Lady Henry Somerset was born Isabella (Isabel) Caroline Somers Cocks, the daughter of Charles Somers-Cocks and his wife Virginia. She married Lord Henry Somerset in 1872, however, the marriage ended badly and they separated with Isabel winning custody of their only son, an act which was almost unheard of for a woman at the time. Her family owned several estates across England, including Eastnor Castle near Ledbury, Herefordshire and Reigate Priory in Surrey.

Isabel joined the British Women’s Temperance Association (BWTA) in 1884 and became Lady Patron of the BWTA in 1888. Taking an active role in the Association, by 1890 she was unanimously elected President, following in the footsteps of Margaret Bright Lucas.

Isabel was hugely influential in her role and was a charismatic leader and speaker. She arranged a temperance exhibition at Eastnor Castle and another in Toxteth, Liverpool, which attracted over 50,000 people. Under Isabel’s leadership the number of BWTA branches rose to 263 by 1891 and the annual income increased to £1,150 (over £133,000 in today’s money).


Frances Willard

Frances Willard was a temperance reformer from America who became President of the World Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WWCTU) in 1891. In the same year Isabel went to America as President of the BWTA in order to attend the first convention of the WWCTU. It was during this trip that Isabel met her contemporary Frances Willard for the first time and they formed a lasting close friendship, supporting one another and travelling between America and England. They even learnt to ride bicycles together.

Do Everything Policy

Unfortunately, disagreement followed within the ranks of the BWTA. Frances advocated for many social issues including children’s welfare, women’s suffrage, and prison reform, which Isabel also supported. However, when Isabel wanted to implement the ‘Do Everything Policy’ within the Association in England as in the WWCTU, this divided the BWTA, many of whom wanted to focus on purely temperance matters.

In 1893 the organisation split into two. The opponents of Isabel’s progressive policy resigned and formed the Women’s Total Abstinence Union (WTAU), while the BWTA became the National British Women’s Temperance Association (NBWTA). Isabel remained as President of the NBWTA along with her supporters.


The NBWTA flourished and expanded under Isabel’s Presidency with the ‘Do Everything Policy’ in place and a departmental system in operation.

Isabel was keen to open a rehabilitation home for inebriate women and after raising funds, Duxhurst Farm Colony for Inebriate Women in Reigate, was officially opened in 1896. The home was open to women from all social classes and the Nest provided care for babies and children. The methods used for the rehabilitation of patients (not inmates) at Duxhurst, which included gardening and outdoor work, were ahead of their time. Learn more – click here





Charitable and controversial

Isabel had many supporters of her temperance and philanthropic work and although she was from an aristocratic family with a privileged upbringing, she was ‘hands on’ in her work. She did not shy away from personally helping those in impoverished and difficult circumstances, such as her work at Duxhurst. However, during her Presidency of the BWTA difficulties arose again, which threatened her position within the Association. This included the controversary surrounding her views on the State Regulation of Prostitution in India in 1897. Isabel tendered her resignation as President over this controversy but was voted back in.


Isabel’s friend and confidante Frances Willard died in 1898 and Isabel was suffering from ill health. Due to Isabel’s health issues, she resigned as President of the NBWTA in 1903 and as President of the WWCTU in 1906. Although she resigned from these positions, Isabel continued her pioneering work at Duxhurst before and after the First World War, living in a cottage on the estate.

Isabel died in London in 1921 following a short illness but insisted on a simple service at her local church instead of a burial in the family vaults at Eastnor Castle. She is buried in Brookwood Cemetery, Surrey.

The following Character Sketch was published in The Review of Reviews c1894. This publication was a monthly journal founded by British reform journalist William Thomas Stead in 1890. The journal included a commentary of world events and a character sketch of a current ‘celebrity’ of the day, which in this case was Lady Henry Somerset.