Written By Lynne Dixon, June 2018
Will Crooks, the popular Labour MP for Woolwich in the early 1900s, notably has a high profile in history, but finding out about the wife of a well known man like Crooks presents difficulties. Why?
Wives manage to be hidden behind their husbands, not only in public life but also in the resources that reveal those hidden lives. It seems especially true when trying to get around the algorithms giving access to electronically available material. Some basic information about Elizabeth Crooks’ life can be found, and there are occasional glimpses of her linked to the public life of her husband, but beyond that, finding further information is not so easy. Nothing daunted, I have eventually pieced together more about Elizabeth, which splashes some colour to her relatively shadowy figure.
Discovering Elizabeth Coulter
I first came across the name of Mrs Will Crooks on a committee membership list of the First World War period, but had no particular interest in ‘Mrs Will Crooks’ not being acquainted with the significance of the Crooks’ local legacy. Much later the connection dawned on me and it was a small but significant ‘eureka’ moment.
Let me introduce you to the focus figure of this blog post; Elizabeth Coulter had been a lodger in the home of Will Crooks’ mother. Already a widow, she is shown in the 1891 census as a ‘night lunatic attendant’. Will’s first wife had died in 1892 leaving him with 6 children, and Elizabeth’s husband had died in 1890. She and Will married in 1893.
Perhaps in those first years she was mainly occupied in caring for the children and looking after their home, experiences which gave her tremendous empathy for other wives in similar situations. In 1901 she headed a deputation of the wives of the unemployed in the East End to Mr Balfour and then came a second march to the King in October 1905. In talking about her involvement in this second march, her comments reveal how her own commitment to helping the poor started, and also her own reluctance to be involved in public life on her own account:
“That is why I have tried to help the march of the women…..The stories that I am told at my door every night would break your heart.
“I have never intended to do anything in public life myself. I have always felt my duty was at home; and I thought it would be enough for me to attend to the home and look after all Will’s little wants.
“But now they look to me to do more; and I feel I must do whatever I can, little as it may be. Public life, though, is not for me. That is Will’s work. If I studied my own inclinations I should be always in the midst of my home. But the misery of the poor people stirs the heart; you feel you must do something; and I am thankful that, little as I have done, I have been encouraged by hundreds of kind letters urging me to continue in the good work.
“So there is it. I am going on. I shall march at the head of the women’s procession ….. ” (London Daily News 11th October 1905)
Elizabeth’s identification with the loneliness of the wives of the poor
“Women feel the hardships of unemployment more than men. After all the man has his pals to see and talk with, and sometimes gets a bit of bread and cheese or a glass of beer. But there is no such comfort for the poor woman. She has to stay at home day after day, with, perhaps, three or four hungry children, at her wits’-end to keep starvation from the door, while her husband searches vainly for work.” (Daily Telegraph and Courier, 4th November 1905)
By this time Elizabeth was well known locally for her involvement in the Poplar community including her time as the first Labour Mayoress in 1901, a tremendous achievement.
“Mrs Crooks has done an immense amount of good by personal service – nursing the children, ministering to the sick, and cheering up the sad and sorrowful….. perhaps Mr Crooks was thinking of his wife when he declared that “the President of the Local Government Board ought to be a woman; then reforms would come more quickly.” (Framlingham Daily News, 16th October 1909.)
Putting together the puzzle
This was the time at which she and her husband undertook a much publicised tour of the Empire taking in Canada and Australia and which was widely covered in newspapers of those countries.
I have no doubt that Elizabeth was active in many ways during the First World War and amongst these wartime responsibilities she seems to have developed an interest in how to ease the daily chores of women. There are innumerable adverts for the Commercial Gas Company in which Mrs Crooks’ is promoting the use of gas in cooking. The earliest ones are in 1914:
The advert is headed ‘Letter received from Mrs Crooks wife of Mr W.M.CROOKS, M.P.’
Elizabeth Crooks’ Commercial Gas Company advertisement
I should be glad if you will oblige me by putting my Gas Stove back. I find the Electric Cooking Stove is not so good as the Gas Stove for Cooking. Please let me know so that I can have the present Electric Stove Removed. Yours Faithfully, ELIZABETH CROOKS”
Post War Elizabeth
Then in January 1918 a brief piece in The Vote refers to her joining the Consumers’ Council of the Ministry Food representing the ‘unorganised consumer’. The Council was set up in 1918 to enlist the cooperation of the organised working classes and the Cooperative movement, functioning partly independently of the Ministry of Food.
Not long after in 1919, she was listed as a member of the Sub Committee of the Women’s Section of The Garden City and Town Planning Association. The committee was investigating labour saving devices for women’s use in the home. Although these are tiny glimpses into the window of Mrs Crooks’ life, perhaps we can surmise that now Elizabeth had entered public life on her own account. Her thoughts on the lives of women have also moved on and we can see the start of later feminist ideas about sharing responsibilities
“At present the average married woman’s working day is a flagrant contradiction of all trade-union ideals …….. If her husband’s hours are reduced to eight, well that gives her a chance, doesn’t it? The home and the children are, after all, as much his as hers. I suggest they take it turn and turn about – one night he goes out and she looks after the house and the children; the next night she goes out and he takes charge of things at home. She can sometimes go to the cinema, sometimes call on friends. (Daily Chronicle, 17th February 1919)
In 1921 Will Crooks died and I lose sight of her for a while before her second marriage to a family friend, William Adamson in 1927.
Elizabeth Crooks died in 1932 and is buried with Will in the City of London and Tower Hamlets Cemetery. However, although there is a fine memorial stone to Will, there is not even a simple headstone for Elizabeth. And much to my disappointment I have yet to find some traces of her public profile in our borough. Even so, I feel she is worthy of our attention if only for the support she gave to her husband and perhaps one day evidence will emerge of activity in Woolwich.
I feel there is so much more to find out about her, so why don’t you try and delve into Herstory yourself?