Annie Besant

BESANT, Annie 1847-1933. Theosophist, educationist, social reformer and political activist. She was a prolific writer and George Bernard Shaw considered her to be a great public speaker.

Born at 2 Fish Street Hill, London, she was the daughter of William Wood, a doctor, and his wife Emily Morris. When Annie was five her father died and the family moved first to Richmond Terrace, Clapham, and then in 1854 to Harrow where her mother took in boarders to make a living so that her son Henry could be educated at Harrow School, while Annie was sent to the home and school of a family friend Ellen Marryat in Dorset.

At nineteen Annie married Frank Besant, an Anglican vicar and they had two children. However their partnership was far from happy. Annie was highly intelligent and independent in thought and her husband very much a traditionalist. Annie began to question her Christian beliefs and when she refused to attend communion, her husband ordered her to leave the family home. In 1873 a legal separation was arranged with Frank having custody of Digby their son and the daughter Mabel going with Annie.

Before the separation Annie had spent time with her mother in London and whilst there made friends with the Rev. Charles Voysey (father of CFA Voysey - qv), founder of the ‘Theistic Church’ and his wife, with whom she stayed in Dulwich. Through them, she met Thomas Scott, who lived in Farquhar Road, Upper Norwood, where she met a wide circle of people dedicated to free-thinking. It was to these friends that Annie looked for help and in 1874 she moved to what is now 39 Colby Road, Gipsy Hill, earning her keep by writing pamphlets commissioned by Scott, and as a public lecturer. A blue plaque, erected in 1963, marks the house where she lived in 1874.

She became a member of the National Secular Society and met Charles Bradlaugh with whom she became close friends. She worked with him on the National Reformer which he edited and where she published many articles relating to women’s rights. With Bradlaugh she re-published a pamphlet by Charles Knowlton on birth control entitled The Fruits of Philosophy, for which they were both prosecuted on a charge of immorality in 1877. Although found guilty their sentence of six months imprisonment was quashed on appeal.

Annie then wrote and published her own book on birth control entitled The Laws of Population which received much publicity. In 1879 Frank Besant persuaded the courts to let him have custody of their daughter because of Annie’s declared atheism and alleged unconventionality. However she continued with her work and also obtained a science degree from London University as well as joining the Fabian Society and becoming editor of The Link.

In 1888 she helped form the Match Girls’ Union and played a major role in the successful strike which highlighted the unsafe practices and low wages paid to female factory workers. In 1889 Annie was elected to the London School Board where she established a programme of free meals for undernourished children and free medical examinations for all those in elementary schools.

Annie became a convert to Theosophy in 1889, a religious movement based on Hindu ideas of karma and reincarnation. From 1893 she spent the winter months in India and became President of the Theosophical Society from 1907 until her death. In 1916 she established the Home Rule League and became its president. She was a staunch supporter and propagandist for Indian home rule and was interned by the British during World War One. On her release she became president of the Indian National Congress in 1917, and General Secretary of the Indian National Convention in 1923. In 1909 she claimed that her adopted son and protégé, Krishnamurti, was the ‘new’ Messiah, a teaching that he totally rejected in 1929. Annie Besant died on 20 September 1933 in Madras and was cremated on the banks of the river Adyar where it flows into the Indian Ocean.

Christina Brewer