Annie Colles was among the first women in Ireland to work as a journalist and editor. She was also the wife of Ramsay Colles, profiled in the previous post here, and their working lives intersected at the Irish Figaro magazine, which they jointly owned and each edited at different times. However, her career in journalism pre-dated her marriage and indeed appears to have outlasted it. If Ramsay Colles is only ever now remembered because of his violent and litigious encounters with Arthur Griffith and Maud Gonne, then Annie Colles is entirely forgotten. Her life and career can only be pieced together from fragments of information which leave significant gaps in her story.
She was born Anne Sweeney in Kerry in 1860, the daughter of a Church of Ireland clergyman, and according to a later British magazine profile of her, she was university-educated – this was most likely at the Royal University (the forerunner to the National University of Ireland), which was established in 1880 and was the first university in Ireland to award degrees to women, of whom she must have been among the earliest. No more is known of her early life, but in September 1890 she married a man named Ross (his first name is unknown) and two years later gave birth to their daughter Eileen, but later that year she was widowed and apparently left in very straitened circumstances. She was friends with Richard J. Mecredy, the cyclist and journalist (and editor of Irish Cyclist magazine, who would later pioneer automobiles in Ireland and was an organiser of the legendary Gordon Bennett motor race in 1903) who may even have introduced her to her first husband, since they appear to have shared a passion for cycling – at a later date, Mecredy would memorably state that ‘Ross left her nothing in the world but a bicycle’. Through his intervention, the professional and enthusiast cycling community in Ireland raised £500 for Annie and her daughter through a charity raffle, and Mecredy also secured Annie Ross journalism work at Irish Society (a society paper which this blog will post about at a later date). However, by the end of 1893 she had decided to invest most of her capital in Social Review (another society paper) making her its sub-editor (she shortly became editor) and a partner in the business, joined soon afterwards by Mecredy and his business partner Kyle.
The Social Review had its offices on Nassau Street in Dublin, close to the fashionable south side shops and restaurants as well as the city’s ‘clubland’ area of Kildare Street and St Stephen’s Green, as might be expected of a ‘society paper’ which published accounts of official and social events at the Castle and upper-class townhouses, as well as the concerts, theatre and charitable events attended by the city’s social elite. Like most other periodicals of the era, it also published short stories, fashion and beauty columns and a lot of advertisements, mainly for the fashionable shops and businesses located near the paper’s own offices. As such, Social Review was an entirely typical example of the ‘society papers’ published in Ireland and elsewhere, and Annie Ross (as she was then named) was therefore joining an identifiable branch of journalism in becoming its editor. And indeed by 1895 she had joined the Institute of Journalists, thus becoming one of its earliest women members. In March of that year she was profiled in the English society paper the Sketch (from which the photograph above is taken), which placed a great deal of emphasis upon her position as one of the first women periodical editors, explaining that ‘For some months past Mrs Ross has had sole charge of the editorial department of the Social Review, a growing weekly Dublin journal, which during its existence has advanced by leaps and bounds in public favour, and has, in consequence, been considerably enlarged…From a purely business point of view the increase in advertisements and circulation is pleasant, and disproves the charge that women do not possess the business aptitudes requisite for the successful guidance of a newspaper’. The profile concluded with the claim that, ‘As a worker, Mrs Ross upholds the vexed question of the day, Women’s Rights, but only in its highest and truest sense.’ This was a very typical of the way middle-class women’s increasing participation in public and business life, such as journalism, was described by its (very conditionally approving) supporters. A strong emphasis was put upon their ability to maintain a ladylike demeanour even while performing their jobs successfully, and they were clearly differentiated from suffrage campaigners, who were more or less universally vilified in the mainstream press.
