Partner Cicely Lamorna Hingston
9 Queen Anne's Gardens, London W4 1TU, UK
Beatrice Gordon Holmes (1884 - November 21, 1951) was the first woman National Assoc. of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs (now Business and Professional Women UK) founder in 1938. Cicely Lamorna Hingston lived during her student days with the first woman stockbroker, Beatrice Gordon Holmes who went by the name of Gordon Holmes and had no problem identifying herself as a ‘real lesbian’. Gordon Holmes was a great friend of Dr Helen Boyle.
Holmes was an endlessly energetic and ambitious woman who virtually educated herself to become a wealthy businesswoman, stockbroker and entrepreneur. Her suffragette heritage prepared her well for a life of public activism for women's rights. She was a vociferous campaigner for gender equality, determined to rescue ambitious women from the limitations of domestic life.
Britain's first female stockbroker, Beatrice overcame a poor background and lack of education to head her own finance company, find international fame as a stockbroker, found a number of enduring professional women's associations, and become the only woman to appear before the Government's Bodkin committee on share-pushing. Often finding herself a lone figure in the City, she ignored the prevailing men's club culture and pioneered the idea that women had a distinctive contribution to make to business. She dedicated much of her energies to the suffragette movement and to promoting women in business, as well as initiatives to improve mental health.
When Beatrice Gordon Holmes published her autobiography, In Love with Life – A Pioneer Career Woman’s Story (1944), she knew that the tale she had to tell was one of success against the odds, of triumphant breakthrough. In the 1920s it was almost unthinkable for a woman to work in stockbroking. Gordon’s rise from £1-a-week typist at the age of nineteen to affluent director of the leading ‘outside house’ in the City of London would barely excite notice today. But in early twentieth-century Britain this woman’s energy, acumen and performance were virtually unprecedented. Beatrice Gordon Holmes showed it could be done.
She came from an unpromising background. Born in London in 1884, Gordon was the daughter of an indigent doctor and a possessive, house-proud mother who ran everything on thirty shillings a week. The family lived in City Road, within striking distance of that hub of metropolitan finance which was later to become Gordon’s adult territory. Until she was eleven years old she stayed at home, schooled in the basics by her mother. Gordon developed an appetite for books, and the house was full of reading matter: Dickens, Kingsley, Scott, and endless copies of the British Medical Journal. She described her childhood as ‘serene and repressed… I never knew the glow of real happiness until I got out of the home and was earning my own living – and then the happiness lasted for the rest of my life.’
Schooling was erratic. Gordon had no formal education until the age of eleven. She excelled at lessons, but only went to school when her father could afford to send her, which wasn’t always. He chose the cheapest he could find, and his daughter was expected to economise by walking the four miles there and back, doing without lunch, and submitting to wearing her mother’s horrible home-made clothes. Her father took her away at the age of fourteen, but was persuaded to part with four guineas for a ten-month course at Cusack’s Secretarial College, where she absorbed shorthand, typing, the basics of commerce and a miscellany of instruction on Greek history, music appreciation and essay-writing. Thus equipped, she landed her first job as a typist at the glorious sum of twenty shillings a week. It was 1903, and to her this seemed ‘incredible wealth’. Not for another three years did Gordon have her eyes opened to the world of ideas, science, culture, mathematics and philosophy – by a visiting uncle who took her under his wing and told her she had a brilliant mathematical mind.
Gordon’s first proper employer ran the London office of a Danish egg-exporting firm: Business interested me from the word ‘Go.’ We imported millions of Danish eggs into the British Isles, most of them sold before landing through a team of agents all over the United Kingdom… The great thing was to sell consignments at top speed. Eggs won’t keep and cold storage charges were heavy… We were the premier firm and the premier brand. [We] ruled the market.
Eight years of egg-selling made Gordon familiar with the world of capitalism. The business had taught her all about deliveries, prices, concessions, bills of lading, the rise and fall of markets and trade etiquette; about accounts, consignments, shipping documents, branding and packing, commissions and sales, loss and profit. Meanwhile, outside the office, she had become involved with the Suffragette movement, helped found the new Association of Shorthand Writers and Typists, and immersed herself in music, literature, philosophy and theatre. When she left in 1911, having saved enough money to take her mother on a trip to America, Gordon had transformed herself from the gauche, dowdy maid of her teenage years and, determined to increase her salary from £2 to £2 5s a week, was ready to take on the world. "I answered dozens of advertisements for several months, quite without result. My ambitious demand for £2 5s put me out of court as a typist, and there were hardly any other jobs for women in the business world in 1911."
