Thinking about Francesca Wilson and the Victorian imaginary that surrounded her philanthropic work

Ellen Ross is Professor of History and Women’s Studies at Ramapo College of New Jersey. She has written about motherhood and London poverty in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Victorian and Edwardian women’s urban philanthropy, missions and social work in London, and Christian conversion efforts aimed at London Jews. Francesca Wilson’s story is part of a study of post-suffrage women’s voluntarism–which increasingly had a European or even global scope. Contact at:

Francesca Wilson Francesca M. Wilson (1888-1981), a Birmingham-born Quaker and graduate of Newnham College, came of age in the twentieth century. I encountered her as a part of a project on interwar women’s philanthropy and social work. I was really fascinated by Wilson because of her intimate involvement as a relief worker with most of Europe’s major disasters: both world wars, two famines, the Civil War in Spain, and the desperate exodus from the advancing Nazi armies in 1939. I was thrilled, too, to find a little-known woman who had written several books. When I encountered her I was branching out from decades of work on Victorian women philanthropists while recognizing how many of them lived decades into the twentieth century. I was surprised at Wilson’s vigorous efforts to get out from under the Victorian mantle—and at the persistence of the association between philanthropy and the Victorians in an era of what Elizabeth Macadam called “the new philanthropy”.[1] Wilson was proud that her last major employer, UNRRA (the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency), where she served from 1944 to 1947, represented itself through a twentieth-century language of efficiency and rationality. Yet UNRRA too was plagued by charges of Victorian sentimentalism and inefficiency.

To summarize Wilson’s lengthy relief career: In 1916, in her late twenties, having first done other aid work in France and Holland, she became involved through the Serbian Relief Fund in caring for wounded Serbian troops who had been evacuated across the Adriatic to Corsica and Tunisia. After the war, she served as Hilda Clark’s interpreter in Vienna where Quakers and the Save the Children fund were (1919-1922) organizing a program to feed preschool children. Next, in the fall of 1922, she joined the Friends’ famine relief program in the Russian province of Samara, where hundreds of thousands were dying. Returning to her day job of secondary history teaching in 1925, this time at the Edgbaston Church of England College for Girls, was a letdown for Wilson; she had entered, she said, “the cruel void of a bachelor.” At home in the thirties she lectured extensively on the Nazi threat. With two Birmingham friends Wilson joined a local anti-fascist group founded by the city’s Communist Party, and it is through this organization that she made her first trip to Republican Spain in 1937. She returned there twice more, arranging housing and medical care for children until the Republic’s sad end. Wilson next, later in 1939, went to Czechoslovakia and Hungary with the Polish Relief Fund helping Sudeten Social Democratic and Polish refugees escape from the advancing Nazis. At home during the war she worked with the International Commission for War Refugees finding accommodation and jobs for refugees, and, now well into her fifties, joined the UNRRA and was stationed mainly in U.S.-occupied Germany.[2] Because of her fluency in Serbo-Croatian, UNRRA then sent her as an observer to Tito’s Yugoslavia.

Wilson’s breezy characterizations of her motives for being an aid worker may be read as attempts to extirpate the belittling Victorian label. She declared that she was driven not by compassion or Christian charity but by a desire for “foreign travel, adventure, romance, the unknown.” Ruth Fry, the Friends Emergency War Victims Relief Committee recruiter in London in 1915 indeed rejected her application; it was obvious that service was not her primary motive for joining the project.[3]  Yet saintly ladies bountiful continued to be projected onto Wilson. She was annoyed when an injured Serbian officer she befriended in about 1916 exclaimed: “What sacrifice, what devotion! C’est quelque chose pour moi trop,” he exclaimed, likening her to a “St. Clare or a St. Catherine of Siena at the least.”[4] The press irritatingly presented some women aid workers as “Mothers of Starving Millions.” Surrounded by sycophants, courtiers and “stooges,” in Wilson’s view such women aid-givers did indeed embody “Queens of Distressed Ruritanias.”[5] The “Lady Bountiful attitude” was simply a “hangover from the Victorian age” she said in 1944, and was hence rarer among the Americans, many with social work training that prepared them to take “a sensible, workmanlike attitude to wars, poverty and distress.”[6]

UNRRA did not put an end to the Victorian imagery. In the debates at its founding in 1943 we see sedimented languages and practices in the history of philanthropy. In its self-defining narratives, the UNRRA was a modern, professional, centralized and well coordinated international organ of relief, entirely different from the “private relief agencies” of the post World War I years.[7] The new body was formed not by voluntary agencies but by agreement among forty-five governments. It was grounded in medical science, social surveys, casework methods, and psychoanalytic insights. The massive relief effort UNRRA undertook was designed mainly to sustain and repatriate the approximately eight million non-German civilians found in defeated Germany in 1945. By 1946 it had a staff of nearly thirteen thousand women and men of all races and nationalities, dwarfing all of the earlier efforts in which Wilson had been involved, a “United Nations in a test tube,” as one American aid worker put it.[8]

