Social reformer Elizabeth Spence Watson (1838–1919)

Event date(s)

12 September 1838


Elizabeth Spence Watson was a social reformer who played a key role in Tyneside politics and education in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. She was born Elizabeth Richardson on 12 September 1838, the daughter of leather manufacturer Edward Richardson and Jane Wigham. Elizabeth's brother John Wigham Richardson (1837–1908) later founded the shipbuilding company Wigham Richardson, and her family has been described as 'the most prominent Quaker "dynasty"' in the area during this period (O'Donnell 2002, p. 53). 

Having spent the first few years of Elizabeth's life on Summerhill Grove, the family subsequently moved to Elswick. In 1863, Elizabeth married Robert Spence Watson (1837–1911) who emerged as a key figure in liberal politics at both the local and the national level. Alongside his active role in the National Liberal Federation, Robert made manifold contributions to science and culture on Tyneside, for instance by helping to estbalish the Durham School of Science (which later became Armstrong College and, eventually, Newcastle University) and by taking an active role in the Lit & Phil. The shared nature of Elizabeth and Robert's political beliefs was reflected in Elizabeth’s leadership of the Newcastle Women's Liberal Association.

Elizabeth Spence Watson's activism involved support for a range of radical causes. Her nephew noted that on the issue of Irish home rule, 'sympathies were not a whit less keen than' those of her husband (Corder 1914, pp. 246–247). For instance, in February 1888, the couple addressed a meeting in Ireland – with her being 'the only lady on the platform which overlooked a vast audience of over seven thousand people' (Corder 1914, p. 247). The Spence Watsons also maintained links to political refugees from mainland Europe and co-founded the Society of Friends of Russian Freedom in 1890.

Elizabeth Spence Watson promoted women's rights and criticised that, in terms of their public role, women had 'been supposed to shine, if at all, with a borrowed light' (Corden 1914, p. 270). She was a key figure in the Women's Franchise League and co-founded of the Newcastle and District Women's Suffrage Society in 1900. One year later, she became a council member of the North of England Society for Women’s Suffrage, which had been founded in Manchester in 1897. She was not the sole family member to take an active role in the women’s movement: her older sister, Anna Deborah Richardson, promoted women’s education and was a member of the Northumberland and Durham Branch for the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women.  

Women's rights were but one of several social reform causes that Elizabeth Spence Watson was engaged in, with temperance being another one. Moreover, she took an active role in peace activism, for instance protesting against the Boer War. She presided over the Tyneside branch of the International Arbitration and Peace Association and supported conscientious objectors during the First World War.


6 Summerhill Grove
Newcastle upon Tyne

Further reading

Elizabeth Crawford, The Women’s Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide 1866–1928 (London: UCL Press, 1999), pp. 701–2; Percy Corder, The Life of Robert Spence Watson (London: Headley, 1914); The Annual Monitor for 1919 – 20, Being an Obituary of Members of the Society of Friends from October 1st, 1917, to September 30th, 1919 (London: Headley, 1920), pp. 286–96; The Spence Watson Archive Project (; Ben Beck, ‘The Richardson Family of Atyon, Whitby, and Newcastle’ (); Elizabeth O’Donnell, ‘On Behalf of All Women Trying To Be Better Than They Are: Feminism and Quakerism in the Nineteenth Century. The Case of Anna Deborah Richardson’, Quaker Studies, vol. 6, no. 3 (2002), pp. 37–58.