Charlotte Carmichael was born in Edinburgh and attended Mr Oliphant’s mixed school. Frustrated by the exclusion of women from universities, she joined the Ladies’ Edinburgh Debating Society in 1866 and submitted poems and articles to The Attempt magazine under the pen name “lutea reseda” (wild mignonette). When university classes were offered to women in 1874, Charlotte began to attend lectures and became the first woman to gain a Certificate in Arts from the University of Edinburgh.

In 1879 she married Henry Stopes, a keen palaeontologist and moved to Upper Norwood, but bankruptcy in 1892 forced them to sell their home and she returned to Edinburgh in the hopes of attaining a masters. Her plans were thwarted by a timetable clash and she returned to London leaving her daughters, Marie and Winifred at school in Edinburgh whilst she pursued her passion for Shakespearean research. She had already refuted the claim that Francis Bacon was the author of Shakespeare’s plays in 1888 and she was to write at least a further nine publications on Shakespeare’s life and works.

Spending weekdays at her lodgings in Torrington Square, which was conveniently located near the British Museum, the weekends were spent at the Mansion House, Swanscombe “where with her two little girls she rusticates from Friday to Monday as a relief from the work of arduous literary research in London”.1 The Mansion House was the Elizabethan Dower house belonging to the Manor of Swanscombe replete with oak panelling and provided a delightful bolt hole for the family who enjoyed “grubbing” around the potato fields and hop furrows for pre-historic flints”.2

Charlotte’s ground-breaking publication British Freewomen: Their Historical Privilege published in 1894 outlined the historical right of women to vote, arguing that no law existed to prevent them and established her as a prominent, if now often underestimated, member of the suffrage movement.3 One wonders whether it was written during a frenetic week in London or drafted using a pen dipped into Sir Walter Scott’s ‘grubby round inkstand’ which she kept on her desk in Swanscombe.4

Sarah Tooley who interviewed Charlotte for the Women’s Penny Paper in 1895 describes the idyllic landscape around Charlotte’s home as she and Charlotte walked through “woods bright with bluebells and jubilant with birds, climbing five-barred gates and floundering in cart ruts.”5 Charlotte, however, played down its charms describing it as an “abandoned spot” which was “inhabited chiefly by miners who work in the adjacent chalk pits6 She said, “I call this house my husband’s hunting-box, as the district is so rich in flints.”7 She did however enthuse about Kent’s connections with Shakespeare and “delights to think that the great William ofttimes with his company trod the Dover Road which runs East of her garden wall.”

The idyll of family life that Sarah Tooley portrayed in the Women’s Penny Paper may have belied the reality. Sarah Green believes that “while [Charlotte and Henry’s] correspondence suggests that a lasting comradeship developed between them, each found domestic life constraining and sought to pursue their interests on their own terms, sometimes spending lengthy periods apart.”8 Swanscombe was Henry’s space, London was Charlotte’s.

After the death of her husband in 1902 at Hillside, Greenhithe, Charlotte continued his work, giving a talk at the British Association on his discovery of palaeolithic implements at the Shelly gravel pit in Swanscombe.9

Her daughter Marie, published a study of the botany of the dried-up Fleet river at Ebbsfleet in 1903. She was to go on to found the first birth control clinic in Britain and write Married Love (1918). A biography of Marie’s life was subsequently rejected by the committee of Folkestone Library for fears it might contain references to sex and birth control.10

This article was published: 9 October 2021.


  1. Tooley, S.A. ‘Flints, suffrage and higher education’, Women’s Penny Paper 3 (75), Thursday 6 June, 1895. 

  2. Ibid. 

  3. Green, S. (2009) ‘The Serious Mrs Stopes: Gender, Writing and Scholarship in Late-Victorian Britain’ Nineteenth Century Gender Studies 5(3). Available at: http://www.ncgsjournal.com/issue53/green.htm 

  4. Tooley, S.A. ‘Flints, suffrage and higher education’, Women’s Penny Paper 3 (75), Thursday 6 June, 1895. 

  5. Ibid. 

  6. Ibid. 

  7. Ibid. 

  8. Green, S. (2017) ‘The Public Life of Charlotte Carmichael Stopes’, Women’s History Review 26 (3) pp. 350-362.. 

  9. ‘British Association’, The Times Monday 14 September, 1903. 

  10. Folkestone, Hythe, Sandgate & Cheriton Herald - Saturday 13 November 1926.