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Margaret Gladstone and Ramsay MacDonald

John Simkin

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May 1895 Margaret Gladstone saw Ramsay MacDonald addressing an audience during his campaign to win the Southampton seat in the 1895 General Election. She noted that his red tie and curly hair made him look "horribly affected". However, she sent him a £1 contribution to his election fund. A few days later she became one of his campaign workers. MacDonald, along with the other twenty-seven Independent Labour Party candidates, was defeated and overall, the party won only 44,325 votes.

The following year they began meeting at the Socialist Club in St. Bride Street and at the British Museum, where they both had readers' tickets. Here are three letters that Margaret wrote to Ramsay:

(1) (15th June, 1896)

My financial prospects I am very hazy about, but I know I shall have a comfortable income. At present I get £80 allowance (besides board & lodging, travelling and postage); my married sister has, I think about £500 all together. When my father dies we shall each have our full share, and I suppose mine will be some hundreds a year ... My ideal would be to live a simple life among the working people, spending on myself whatever seemed to keep me in best efficiency, and giving the rest to public purposes, especially Socialist propaganda of various kinds. I don't suppose I am a very good manager; but I don't think I am careless or extravagant about money. If I married and a fixed income made my husband and myself more free to do the work we thought right, I should think it an advantage to be used. But if you saw this differently, and led me to see as you did; and at the same time we thought that by marrying we could help each other to live fuller and better lives, I would give up the income and try to do my share of pot boiling. I suppose I could do some work for which people would be willing to give money. Of course one ought to consider one's relations as well as oneself; but that is fortunately simple, as any who are worth considering would trust us to do what we thought right. I know your life is a hard one: I know there must be much apparent failure in it, I don't know whether I should have pluck and ability to carry me through anything worth doing: if you ever asked me to be with you it would be a spur to try my best - but there I am getting to the deeper water and will stop.

(2) (25th June, 1896)

It is only just beginning to dawn on me a very little bit, since your last Sunday's letter, what a new good gift I have in your love... But when I think how lonely you have been I want with all my heart to make up to you one tiny little bit for that. I have been lonely too - I have envied the veriest drunken tramps I have seen dragging about the streets if they were man and woman because they had each other... This is truly a love letter: I don't know when I shall show it you: it may be that I never shall. But I shall never forget that I have had the blessing of writing it.

(3) (2nd July, 1896)

What right have you to talk eloquently about having discovered humanity and then go and say it is wonderful that two poor little bits of humanity should care for each other because they happen to have had rather different circumstances? Not so very different after all, either, for in the most important things we have had the same - we are under the same civilisation - have the same big movements stirring around us - the same books to open our minds; & we both have many good true friends to help us along by their affection. I even have had all my life "darned stockings'"; perhaps you think some magic keeps them from going into holes in the station of life where it has pleased GOD to place me, but I can assure you I have spent many hours darning my own & my father's - badly too...

I don't mind how long you are making up your mind one way or the other - only I would like you to take me on my own merits & not on what my esteemed relations might think of you or what particular kind of summer holiday I had eight years ago. If you want it of course I will bring specimens of my relations to you or you can come to us & I'll have a selection for you to inspect - like animals at the zoo. But I can't introduce them to you without their having some idea of the relations between us, and I certainly at present don't relish the idea of this sort of thing.


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The marriage was a very happy one, and over the next few years they had six children, Alister (1898), Malcolm (1901), Ishbel (1903), David (1904), Joan (1908) and Shelia (1910). On 3rd February 1910, their youngest son, David, died of diphtheria. On 4th July, Ramsay MacDonald wrote: "My little David's birthday... Sometimes I feel like a lone dog in the desert howling from pain of heart. Constantly since he died my little boy has been my companion. He comes and sits with me especially on my railway journey and I feel his little warm hand in mine. That awful morning when I was awakened by the telephone bell, and everything within me shrunk in fear for I knew I was summoned to see him die, comes back often too."

On 20th July 1911, Ramsay MacDonald arranged for his wife to meet William Du Bois in the House of Commons. He later explained: "A little after noon she joined me at the House of Commons with one whom she had desired to meet ever since she had read his book on the negro, Professor Du Bois; that afternoon we went to country for a weekend rest. She complained of being stiff, and jokingly showed me the finger carrying her marriage and engagement rings. It was badly swollen and discoloured, and I expressed concern. She laughed away my fears... On Saturday she was so stiff that she could not do her hair, and she was greatly amused by my attempts to help her. On Sunday she had to admit that she was ill and we returned to town. Then she took to bed."

According to Bruce Glasier she was treated by Dr. Thomas Barlow, who told MacDonald that he could not save her. "When she heard that she was doomed, she was silent, and said with a slight tremble in her voice, I am very sorry to leave you - you and the children - alone. She never wept - never to the end. She asked if the children could be brought to see her. When the boys were brought to her, she spoke to each one separately. To the boys she said, I wish you only to remember one wish of your mother's - never marry except for love."

Margaret MacDonald died on 8th September 1911, at her home, Lincoln's Inn Fields, from blood poisoning due to an internal ulcer. Her body was cremated at Golders Green on 12th September and the ashes were buried in Spynie Churchyard, a few miles from Lossiemouth. Her son, Malcolm MacDonald, later recalled: "At the time of my mother's death... my father's grief was absolutely horrifying to see. Her illness and her death had a terrible effect on him of grief; he was distracted; he was in tears a lot of time when he spoke to us... it was almost frightening to a youngster like myself."

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Katharine Glasier, a close friend of Margaret, wrote a letter to Ramsay MacDonald in December, 1912:

I am gathering courage to tell you how over the fire one night we two wives searched our hearts together & fearlessly said to one another that love like ours had no room for one jealous throb. Mary Middleton had spoken to us unfalteringly of her hope that Jim would "love & live" again in all fullness and I said to Margaret that I knew Bruce's need of the love & sympathy of a true woman so well that were I to go from him my last words would be seek and soon another woman who would mother both him and the bairns for me. And Margaret put her check against mine - a very unusual demonstration - you know - and said, I think it was - "And so would I" - But anyhow I never doubted but we were wholly in sympathy. The feeling that I have to tell you this - almost as if she herself were insisting on it - has been with me for weeks past and I have not dared... But I am too sure of what she would have wished... not to have courage to speak-out now. I was 12 when my mother died and until my father married again when I was nearly 16 I had no home happiness at all. His grief and loneliness put out the sunshine for us children. And the second wife was tenderly good to us. And Margaret - what of her motherhood? It is her will that you live - live to carry on the noblest Socialism in the world today - to live gloriously down every mean aspersion of personal ambition and to accomplish the creation of a strong sane Collectivist Party in Britain capable of government in every sense of the word... She believed in your future and she knew your need of sympathy and help. She told me much of your mother. You know both of us had special reason to love and honour our husbands' mothers and learn from their sorrows and struggles a fiercer morality than any ordinary world holds. We both believed in real marriage: in men and women working shoulder to shoulder - you yourself record that. And here I will stop - proudly holding out both hands to you because I know that she who is gone loved and trusted me and showed me glimpses of her innermost soul.

Two years later, her husband, Bruce Glasier developed bowel cancer. He died in 1920. She never remarried and lived on her own for the next 30 years.



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