1895 was an eventful year for Annie Ross – as well as being profiled in Sketch magazine, she also married again, this time to Ramsay Colles. It was also the year that her working relationship with Richard J. Mecredy irrevocably broke down, amid allegations that, contrary to the glowing profile in the Sketch, she was ‘difficult’ to work with and not financially astute. By June 1895 she had left the partnership, and the Social Review passed into Mecredy and Kyle’s sole ownership. The following year, Ramsay Colles bought the Irish Figaro, which as another ‘society paper’ was a direct competitor to the Social Review. While Colles was the Figaro’s editor, Annie also worked for the paper, and this appears to have provoked an open feud between the Colles’ and her former partners at the Social Review. In what they claimed was a response to attempts to ‘injure’ the paper, the Social Review published two statements in May 1896 which claimed that ‘the dissension between Mrs Ross and the other partners was crippling the development of the journal’, but that ‘we here state definitely that Mrs Ramsay Colles, late Mrs Annie Ross, nee Miss Sweeny, has now no connection whatever with the Social Review’. Perhaps not surprisingly, she then sued them for £10,000 damages (an enormous sum at the time, and also by comparison to her original £500 investment), arguing that these statements injured her professional reputation. The jury were unable to agree a verdict in the case and the judge dismissed it, simultaneously condemning ‘society papers’ in general but also underlining that there was in his opinion no evidence that Annie Colles had acted unprofessionally.
After this, Annie and Ramsay Colles worked together on the Irish Figaro magazine until sometime in 1901. This means that she was on the staff of the paper in 1900 when it published claims that Maud Gonne was in receipt of a British army pension, causing Arthur Griffith to attack Ramsay Colles with a horsewhip, and Gonne herself to successfully sue for libel. At the time of the 1901 census, the family were living on Wilton Terrace in Dublin, the household consisting of the couple, their son Edmund (who had been born in 1898), Annie’s daughter Eileen from her first marriage, and her sister Jane (who listed her occupation as ‘journalist’, and may have been a contributor to the Figaro), and one general servant. It isn’t clear what Annie’s role on the paper was during these years – Ramsay was officially the editor, and it never used by-lines for other columns. And because Ramsay makes no mention of either his wife or son in his biography (this was not unusual for memoirs of the era, especially those of upper-class men, because it would have been considered in very poor taste for women of that class to appear in the press), we have no other source of information about her degree of involvement with Irish Figaro prior to 1901. That year however, the paper was embroiled in another legal case, and during the hearing (which was not in itself very interesting), Annie and Ramsay both confirmed in court that he had formally transferred editorship of the paper to her, and had no further involvement with it. Indeed, as was mentioned in the previous post, it is possible that they had separated by this date, and certainly by 1904 he was living and working in London while she and her children remained in Dublin until after his death in 1919.
In April 1901, the Figaro changed its name (yet again), becoming the Figaro and Irish Gentlewoman. This presumably reflects Annie Colles’ editorial control, although no mention was made of this in the paper itself. Instead, the Figaro announced that, ‘Recognising the fact that the number of the Lady Readers has of late very largely increased, we have determined to supply the demand which undoubtedly exists in Ireland for a high-class Society Journal which will be of equal interest to the cultured of both sexes. We accordingly issue this week the first number of the Figaro and Irish Gentlewoman, confident that we shall, as hitherto, satisfy the intellectual section of the male community, and also win the approval of such refined Women as are nauseated by the tone adopted by some Society Journals which exist merely to foster frivolity and vanity in women. This we shall accomplish, not by in any way deducting from the familiar features of the popular and old-established Irish Figaro but by supplementing them with others more particularly addressed to Gentlewomen.’
The line between ‘society papers’ and women’s magazines was often quite blurred (the equally strong focus in each upon high society events and fashions, as well as their shared reliance upon advertising from upmarket shops and brands made them very similar in tone and content), and the combined market for both in Ireland was often quite crowded. At the point when Annie Colles assumed editorial control of the Figaro, for example, it was in direct competition not only with Irish Society, which that very year had consolidated its own position by absorbing Colles’ former publication Social Review, but also with the very successful women’s magazine Lady of the House, and the less well-known Lady’s Herald. While their readerships were not identical (Lady of the House in particular had a wider market appeal than any society papers), this was a lot of choice for the small Irish upper-middle class market, and the Figaro’s change of name and emphasis was probably as much about jostling for position in this competitive field as it was about Annie Colles’ desire to put her own editorial stamp on the paper.
