Katherine Low: will we ever know the true story?
Sean Creighton digs into the limited archive.
Katherine Low Settlement in Battersea High Street has recently celebrated its 90th birthday. But who was Katherine Low? According to local legend, she was a local social philanthropist and suffragette. I am sorry to say she had no Battersea connections and here is no known evidence that she was a suffragette. So why, you may wonder, was a social welfare initiative named after her established in Battersea?
The answer is that it followed her role in the United Girls School Mission which supported the Peckham Settlement. For reasons yet undiscovered (though it may have been to do with being motivated by Charles Booth’s poverty maps), her friends decided to set up and name a new Settlement house and chose Battersea over Camberwell.
Born in America in 1855, Katherine Mackay Low (known as Katie) was the daughter of Andrew Low II, a wealthy Savannah-based Scots cotton trader with interests at the other end of the slave-produced supply chain in Liverpool feeding the insatiable appetite of the Lancashire mills. He had three children with his first wife, of whom Amy and Hattie survived into adulthood.
His second wife Mary Cowper Stiles was the daughter of a slave plantation owner. Andrew and Mary Low had three daughters: Katie, Jessie and Mary and a son, William.
The Lows were arrested in the Civil War for gunrunning from Britain for the Confederacy. After the end of the war Andrew settled in England in Leamington Spa, travelling annually to Savannah on business. Katie and her sisters were educated in Britain.
Andrew Low died in June 1886, leaving £618,000 from which there were legacies for each daughter, with the bulk of the estate going to William.
In November 1886 Katie and her sisters went to the States to attend William’s wedding to Juliette Gordon, known as Daisy. Back in England, William and Daisy settled in Leamington Spa, re-modelling their property to resemble a southern plantation house. William became a playboy friend of the future Edward VII. After William’s death Daisy returned to the United States in 1918, where her claim to fame is that she helped start the Girl Scouts of the USA.
As there is unfortunately no substantial surviving archive, we know very little about Katie’s role in the Mission and the Peckham Settlement. She was its Treasurer from about 1908 until her death in 1923 at the age of 67.
In her last few years Katie lived at 106 Park St, Grosvenor Square. Her half-sister Amy had died there in January 1917 and Katie acted as her executor. She is buried in the churchyard of St. Mary the Virgin in East Haddon in Northamptonshire next to the Hall where her other half-sister Hattie had lived, having married into the family of the owners, the Guthries, who had been involved in slave ownership in the British West Indies.
Described as ‘a woman of independent means’, Katie was in fact a millionairess worth around £4.5million in today’s money. Her wealth was inherited from her father, from her brother William, and from others like her second cousin Mary Catherine Philips. Upon her death Katie left a small bequest of just under £13,000 in today’s money to Peckham Settlement.
Katherine Low’s name is well known in Battersea but the woman herself, her beliefs and her activities remain very much a mystery. As there are no surviving papers, research to explore her life will be a difficult task.
and thanks also to www.andrewlowhouse.com for additional information.
Published with kind permission from the Battersea Society