Elma Dangerfield

Writer and campaigner

Elma Tryphosa Birkett, journalist, writer and campaigner: born Liverpool 11 October 1907; OBE 1960, CBE 2002; Secretary, then Director, Byron Society 1971-2006; married 1926 Edward Dangerfield (died 1941; one daughter); died London 22 January 2006.

Elma Dangerfield was an energetic participant in London political, literary, and business life for more than 60 years. Until housebound by declining health, she attended a social occasion almost every weekday evening. Many of these events she had devised and organised herself, in one of her several guises, as co-founder of the European-Atlantic Group, perhaps, or re-founder of the Byron Society: lectures in hotels in central London, dinners in the Houses of Parliament, lunches in the City.

She knew everyone who mattered - and had often known their fathers and mothers too - but few who encountered her in recent decades appreciated quite how remarkable her earlier life had been. She disliked talking about the past, partly to conceal her great age, and it was for the same reason, I suspect, that her name did not appear in reference books although she was appointed OBE 46 years ago. Until the end, she was full of new ideas and ambitious projects for the future.

Born in Wavertree, Liverpool, in 1907, Elma Birkett spent her earliest years in the Philippines and Hong Kong, where her father was a banker. In a fragment of unpublished autobiography, she recalled the luxury and loneliness of colonial life, the endless exchanges of social visits, polo, golf, and cards, the omnipresent servants, the lavish presents - she was given a pony by an admirer of her mother who later became her stepfather. She wrote too of finding her own private refuge in the dream worlds of the English Romantic poets. When the Armistice was declared on 11 November 1918 Elma was crossing the Pacific on an ocean liner on her way to boarding school at Cheltenham Ladies' College.

At the age of 19 she married Edward Dangerfield of the Royal Navy, the Flag Lieutenant to the then Duke of Kent on the China Station, and the couple lived wherever the Navy sent him - Singapore (where she was presented to the future King Edward VIII on his Empire tour), the Admiralty in London, and staff college in Greenwich.

Her husband, described as eternally boyish and enthusiastic, with a taste for theatre and ballet, had served throughout the First World War - his ship was torpedoed in 1914 when he was 14. In 1939, when the Second World War began, he was the youngest captain in the Navy, destined, it was assumed, soon to be a great admiral and have his bust in Trafalgar Square, alongside those of Jellicoe and Beatty. However, in January 1941, when about to take command of a new ship, Captain Dangerfield died after a short illness, leaving Elma a widow with a 12-year-old daughter.

For a time she worked in the Admiralty and in MI9, a branch of the intelligence services. But soon, like many well-connected ladies, she was mobilised into the war effort, writing on current affairs within the censoring constraints of the Ministry of Information. At that time, she was already the published author of a play, "Mad Shelley": a dramatic life in five acts (1936), and Ian Dalrymple had based a film on a story by her, Radio Lover (1936). She was assigned to keep in touch with the Polish community in exile, connections she maintained for the rest of her life.

In 1943, Elma Dangerfield was the named author of a series of chilling articles in the liberal monthly The Nineteenth Century and After, reporting in extraordinary detail on the extermination of the gypsies and the Jews, and giving a full account of the rising in the Warsaw ghetto. Based on dossiers of reports from inside the country, these articles are still relevant to the historical question of how much the Allied governments knew, and why they did not divert air power from the bombing of cities.

As the Second World War ended, Dangerfield recounted another series of atrocities, the deportation of innumerable Poles by the Russians, a subject that the Western allies were then reluctant to see discussed. Her excellent book on the gulags, Beyond the Urals, with a preface by Rebecca West, was published in 1946 by the British League for European Freedom.

The history of that organisation, in which Dangerfield was closely associated with Kitty, Duchess of Atholl and members of Parliament of both houses, has been told by Douglas MacLeod in his book Morningside Mata Haris (2005). Although Dangerfield stood for Parliament unsuccessfully as a Liberal candidate more than once, she had discovered her unique talent, the organising of cross-party, broadly liberal, extra-parliamentary campaigns, aimed at shaping opinion.

Anyone who thinks that British politics is Westminster, Whitehall and the media can never have met Elma Dangerfield. The European-Atlantic Group, of which she was a co-founder in 1954 and which remains active, helped to shift opinion from the narrowly nationalistic ethos of the post-war years and campaigned for closer British involvement with Europe.

The Byron Society, which Dangerfield re-founded in 1975 with her partner, the late Dennis Walwyn Jones MC (it had had a previous life from 1876, but had died in the 1930s), has never been just literary, boasting such chairmen as Lord Gilmour of Craigmillar and deputy chairmen as Michael Foot. The society publishes The Byron Journal, and Dangerfield herself made her own contribution to Byron studies in Byron and the Romantics in Switzerland, 1816 (1978).

Tiny, thin, dainty in her manners, Elma Dangerfield in her chosen milieu resembled some exotic tropical bird darting around the crowded room. Always in command, she kept to the sidelines, seldom speaking until others had had their say. Although she must have been present at more formal meals than anyone alive, she was seldom seen to eat. Byron had opined that a lady should never be seen eating unless it were lobster and champagne: for Dangerfield a few sips of Dubonnet when the evening had proved a success provided her with more energy in her eighties than most people have ever had.