Aside from this change of name and slightly increased coverage of fashion, however, the Figaro did not notably change in content or (more importantly) tone once Annie Colles took over the editorship from her husband. The lengthy editorials continued and were frequently still intemperate. Indeed, the tone of these was so consistent with earlier years that it seems quite possible Ramsay Colles was still writing them. Occasional sideswipes at Maud Gonne seem to support this theory, but the Figaro’s otherwise unexpected support (expressed in 1903) for the campaign to admit women to Trinity College suggests the influence of university-educated Annie Colles. There were also moments of unintentional comedy, such as the attempt to run a readers’ competition in early 1904. Readers’ competitions (and the prizes that went with them) were less common or popular in society papers than those aimed at younger and poorer readerships, but they were not unknown, and in January 1904 the Figaro proposed a prize of three guineas for ‘the Best Idea for the Competition to commence on February 6th.’ Competitions to design competitions – while a very circular idea – were also not unknown in other publications, but few can have been run as incompetently as the Figaro’s. The announcement of a winner was first delayed and then withdrawn because the proposed competition would have been illegal – competitions of pure chance were outlawed as being lotteries by another name, something most other editors were keenly aware of. The competition was then re-run, after which another winner was announced and then withdrawn again because of confusion over the closing date, before a final (and presumably confused) third winner was eventually chosen a month later than had originally been intended. The Figaro appears to have ended its run only a year later (the last extant copy is August 1905), and the disastrous competition the previous year may well have been a symptom of a publication already in terminal decline. The most likely reason for this was the paper’s inability to compete with publications such as Irish Society and Lady of the House. Perhaps Annie Colles was not, as her former partners Kyle and Mecredy had argued in court nearly a decade earlier, a very effective or skilled editor, although it should also be remembered that the Figaro had been a rather odd publication under Ramsay Colles’ control too, prone to hectoring rather than charming its readers, and it was perhaps not well-placed to compete with more professionally-run papers.
Annie Colles was 45 when the Figaro ceased publication, and this seems to have been her last venture as sole editor of a journal. According to her entry in the Institute of Journalists membership roll, she was the social editor for the Irish Independent (which began publication in 1905, the year the Figaro folded) for several years, and also acted as a special correspondent for ‘several American daily newspapers’. In the 1911 census, she was living on Morehampton Terrace with her two children and a servant, but without her husband, who was resident in London. Intriguingly, she described herself at that point as a Christian Scientist, which would have been extremely rare in Ireland or Britain at that date, and seems a strange parallel to her husband’s equally unexpected interest in Buddhism. At some point after Irish independence (and also after her husband’s death), she moved to London, where she lived until her death in 1940.
Colles is an elusive figure at this historical distance, often obscured by her husband who was a better-known figure at the time and has also left a more detailed historical record behind him. It was Ramsay Colles who wrote an autobiography, and of course also became briefly notorious for his confrontations with Griffith and Gonne. By contrast, Annie’s working life can only be partially reconstructed, and often cannot be disentangled from that of her husband. It is even difficult to decide whether her career was a success – the two papers she edited both struggled at times and the Figaro actually folded under her management. But in the turbulent and fiercely competitive world of commercial publishing this was not unusual, and not necessarily an indication that she was not an effective editor. Some of the Figaro’s querulous tone must have been attributable to her as well as her husband, and more than one libel case was issued against publications under her editorial control. On the other hand, she was one of a tiny minority of women working as journalists (let alone as editors) in Ireland in the late 19thC and early 20thC and she undoubtedly faced considerable opposition when she did so. Some of the reported exchanges in her 1897 court case against Richard J. Mecredy give a salutary reminder of the obstacles she faced. When her solicitor stated as proof of her professional standing that she was a member of the Institute of Journalists, the judge asked (to laughter in court), ‘Has the new woman found her way there too? Are there female members of it?’, to which the defendants’ solicitor responded (to more laughter) ‘It will soon break up’. Later the same day, the defendants’ solicitor claimed that Mecredy had advised Colles against investing in the magazine, but ‘she was determined to go into the Social Review. It was like the itch that came upon women for cycling and bloomers (laughter). She had an itch for performing in the newspaper world, and she insisted on joining…But every man who did a generous act for a woman was repaid in the same way as Mr Mecredy had been repaid (laughter)’. In the end, it is impossible to tell if she was a valiant pioneer of women’s journalism in Ireland, or a difficult woman who fell out with business partners and had a somewhat chaotic editorial style. These are not mutually exclusive categories of course, and she may well have been both.
Freeman’s Journal, ‘Dublin Libel Action’, 12 & 13 May 1897, p.2.
Sketch, ‘Mrs Ross, of the Social Review, Dublin’, 13 March 1895, p366.