CWG’s first general secretary, and as its national president from 1884-86.  However, her health was poor and in 1886 she resigned her position as “Woman’s Corner” editor as well as the Guild’s presidency.  Thereafter her involvement in the CWG was limited to occasional meetings and ‘Woman’s Corner’ writings.

The Aclands had three children, two sons and a daughter.  Mrs Acland became Lady Acland in 1919, when her husband succeeded his brother as baronet; following Arthur’s death in 1926 their elder son Francis became the fourteenth baronet. Lady Acland’s health remained fragile and she was bedridden for the last twelve years of her life, dying in London in 1935.  A few years before her death, in 1931, CWG members acknowledged her pioneering work by granting her their highest honour, the Freedom of the Guild.

Interested in learning more about co-operative history? Follow this link to the National Co-operative Archive.