Self-made, passionate, controversial, eccentric. Violet Van Der Elst brought the campaign for the abolition of capital punishment to the forefront of both the public consciousness and Dorchester itself.

Born in 1896 as Violet Ann Dodge, she was from humble beginnings. Daughter to a washerwoman and a labourer, Violet worked as a scullery maid in her early years. Not allowing this to limit her however, Violet would become an artist, composer, poet, and entrepreneur, developing various cosmetics in her own kitchen.

After the death of her second husband in 1934, Violet dedicated her time and money to her campaign. She led loud and disruptive protests and was often sanctioned for breaching the peace.

Violet brought many of her protests to where hangings were taking place. Equip with her loud speak, Rolls Royce and posters, her protests became more and more disruptive. In 1935, at the execution of John Osmond Worthington, Violet was charged with careless driving after accelerating into a Police Officer. The same happened again in 1936, after Violet drove through a barricade and two policemen at the execution of Charlotte Bryant (Charlotte’s story is also on display in our Raising Voices interpretation at Shire Hall).

By July 1955, Violet had been arrested at least six times and summonsed eighteen. She would spend hours researching ways to give mercy to the condemned, as well as studying police barricades and formations. Her own newspaper “Humility”, put across her arguments in print. She even ran for parliament three separate times, calling on all women interest in the welfare of the country to join her.

Described as “too hysterical and flamboyant” by some, Violets actions received a varied response. Some saw the exhibitionist ways of protesting as negatively affecting the anti-capital punishment movement, one commenter stating, ‘Hanging may be abolished some time, but I am afraid it will not be because of the unceasing battle put up by a plucky wealthy widow’.
There were, however, positive responses to Violets actions, particularly reviewing her literary works. A Mr Anderton for ‘The Leader’ wrote in 1939: “From time to time there arises some ardent soul fired with the resolve to lighten the misery and despair of those who appear to be forsaken by God and Man”. To some Violet was amongst such influential women as “Elizabeth Fry, Florence Nightingale and Mrs Pankhurst”.

The provocative nature of her protests gained her large amounts of media coverage, something with Violet took in her stride. By drawing on her humble begins and rags-to-riches story, along with her campaign for both men and women, Violet was able to bridge many class and gender divides. The anti-capital punishment movement was crawling forward, Violet was able to force the issue onto the agenda.

Some of her philosophies on the underlying causes of criminal behaviour were, and would be today, seen as eccentric and controversial. Despite this, Violet would see the fruits of her labour, when in 1965, capital punishment was abolished for murder. Violet would pass away in Sussex six months later, having lived a full, exciting, and chaotic life.

Too find out more about Violet’s exciting life and more influential woman connected with Shire Hall, visit Shire Hall Court House Museum, Dorchester.