Quakers in the World

Quakers in the World

Elizabeth Mary Cadbury

1858 – 1951

Elizabeth, or Elsie as she was known, was born into a family of ten children in an affluent Quaker family in London.  Her parents John and Mary Taylor were temperance crusaders and supported the adult education provided by the mechanics’ institutes.

She and her sister Margaret were educated privately in Germany and Elsie continued her education at North London Collegiate School from 1874 to 1876.  She decided against higher education and helped with the education of the younger children in her family.  She also taught a class of forty boys at a Quaker Sunday School in the poor district of South London.  In 1884 she started a boys’ club.  These activities were highly unusual for a lady of her age, marital status and social class.

Elsie had a deep love of music. She organised choirs and also used her musical talents to entertain the seamen in the London dockyards.   She also worked with women in the slums of London.

On a visit to her aunt and uncle George and Caroline Barrow in Birmingham, she met George Cadbury, co-founder of the Bournville chocolate factory.  He too was interested in the temperance movement and in adult education.  They became friends and colleagues for over ten years due to these mutual interests.

After the death of his wife Mary in 1887 George Cadbury confided in Elizabeth his sense of loss and his sorrow for his five motherless children.  They gradually became close, and were married in 1888. Elsie joined George in working at the Adult School in Birmingham and soon took on the teaching of the workers’ wives.

She and George had six children and the family soon outgrew their home at Woodbrooke.   In 1903 they moved to the manor house and Woodbrooke was given to the Religious Society of Friends and became Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre.

Each year the manor house was thrown open to children from the poorest areas in Birmingham for a large party. A big hall known as ‘The Barn’ was built where refreshments could be served to about seven hundred children.  Games were organised and there were baths where the children could bathe.  Many of them had not had the experience of bathing before and would stay in the water until they were blue with cold and shivering, but cleaner than they had ever been.

Elizabeth was very influential in the development of the Bournville Estate and had the Beeches built to provide holidays for poor children.  She campaigned for medical inspections in schools and chaired the Birmingham School Inspection Committee.  She was a devoted wife and mother to her family.  She continued with her philanthropic work while governesses took care of the young Cadburys but she ensured that she spent time with them each day.

Both Elizabeth and George were opposed to the Boer War in South Africa from 1889 – 1902.

In 1900, with the complete support of Elsie, George gave away most of his wealth and formed the Bournville Trust which had grown from sixteen homes to an idyllic village with three hundred and seventy cottages.

Elsie also became involved in the work of the new League of Nations and became the local representative.  She worked tirelessly for disarmament.  When she and George heard that there were children starving in Austria after the war they arranged for fifteen of them to come to Bournville.  Quakers also organised cocoa rooms in Vienna where the orphaned children could be fed. In 1918 she was honoured by the Belgian government for her work with refugees.  They made her an officer of the order of the Crown.  She also received awards for her war work from the Red Cross organizations of Serbia, Greece and Yugoslavia.   She was awarded the OBE (Order of the British Empire) in 1918 for her public service and in 1934 she was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire, DBE.

She made many contributions to education throughout her life, first in London and then in Birmingham.  Birmingham Education committee co-opted her in 1919. She was a governor of the university, which recognised her input by awarding her an honorary MA in 1919, for her services to education and Birmingham.

Elsie died in 1951.

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Further Reading and Credits

Image reproduced with kind permission from the copyright holders Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre