Tag: Irish Figaro

Annie Colles 1860-1940

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.

Annie Colles

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.

References

Freeman’s Journal, ‘Dublin Libel Action’, 12 & 13 May 1897, p.2.

Sketch, ‘Mrs Ross, of the Social Review, Dublin’, 13 March 1895, p366.

Ramsay Colles, 1862-1919

After the Christmas festivities of the last post, this one will begin the New Year in an appropriately dyspeptic fashion by focusing on Ramsay Colles. One of the oddest characters of Irish publishing in the early 20thC, Colles is now almost entirely forgotten except when it is (occasionally) recalled that in 1900 he was literally horsewhipped by Arthur Griffith in order to defend the honour of Maud Gonne. This was undoubtedly the most sensational moment of his career in journalism, but it wasn’t entirely out of character for a man who appears to have thrived on conflict.

Ramsay Colles

Ramsay Colles was born in 1862 in Bodh Gaya in India, where his Anglo-Irish father was serving in the Indian Civil Service. However he was brought up in Ireland, and attended Wesley College in Dublin. In 1896 he married Annie Sweeny, who was also a journalist and editor, and who will be the subject of the next blog post here. They had one son, Edmund, in 1898 and lived for some years on Wilton Terrace in Dublin. Like a great many journalists of his generation (including Matthias McDonnell Bodkin, the editor of the Irish Packet) Colles combined journalism with the law, having qualified and practised as a barrister. It’s hard to determine exactly how wealthy Colles was – his background and some aspects of his life strongly imply a private income, but just how much is unknown, and both the length and variety of his career in journalism and publishing suggests that he may have needed to earn money to supplement his inherited wealth. His politics are a great deal easier to determine however – Colles was a hard-line Tory, who loathed every aspect of Liberalism, the Home Rule movement, the literary revival (and all figures associated with it), the Irish language, public libraries, Dublin Corporation, and most of modern life in general.

By 1896 he was working as a journalist for the Dublin Daily Express – and although he was already 34 by then, this may have been his first journalism work, because it was not until that year that he joined the Institute of Journalists, a London-based organisation founded in the 1880s as a forerunner to the National Union of Journalists, and which had many Irish members prior to Independence. Colles worked for the Express for just two years, however, before moving on to edit the Irish Figaro – a society and cultural review paper he had bought earlier in the decade and with which he and later his wife Annie would be associated for several years. The Figaro had begun in 1892 as Irish Life, changing its name after just one issue to the Dublin Figaro, before changing again to Irish Figaro in 1895. In 1901 it became the Figaro and Irish Gentlewoman for its remaining years (it appears to have ended sometime in or around 1904). If this seems a rather chaotic number of name changes for a publication which only lasted just over a decade, this was fairly in keeping with Colles’ general editorial tone and style, which was distinctly less than professional on occasion.

The Figaro was a weekly society paper costing one penny, which published theatre and musical reviews (Colles appears to have been a genuinely enthusiastic supporter of popular theatre and music in Dublin), reports on high society events and marriage announcements, and other occasional columns, for while including a women’s column called (appallingly) ‘Topicalities Femina’. It always contained numerous advertisements, typically for major food and household brands as well as a wide range of up-market Dublin businesses, such as department stores, restaurants and hotels. The Figaro has also been identified as the publisher of advertisements for the real Alexander Keyes, whose fictional advertisement designs Leopold Bloom is working on during the course of Ulysses. However, many of its 16 weekly pages were taken up with a long, wide-ranging and typically splenetic editorial column entitled ‘Entre Nous’ (Colles appears to have had a genius for awful column titles). These editorials were, throughout the paper’s existence, signed by ‘Sydney Brooks’. However it is most likely that this was a pseudonym, and that Colles not only wrote the editorials, but was widely understood to do so by the Figaro’s readers. Not only is the writing style very similar to that of his memoir, In Castle and Court House: Being Reminiscences of 30 Years in Ireland (1911), but more importantly he was frequently identified as being the Figaro’s editor in the various legal cases he was involved in.