Dangerfield's determination to get her way was extraordinary, and so was her persistence. When the Wilson government was making the first soundings about Britain joining the European Common Market, I was sharing a room with the colleague who drafted the Foreign Secretary's speeches. Dangerfield, whom I did not meet till years later, telephoned him so often that he dreaded picking up the receiver - sometimes, to let him get some work done, I took the calls and heaped his desk with notes asking him to ring back MOST URGENTLY.

Everyone had their stories, some affectionate, some exasperated, but all were evidence of her extraordinary power within her empires. A Labour peer remembers rushing down from the ski slopes when the hotel sent up word that he was wanted urgently on the telephone - would he be able, Dangerfield asked, to take the chair at a meeting in May? Sheikh Yamani, the Saudi oil minister, who in the mid-1970s was one of the most powerful men in the world, was persuaded to postpone the funeral of a close relative, something almost unheard of in Muslim society, in order to give a talk in London.

I remember, when the Byron Society, on a tour of Italy, arrived at the convent where Byron had sent his daughter, the Mother Superior was reluctant to let us in. "This is the Lady of the Queen of England," Dangerfield announced in schoolgirl Italian, dragging forward the widow of an Astronomer Royal who lived in a grace-and-favour flat in Buckingham Palace Mews. The convent gate duly opened, although most members of the society had slunk away in embarrassment.

This apparent shamelessness was made possible by an absence of any sense of the comical. When Dangerfield declared she was the reincarnation of Claire Clairmont, who had seduced a reluctant Byron, she was not joking. Irony was one aspect of her hero to which she was largely deaf. What she did share with Byron was a lofty disdain, but Dangerfield's snobbery was neither Debrett nor Hello!.

Men, to whom she was unfailingly respectful, courteous, and charming as she wheedled them, were the lords of creation. Women, even those with titles, ranked well below in the order of things. Those who thought that their PhDs allowed them to participate were shooed away like pigeons. The numerous RESERVED placards that Dangerfield laid on the seats in the front rows impeded fraternisation across her imposed hierarchies, even on a bus.

A few years ago Elma Dangerfield gave a lecture to a delighted international audience on the life, works, and loves of Madame de Staël. She drew a picture of aristocratic drawing rooms, of intelligent men and stylish women, a world of unchallenged social differences, where politics, literature and art mixed, and influential behind-the-scenes women were gallantly courted by ambitious male admirers.

Dangerfield's enthusiasm for the occasions that she tirelessly devised for over half a century derived from some such fantasy of how great nations should be governed.

William St Clair

There were mass celebrations across Argentina as the country's national team reached their first World Cup final for 24 years
transfersOne of the men to suffer cardiac arrest was 16 years old
Life and Style
life“What is it like being a girl?” was the question on the lips of one inquisitive Reddit user this week
peopleDave Legeno, the actor who played werewolf Fenrir Greyback in the Harry Potter films, has died
Mario Balotelli, Divock Origi, Loic Remy, Wilfried Bony and Karim Benzema
transfersBony, Benzema and the other transfer targets
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Armando Iannucci, the creator of 'The Thick of It' says he has
tvArmando Iannucci to concentrate on US show Veep
Life and Style
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

Detail of the dress made entirely of loom bands
German supporters (left) and Argentina fans
world cup 2014Final gives England fans a choice between to old enemies
Arts and Entertainment
A still from the worldwide Dawn of the Planet of the Apes trailer debut
peopleMario Balotelli poses with 'shotgun' in controversial Instagram pic
A mugshot of Ian Watkins released by South Wales Police following his guilty pleas
peopleBandmates open up about abuse
Basketball superstar LeBron James gets into his stride for the Cleveland Cavaliers
sportNBA superstar announces decision to return to Cleveland Cavaliers
Javier Mascherano of Argentina tackles Arjen Robben of the Netherlands as he attempts a shot
world cup 2014
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight
Four ski officials in Slovenia have been suspended following allegations of results rigging
sportFour Slovenian officials suspended after allegations they helped violinist get slalom place
14 March 2011: George Clooney testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a hearing titled 'Sudan and South Sudan: Independence and Insecurity.' Clooney is co-founder of the Satellite Sentinel Project which uses private satellites to collect evidence of crimes against civilian populations in Sudan
Arts and Entertainment
Balaban is indirectly responsible for the existence of Downton Abbey, having first discovered Julian Fellowes' talents as a screenwriter
tvCast members told to lose weight after snacking on set
Life and Style
More than half of young adults have engaged in 'unwanted but consensual sexting with a committed partner,' according to research
Life and Style
A binge is classed as four or more alcoholic drinks for women and five or more for men, consumed over a roughly two-hour period
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Trade Desk Specialist (FIX, Linux, Windows, Network Security)

£60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Trade Desk Specialist (FIX, Linux, Windows...

Service Desk Analyst (Windows, Active Directory, ITIL, Reuter)

£35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst (Windows, Active Dire...

PHP Web Developer (HTML5, CSS3, Jenkins, Vagrant, MySQL)

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: PHP Web Develo...

Network Engineer (CCNA, CCNP, Linux, OSPF, BGP, Multicast, WAN)

£40000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Network Engineer (CCNA, CCNP, Linux, OSPF,...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice