Channelling Lady Rhondda
On 16 October 2023, IoD Wales held a lively and well-attended afternoon meeting with Monumental Welsh Women who are organising the erection of five statues of women across Wales in five years. Meeting at the Newport Campus of the University of South Wales, the focus was on Welsh women and leadership with the spotlight placed on Lady Rhondda (1883-1958).
She had been the first female president of the IoD and is due to have her statue unveiled in 2024. After a lecture from her biographer Professor Angela V. John, a panel of distinguished modern women leaders who might be said to embody the spirit of the redoubtable Lady Rhondda, debated amongst themselves and with the audience, issues facing women leaders today.
Angela’s illustrated talk looked at how Lady Rhondda led the way. She began with her subject addressing a school prize-giving ceremony in Abergavenny in February 1926. She was in her forties and keen to offer advice to her audience. She stressed that these teenage girls must become useful and avoid the mistakes of many of her generation. It was, she emphasised, ‘Better to wear out than rust out.’
There was, of course, no danger of her falling into that trap. Lady Rhondda was one of the Movers and Shakers of modern British Society. In the year that she was speaking, the country faced severe economic troubles and the General Strike and she was elected the first female president of the IoD.
The future Lady Rhondda was born Margaret Haig Thomas, the only child of Sybil Haig Thomas and the industrialist and Liberal politician D.A. Thomas (known as D.A). Born in 1883, she had grown up at Llanwern Park, a 200-acre estate close to Newport, Monmouthshire. The historian Kenneth O. Morgan has described her father’s Cambrian Combine as ‘a huge oligopoly…that dominated the Welsh economy almost as comprehensively as did the empires of Rockefeller or Carnegie in the United States.’ His commercial interests encompassed coal, shipping, railways and newspapers, and extended into the leading world markets.
Margaret didn’t fit the standard image of the passive, privileged Victorian daughter or Edwardian wife. She married Sir Humphrey Mackworth, respectable Monmouthshire squire in 1908 but she also became a militant suffragette, secretary of their Newport branch for more than five years. In 1913 she was briefly imprisoned in Usk Gaol for an arson attack on a Newport post box. Welsh National Opera’s exuberant show ‘Rhondda Rips It Up!’ told this story in 2018, touring Wales and England as part of the celebrations of the centenary of the partial winning of women’s suffrage.
Margaret went on hunger strike before being released under the notorious Cat and Mouse Act that saw suffragettes released temporarily lest they become martyrs. Whilst recuperating, her fine was, to her annoyance, paid anonymously so she didn’t return to prison. She nevertheless continued to be an outspoken suffrage leader in the Newport area until the outbreak of war when she undertook important jobs in women’s recruitment to war work initially in Wales, then in London. In post-war London she took up again Cause, now battling for women under 30 to get the vote. This was achieved in 1928.
When D.A, who had been ennobled as Lord Rhondda, died prematurely in 1918, his daughter inherited his industrial fortune. Margaret was in many respects a very privileged woman, a non-executive director who led a life far removed from the world of her workforce. But she hadn’t suddenly found herself plunged into Big Business. For some years she had been learning the trade. At her mother’s suggestion she had been taken on as her father’s personal assistant. This could be seen as a convenient form of nepotism but it was unusual in that women and married women in particular were not usually perceived as even eligible for such treatment.
Margaret travelled by train daily from her home near Caerleon to the Cambrian Buildings in Cardiff’s Mount Stuart Square. The only other women there were two telephonists. She attended her father’s meetings and found the negotiation of deals infinitely more interesting than the ‘interminable and somewhat irrelevant conversation’ of the drawing room. She filed confidential business papers and drafted letters and memoranda. She was paid handsomely: earning £1,000 a year, she was one of Britain’s best paid women.
She accompanied D.A on a business trip to New York in 1915 though this was overshadowed by their return journey since they travelled on the Lusitania and narrowly escaped drowning. Margaret’s story of that survival against the odds and her fortitude tells us much about her. She was unconscious in the sea for almost three hours after the vessel was torpedoed. When rescued she was initially presumed to be dead. She afterwards took up swimming and crossed the Atlantic on a number of subsequent occasions. When D.A went on a second lengthy US trip, Margaret took complete control of his private UK affairs. She sat on Boards in his absence, ‘acting as a kind of unofficial liaison officer to report to him how things were going’. As early as 1917 a magazine described her as ‘the best known and most capable woman of business in the kingdom’. The clout that she exercised after her father’s death did not come from nowhere.
