LSE’s History series for LSE Women: making history celebrates some of the notable women at LSE through the years. Sue Donnelly looks back at Christian Mactaggart: School Secretary 1896-1919. 

On 24 June 1943 a telegram arrived from Australia for LSE’s Director, Alexander Carr-Saunders, announcing the death of Christian Scipio Mactaggart who from 1896-1919 worked as School Secretary – not always with the title.

We know little of Christian’s early years but her Times obituary on 29 June 1943 says she was the daughter of Reverend Dugald Campbell Mactaggart of Inverary, Argyllshire and in the 1890s she spent three years in Australia. In 1895-1896 Christian registered as an occasional student at the newly opened LSE.

Harry Snell, later Lord Snell was appointed as Secretary in 1895 describing his role as making “lists, filling envelopes, collecting fees, issuing tickets, sorting out lecturer and students requirements”. However Snell and LSE’s Director, William Hewins, did not get on and in 1896 Snell began organising a national Fabian lecture series – also funded from Henry Hutchinson’s legacy.  A Miss Hood was appointed Lady Superintendent in 1895 but fell ill the following year and Christian Mactaggart was appointed to her role while a fellow occasional student,  John McKillop, took on some of Henry Snell’s role. For several years Mckillop and Christian jockeyed for position with him taking over the management of the Library and Christian Mactaggart developed the role of secretary writing out letters long hand and focussing on the requirements of the students. There were frequent conflicts until Mckillop’s resignation in 1909 when Christian Mactaggart took over the entire role of Secretary – with the title.

Mr J McKillop, c1909. Credit: LSE Library

Mr J McKillop, c1909. Credit: LSE Library

In the early years of the School Christian had to turn her hand to whatever was required. As the statistician Arthur Bowley recalled she was “Deputy director, hostess, accountant, and lady of all work” [1]. She registered students, took fees, dealt with the requirements of all the lecturers, did the accounts and wrote the letters. When the foundation stone of Passmore Edward Hall was laid on Clare Market in 1900 she stayed in Adelphi Terrace to preside over the celebration tea.

One of her greatest legacies was in bonding the School’s community of students. At Adelphi Terrace Christian instituted an afternoon tea hour where staff and students could mix gossip and academic issues. Florence Mare, a student who was also secretary to two MPs remembered:  “I was happy if I could sometimes get to School in time for afternoon tea, which was dispensed by the Director’s Secretary, the very genial and kind Miss McTaggart. The cup of tea was accompanied by a very thick chunk of bread and butter and an occasional slice of cake and served on the desks on which we wrote our notes of lectures later in the evenings”. Christian herself recalled that Edwin Cannan was a regular attender, bringing along strawberries when they were in season, which became something of an institution. The teas led to the formation of the Economic Students’ Union in 1897 – the precursor of the Students’ Union.

Early LSE student group c1910

Early LSE student group, c1910. Credit: LSE Library

Money and cash flow were an ongoing challenge. In a 1938 letter to the LSE Accountant, Mr Scriven, complaining about the cost of postage, Christian wrote:

“You see I kept the books of the School when there wasn’t always enough money in the bank to pay the monthly salaries. The Director, who was then Mr. Hewins and I very often had to wait and I used to try keeping other people waiting also, sometimes with amusing results.”

In her 1933 reminiscence she recalled “We used to try it on to see who would wait longest for their salary.”

Christian Mactaggart worked with four Directors providing continuity in the School’s early years. Her favourite appeared to be Sir Halford Mackinder of whom she wrote: “He was difficult to work for – but really splendid to work with”.  She also described him as “a man of forceful personality and very sound judgment”.

Halford Mackinder, c1910

Halford Mackinder, c1910. Credit: LSE Library

During the First World War the Secretary’s workload grew as staff and students departed for war work and the Director William Pember Reeves withdrew from School life, particularly following the death of his son, Felix. Beatrice Webb’s diary for 29 April 1919 describes a breach between Reeves and Mactaggart and calls her “the real administrator of the School”. A later Director, Alexander Carr-Saunders, remarked on this in his note to the Court of Governors on Christian’s death:

“It is known in particular that during the period of the last war when the Director (Mr Pember Reeves) was occupied with wartime duties she carried the main burden of administration, and rendered invaluable service.”

When William Beveridge arrived in 1919 he called LSE “a one woman show”. However Beveridge soon realised that Christian Mactaggart was older than he had initially thought and in poor health. After Jessy Mair’s arrival as Business Secretary in December 1919 Christian was promoted to the role of Dean, a role she described as “more pay, less work, improved status” in a letter to the Chair of Governors Sir Arthur Steel Maitland. However in June 1920 she had a breakdown, took extended leave and then retirement. Although later letters express some bitterness at her departure she remained in close contact with the School and in 1932 was pointing out printing errors in the LSE Calendar.

Christian Mactaggart’s retirement was spent partly in Italy, living for a time in Alassio on the Ligurian coast.  As war approached she and her sister Dora travelled to Australia and settled in Brisbane with other members of the Mactaggart family. She died on 24 June 1943, the same year in which the School lost Beatrice Webb and Charlotte Shaw, and was remembered in the C S Mactaggart Scholarship which supported mature students studying for the BSc (Econ).

Sadly attempts to find an image of Christian Mactaggart have been fruitless. Her  file refers to the gift of a portrait to be hung in the Founder’s Room of the Old Building – but the portrait is no longer in the School collections,  and attempts to find a definitive image have been unsuccessful.

First LSE hockey team, 1911

First LSE hockey team, 1911 – I wonder if the woman seated third from the right in the middle row might be Christian Mactaggart – but I have no way of knowing. Credit: LSE Library

Contributed by Sue Donnelly (LSE Archivist)

[1] Arthur Bowley SR 1101 London School of Economics and Political Science: materials for the history of the School

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Interested in women’s history? See Women at LSE

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