Women Social Reformers: Archives and Manuscripts

Illustration showing women bearing banners in the 1907 Women's Suffrage March
Illustration by A. Michael of the Suffragette March in London, February 1907, which appeared on the front cover of Black and White , No. 897, Vol. XXXIII, (16 Feb 1907) . Shelfmark c.121.g.1.

The Library holds a range of archives and manuscripts of women who have contributed to campaigns for social reform in the United Kingdom in the 18th-20th centuries

About the collection

This guide introduces the archives and manuscripts of prominent female reformers who sought change in such areas as public health, access to education, prison conditions, civil liberties and women’s rights. The materials covered here reflect the contributions women made to social reform in the United Kingdom through means of philanthropy, campaigning and protest from the 18th Century to the early 20th Century.

The collections cover a range of topics, with some highlights listed below.

Education reform:


Health and social welfare reform:

  • Papers and personal Bible of prison reformer, Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845).
  • The papers of Angela Burdett-Coutts (1814-1906), philanthropist and pioneer of social housing.
  • The extensive papers of Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), founder of modern nursing, including her correspondence with Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell – the first qualified female physician.
  • The papers of Marie Stopes (1880-1958) covering her work on family planning and reproductive health, as well as her correspondence with other female physicians such as Dr. Alice Drysdale Vickery and Dr. Helena Wright.


Women's rights:

What is available online?

Selected material from the BL Nightingale personal papers is available through Adam Matthew Digital’s Medical Services and Warfare module.

An introduction to a selection of historical sources exploring the campaign for women’s suffrage is available on the British Library’s online exhibition page, Votes for Women.

BL Learning’s webpage Victorian Britain introduces historical resources that focus on aspects of Victorian Society such as health and hygiene, prisons and poverty.

Explore Archives and Manuscripts contains catalogue entries for materials related to social reform. 

What is available in our Reading Rooms?

Archives and manuscripts authored by women social reformers can be consulted in the Manuscripts Reading Room. You may need to provide us with a letter of introduction or further information in order to access manuscripts and archives. Use Explore Archives and Manuscripts to find out whether access conditions apply. It is advisable to contact the Manuscripts Reference Team before travelling to the Library, particularly if you are consulting autograph literary manuscripts. Up to 5 working days’ notice is required to process applications to consult restricted collection items.

There is free access to the Adam Matthew Digital ‘Medical Services and Warfare’ product in the Library’s reading rooms.

What is available in other organisations?

Further information