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11 Aug 2022

A letter from a suffragette

Written by Cora Alexander, MLitt Student, University of St Andrews
A pencil sketch of a young girl reading a book, possibly Caroline Louise Lorimer, by her sister Hannah Cassels Lorimer
A young girl, possibly Caroline Louise Lorimer, by her sister Hannah Cassels Lorimer, pencil sketch, 1877 | On loan to Kellie Castle, National Trust for Scotland
While on a student placement cataloguing the letters of the Lorimer family at the University of Edinburgh, a letter caught my eye. Written in 1908, by Edinburgh suffragette Cecilia Wolseley Haig, this letter attempts to recruit Caroline Louise Lorimer to the cause of women’s suffrage.

Louise and her family lived at Kellie Castle and a small sketch book belonging to her sister, Hannah, contains a sensitive portrait of a young girl which I would like to believe is Louise. Looking at this quiet figure, I wondered what Louise might have been like, as she was not so far away from being my age when this portrait was drawn.

The letter in Edinburgh University’s special collection was a good starting point, as Caroline Louise – known simply as Louise by those who knew her – scribbled a response to the request from Cecilia at the bottom of the page, and then sent it on to an unknown third party. Louise pens a scathing reaction to Cecilia’s invitation, critiquing the violence of protestors as a ‘small and yelling minority.’ She particularly demonstrates a resentment for Cecilia’s sister – the militant suffragette Florence Haig – as an educated woman who, in Louise’s eyes, is ‘kicking and biting and brawling till she’s locked up; showing she’s fit to make the laws by breaking them.’ [1]

We might be tempted to criticise Louise’s attitude towards the women’s suffrage movement with the benefit of hindsight. As a student on placement at the Centre for Research Collections at the University of Edinburgh, tasked with cataloguing the Lorimer letter collection, I wanted to dig deeper to get to know Louise and her voice. In order to better understand her values and political stance, I attempted to unearth Louise’s life, education, and environment and embarked upon an exploration into this under-researched member of the Lorimer family.

Finding Louise Lorimer

The Lorimers were an artistic and intellectual family of academics and artists. Family life at their summer home, Kellie Castle, has been well-documented, and more often than not abounds on the lives of Louise’s siblings such as renowned architect Sir Robert Lorimer.

However, there was little research on Louise – otherwise known affectionately by the nickname ‘Caro’ – that could give me a sense of her life, her passions, or her achievements. On a guided tour of Kellie Castle, I heard scant mention of Louise’s name. It seemed that posterity had overlooked the youngest, unmarried Lorimer daughter.

While digging in the archives, I was able to begin uncovering Louise’s voice for the first time. A tentative image began to emerge from the letters of a fun-loving young person who attended parties, social calls, and weddings.

Louise reported to her sister Janet in May 1882 that her ‘most exciting piece of gaiety has been a fancy-ball’, to which she intended to wear ‘a yellow frock Jack made for me last year.’ [2] It is particularly interesting that John Henry – nicknamed ‘Jack’ – made clothes for his siblings, something that has not been noted by previous researchers and which highlights the family’s creativity and liberty with regards to traditionally gendered crafts.

In November 1882, Louise describes in a letter how – for the first time – she successfully attended a social call alone, as both of her sisters had married and left home.

‘I felt a little shy and funny going all alone but everyone was very kind to me and I was sustained by a consciousness of good clothes! I flatter myself that in my green frock, yellow neckerchief, and Hannah’s pleasant hat I am for once in my life up to afternoon tea mark, and I managed to keep quite cool.’ [3]

This reflects Louise’s interest in fashion. She did not merely buy clothes, but industriously made and updated pieces for her wardrobe to keep up with the trends. In March 1882, she had her ‘soft blue sash dyed crimson’, and also had her ‘older ladies maid’s frock washed and made up again.’ [4] Her interest in sewing is reflected in her delicate embroidery work. She did not possess, however, a particular penchant for the craft. In the early 1880s, she attended a ‘working party once a week for making clothes’ for hospital patients in the local Infirmary. At this point she reports that instead of working clothes, her job was to ‘read aloud’ to the patients for she was ‘not considered a great hand at the sewing.’ [5]

Louise’s distinctive voice, most vibrant and carefree in her letters to her sisters abroad, easily captured my imagination. Louise frequently expressed particular love for her sister Janet’s children, whom she nicknamed ‘the duckies’. In May 1882, she wrote in a letter to Janet: ‘I simply float over details of my nephew’s development, and I think we all do.’ [6] Louise’s deep devotion to her family radiates from her writing.