Margaret was now the director of more companies than any other woman in the UK. In 1919 when she still in her mid-thirties, she sat on 33 boards. She chaired some of them, for example the Anglo-Spanish Coaling Company, the British Fire Insurance Company and the South Wales Journal of Commerce. She was not just dependent on what she inherited. She and the Berry Brothers and Sir David Llewelyn comprised a new Welsh plutocracy though it is noticeable how she tends to be missing from standard business history texts.
In 1919 this group acquired, for five million pounds, the family firm of John Lysaght Ltd. A British galvanising and sheet iron business employing 8,000, it soon merged with GKN but retained its name and directors. By 1923 GKN had taken over several of Margaret’s companies and she sat on its board for some years. Interviews for the sculptor for Lady Rhondda’s statue were held at Newport’s Lysaght Institute.
The development of Margaret’s business interests independent of her father’s legacy, is shown most clearly in her creation of the Time and Tide Publishing Company. It provided her most long-lasting contribution to the business world and was certainly the one with which she felt most at home. The weekly paper Time & Tide came out from May 1920. Print journalism was all-important. Two decades later it was selling 40,000 copies weekly and it outlived Margaret’s death in 1958 – just.
For decades Margaret was at its helm as its founder, funder and, from 1926, its editor. Its pioneering all-female board set it apart from other papers. Increasingly it absorbed her time, energy and fortune as she steered it from being a voice for the newly enfranchised woman, to the leading arts review of the day and ultimately a respected international political commentator. It also enabled her to advertise the Six Point Group, the pressure group that she established to advocate equal social and legal rights to accompany women’s political emancipation. Her paper’s longevity and adaptability suggest how capable she was at its helm though her personal, somewhat luxurious lifestyle, combined with demands from many quarters on her generosity, meant that it was ultimately over-dependent on her dwindling resources, stoking up problems in the long term.
By 1927 the New York Tribune was calling her the ‘foremost woman of business in the British Empire.’ In the same year the Daily Herald, promoter of the interests of Labour rather than Capital, produced a diagram illustrating the inter-connected, monopolistic nature of the press and heavy industry. It drew particular attention to five company directors: the three Berry Brothers, newspaper magnates originally from Merthyr, T. J. Callaghan, and Lady Rhondda. Together, the paper claimed, they comprised ‘the suns around which the planets move.’
The number of women directors was slowly increasing in the inter-war years but most were identified with just one company and product. And women accounted for only a few hundred out of a total of 27,000 UK directors. It’s all the more amazing that as early as 1926 Margaret was elected president of the Institute of Directors. Founded in 1906, she had been a member for some time (initially under her married name of Mackworth) and had sat on the council for the past few years. She had been proposed by Sir John Cockburn, ex-premier of South Australia and ex-president of the Men’s International Alliance for Woman Suffrage. South Australia had been in the vanguard of granting both state suffrage and the right of women to stand for Parliament, on the heels of New Zealand. Margaret, remained president for a decade – longer than any of her male predecessors. She was also one of the first five women admitted to the British Chamber of Commerce.
She was described in the international press in somewhat unfortunate terms as ‘Britain’s biggest business woman’. Less ambiguous was the national Welsh newspaper, the Western Mail which dubbed her ‘the leading business woman of the western hemisphere.’ She was actually the paper’s majority shareholder: D.A had gained financial but not political control of the paper. In 1920 Margaret and her father’s other executors sued the paper after it tried to regain control from the Rhondda Estate by the creation of new shares. Margaret won her case and became a director for life.
But how easy and conducive was it for her to operate in this world? It was a tough act to follow a father who had been known as a brilliant maverick and dubbed ‘The Napoleon of the world’s coal trade.’ Margaret was inevitably cast into his shadow. Although 35 when he died, she had only gained the right to vote a few months earlier. Her father’s core business coalmining was one of the most masculine of all British industries and the breadth of his concerns would have made it difficult for anybody to assume effective control of this industrial empire.
