Born 1870 to a factory worker turned missionary, Esther Roper was one of the first women to study for a degree at Owens College (nowadays known as the University of Manchester). In 1886 she was admitted as part of a trial scheme to establish whether females could study without harm to their mental or physical health.
From 1893 until 1905 Esther worked as secretary of the Manchester National Society for Women’s Suffrage. Her focus on working class women getting the vote shocked old school campaigners who reckoned that only middle class, property owning women should take part in elections. Esther thought if women paid taxes and contributed to the economy, the least men in parliament could do was give them a vote, and a say on laws affecting their working conditions. She went out and about to textile districts around Manchester, visiting working class women in factories and at home, drumming up support for the cause.
In 1896, suffering from exhaustion, Esther took a holiday in Italy. There she first met Irish poet Eva Gore-Booth who was also recuperating from illness. A holiday romance blossomed into long term love, and in 1897 Eva gave up her privileged aristocratic lifestyle in Ireland and to move in with Esther in a terraced house in Rusholme.
Esther later wrote of their meeting in Italy:
“For months illness kept us in the south, and we spent the days walking and talking on the hillside by the sea. Each was attracted to the work and thoughts of the other, and we soon became friends and companions for life”.
In the 1901 census for 83 Heald Place, they were each asked about their ‘Relation to Head of the Family’. They made a feminist statement declaring themselves both ‘joint both heads of the household’. Esther describes her occupation as ‘Secretary of Women’s Suffrage Society’ and Eva ‘Secretary Womens’ Trade Unions’.