Sarah Maria Kingsley Haselwood was born in Chelsea in 1842, the second daughter of Richard Haselwood, a captain in the Indian Navy and his wife Ann. Her father died before she was nine, and her widowed mother took the girls to live with her own mother, in Manor Terrace, Chelsea. Sarah later worked as a governess.
On 19 July 1864, she married her second cousin, Henry Kingsley, twelve years her senior. He was the younger brother of Charles Kingsley, who had published The Water Babies the previous year. After leaving Oxford University, Henry had tried his luck in the Australian goldfields but was unsuccessful and returned to England after five years to write a novel, The Recollections of Geoffrey Hamlyn (1859), set in Australia. More novels followed, of which Ravenshoe (1861) was the best received.
In 1869, Henry and Sarah moved to Edinburgh, where he was to edit the Daily Review, but he soon gave this up, and in 1870 became war correspondent for the paper, covering the Franco-German War of 1870-71. He continued to write fiction, though this was increasingly poorly reviewed. In 1874, the couple moved to Cuckfield in Sussex, where Henry died of cancer on 24 May 1876.
Sarah named her house after Henry’s book
Sarah moved in 1884 to Wimbledon, where she lived in a house she called ‘Ravenshoe’. Still young, with no ties and presumably an inheritance from Henry, she devoted the rest of her life to good causes, mostly to do with temperance and ‘morals’.
The year of her arrival in Wimbledon she became embroiled in controversy when the annual gathering of military volunteers on Wimbledon Common attracted the usual rowdy mob of London hangers-on. The Times published a piece entitled ‘The Wimbledon Scandal’ and Sarah wrote to the editor to verify the debauched scene the paper had reported. She said that she and other ladies had formed a ‘vigilance committee’ to protect ‘young girls, especially of the servant class, from the yearly contamination of immoral women and equally immoral men’. It was suggested in other publications that Sarah and her kind wanted to keep the common for themselves, and not have it used by ordinary people to enjoy themselves.
By 1887 she was president of the Women’s Union in Wimbledon (part of the Church of England Temperance Society), one of a myriad of religious and secular organisations advocating either complete abstinence from alcohol or extreme moderation. Sarah was in favour of total abstinence, except for medical reasons. In 1888 she became a Guardian of Kingston Board of Guardians (which included Wimbledon), their first woman board member. She was unafraid to speak her mind and told them that the workhouse master was inefficient and the surgeon too old to do his job properly. She also founded the Wimbledon Society for Befriending Young Girls – specifically, young women who had left the workhouse who needed help to find accommodation and work.
In July 1891 the Surrey Comet announced that Sarah was moving to Hythe to do mission work and giving up public speaking as the strain on her voice was too great. At a farewell presentation in October, she said Sandgate, where she intended to live, was a place where there was ‘an enormous amount of indifference and a great deal of sin.’ This remark was scarcely a good introduction to her new home and it not unnaturally upset the local press, who published her comments before her arrival together with a rebuttal.
Sarah got over the strain of public speaking very quickly and gave her first talk in Hythe a month later, entitled ‘How We Got Our Bible.’ In religious matters, she seems to have changed her allegiance and henceforward was associated with the Emmanuel Chapel in Park Road, Hythe. It was run by two sisters who were members of the Plymouth Brethren.
She continued with her temperance work. In 1894 she became secretary of the Folkestone Branch of the British Women’s Gospel Temperance Association (the gospel was preached at every meeting); the next year she was on the executive committee of the Kent Temperance Congress and attended the National Congress.
Temperance propaganda which shows the effects of alcohol on all levels of society
Politically, Sarah seems not to have been partisan, but joined the Hythe Ratepayers Association, a pressure group which wanted to see value for money in local government. There were a few other women members: they were dubbed ‘the Screeching Sisterhood’ by the local press. As the 1890s progressed, support for the Ratepayers’ Association declined, ironically becauvse it involved the council in an expensive legal case. In1898, Sarah took on its reorganisation, only to be dubbed a ‘Demon of Discord’ by another local newspaper.
At the same time, she was asking awkward questions of the council, usually through lengthy letters to the press. In one, she wanted to know if there had been any systematic investigation of the number of people living together in the town’s slum cottages: she referred to a recent case ’too disgusting and indecent to write about in any public paper’. She wanted to know why an alcoholic woman was prosecuted for neglecting her children and her husband was not and why publicans were willing to serve the couple’s ten-year-old daughter when she was sent out late to buy beer.
The temperance movement had a good number of supporters in Hythe. At the town’s 1901 licensing sessions, a ratio of one licensed house per 222 persons was reported, and the police wanted to see a reduction. March 1902 saw the first meeting of Hythe and District United Temperance Council, which was attended by delegates from the various temperance organisations in the town and Sarah Kingsley was unanimously elected President. She took her responsibilities seriously. A couple of years later she followed a soldier she suspected of being drunk into a public house and demanded that the landlord refuse to serve him. The publican ignored her and served the soldier, who then threw his beer over Sarah. In 1905 she wrote to the Board of Guardians of the workhouse to insist that the inmates should not be given their annual treat of beer on Christmas Day. The Guardians disagreed and when she wrote another very long letter to them on the same subject two years later, they declined even to read it.
The Guardians of Elham Union Workhouse, which served Hythe, set up a Ladies Visiting Committee in 1893. Sarah joined it the next year, visiting the women’s and children’s wards, holding gospel temperance meetings and offering private interviews with the women.
Other causes caught her attention. In 1903 she refused to pay her rates because the 1902 Education Act had allocated local funding to church schools. She was prosecuted and told the court: ‘I am not going to contribute to the Roman Catholic schools’. The statement was greeted with applause by the packed court, but the magistrates still issued a distress warrant. In 1910 she espoused the cause of Women’s Suffrage and organised a branch of the New Constitutional Society (a non-militant group) in Hythe.
She was seventy-two by the time war broke out and seems to have by then withdrawn from public life. She moved from her house in Napier Gardens to the Bayle, in Folkestone, where she died in August 1922.
The causes she espoused are not, today, fashionable and it is easy to belittle the attempts of middle-class women to right the wrongs perpetrated on and by the working class, or to dismiss the women as ‘do-gooders’. The press tried to undermine Sarah by name-calling but it did not deter her and there is no doubt that she cared, especially about the poor women and girls she came into contact with. She was sometimes not tactful and sometimes prejudiced, but she gave her work her all.