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History of the League

The British League of Unitarian and Other Liberal Christian Women (Women's League) was founded on June 11th 1908 and sprang from the enthusiasm of Helen Brooke Herford. Time spent in America during her formative years when her father ministered in Chicago and Boston added to her education and experience and in 1892 when the family returned to Hampstead she began her committee work, helping her mother with the Women's Union.

In 1902 she was elected to the Executive Committee of the British and Foreign Unitarian Association, which led in 1907 to her visit to Boston to attend the meeting of the International Council of Unitarian and other Liberal Christian People. The committee were struck by the good work being done by the Alliance of Unitarian Women for the American Churches and the idea for a similar organisation in our British Unitarian Churches was born. A report of their visit was discussed by the British and Foreign Unitarian Association at their autumnal meeting and it was decided to form a Women's League of Unitarians in England. All congregations in the Essex Hall Year Book were circularised. A committee was formed and the first meeting of this committee was on July 8th 1908. It is most interesting to note that the total capital with which the ladies proposed start the League was £5 8 shillings, but Miss Herford had good friends who provided money for her many missionary journeys.

Helen Brooke Herford worked as Secretary from the League's inception in 1908 until 1929 and much had been accomplished due to her tireless effort and enthusiasm - the setting up of the Correspondence Bureau during the First World War, the publication of pamphlets, the setting up of District Leagues, establishing the Monthly Letter and the League Annual Meeting and much more. 171 Branches, 11 District Leagues, and 2 Neighbourhood Leagues were in existence and the Executive Committee had become the Central Committee.

Members were encouraged to keep in touch with voting women who left home to take up work, firstly in this country, and then isolated women overseas. Work developed in many directions, including the issuing of a monthly newsletter. With the advent of World War I branches rose to the special needs of the time, including necessary articles made and distributed, serving men welcomed into homes or visited in hospital.

Growth continued during the two wars with overseas fellowship becoming an integral part of branch work. Publications became more important, and a Lending Library was set up in London.

In the early 1930s the League became interested in the Unitarians of the Khasi Hills in Assam (see further details in the section on Margaret Barr). In this period also, annual Rallies began to be shared between the Districts, and the recent Triennial Conference was an offshoot of these.

Into World War II and more war work was undertaken. Gifts were also sent to Britain from fellow League members overseas.

Today publications continue, as does support for various needs, and the churches on their part are glad to include the League branch as part of their Fellowship. We continue to build on the foundations so well and truly laid over nearly a century.

Margaret Barr

One of the Unitarians' most outstanding women ministers - who became a legend in her own lifetime - was Margaret Barr. A Yorkshirewoman of Methodist parentage, she joined the Cambridge Unitarian Church while a student at Girton. After training at Manchester College, Oxford, followed by a six-year pastorate at Rotherham, she decided to go to India. In 1932, hearing that a minister was needed to serve the little group of Unitarian churches in the Khasi Hills of Assam in north-east India, she wrote to the Committee responsible for making the appointment: 'Here I am: send me.' However the committee refused to send a woman to such a lonely post. So Margaret got herself a teaching job in Calcutta and began to pay unofficial visits to the Khasi Hills. Eventually, through sheer determination, she won: in 1936 she was given official charge of the churches there. The women in the churches here in Britain (mainly the Women's League branches) decided to raise enough money to pay her salary for the next three years, this gave her the confirmation and confidence to go ahead. That offer by the Women's Leagues was renewed year by year until 1964 but many of our branches, districts and individual members still make annual donations to continue the work there and two major projects by them has further boosted their funds (the latest one being in 2000 when we raised over £7,500.)

There she remained, apart from brief visits to Britain and America for 37 years until her death in 1973. For more than 10 years her base was at Shillong, the capital of Assam, where she devoted her energies to the care of the churches and founded two schools which, by the late 1940s were well-enough established to be handed over to others. She determined to leave the town and settle in a remote village, Kharang, a place that could be reached only after a 25 kilometre walk along a rough and stony track. Here she established her Rural Centre, with a residential school attended by children from the surrounding countryside. She was not just a teacher but by turns nurse, midwife, counsellor, sustainer and friend to a great company of people. Meanwhile she continued to act as superintendent minister of the Unitarian Union of the Khasi and Jaintia Hills. She loved it. Under her care the Rural Centre flourished and became famous throughout the region. Here she lived until she died, still in harness, in 1973. She was in her seventy-fifth year.


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