The most sensational of these cases – and the only reason Colles’ name is ever remembered these days – were in the aftermath of Arthur Griffith bursting into the Figaro’s offices in 1900 and literally horsewhipping Colles in defence of Maud Gonne’s nationalist good name. The Figaro had just published an article claiming that Gonne was in receipt of a British Army pension inherited from her father, and was therefore a hypocrite for being actively involved in opposing a British Army recruitment campaign for Irishmen to fight in the Boer War.   Rather disappointingly, Griffith only appears to have inflicted damage to Colles hat (and presumably his dignity), but he was nevertheless prosecuted for assault (a charge he did not contest), fined one pound and bound over to keep the peace. Immediately after this however, Maud Gonne sued the Figaro for libel, a case which Colles settled (by issuing a formal apology to Gonne) some way into a trial which was being gleefully reported by the press. Both protagonists returned to this incident in their later memoirs. For his part, Colles claimed that he had evidence to prove the truth of his story about Gonne’s military pension, but did not produce it because his source had been the John Mallon, the Assistant Commissioner of Police, and to have revealed this in court would have been too politically-sensitive – although he did not explain why, only a decade later, he now felt free to share this information in his memoir. Even more remarkably, he also claimed that Gonne had only sued him at all because she was suspected by Michael Davitt of being a British double-agent and (it was implied) may therefore have been in fear for her own safety. Gonne, on the other hand, claimed in her 1938 memoir A Servant of the Queen: Reminiscences, that not only was the Figaro ‘…a little rag….subsidised by Dublin Castle’ but also that Colles’ barrister had later admitted to her that his legal costs in the libel case were paid by the Castle (in his own memoir, Colles ambiguously describes them as having been met by a subscription list contributed to by ‘friends’). Gonne provides no evidence for her claim about the Figaro’s subsidy from the Castle (and it is made well after Colles’ own death), so it is impossible to determine its accuracy. To put it mildly, neither Colles nor Gonne was a trustworthy source about the other, but Gonne’s allegation is certainly not impossible to believe – and it would help to explain how the Figaro could afford to publish a weekly paper on good quality paper and with frequent photographs for only a penny, when the other penny weeklies (such as the Irish Packet) were published using the very cheapest paper with few illustrations and certainly no photographs.

Throughout the 1900 libel trial however, Colles was consistently identified in court as being both the proprietor and editor of the Figaro, meaning that the regularly apoplectic six-page editorials produced on a weekly basis were his own work. These ranged widely in topic, apparently governed purely by Colles’ grievances of the week, and only leavened by regular theatrical and musical reviews of performances taking place at the Gaiety or Queen’s theatres. Each instalment of ‘Entre Nous’ was headed by the rather aggressive statement that ‘Any of my readers who disagree with any statements which appear in Irish Figaro are invited to correspond with the Editor’. Colles’ own disagreements with daily life in Ireland ranged far and wide. The key figures of the Literary Revival and the Abbey Theatre (especially WB Yeats and George Moore, who he once called ‘puff-created mushroom men’) were the individuals most frequently attacked – sometimes it has to be admitted with a certain degree of comic effect. He described Yeats as ‘an utter literary fraud’ whose work had ‘an utter lack of sense’, and once quoted the music critic John F Runciman’s assessment of Yeats’ distinctive system of ‘singing’ poetry, ‘Having superfluously stated that he [Yeats] knew nothing of music, he proceeded to reveal his new musical art…and I have scarcely yet recovered from my extreme surprise’. On another occasion a Figaro editorial expressed regret at the news that George Moore was not learning Irish (an enterprise Colles generally disapproved of) because ‘readers would be much benefitted if Mr Moore betook himself to learning Irish and wrote in future exclusively in that language and ceased to sully the English tongue with his filthy tales’. If figures such as Yeats and Moore were frequently the subject of derogatory remarks in Figaro editorials, Colles’ expressed views on broader social issues could be even more aggressive. In 1900 he felt that the Poor Law Guardians in Dublin were being far too generous to the city’s poor, commenting nostalgically that ‘The old idea was merely to give shelter and food to the destitute, and neither in too pleasant a form, in order not to encourage idleness’. He was predictably opposed as well to the Land Acts, arguing that, ‘Leaving aside the very great doubt whether your peasant-proprietor, when you have got him, could be made a flourishing and contented citizen, purchase means the exodus of the upper class from the country’.

