Catherine Jane Balingall Birrell (1861-1933)

Knox, John, 1778-1845; The Cloch Lighthouse
Figure 1. John Knox, “The Cloch Lighthouse”. Donated by the Misses Birrell, October 1921. © CSG GIC Glasgow Museums Collection.

Women donors frequently present a challenge to the researcher. Many women who have donated paintings to Glasgow Museums seem to be “invisible”.

Obviously, the research is focused on less well known donors to the city, so it is to be expected that information on this group may be less easily available.  The time in which donors lived is also a factor in finding information about them. Many of the donors researched lived in the nineteenth and early to mid twentieth centuries, a time when women were less active in public life and where their realm was considered to be the domestic one. Women were frequently seen as adjuncts to their husbands, fathers or brothers.

Lady Violet Bonham Carter asked her governess in 1850, “What shall I do with my life?” Her governess replied, “Until you are eighteen you will learn. After that you will do nothing.” This paints a very extreme picture of a woman’s life. Obviously some Victorian women , usually from the upper and middle classes, may have “done nothing” in adulthood. However, Professor Sheila Rowbotham, in her history of twentieth century women, points out that many women, from all classes, were unwilling to be confined by the restrictions placed upon them by society and carved out careers for themselves. (1) At least one of the Birrell sisters was such a woman.

The Misses Birrell came from a large family, two sons and ten daughters, and lived in the west end of Glasgow at Wilton Street. The father, Alexander Birrell, originated from Falkland in Fife. He came to Glasgow and set up as a soft goods manufacturer and calenderer.  The mother of the family was Margaret McDowall Birrell. (2)

Of the two sons, little could be found about Samuel. He is listed in the 1881 census as a clerk to a West India Merchant. Alexander is listed in the same census, aged 18, as a clerk to a calenderer, possibly a start in the family business. He later became a partner in Crawford Easton and Company, a calico printing company,  married well and served in WW1 as an army reserve officer, for which he featured in the “Men You Know” column of the Baillie. (3)

Census returns show that many of the ten Birrell daughters worked for a living, although some had “own means”. Janet is listed in the census of 1891 as a “daily governess”. Agnes is listed as a nurse. Some sisters married and moved away from Glasgow.

This research focussed  on the four sisters who are listed as living in the family home during the 1901 census and who later died there, since they are the most likely donors of the painting. (4)

Lydia, who had no stated profession, was a lay member of Glasgow and West of Scotland Lady Artists’ Club. (5)  Two of the four sisters, Margaret and Catherine, worked as teachers, Margaret teaching music and Catherine teaching English and Classics. Catherine worked from home. Catherine’s distinctive name, Catherine Jane Ballingall Birrell, led to the discovery that Catherine had attended Girton College in Cambridge between 1882 and 1885. (6) This was a relatively exciting find, since young women of the time tended not to go to university, particularly not to Oxford or Cambridge.

Catherine Jane Balingall Birrell Girton College Cambridge
Figure 2. Girton College 1882. Catherine Jane Balingall Birrell (Back row centre) © : The Mistress and Fellows , Girton College, Cambridge.

Catherine was also a member of a number of intellectual societies in Glasgow, including the Royal Philosophical Society, the Royal Scottish Geographical Society and the Classical Association of Scotland.

Catherine was also a playwright and poet, writing as C.J.B Birrell. Her play “Two Queens – A Drama” was published by John Mclehose Glasgow in 1889. (7) This play deals with the struggle for succession between Mary Tudor and Jane Grey after the death of Edward VI. The play is  well written, with some feminist ideas explored, as in this conversation between Jane Grey and her husband, who hopes to become king as she becomes queen.

Lady Jane: “If power be equal, I am set aside to whom the crown was due: what sense in that? Why should the king leave me an empty honour ?”

Guildford: “Who argues with a woman? They’ve no wit to know when they are beaten. I shall go. So great a queen can never own a husband; Go, boast yourself in solitary state that you are queen of England, I am king.”

Her second play ” The Lesbians”, (8) appears to have been privately printed around 1914. This play is set on the island of Lesbos and deals with the last days of Sappho, leading up to her suicide on account of unrequited love for a young man. Both plays are available in the National Library in Edinburgh.

The book “Gendering the Nation” sheds a little more light.(9) Edwin Morgan had also discovered C.J.B. Birrell and her plays. Morgan stated that there was some lesbian interest in the Two Queens play which, though not overtly lesbian, does feature two very strong women.Morgan also saw the private publication of “The Lesbians”, alongside what he describes as the “sexless” initials of the author as indicative of “the circumspection of an undeclared interest” in lesbianism, although he also acknowledges that, at the time of publication, the modern meaning of “Lesbian” did exist, but would be found mostly in medical and psychological contexts. Usually, in these times, lesbian was taken to mean an inhabitant of Lesbos.

Morgan discovers more overtly lesbian themes in CJB Birrell’s book of poems “Things Old and New”, which was privately printed in Brighton in 1917. He selects the poem Gulduc and Guldelaun as evidence, the two women of the title  being in love with the same man, but also with each other

“But take ye heed, fair maidens all

How with mankind ye do

For the more love you give to them

The less they give to you.”

Morgan acknowledges his difficulty in trying to find any further information relating to C.J.B. Birrell, but hopes that “some day Catherine Birrell will emerge from the shadows and tell us whether these speculations are out of order”

Unfortunately, the research could not clarify the acquisition of the painting by the Birrell Family, or which of the sisters donated the painting. However, the research does confirm the idea that, if a woman of the nineteenth and twentieth century was strong enough, she could carve out a life and a career for herself, without marriage, and not be required to “do nothing”. It is also important to remember however, that Catherine’s story is not the only one. Hers is the story which has been found. Perhaps the other Birrell sisters have equally interesting stories which may be discovered at a later date.

Note: If you wish to reproduce image 2 please contact Girton College, Cambridge.


1.Rowbotham, Sheila  (1999),  Century of women: The History of women in Britain and the United States in the Twentieth Century: Penguin Publishing

2. Post Office Directories

3. Men You Know, The Baillie, 16/12/1914

4. 1881,1891,1901 census: Births, Deaths and Marriages: Scotlands People

5. Archive Material, Glasgow and West of Scotland Lady Artists’ Club, Mitchell              Library Register, Thomas Gray Cullum: University of Cambridge.1887

7. Birrell,  C.J.B. (1889) “Two Queens”, A Drama.  Maclehose and Sons: Glasgow :National Library of Scotland

8. Birrell,  C.J.B. (1914) “The Lesbians” : Private Publication: National Library of Scotland

9. Morgan, Edwin “A Scottish Trawl”, in Whyte, Christopher (1995) “Gendering the Nation”: Edinburgh University Press. Edinburgh





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