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A well-educated, progressive household

The Needham family read widely in classics, poetry, history and biography as well as politics. Elsie and her brothers were brought up in a well-educated, progressive household where their parents fostered ideas of equality of the sexes and classes, and encouraged independent thought, but it was also a household of strict morals, where drinking and dancing were regarded as evils.

When he was only fifteen, Elsie's oldest brother, William, eschewed his Socialist roots, put his age up to enlist in the South African War (1899-1902), and fought for the British Empire against the Boers. He served for two years in this bloody conflict. Leslie, Elsie's second brother, excelled as an organist. 5

In contrast to her brothers, Elsie was close to her father, sharing his political ideals, discussing 'topical affairs' with him and frequently accompanying him to public meetings. Elsie was a financial member of the SDF before she was seventeen years of age. After leaving school, she was employed as bookkeeper in Needham's sign-writing business. 6

Elsie shared a love of music with her brothers, and all played the organ or sang in the choir of the local Methodist church where their father was a lay preacher. 7 Their involvement with the church exposed the Needham children to vastly different aspects of life from that of the street orators at the foot of Van Riebeeck's statue down by the Cape Town waterfront.

One of Elsie's enduring childhood memories was of visiting 'Groote Schuur', the home of British adventurer and mining magnate Cecil Rhodes, in whose spacious grounds 'several Sunday school picnics could be held at the same time without any party sighting another'. 8

It was an exciting time for a young woman growing up with Socialist ideals in Cape Town. Olive Schreiner's feminist novel, The Story of an African Farm (published in 1883), had been instrumental in awakening women around the British Empire to the legal and political disabilities suffered by their gender. One outcome was agitation for Votes for Women (or woman suffrage).

Elsie's mother joined the Cape Town group campaigning for woman suffrage, and won her husband's sympathies for their cause. When a group of British suffragettes came to South Africa to lecture and speak, it was natural that the Needhams should meet them. In later years, Elsie maintained correspondence with some of these women. 9

Elsie Needham
Elsie Needham aged 16, Cape Town, n.d.
Records of the Curtin Family.

William Needham
William Needham, Cape Town, c1908.
Records of the Curtin Family. JCPML00381/9