Forgotten Liberal heroes: Jean Henderson

Listen to Liberal Democrats make speeches and there are frequent references to historical figures, but drawn from a small cast. Just the quartet of John Stuart Mill, William Gladstone, David Lloyd George, David Penhaligon corner almost all of the market, especially since Bob Maclennan stopped making speeches to party conference. Some of the forgotten figures deserve their obscurity but others do not. Charles James Fox’s defence of civil liberties against a dominating government during wartime or Earl Grey’s leading of the party back into power and major constitutional reform are good examples of mostly forgotten figures who could just as well be a regular source of reference, quotation and inspiration as the traditional quartet. So in this contribution to our occasional series Graham Lippiatt highlights another figure who has been unjustly forgotten.

Jean Henderson was one of that dwindling, stalwart, band of women and men who stuck with the Liberal Party in the dark days of the 1940s and 1950s, speaking out for Liberal values and principles and providing the foundation from which the revival of the later 50s and 1960s could spring.

Born in 1899, Jean Henderson was brought up in a Liberal family. Her father was Secretary of the National Liberal Club for twenty years and later worked in the Liberal Publications Department. She began her education at Hall School, an innovative, experimental establishment run by her aunt, Eva Gilpin – later Lady Sadler, wife of Sir Michael Sadler, Master of University College, Oxford.  Henderson’s mother, a Quaker, taught scripture at Hall School and Henderson later co-edited one book about the school and wrote another. Henderson then attended The Mount, a Quaker school in York, where she was Head Girl after which she went up to Bedford College, London graduating in modern languages.

After university, Henderson went into journalism working first at the influential Liberal publication, the Westminster Gazette and later at the Daily News, another newspaper with a Liberal bias. She also edited a magazine for the anti-war Women’s International League and acted as part-time secretary to David Low the famous cartoonist. In 1938 Henderson changed careers, going in for the law. She was admitted to the Inner Temple in 1940, was called to the Bar in 1943 and practised as a barrister on the London and Midland Circuits.

Henderson’s first foray into Liberal politics was as prospective parliamentary candidate for St Albans from 1936-41. During the war, Henderson lectured on current events to troops under the War Office Scheme for Education and also served as an air raid warden in Hampstead Garden Suburb. In 1941, she was one of the prominent women speakers at a rally in Trafalgar Square to protest at the unequal treatment of women in compensation for injuries received in air raids. Under the regulations of the time women received seven shillings a week less than male civilians for the same injuries even though they faced equal danger in their homes, as targets in industry or working in civil defence. Among the other speakers were Lady Astor, Edith Summerskill and the pianist Harriet Cohen.

At the 1945 general election Henderson stood as Liberal candidate for Barnet, losing her deposit. In 1950 she was adopted for Lincoln and like so many other Liberal candidates this year again lost her deposit. She did not contest a seat in 1951 but did not lose faith and returned to the fray, first by becoming prospective parliamentary candidate for Watford but then changing constituencies to fight at Luton in 1955 where she opposed Charles Hill, the Radio Doctor, who still stood as a National Liberal & Conservative.  Once again she came third and lost her deposit.

Henderson unsuccessfully contested elections in the Garden Suburb ward of Hendon Council in 1949 and 1953. She was Honorary Secretary of the Women’s Liberal Federation from 1941 until 1949 and served on the Executive of the Liberal Candidates’ Association. She was also President of Hampstead Garden Suburb Ward Liberal Association and a member of the Management Board of the Gladstone Benevolent Fund for Liberal Agents.

Henderson was also an active conservationist. In 1962 she was elected the first Chairman of the Hampstead Garden Suburb Protection Society, set up to preserve the essential character and independence of the suburb in the face possible changes and development when the area was acquired by a private property company. The Society sponsored a private bill in Parliament to safeguard the future of the suburb. In 1968, Henderson became one of the first directors of the New Hampstead Garden Suburb Trust, which was granted powers to refuse proposed developments deemed harmful to its character.

Henderson died in 1997 just a few weeks before the general election which saw the number of Liberal Democrat MPs more than doubling – a fitting tribute to a forgotten heroine of Liberalism who helped make that success possible.

For the other posts in this series see our Forgotten Liberal Heroes page.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Graham Lippiatt 25th Apr '11 - 1:46pm

    I never met Jean Henderson but when her obituary was published in the Times in 1997, I wished I had because she sounded such a remarkable woman. I cut out the obit and eventually did a bit more research which led to an article on Wikipedia and now this ‘forgotten heroes’ piece. Jean Henderson left a collection of papers which are in the Liberal Party archives at the LSE. If there is a Ph.D in the careers of Liberal women for some research student, Henderson’s papers would likely be a treasure trove.

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