A sepia photograph of three children sat in a rowing boat. Each girl has dark hair and is wearing a white dress. One sits holding an oar, one sits in front of her, and the other stands behind them.
Photograph of the three Lorimer daughters as children: Hannah Cassels (left), Caroline Louise (middle), and Janet Alice (right), 1867 | Kellie Castle collection

Louise’s loneliness

When I examined her letters more closely, a picture emerged of Louise’s inner thoughts and emotions, which she often confided to her family. She was a woman perhaps overshadowed by high-achieving siblings. In practical terms she was indeed left behind to take care of her mother, as her brothers and sisters travelled, worked, and started their own families.

When her sisters had left home, Louise wrote to her eldest sibling Hannah in 1882, expressing her loneliness: ‘It is very dull being Miss Lorimer all by oneself.’ [7] In 1909, after Janet and her children had visited, Louise confided to Hannah that Kellie ‘feels frightfully still and empty without them.’ [8] Her words unveil a sense of grief for the years of her youth at their holiday home in Fife, when her family had lived so closely together.

In 1914, when Louise was 53, she converted to Catholicism against the wishes of her family. This gives us a window into her emotional struggles. She confessed that the Roman Catholic Church was ‘the only Church I have ever really felt at home in; and I feel that more and more as time goes on. Life is very sad and difficult and a great strain and I want more help than I find anywhere else.’ [9]

We may infer that the onset of the First World War was plaguing her mind, as well as taking care of her mother who was facing the final years of her life. We may never know more about the internal struggles Louise was facing.

Four wooden chairs are lined up in a row, in a chapel room with an arched ceiling painted in a sunny pale orange. Religious pictures, crosses, and a small white statue of the Virgin Mary line the walls, windowsill and a small curtained alcove in the corner.
A Catholic Chapel was installed by Mary and Hew Lorimer at Kellie Castle in the 1950s and can still be seen today

Louise’s education

While women’s education was far from the standard permitted to men, Louise’s parents, Hannah Stodart and James Lorimer, encouraged their daughters to take every educational opportunity possible. Hannah Stodart had herself attended the Edinburgh Ladies’ Educational Association and won prizes in moral philosophy, while James Lorimer was a well-respected legal advocate and professor at the University of Edinburgh. Together, they fostered an environment where education was prized, and their children were encouraged to explore their interests.

When Louise and her sisters Hannah and Janet were growing up in the late 19th century, women were beginning to enrol in university classes. While they couldn’t graduate at the same level as men, they achieved certificates from the University of Edinburgh. [10] Louise earned three certificates in 1882 and 1886, and gained honours in Geology, English Literature, Moral Philosophy and Political Economy. Louise also had a keen interest in poetry. The Glasgow Herald and Dundee Courier advertise in 1893 the poem The Trumpeter, a Romance of the Rhine by J. V. von Scheffel (1826-1866), translated from the German by Louise Lorimer and Jessie Beck. [11]

Louise and her siblings were therefore raised to believe in the importance of education and were involved in movements like the Edinburgh Social Union (ESU), established by Patrick Geddes as a philanthropic body that called for urban renewal through an investment in place and the education of people. John Henry and Robert Lorimer attended the first meeting of the ESU in January 1885. [12] This group was committed to improving social conditions in Edinburgh by increasing access to education, refurbishing Edinburgh’s old town housing, and encouraging and investment in traditional arts and crafts. Geddes organised the Summer Meetings of Art and Science between 1883 and 1903, which were attended by a large number of women. [13]

There is no note of Louise having attended a Summer Meeting; however, she took an avid interest in local education and attended meetings for a School Board Election in Edinburgh. She reported to Janet in May 1882 that one meeting was ‘very well-filled and very enthusiastic.’ Louise also joined the local ‘debating club’ in November 1882. [14] She participated within educated middle-class Edinburgh society, mixing with people with artistic and intellectual interests.

