Newcastle-born humanitarian activist Francesca Wilson (1888–1981)

Event date(s)

1 January 1888


Francesca Mary Wilson was a schoolteacher and humanitarian who made a substantial contribution to British and international relief efforts, both through her practical work in the field and through her publishing activities. Born to Quaker parents on 1 January 1888, her initial home was on Holly Avenue, Jesmond, followed by a move to Elswick. Having attended Central Newcastle High School for Girls, Wilson gained a place to study History at Newnham College, Cambridge. Having qualified as a teacher, she worked at schools in Gravesend and Bath before the First World War and in Birmingham during the interwar years. Between these teaching stints, she spent an extended period of time engaged in relief work. Her initial aid activities supported Belgian refugees in Britain and children in war-torn France. Following on from these efforts, her cooperation with Quaker organisations and Save the Children took her to North Africa, the Balkans, Russia and Austria.

In many of these instances, Wilson was able to draw on her teaching background, working with children and organising a variety of educational activities. Fittingly, Siân Roberts – whose research has substantially has advanced our understanding of Wilson's career – has described her as an 'educator-activist' (Roberts 2006, p. 667). These educational dimensions also became evident when Wilson travelled to Spain in 1937. She supported displaced women and children in Murcia – a city that had recently seen an influx of refugees after Malaga had fallen to Franco's troops. Whilst in Murcia, Wilson lobbied for the creation of a children's hospital; she succeeded 'due to persistence and force of personality', as historian Angela Jackson (2002, p. 120) has noted.

After her time in Spain, Wilson continued with her relief activities – initially in Hungary, then in Britain and, from 1945, as an employee of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA). In her UNRRA work, she helped victims of Nazi Germany but also returned to Yugoslavia, where she had been active on two previous occasions.

Wilson's humanitarianism was far from apolitical. She was a member of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom and was active in the National Council of Women. Her aid efforts in Spain were underpinned by sympathy for the Republican cause and, prior to her journey, Wilson addressed public meetings on the Spanish Civil War. As Roberts (2011, p. 164) has noted, she was 'part of an anti-Fascist network of women in Birmingham who were involved in fundraising and campaigning for Spain'. Furthermore, whilst working with Polish refugees in Hungary (1939–40), she fell foul of the authorities and, after being arrested, was forced to leave the country.

Wilson wrote extensively about her experiences as a humanitarian. In doing so, she contributed to debates about the meaning and nature of relief work. These publishing efforts can be seen as part of her wider identity as an educator, as they were conceived as  'population education activities on behalf of humanitarian causes' (Roberts 2011, p. 169).

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Further reading

WORKS BY FRANCESCA WILSON: In the Margins of Chaos: Recollections of Relief Work in and between the Wars (London: John Murray, 1944); Advice to Relief Workers and Personal Experience in the Field (London: John Murray, 1945); Displaced Persons – Whose Responsibility? (London: Bureau of Current Affairs, 1947); Aftermath: France, Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia, 1945 and 1946 (West Drayton: Penguin, 1947); They Came As Strangers: The Story of Refugees to Great Britain (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1959)

WORKS ON FRANCSCA WILSON: Siân Roberts,'Wilson, Francesca Mary (1888–1981)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (, 2013); Siân Roberts, '"I Promised Them That I Would Tell England About Them": A Woman Teacher’s Activist's Life in Popular Humanitarian Education' Paedagogica Historica, vol. 47, no. 1–2 (2011), pp. 155–172; Siân Roberts, '"In the Margins of Chaos": Francesca Wilson and Education for All in the "Teachers' Republic"', History of Education, vol. 35, no. 6 (2006), pp. 653–668; Angela Jackson, British Women and the Spanish Civil War (London: Routledge, 2002); Sybil Oldfield, Women Humanitarians: A Biographical Dictionary of British Women Active between 1900 and 1950 (London: Continuum, 2001).