Women were not yet members of the stock exchange and were excluded from gentleman’s clubs. What Margaret called ‘professional gossip’, a gendered expression that would doubtless have been described by men in more elevated terms, has always been vital in business and she was well aware of being denied access as had earlier pioneer businesswomen such as Lady Charlotte Guest. As Margaret neatly put it, ‘Though one is in the life, one is not, one cannot yet be, altogether of it.’ Sons in well-off families were socialised into expectations of leadership and confidence was instilled into them. Margaret wrote the year after her father’s death: ‘The highest praise we can give a man is to say to him, or of him, that he has a good business head’. How different it was, for a woman, she argued: ‘her supposed inability to rise to the height of the demands of business suffices to confirm the conviction of inferiority.’
The resumption of peace in late 1918 brought with it an unrealistic assumption that ‘normal service’ could be resumed. Margaret protested against attempts to replace the feminised workforce of wartime though also believed that peace offered new opportunities for moving forward. Her timing proved to be both challenging and unfortunate. Her father had built his businesses in a period when there were fortunes to be made. Wales had led the way in the provision of dry steam coal. But the Welsh coal trade had peaked on the eve of war. Alternative sources of power such as the use of oil in shipping, the obstacles posed by geological conditions for the mechanisation of the South Wales coalfield, the rise of the European coal trade, the General Strike, Wall Street Crash with its global consequences, all were fatal for the post-war British coal industry and those who toiled in it.
Margaret sat on more than a dozen boards of Welsh coal companies in 1924. Nine years later she was a director of just two and before long was channelling her business energies through journalism which she personally found more conducive.
How accepted had she been as a businesswoman in the 1920s? As successful women have long found, the press devoted an inordinate amount of space to her appearance. When she travelled to the United States in 1922, she was described as ‘a vivacious young woman’ with the cheeks of a seventeen-year-old.’ She was almost 40. Newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic sought to reassure readers that the masculine world of business had not seriously eroded her femininity. London’s Evening News took issue with any suggestion that she might be masterful (an interesting word!). ‘Even when Lady Rhondda is most determined’ it wrote, ‘she betrays a certain shyness that is pleasantly feminine.’ One journalist expecting to find ‘a keen-faced woman breathing energy from every pore, suggestive of a certain amount of hard determination’ was pleasantly surprised.
Others, though, chose to suggest the antithesis of femininity. A Los Angeles paper described her as ‘tall, athletic, with the stride of a comely man’ wearing ‘sternly utilitarian well-cut clothes, short skirts, low heels’ and, horror of horrors, hatless. Another paper noted that her face assumed ‘almost masculine lines’ when talking about suffrage – for some that was never forgiven or forgotten. At a time when issues of sexual identity were increasingly debated, gestures could be seen as significant. One paper noted her quick and firm handshake and elsewhere she was compared to an errand boy as she was heard whistling as she left her office.
Margaret had recently divorced her husband and lived in London with a woman yet was not keen to broadcast this. It must have been especially difficult to weather public scrutiny. Yet she was well aware of the value of publicity in advocating both the causes she believed in and her own paper, declaring ‘Publicity is Power.’ Time & Tide advertised companies in which she was a director, such as the Salutaris Water Company. This advertisement was printed by the South Wales Printing and Publishing Company which she chaired. And some of her readers must have been bemused to see the paper report the AGMs of, for example, the Gwaun-Cae-Gurwen Colliery Company. Margaret brought together the apparently divergent worlds of Big Business and Bloomsbury.
Margaret’s association with heavy industry set her apart from some of her friends such as Ellen Wilkinson and George Bernard Shaw. Vera Brittain was never at ease with Margaret the businesswoman though contributed to Time &Tide. For many peers, a protracted campaign by Margaret for women to take their seats in the House of Lords rang alarm bells. She was not only a woman threatening an all-male club but also perceived as a parvenu, a product of her father’s newly acquired wealth.
What survival strategies and tactics did she adopt as a businesswoman in the 1920s when she was usually the only woman director on a board? ‘Lady Rhondda and Gentlemen’ was the opening line for many AGMs. Are there lessons we might learn, even in a society that today professes at least legal lip service to gender equality? Early on she decided that it would be expedient to minimise board members’ awareness of her as a woman. She disliked the term chairwoman and always called herself a chairman. She chose her interventions sparingly, believing that urgent or pressing matters would be listened to, regardless of gender.
At a time when men routinely smoked in meetings, she chose not to object and thus prompt resentment. So, she would begin smoking her cigarettes as soon as she entered a boardroom. She watched her language and, calculating that men would feel uncomfortable if they swore in front of a woman, she let them apologise if they happened to swear. She deliberately wore sensible suits and shoes, seeking to blend in rather than stand out.
