When Partridge and Company re-printed Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna’s book ‘Kindness to Animals’ in 1876, they dedicated the edition to Florence Horatia Suckling of Highwood House, Romsey. She was within weeks of marrying her cousin, Thomas Suckling.

Miss Suckling, aged 28, was recognised throughout Britain and later in the old British colonies, following her publication of ‘The Humane Educator’. This teaching manual, fostering kindness in children, was also the main guide to the Society for the Protection of Birds, named later as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

It is difficult today to grasp the state of countless abused animals during the 19th century or to really appreciate the debt owed to the many crusaders championing the cause of suffering dumb creatures.

An early voice in the south was Lord Cowper-Temple of Broadlands, Romsey, who campaigned in Hampshire during 1870 and 1871 on avoiding stress to working animals, especially pain caused by the careless use of reins.

Lady Mount Temple joined her husband’s work and supported young Florence Suckling, the instigator of the ‘Army of Kindness’, a children’s group, which used Highwood House as its base.

The expanding groups in the area merged into the Band of Mercy movement that Catherine Smithies formed in London.

In August 1886, the Hampshire Advertiser claimed a membership of 323, comprising 17 Bands of Mercy thriving in Romsey and its villages. The figures peaked in 1904, with 994 members declared, reducing to around 600 and maintaining this figure still in 1927, despite Mrs Suckling’s demise.

The gruesome practice of vivisection aroused Mrs Suckling more than other ill-treatments to animals, and she attended at least one international conference condemning vivisectionists.

Daily Echo: Highwood House, now Stroud School.

The pen was her preferred medium, as witnessed by several newspaper editors in various parts of England, including Newcastle. She grasped the power of the written word early in life and would quote Byron:

‘But words are things, and a small drop of ink

Falling like dew, upon a thought, produces

That which makes thousands, perhaps millions, think.’

As a cousin of Nelson, and fortified with Walpole blood, Florence Suckling probably felt superior. Her rather didactic and overbearing nature increased with age, although some find this quaint.

The authoress of ‘The Lost Child’, Julie Myerson, having ‘lived’ regularly with Suckling’s account of the Yelloly/Tyssen family in ‘A Forgotten Past’, confessed to loving ‘her bossy, judgemental, yet always vivacious company’.

Contemporaries probably felt otherwise; for instance, the hundred teachers assembled in 1907 at Highwood. Mrs Suckling was adamant. Some school readers contained ‘the wrong teaching’, so teachers ought to ‘blot them out’.

Daily Echo: Greatbridge House.

There are reasons to believe Florence Suckling became too obsessed with animal care. A local friend and supporter, Admiral Sir John Hopkins of Greatbridge House,  claimed publicly she was ‘disproportionate’ in her sympathies, admitting unabashedly that he too sympathised more with animal suffering than human suffering.

Mrs Suckling did not demur. She could have added that all suffering matters. After all, she had worked with Henry Salt’s Humanitarian League members, and Letitia MacNaghten of Bitterne Manor even dubbed her ‘the Queen Humanitarian’.

An oft-quoted remark on a hot day at Highwood, when Mrs Suckling ordered a gardener to pull the mower instead of using the pony because of the heat, indeed challenges Letitia’s tribute.

The ‘Lady of Highwood’ earns respect nevertheless for her unceasing pursuit in awakening her country and much of the world to the plight of distressed animals. It is likely that her propensity for hard work helped Mrs Suckling to cope with the loss of her only child, who lived for two months. He died from cerebral meningitis.

Suckling was extremely generous to children who joined her groups, especially at Highwood House functions. She shared an obvious rapport with youngsters and could pardon their misdemeanours. ‘Why should boys be ashamed of killing what their mothers wear?’ she responded to angry feathered-hatted hypocritical ladies condemning children for raiding birds’ nests.

Daily Echo:

Florence Suckling’s generosity extended to adults, as revealed by the editor of the Folkestone Herald in June 1931, when she helped an impoverished ex-sailor living in a beach hut. The kind sailor had painstakingly removed paint from the fur of a cat abused by a prankster. Mrs Suckling rewarded the sailor with annual winter payments for years.

The Bands of Mercy depended on a loyal group of helpers to organise the 200-300 children regularly attending functions at Highwood, Broadlands, the Town Hall, or other venues, including the grounds of the MacNaghten family at Bitterne Manor, Southampton. The principal adherent for Mrs Suckling’s work was her husband, Thomas, whose death centenary occurred last year. He built the outside theatre at Highwood for his wife’s plays and operettas, utilised his photographic and carpentry skills in making slides and frames for her magic lantern, and guided her with his diplomatic skills, a faculty he had exercised internationally in his distinguished naval career.

Florence Suckling’s other interest, her prolific historical and biographical writing, extends beyond Hampshire to Suffolk and Norfolk, and includes a substantial account of Nelson in his Norfolk setting. Her style frequently faces charges of poor organisation, characterised by constant rambling and even inaccuracies. The lack of a basic essay form irritates some but we have to accept it, or reject what a former Hampshire County Archivist called ‘lovely material’. At least, Margaret Urquhart, in her booklet on Sir John St Barbe, acknowledged that, as with a good wine, Mrs Suckling’s writing improved with the years:

Only in the later articles does she raise questions, increase her sources, both primary and secondary and achieve a more scholarly standard.’

Whatever Mrs Suckling’s structural defects with written English, she would raise a chuckle if she could read her critics, as the forerunner of Southampton University, the newly named Hartley College University, appointed her to its board of governors in 1903.

Florence Suckling is a controversial figure, yet that is one reason she remains interesting.