Colles was an active member of the Freemasons in Dublin, and in 1900 he established a periodical specifically for the organisation in Ireland, called Irish Masonry Illustrated. It isn’t clear how long this ran – only a couple of years’ worth of issues are extant in the National Library of Ireland, and it may well only have been in publication for a short time. Colles mentions the magazine with some pride in his memoir, but does not indicate how many issues were published. In what may have been a unique combination of interests, he mixed his enthusiasm for Freemasonry with an interest in Buddhism – according to his memoir this was inspired by knowing he had been born at one of its most important shrines in India, and it led to his becoming the official Irish representative of the Maha-Bodhi Society in Ireland in 1901 (and indeed he is listed as such in Thom’s Directory for several years).

In January 1901 he formally transferred the editorship (and possibly ownership) of the Figaro over to his wife Annie, who continued to publish it until it ceased publication sometime around 1904, by which time Ramsay Colles himself was living in London, where he appears to have remained until his death in 1919. In fact one interpretation of the information available about his life and career after 1901 is that he and Annie may have been unofficially separated, because she remained in Dublin until after his death, and there is no indication that they lived together after 1904 at the latest. In the 1911 Irish census, for example, his name does not appear at the family home in Morehampton Terrace and Annie Colles is described as being the ‘head of household’. This is a speculative interpretation, but such arrangements were not unusual as a solution to marital breakdown (especially for people of their social class, who had the resources to live separately) and it would explain why they do not appear to have lived together for the final 15 years of Colles’ life.

After his move to London, Colles continued to work as a periodical editor (and proprietor) for a number of years. Given his rather splenetic editorial tone, it is slightly surprising that he appears to have specialised in editing women’s magazines. In 1904 he founded and ran Chic: A high-class ladies’ illustrated paper, (which was wound up owing its printers money) and then from 1905-1910 he edited another London women’s magazine called Madame, which described itself in a publishing trade journal as ‘an illustrated magazine, devoted to the interests of women, containing articles, stories and social news’. He also published several literary and historical books during his later years – editing both The Poems of Thomas Lovell Beddoes in 1907 and The Complete Poetical Works of George Darley in 1908, before publishing The History of Ulster from Earliest Times to the Present Day in 1919, the year of his death.

Colles was only 57 when he died in London in February 1919. He received brief obituaries in the Freeman’s Journal and the Irish Independent, but in both cases this was largely in order to recall his confrontation with Arthur Griffith and court case against Maud Gonne. He was only ever a minor figure in Irish journalism, if undoubtedly a colourful one. A century later, he remains difficult to fully understand – a belligerent Tory and Freemason, fulminating against perceived liberal outrages as varied as Home Rule, the Irish language and public libraries, he was also fascinated by Buddhism and spent much of his career writing and editing ladies’ magazines. And despite the likelihood that he and his wife lived separately for much of their marriage, he does seem to have been actively supportive of her journalism career, a surprise in itself from someone of his deeply conservative social and political views. Her career was also varied and sometimes colourful, and needs its own post, which will appear here very shortly.

References

Ramsay Colles, In Castle and Court House: Being Reminiscences of 30 Years in Ireland (London: T Werner Laurie, 1911).

Maud Gonne, A Servant of the Queen: Reminiscences (London: Gollancnz, 1938).

Mary Power, ‘Without Crossed Keys: Alexander Keyes’s Advertisement and The Irish Figaro’, James Joyce Quarterly, Vol. 32, No. 3/ 4, 1995, pp. 701-706.

Lady of the House, 1890-1923

Lady of the House magazine was a curious publication. Begun in 1890, it claimed to be the first Irish women’s magazine, and its initial issue announced that ‘The want has long been felt of a high-class Irish Journal solely devoted to Fashion, the Beautifying of the Home and Person, Scientific Cookery, the Toilet, the Wants and Amusements of Children, the Garden and Conservatory, and the hundred-and-one matters which interest educated women. This want, we repeat, has been felt, but has not hitherto been filled, except by the English Ladies’ Journals which enjoy an immense circulation in this country’. The magazine, which was published monthly, did indeed cover all of these topics, and from a specifically Irish perspective – reporting on Irish fashionable society, Irish products and shops, and developments in social issues as they affected Irish women. Many of the stories were illustrated with photographs, as readers of more up-market publications were coming to expect by the 1890s. Priced at one shilling per issue, Lady of the House appeared every month for more than 30 years, until shortly after Irish Independence when following a brief flurry of name changes, it became Irish Tatler, a publication which continues to this day.

