Emma Cons: A Portrait

To celebrate International Women’s Day we remember the woman who founded Morley College London, Emma Cons. Taken from the Morley 125th Anniversary Portrait the below extract was written by Morley’s librarian Elaine Andrews. 

Born in 1838, Emma was one of the seven children of Frederick and Esther Cons. The family’s fortunes changed when Frederick became ill, and it was necessary for the daughters to earn money. Emma trained as an artist, first at the Art School in Gower Street, and then at the Ladies’ Co-operative Art Guild, set up to provide ’employment for ladies with artistic ability’. Here she met Octavia Hill, with whom she formed a close friendship. Emma found work as an illuminator, where she attracted the attention of John Ruskin, who engaged her to restore some of his manuscripts. She discovered the delicate craft of engraving the backs of watches, and became a skilled engraver. Later, she became the first woman employed at James Powell & Sons’ Whitefriars Glass factory, designing and restoring stained glass, including the restoration of some windows of the chapel of Merton College, Oxford.

In the late 186os, Emma began to redirect her energies to what became her main passion: better housing for the poor. She and Octavia Hill assisted in a new project for housing in Paradise Place, Marylebone. Emma devoted an increasing amount of time to housing work, going further than Octavia in her concerns for improving her tenants’ lot by organising concerts and trips to the country for them. In 1879, Emma persuaded some of her wealthy philanthropic contacts to invest in the building of a tenement to be called Surrey Lodge, at the junction of Lambeth and Kennington Roads. She chose to live on site so that she could intervene when necessary and come to her tenants’ aid, not least that of wives seeking protection from drunken husbands returning from taverns and music halls. Ever practical, she was known never to be without a penknife and ball of string, and was not averse to undertaking odd jobs herself.

Emma’s determination to fight alcohol abuse led her to take over the music hall in Waterloo, which became the Royal Victoria Hall and Coffee Tavern, run along temperance lines. She introduced science lectures for the local working people, and as their popularity grew, Emma started science classes in some of the disused dressing rooms; from these small beginnings came the Samuel Morley Memorial College for Working Men and Women. Although Emma’s time was taken up with duties managing the Vic, she tried to slip into the College for a few minutes every night, and remained the Honorary Secretary until her death.

Read the full article in the Morley College 125th Anniversary portrait. You can still purchase the book from the reception.

To celebrate International Women’s Day we remember the woman who founded Morley College London, Emma Cons.

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