Political environment

It was with Louise’s upbringing in mind that I began to examine her correspondence with the suffragette Cecilia Wolseley Haig noted at the beginning. Louise was raised in an environment of political turmoil, when women had not yet achieved substantial political rights. While Louise was at an educational advantage given her middle-class upbringing, the majority of women were unable to receive an adequate education or gain professional employment in comparison to their male counterparts.

Campaigning for political equality for women began in the United Kingdom as early as the late 18th century. From the mid-19th century, groups of women known as suffragists began constitutional protests using parliamentary methods such as speeches, marches and debates. There were, however, many who believed violent protest to be necessary because practical change in policy and law for women’s rights was continually being rejected. Violent suffragette protests reached a peak in the early 20th century. This group included the Haig sisters who, as Louise pointed out in her response to Cecilia Haig’s letter, aimed to ‘make the laws by breaking them.’ [15]

The Haig sisters were members of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), founded by Emmeline Pankhurst, which was committed to using any means to achieve the vote for women. This included civil disobedience, attacks on property, and inciting crowds to storm the House of Commons. [16] Cecilia herself lost her life in 1911, three years after she wrote this letter to Louise, likely as a result of injuries gained while protesting. [17]

Cecilia’s sister Florence Haig is mentioned in the letter as being ‘in Holloway’, referring to Holloway Prison in London, where Florence was incarcerated several times for militant protests. [18] She received a medal from the WSPU for hunger striking, which is currently on display in the London Museum. Emmeline Pankhurst described Holloway during a period of hunger strikes: ‘Holloway became a place of horror and torment. Sickening scenes of violence took place almost every hour of the day, as the doctors went from cell to cell performing their hideous office.’ [19]

This environment of violence and fear, where women felt they had to protest in an increasingly destructive manner to garner national attention, was heightened by an unsettling aftermath of riots, arrests and hunger strikes. These sometimes led to deaths, culminating at the 1913 Derby where Emily Wilding Davison threw herself in front of the King’s horse during a live broadcast, as dramatised in the 2015 film Suffragette. Within this context, it becomes understandable why a member of a well-to-do family such as the Lorimers might object to civil unrest.

Louise’s peaceful politics

We do not have any definitive statement from Louise on her position with regards to women’s suffrage. However, we do know that her brother John Henry painted a portrait of a founder of the women’s suffrage movement, Dame Sarah Elizabeth Siddons Mair. Siddons Mair was a constitutional protestor as a member of the Edinburgh National Society for Women’s Suffrage, which campaigned peacefully for women’s enfranchisement. It is likely, therefore, that Louise’s disparaging comment scribbled onto the letter from Cecilia Haig was not a blanket condemnation of women’s suffrage, but rather an illustration of her position as a supporter of non-violent protest.

A painted portrait of an older woman in glasses with her greying hair pulled back into a bun, sitting in a chair in front of a small table with a game of chess set up on it. She's wearing a red scholar's gown with blue fabric lining the cuffs and seams.
Dame Sarah Elizabeth Siddons Mair, by John Henry Lorimer, 1928, oil on canvas | With kind permission from St George’s School, Edinburgh

Louise emphasises in her letter that Florence Haig is an ‘educated woman’. We know that Florence and her sisters were raised in a similar Scottish middle-class family as the Lorimers. Their father was a Berwickshire barrister, similar to Louise’s father James, who was an Edinburgh advocate. [20] Florence was a professional artist, and in 1934 she became a member of the Society of Women Artists. [21] The Haig sisters were therefore part of similar artistic circles as the Lorimer family. With her father in the legal profession, it is likely that Louise believed that educated women had a responsibility to respect the law and use their education to achieve change through constitutional means.

Louise’s upbringing in the upper middle-class echelons of society in the late 19th century would have encouraged her to think of the importance of women’s propriety and decorum. Her religious upbringing would also have fostered pacifism and a sense of moral duty to ‘turn the other cheek’ rather than incite violence. In addition, her father James, an advocate, most likely raised his children to believe in the power of peaceful methods as opposed to violent protest when it came to legislative change. In fact, James Lorimer became well known for his application of law to international relations and his advocacy for peace. [22]

Louise’s voice

When embarking on this journey into the Lorimer archive, I had no idea what to expect from the voices and personalities that emerged. By reading Louise’s letters, I found her voice and only then could understand her response to the letter from Cecilia Haig.