Margaret founded the Women’s Industrial League to protect working class women’s rights, especially in trades such as engineering though most of her focus was on getting women in comfortable circumstances to enter business and the professions. And she seems sometimes to have forgotten that most women lacked anything like the progressive parental and financial support that she had enjoyed.
She addressed women’s groups on the value of university educated women entering business, advocated networking and was the first president of the Provisional Club with female representatives from different trades and professions and fortnightly lunches. She helped to establish the Efficiency Club, which encouraged cooperation amongst business and professional women. It demonstrated, as had suffrage business breakfasts, that much of what we think we have invented is far from modern. Members included women in advertising, dentistry and business with lectures on topics such as coal dredging, gas manufacturing and how to conduct interviews.
In 1930 Margaret’s friend the novelist Winifred Holtby wrote a three-act (unpublished) comedy called ‘Efficiency First.’ Set slightly in the future, it features Sarah Terrens – known to her staff as The Terror – a dedicated, determined woman who has created a vast business empire called Efficiency First Ltd with nearly 9,000 employees. Although Sarah was originally from a poor Yorkshire background, there is no mistaking the fond parody of Margaret in Holtby’s account of the self-confident handsome entrepreneur in her forties. Sarah owns a press and a host of companies including Dynamic Dairies and the Silent Rubber Roadway Company, an air transport service. When a businessman in textiles says he finds it difficult to speak plainly in front of ladies, she tells him: ‘I’m not a lady. I’m a businesswoman.’
Like the real Lady Rhondda, Sarah Terrens was determined to lead the way. In 2012 Lady Rhondda’s portrait by Alice Burton was unveiled in the House of Lords. Sixty-six years after her death in 1958, the unveiling of Jane Robbins’ statue of Lady Rhondda in Newport will, inter alia, hopefully encourage young women to aspire to leadership of many kinds in the future.
See www.angelavjohn.com for details about Turning the Tide: The Life of Lady Rhondda (Parthian) and Rocking the Boat: Welsh Women who Championed Equality 1840-1990 (Parthian) which includes an essay about her.
After Angela’s lecture, a panel of women leaders, all of whom are part of the Monumental Welsh Women campaign, discussed themes which clearly translate from Lady Rhondda’s remarkable experiences into current times, and answered questions from the audience.
Chaired by Felicity Evans (Editor, Money, BBC Wales) the panellists were Helen Molyneux, Founder of Monumental Welsh Women, Carolyn Hitt, Editor, BBC Radio Wales and BBC Wales Sport, esteemed medical geneticist Professor Meena Upadhyaya and Leonora Thomson, Cardiff County Councillor and former Managing Director of Welsh National Opera. The discussion flowed back and forth, with all agreeing that although of course much had changed since Lady Rhondda’s time, other things certainly had not! General themes within leadership were discussed, including from what it means to lead organisational change, to how to be a persuader. The panel talked about their encounters with hostility and how they dealt with it, having to be a survivor, what it meant to have to “wear many different hats” and how – still such an important issue – to deal with one’s own privilege..
Monumental Welsh Women – Lady Rhondda statue and fundraising
Monumental Welsh Women, is the team behind the first ever statues of real welsh women in Wales. Our mission is inspired by the fact that before we started our campaign, there was not one single public statue commemorating the achievements of real Welsh Women. Welsh girls couldn’t see what they could be. We aim to change this by commissioning 5 statues of 5 real Welsh women. We have so far successfully delivered the iconic Betty Campbell Monument in Cardiff, the beautiful statue of Elaine Morgan in Mountain Ash and the uplifting statue of Cranogwen in Llangrannog – but we have 2 more statues to deliver to complete our mission, one of Lady Rhondda in Newport in 2024 and last, but by no means least, Elizabeth Andrews in Penderyn 2025. In total we’ve raised funds of £58k towards Lady Rhondda’s statue, but still need to raise £25k more. If you or people you know would like to contribute towards our campaign, please see more information at https://monumentalwelshwomen.com/lady-rhondda – there you will find details of our gofundme.com page. The beautiful statue will include a ring of women’s hands around it – if your company would like to make a contribution towards the campaign and, at the same time, honour one of your women colleagues by having their hand set as part of this creative process, please contact [email protected] for further details.