All was not entirely as it seemed, however. Lady of the House was published by the firm of Wilson, Hartnell and Co., and its editor was the owner, Henry Crawford Hartnell. But Wilson, Hartnell and Co. were not journal or magazine publishers – they were in fact one of Ireland’s first advertising agencies, having been established in 1879 (and will be the subject of separate blog post at some point in the future). Lady of the House was actually an extended advertisement for one of the agency’s largest clients, Findlater & Co. Findlater’s was a wine merchant and grocery business with several branches in Dublin (including ones in Rathmines and Howth as well as Upper Baggot Street and South Great George’s Street in the city centre). They were expensive, and were grocers to the middle and upper-middle classes of the city. Each issue of the magazine ended with about 10 pages of that month’s price list for Findlater’s, showing the cost of wines, sherries, and grocery items. The first issue of Lady of the House had a 20,000 print run (which was very large for an Irish magazine) and was free to Findlater’s account customers. In other words, the first 40 pages of articles, photographs, short stories and readers’ letters were merely the window-dressing for a grocer’s price-list. If it is a truism of commercial media that its object is not to deliver content to audiences, but to deliver audiences to advertisers, then Lady of the House was an early and extreme example of an entire publication being a thinly-disguised advertisement.

This was certainly a very novel approach to advertising, and also a very innovative business plan for a women’s magazine. The magazine itself, in design, content and tone, was in every other respect a fairly typical turn-of-the-century women’s magazine – deeply concerned with fashion, childcare, and romance as well as the more serious ‘women’s issues’ of the era such as employment and education. Nevertheless, its position as an advertising vehicle for Dublin’s largest wine merchant was used against it in an 1892 attack by the Dublin Figaro, a particularly bad-tempered and very conservative society magazine (which I’ll also write about in a future blog). The editor of the Figaro sarcastically commented that, ‘I am afraid that the readers of Lady of the House have to take too much drink with their literature. The wine list attached is voluminous enough to intoxicate the entire staff…It is impossible not to sympathise with the ‘gentlewomen’ who have to write in such close proximity to a monthly price list so suggestive of a gigantic public house’.

The Figaro’s sarcasm was motivated by a number of factors. Firstly, that Lady of the House was real competition in the fairly ruthless Irish publishing market. It may have begun purely as an extended price list, but it rapidly became a great deal more than that. It is very clear from both the longevity and content of Lady of the House that it quickly acquired a community of readers who – perhaps even to the surprise of its own editor and publisher – enjoyed it and actively engaged with its letters columns and competitions. This made it competition to other magazines not only in terms of readers themselves, but also for the advertising copy which paid the bills of all publications, as those advertisers sought out popular publications in order to reach their readers. The second reason for the Figaro’s vitriol was indicated in their sly reference to the ‘gentlewomen’ writing it. This was in part a comic acknowledgement that like most women’s magazines of the era, it was probably written mainly by men, either anonymously or using female pen-names. But the Figaro may also have had doubts that the readers of Lady of the House were quite ‘gentlewomen’ either, at least by its own deeply-conservative and upper-class standards.

