Denman, Gertrude Mary, Lady Denman 1884-1954, public servant, was born in London 7 November 1884, the second of the four children and only daughter of W. D. Pearson (afterwards first Viscount Cowdray) [qv.]. Her parents travelled extensively, leaving her for long periods in the care of often uncongenial governesses with only the company of her brothers in the holidays. She always maintained that she educated herself by wide reading, especially of books on economics and philosophy in her father's library. The independence of mind fostered by her somewhat isolated childhood gave her a detachment of outlook which remained a characteristic throughout life. These formative years also developed a natural shyness which she never allowed to limit her activities and which she nearly always overcame by sheer hard work, enthusiasm, and concentration. Born to great wealth, she believed from an early age that the only justification of such an inheritance was service to, and thought for, the community. Her father's vitality in his engineering work and the courage and equanimity with which he approached heavy tasks and responsibilities made a deep impression on her. When she was quite young her letters to him showed a mature grasp of his many undertakings.
In 1903 she married the third Baron Denman and the one son and one daughter of the marriage were born before she was twenty-three. She acquitted herself with distinction as the very young wife of a governor-general when her husband took up that appointment in Australia in 1911. She had already been a member of the executive committee of the Women's National Liberal Federation (1909-10) and later became director of S. Pearson & Son, Ltd., and of the Westminster Press, Ltd.
In the autumn of 1916 Lady Denman became chairman of the sub-committee of the Agricultural Organization Society which, on the suggestion of Mrs. Alfred Watt (M. R. Watt, qv.), had undertaken to found Women's Institutes of which there were by this time twenty-four. When the institutes (then 137) transferred to the Board of Agriculture in 1917 she became assistant director of the women's branch of the food production department. She insisted that the institutes must be self-governing and on the formation at the same time of the National Federation of Women's Institutes she was elected chairman. She held that office until 1946, retiring at her own wish to make way for a younger chairman. Personally without ambition, she was eager for the success of the movement, seeing in it a great opportunity for democratic training in citizenship for countrywomen, for widening their knowledge and for improving their standards of life. The institutes and their remarkable achievements are the fruit of her talent for administration, her foresight, and the principles of good procedure on which she based their early organization. When she died there were over 8,000 institutes with a membership of 450,000. The Women's Institute residential college, founded in 1948 at Marcham, near Abingdon, Berkshire, was called Denman College in recognition of her services.
In 1930 Lady Denman helped to found and became chairman of the National Birth Control (later Family Planning) Association, an office which she still held at the time of her death. That parents should be given the means to plan their families so that all children of a marriage would be wanted and welcomed seemed to her right and natural. Her acute sympathy for overburdened mothers spurred her to champion a cause which needed great courage and forthrightness.
Lady Denman was chairman of the Cowdray Club for Nurses and Professional Women (1932-53). Always an enthusiastic games player, she was president of the Ladies Golf Union (1932-8). She was a member of the executive committee of the Land Settlement Association (1934-9), and in 1938 became a trustee of the Carnegie United Kingdom Trust.
In 1939 Lady Denman became director of the Women's Land Army. From the first she realized that there would be many obstacles to be overcome and her powers of leadership were greatly needed to reconcile conflicting demands. She brought to the task initiative, resource, and good sense, always seeing the work of the Land Army in relation to the needs of the nation at war. Nevertheless, she waged her own battles on its behalf with the various Ministries concerned, holding out for conditions of employment which have been of lasting benefit to agricultural workers as a whole. When in 1945 the Government failed to award the Land Army grants, gratuities, and other benefits which it accorded to women in the civil defence and armed services, she resigned in protest.
Lady Denman's public work carries its own memorial in thousands of villages and homes throughout the land. As a chairman she excelled, her impartiality, quick understanding, and sense of humour enabling her to handle with success any meeting, however large or difficult. She could be formidable in opposition—which she enjoyed—but was fair and generous to those who differed from her. Her own transparent honesty banished pretence, pomposity, or meanness. Underlying the outstanding ability for organization, the penetrating eye in committee, the often gloriously caustic comment, the intolerance of self-seeking, moral cowardice, or foolishness, there was deep affection for those whose cause she championed, for succeeding generations of her own family, for her many friends whom she delighted to welcome at her home in Sussex, and especially for young people. She was greatly loved both by her family and friends for her courageous and generous spirit, her unfailing kindness to them, and the humour and joy of life which made everything done in her company a delight.
In 1920 Lady Denman was appointed C.B.E., in 1933 D.B.E., and in 1951 G.B.E. Her death in London, 2 June 1954, was followed within the month by that of her husband.
A portrait (1933) of Lady Denman by E. Hodgkin is at Knepp Castle and another (1951) by Anthony Devas is at Denman College. A third by (Sir) William Nicholson (1909) is privately owned.
The Times, 3, 4, 8, and 14 June 1954
Inez Jenkins, The History of the Women's Institute Movement of England and Wales, 1953
Gervas Huxley, Lady Denman, G.B.E., 1961
Contributor: Elizabeth Brunner.