Forgotten Greenwich Voices: Shining a light on Rhoda Baillie

Local woman and campaigner Rhoda Baillie (born Rhoda Gilder) features briefly in the Greenwich100 exhibition “Beyond the Suffragettes”. In this latest blog by Lynne Dixon, we learn more about Rhoda’s contributions to the local community following her move with her husband Roger Thorne Baillie (an explosives worker at the Arsenal) to the Well Hall Estate in 1915.

When Rhoda Baillie penned this letter to Dr Marion Phillips of the Consumers’ Council of the Ministry of Food on May 11th 1918 it is unlikely that she would ever have imagined that her letter would still be in existence and of interest a hundred years later.

R Baillie letter to Dr Marion Phillips

Reproduced with kind permission of The Labour History Archive & Study Centre (LHASC)

Rhoda Baillie wrote to Phillips (who later became a Labour MP) on behalf of the  Well Hall & Eltham Pioneer Circle to enquire about setting up a National Kitchen in Woolwich.  National Kitchens were a means of providing reasonably priced food in local areas as food shortages continued to bite during the war.  It was a scheme started by Lord Spencer of the Food Ministry and implemented by local authorities.  Woolwich would have seemed an ideal place for such a kitchen and the nearest one appeared to be across the Thames on North Woolwich Road, Silvertown.

This was just one of the ways in which Rhoda and other members of the Pioneer Circle engaged in social and political issues  back in 1918.  Although we do not know exactly how many women were members of this group, originally set up to support the Labour Party and its newspaper The Pioneer, it has been possible to find out about the inspirational activities of at least some of them. The letter above is held in the archives of the People’s History Museum, Manchester, but locally there are many references to the activities of the women and the names of key members in The Pioneer newspaper itself (The Pioneer is available to read at Greenwich Heritage Centre in Woolwich).

The Pioneer Circle, initially the Well Hall Pioneer Circle, was set up in 1916, only a few months after the Estate was completed.  Rhoda Baillie who lived at 34, Prince Rupert Road in Eltham played a key role in it as the secretary and as the host of many of its regular meetings.  Members tackled a diverse range of topics, with talks usually introduced by one of the women members followed by animated discussions.

They organised outings including one to the innovative Rachel MacMillan outdoor nursery in Deptford and held events in the grounds of Well Hall Manor. In the summer they often met outdoors in Avery Hill Park.  Many of the topics would have had immediate relevance to the lives of women: education was discussed, including the need for a local school so children did not have to walk to one of the two existing local ones; housing was discussed at several meetings; health issues were also covered, including the problems associated with Venereal Disease (something which caused much concern during the war); women and the vote was a topic on at least one occasion; and of course food – food shortages, food prices and communal kitchens.

In 1917 the Pioneer Circle sent two of its members to the Woolwich Labour Food Conference.  Ongoing discussions arising from this conference may have prompted Rhoda to write to Dr Marion Phillips.  In her reply, Phillips referred to literature that she would receive from the Department and suggested Rhoda and her colleagues organize a Deputation to Woolwich Borough Council.  There are no known records yet of any Deputation but we do know that no National Kitchen was established in Woolwich. Perhaps the moment had passed as the end of the war drew near.

So far it has only been possible to catch  glimpses of Rhoda in official documents after the end of the war: Along with many other women, she exercised her right to vote, and appeared on the Electoral Roll (in 1939) and there is a record of her death in 1965. There are no direct descendants – but how wonderful to have a record of Rhoda and the Well Hall & Eltham Pioneer Circle through the letter she wrote back in 1918.

Well Hall Estate today

The Progress Estate (where Rhoda Baillie and her husband moved in 1915)
as it looks today
[© Greenwich100 Project]

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