At first glance, Lady of the House appears to be fairly ‘posh’. It had advertisements for expensive department stores like Switzer’s, short stories set in titled high-society and columns advising on social etiquette. And of course, very many of its readers were account customers with Findlater’s, whose liveried delivery vans were something of a status symbol in the leafy south Dublin suburbs. This combined with its enthusiastic coverage of charity bazaars and tennis competitions indicate that most of its readers were women from the Protestant middle-classes. However, more careful reading indicates that the magazine was actually pitched for the precariously-privileged. By the standards of poverty common in Ireland in the late 19thC and early 20thC, these readers were indeed prosperous, but these things are all relative, and it is obvious that Lady of the House was aimed less at the upper-middle-classes than at the more ‘ordinary’ middle-class readership, who could just about keep up the necessary appearances of middle-class status, but for whom budgets were tight, sometimes perhaps desperately so. This is clear, for example, from the large number of articles giving advice on household management – these included advice on ‘fancy’ cookery or even the cleaning of ostrich feathers. These might seem a mark of privilege us as modern readers (who probably own very few ostrich feathers), but what it actually reveals is that Lady of the House readers had to do such tasks themselves rather than having sufficient servants to do it for them. This was very common in the less-wealthy middle-classes – while there was one servant to do the basic cooking and cleaning, the women of the household had to do a great deal of very ungentile labour (discreetly and behind closed doors) in order to maintain any kind of middle-class standard of living. Advice columns on cleaning or housework of any kind are therefore an indication of its readers’ experience of domestic labour, rather than of their wealth. Even more revealing of the sometimes precarious class position of Lady of the House readers were its frequent articles on ‘acceptable’ ways by which middle-class women could make money, sometimes even after marriage. While unmarried middle-class women were increasingly entering the workforce by the 1890s (something which Lady of the House strongly supported), it was still a crucial marker of class identity that ‘gentlewomen’ did not work after marriage. But as early as 1893, Lady of the House was running articles on ‘pursuits for gentlewomen’ which included activities such as bee-keeping and ‘poultry for profit’, both of which could be discreetly engaged in by married women whose household budget was under strain. And by the following year, the magazine encouraged readers to contribute to a debate in their pages on the question ‘Should Married Women Augment Their Husbands’ Income?’, making it clear from the start that they supported the proposal.

This was in line with the magazine’s general tone and editorial position on women’s issues of the day. One of the most noticeable, and rather startling, features of Lady of the House throughout its decades of publication was its progressive stance on many social issues. It steered aggressively clear of the party and national politics of the era, using and reusing the phrase ‘…writing no politics, for we profess none’ whenever it skirted an issue connected to party politics or the ‘national question’. On social issues however, the magazine took a consistent and sometimes surprisingly progressive line. They were firmly in favour of women’s education, including to university level, and frequently celebrated women who achieved it. They took a similar approach to women’s entry into the professions, publishing admiring profiles of ‘lady doctors’ and ‘lady lawyers’. Many articles about other employment possibilities – such as typing, nursing or even agriculture – appeared each year, always encouraging women to train, acquire skills and qualifications, and to undertake paid work. They also supported women’s participation in sport, as well as defending that classic icon of the ‘new woman’ movement, the female cyclist. They were careful not to declare a position on the very divisive topic of women’s suffrage, but the fact that for many years they ran a discussion column (in which a topic would be proposed for debate and readers’ responses would be published the following month) called ‘Women’s Parliament’ indicated tacit support for it. The ‘Women’s Parliament’ column tackled many controversial topics over the years, including ‘Is Independence Good for Women?’, ‘Is Vegetarianism Right?’ and even ‘Would Associated Housekeeping Be a Desirable Step?, which debated the extent to which communal neighbourhood kitchens would liberate women from domestic labour and therefore allow them to enter more into public life. The magazine was progressive rather than radical – it was bourgeois and determinedly respectable, unlike the feminist paper Shan Van Vocht of the same era, for example. But where Shan Van Vocht ran for only a couple of years and would have had a tiny readership, Lady of the House reached tens of thousands of women over several decades, and its progressive politics were sometimes more far-reaching than we might have predicted.

This is especially true considering its origins as an advertising vehicle for Findlater’s wine and grocery chain, and this is what makes Lady of the House a curiosity in Irish media history. How did what was essentially an extended grocer’s price-list become a widely-read publication for several decades, let alone one which consistently expressed support for women’s higher education as well as their legal and employment rights? To some extent this must have been driven by the views of the editor, Henry Crawford Hartnell, the founder of the advertising agency which operated the magazine. Given its inherently commercial original purpose, however, it seems unlikely that Hartnell would have pursued such progressive positions over many years if they had been unpopular or even controversial with his readers. Instead, we must conclude that these positions broadly reflected the views of many of his readers – women who were predominantly Protestant, middle-class (but not always very wealthy) and mainly if not entirely concentrated around Dublin. Like the magazine itself, few of these women were actively involved in suffrage activism, or any of the other radical politics of the era. And yet, the consistently progressive politics of Lady of the House, especially with regard to women’s work and education, point towards interests and aspirations among its readership which went well beyond ‘beautifying of the home and person’, and all under cover of an extended grocers’ price list.