Their correspondence adds nuance to our understanding of women’s suffrage in the early 20th century. The battle for votes for women was not a straightforward or inevitable process. It was a struggle, fought by complex women of different social backgrounds who didn’t necessarily have the same opinions. Digging into archives enables us to humanise the people involved on all sides of historical moments, such as the suffragette movement of the late 19th and early 20th century. Louise’s correspondence helped me become immersed in Edinburgh society and more easily imagine the environment of fear and discomfort that militancy created for the relatively sheltered youngest daughter of a professor of international law. An individual’s story often brings the past closer, as we can relate to a person’s motivations and points of view.

I am grateful to have had the opportunity to get to know Louise Lorimer through her own words. To anyone interested in social history – have a look through your local archives. You never know what you might find.


  1. Letter dated 12 March 1908. Lorimer Family Letters, 1870s-1930s, Coll.27 (MS 2482), Centre for Research Collections, University of Edinburgh. The online catalogue can be accessed on ArchivesSpace at the following link:
  2. Letter dated 15 March 1882. Lorimer Family Letters, 1870s-1930s, Coll.27 (MS 2482), Centre for Research Collections, University of Edinburgh.
  3. Letter dated 14 November 1882. Lorimer Family Letters, 1870s-1930s, Coll.27 (MS 2482), Centre for Research Collections, University of Edinburgh.
  4. Letter dated 15 March 1882. Lorimer Family Letters, 1870s-1930s, Coll.27 (MS 2482), Centre for Research Collections, University of Edinburgh.
  5. Letter dated 15 March 1882. Lorimer Family Letters, 1870s-1930s, Coll.27 (MS 2482), Centre for Research Collections, University of Edinburgh.
  6. Letter dated 28 May 1882. Lorimer Family Letters, 1870s-1930s, Coll.27 (MS 2482), Centre for Research Collections, University of Edinburgh.
  7. Letter dated 16 December 1882. Lorimer Family Letters, 1870s-1930s, Coll.27 (MS 2482), Centre for Research Collections, University of Edinburgh.
  8. Letter dated 19 October 1909. Lorimer Family Letters, 1870s-1930s, Coll.27 (MS 2482), Centre for Research Collections, University of Edinburgh.
  9. Letter dated 1914. Lorimer Family Letters, 1870s-1930s, Coll.27 (MS 2482), Centre for Research Collections, University of Edinburgh.
  10. Nicola Law, “Hannah Lorimer and the Pursuit of Education,” National Trust for Scotland, May 24, 2022,
  11. ‘Poetry and Verse’ advertisement, 12 May 1893, Dundee Courier, The British Newspaper Archive.
  12. Walter M Stephen, Learning from the Lasses: Women of the Patrick Geddes Circle (Edinburgh: Luath Press, 2014), p.77.
  13. Letter dated 15 March 1882. Lorimer Family Letters, 1870s-1930s, Coll.27 (MS 2482), Centre for Research Collections, University of Edinburgh.
  14. National Library of Scotland, “Patrick Geddes (1854-1932),”, n.d.,
  15. UK Parliament, “Start of the Suffragette Movement,”, 2010,
  16. C. J. Bearman, “An Examination of Suffragette Violence,” The English Historical Review 120, no. 486 (April 1, 2005): 365–97,
  17. ‘In Memoriam: Miss Cecilia Wolseley Haig’, 5 January 1912, Votes for Women, The British Newspaper Archive.
  18. Diane Atkinson, Rise Up, Women! The Remarkable Lives of the Suffragettes (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018), p.106.
  19. Museum of London, “Six Things You Should Know about the Suffragette Hunger Strikes,”, October 5, 2018,
  20. National Portrait Gallery, “Florence Eliza Haig (1855-1952),”, n.d.,
  21. Janice Helland, Professional Women Painters in Nineteenth-Century Scotland: Commitment, Friendship, Pleasure (Ashgate Publishing, 2000), p.128-130.
  22. Bruno Arcidiacono, ‘Peace Through International Law, as Seen by Two Nineteenth-Century Jurists: The Lorimer-Bluntschli Debate’, Relations Internationales 149, no.1 (2012):13-26,]

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