Born in Newbridge House, Donabate, Co Dublin, Cobbe founded a number of animal advocacy groups, including the National Anti-Vivisection Society (NAVS) in 1875, and the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV) in 1898, and was a member of the executive council of the London National Society for Women’s Suffrage. She was the author of a number of books and essays, including The Intuitive Theory of Morals (1855), On the Pursuits of Women (1863), Cities of the Past (1864), Criminals, Idiots, Women and Minors (1869), Darwinism in Morals (1871), and Scientific Spirit of the Age (1888).
Frances was a member of the prominent Cobbe family, descended from Archbishop Charles Cobbe, Primate of Ireland. Frances worked at the Red Lodge Reformatory and lived with the owner, Mary Carpenter, from 1858 to 1859, but a turbulent relationship between the two meant that Frances left the school and moved out.
She formed a marriage with the Welsh sculptor, Mary Lloyd (1819-1896), whom she met in Rome in 1861 and lived with from 1864 until Lloyd’s death. Mary’s death in 1896 affected Frances badly. Her friend, the writer, Blanche Atkinson, writing, “The sorrow of Miss Lloyd’s death changed the whole aspect of existence for Miss Cobbe. The joy of life had gone. It had been such a friendship as is rarely seen – perfect in love, sympathy, and mutual understand.” They are buried together at Saint Illtud Church Cemetery, Llanelltyd, Gwynedd, Wales. In letters and published writing, Frances referred to Lloyd alternately as “husband,” wife,” and “dear friend.” Frances founded the Society for the Protection of Animals Liable to Vivisection (SPALV) in 1875, the world’s first organisation campaigning against animal experiments, and in 1898 the BUAV, two groups that remain active. Frances was a member of the executive council of the London National Society for Women’s Suffrage and writer of editorial columns for London newspapers on suffrage, property rights for women, and opposition to vivisection. Around 1880, with Louise Twining, Frances founded Homes for Workhouse Girls.
Frances met the Darwin family during 1868. Emma Darwin liked her, “Miss Cobbe was very agreeable.” Frances persuaded Charles Darwin to read Immanuel Kant’s Metaphysics of Ethics. She met him again during 1869 in Wales, and apparently interrupted him when he was quite ill, and tried to persuade him to read John Stuart Mill—and indeed Darwin had read Frances’s review of Mill’s book, The Subjection of Women. She then lost his trust when without permission she edited and published a letter he’d written to her. Her critique of Darwin’s Descent of Man, Darwinism in Morals was published in The Theological Review in April 1871.
Frances Power Cobbe’s activism for women’s rights included advocating for women to be allowed to take university examinations and therefore earn a degree at Oxford and Cambridge. She presented a paper at the Social Science Congress in 1862 to argue the issue.
Her name is listed on the south face of the Reformers Memorial in Kensal Green Cemetery in London.
A portrait of her is included in the mural of heroic women by Walter P. Starmer unveiled in 1921 in the church of St Jude-on-the-Hill in Hampstead Garden Suburb, London.
Image | Frances Power Cobbe