Interviewers regarded her ambitions with astonishment. Even when she had the necessary qualifications, she was told that under no circumstances could such and such a firm employ a woman. She was unwanted. Finally, under threat of a deadline, she railroaded Mr Thorold, the Canadian chairman of a Lombard Street stockbrokers, into offering her a three months’ trial. ‘I knew nothing of finance.’ Thorold however plied her with reading matter, ‘…including Hartley Withers’s fascinating and amusing “Stocks and Shares”…’, and thus armed, in August 1912, Gordon Holmes began her financial career.
Thorold was a hard taskmaster, brilliant, maverick and mercurial. ‘Women are incapable of understanding financial matters,’ he asserted, following up with, ‘Your only limitations are the limitations of the female mind.’ Tetchy and prejudiced though he was, Gordon impressed him. She unearthed an irrational system being used for client recruitment, overhauled it, and in doing so quadrupled the company’s client base. Thorold’s approval was enhanced when one of his top clients spotted Gordon’s talent and pronounced: ‘No price can be placed on a woman like that! She is invaluable to the firm that gets her!’ From then on her abilities were established, if precariously, in her employer’s eyes. "Those first years in the City! Those for me were the romantic years, the golden years in which everything was new and fascinating… I liked the atmosphere of the City. I liked the excitement of negotiating what to me then were large deals. The first large amount I handled alone was $80,000 of City of Westmount bonds… I resolutely found a buyer, pushed the whole transaction through in a few hours, took 1½ per cent commission for my Company, and felt thrilled – never was sky so blue or sunshine so golden as on that day…"
When war broke out in 1914 Thorold went back to Canada, and the other directors joined up, leaving Gordon in sole charge of the office. She was then at the peak of her energies, aged thirty, without family commitments. Her work in that wartime office honed and perfected her abilities; she was there fourteen hours a day, seven days a week. When the men came back in 1918 the ship was in better shape than when they had left, and every single man had a job waiting for him, at an increased salary. Characteristically, Thorold picked a fight with her immediately on his return; the storm broke over a disagreement on profit-sharing. Minutes before he sacked her, Gordon resigned. She came down with appendicitis and retreated into a nursing-home – paid for by Thorold. And it was there, while having her stitches removed, that she met the woman who was to share her life, Dr Helen Boyle.
The year 1921 was the next turning point in Gordon’s career; which now became meteoric. Years in the City had bought her much goodwill; her closest friend in Thorold’s company was Sefton Turner, and together they now managed to find backing to launch their own financial company. ‘Of course we were an “outside House,” because the Stock Exchange, like the Church – God and Mammon – refuses to admit women.’ Seven years later their Corporation bought out Thorold himself. "[Starting] in two rooms with two typists, by 1929 it employed 140 people. It has lived to see three of its largest and long-established competitors all collapse in the 1929–31 slump and after, while it still modestly flourished. We emerged from the slump with our modest capital and reserves intact, while others wrote wads off their balance sheets."
Gordon’s venture flourished. She travelled extensively, building up her business interests on the Continent, seeing South America, Africa, the East. Money became plentiful. After the years of scrimping and saving, she took herself off to Bradley’s and indulged her latent love of clothes: soft beige, cream and silver-grey outfits draped in fox furs gave her tall, handsome figure resonance and sophistication. After purchasing a capacious residence in Bedford Park, she spent thousands on having it fitted with luxuries: central heating, hot and cold running water in every room, a state-of-the-art bathroom with a heated towel rail, and rose-coloured carpets. ‘Rose-coloured carpets, that was another dream of mine… Where does one pick up these notions of ultimate luxury? Anyway, rose-coloured carpets were mine.’ And there she lived with her Siamese cat and kittens, enjoying each spring the happiness of seeing the early almond blossom bloom in her suburban street. In the opening lines of her memoirs, written aged fifty-nine in the middle of a second world war, Gordon felt able to reflect: "I’ve had a glamorous, romantic life since I was twenty. I’ve travelled over half the world. I’ve had a career that has seemed to me incredibly lucky. My income, and I’ve never had a sixpence I haven’t earned, has risen from £1 a week to – at its height – a steady £4,000 or £5,000 a year. Have I ever been in love? Always. In love with life, people, projects, things, thought. Always in love, always some star on the horizon."
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