UNRRA’s founders aimed to free the agency both from Victorian associations and, as well, from the post World War One aid efforts which they also branded as amateurish. Sir Frederick Leith-Ross, the Chief Economic Adviser to the British government, declared in 1943 that many lives would have been saved after 1918 had there been better planning for relief. Harold Laski compared the post 1918 piecemeal humanitarian aid unfavorably to the well-built “machinery” of international relief being developed in the 1940s.[9] UNRRA, declared one of its early advocates, would operate through governments “and not by distributing alms to individuals.” The (American) National Planning Association’s 1942 proposal for the relief of Europe warned that “we ought not to play ‘Lady Bountiful’, and expect the world to thank us for being rich.” Laski, urging reconstruction along with relief, argued that without the former, the UNRRA would be nothing but “a glorified soup kitchen.”[10] Many of the Americans (the largest contingent) were trained social workers.

The comradeship of the globally recruited relief workers, and the courage and resilience of the refugees with whom she worked closely offered Francesca Wilson as it did thousands of others with a vision of a peaceful European future. I finally got why she compared UNRRA to the Franciscans. She was straining for a new language with which to celebrate the humanitarians of the twentieth century while also evading the Victorian charity episteme.  She likens UNRRA’s massive relief to the “great ages of Faith when monks and friars poured over Europe, nursing the sick and feeding the hungry.” She says, “St Francis sent his followers to tend the lepers, no matter what their nationality; Ignatius Loyola, a Spaniard, instituted something like a Charity Organisation in Rome.”[11] Heroic physicians with whom Wilson had worked, like her lifelong friend Dr. Katherine Macphail, who braved bullets and typhus to found hospitals in the Balkans during and after World War 1, summoned up still earlier times. Macphail embodied ”the special powers of doctors, the priests of the modern world, the descendants of the necromancers of prehistorical times.”[12]



[1] Katherine Storr, Excluded from the Record: Refugees and Relief 1914-1929 (Bern: Peter Lang, 2010) is an account of relief work at several sites. Sybil Oldfield’s books on women “humanitarians’ cover Wilson and may of her peers during the interwar years. See her Doers of the World: British Women Humanitarians 1900-1950 (London: Continuum Press, 2001. Also see Siân Lliwen Roberts’s excellent, Place, Life Histories and the Politics of Relief: Episodes in the Life of Francesca Wilson, Humanitarian Educator Activist. Ph.D. Dissertation, School of Education, University of Birmingham, 2010; and June Horder (Wilson’s niece), Francesca Wilson: a Life of Service and Adventure (Privately printed, 1993).

[2] Ben Shephard, “’Becoming Planning Minded’: The Theory and Practice of Relief 1940-1945,” Journal of Contemporary History 43, no. 3 (2008): 405-419.

[3] In In the Margins of Chaos: Recollections of Relief Work in and Between Three Wars (New York: Macmillan, 1945), 43, Wilson put her personal motives especially baldly: “the love of excitement and adventure, the itch to meddle in other people’s affairs, the nostalgia for foreign countries and for increased scope for one’s powers.” It was only when actually at work, she said, that she experienced “nobler” emotions such as compassion and affection for those being aided, potentiated by the “ambition to do a piece of work properly.”

[4] Wilson, Margins of Chaos, 43; and Francesca Wilson, Portraits and Sketches of Serbia (London: Swarthmore Press, 1920), 49.

[5] Wilson, Margins of Chaos, 304. Ruritania is a kingdom in Anthony Hope’s popular 1894 novel, Prisoner of Zenda. Wilson may have had Lady Violet Paget in mind here as such a “queen.” An energetic humanitarian active in Russia from 1915 until many years after the Russian Revolution, her wealth, energy, fur-collared coat, stylish hats, brisk requests for funds in the Times and connections in high places, made her an especially visible grand dame of philanthropy.

[6] Quoted from Francesca Wilson, Advice to Relief Workers: Based on Personal Experience in the Field  (London: John Murray and Friends Relief Service, n. d.).

[7] Gerard Daniel Cohen, In War’s Wake: Europe’s Displaced Persons in the Postwar Order (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 10.

[8] Tara Zahra, ”’The Psychological Marshall Plan’: Displacement, Gender, and Human Rights afterworld War II, Central European History 44(2011): 44-45; Cohen, War’s Wake, 61-62.

[9] Cohen, War’s Wake, 59-60.

[10] Gerard Daniel Cohen, “Between Relief and Politics: Refugee Humanitarianism in Occupied Germany 1945-1946,” Journal of Contemporary History 43, no. 3 (July 2008): 438; Shephard, “’Becoming Planning Minded:’” 410, 412.

[11] Wilson, Margins of Chaos, 291, 293.

[12] Francesca Wilson, Rebel Daughter of a Country House: The Life of Eglantyne Jebb, Founder of the Save the Children Fund  (London: George Allen & Unwin 1967), 189.


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