Agnes Conway – Her Life and Legacy

Archaeologist, historian and pioneer behind the Women's Work Collection

When war was declared in August 1914, Agnes Conway was writing a book. By the end of the
year, she was organising accommodation for Belgian refugees. By the end of the war, she had
helped organise the new Imperial War Museum. When she died, she was known primarily for her
archaeological research on the ancient city of Petra, in Jordan.

Profile portrait of Agnes Conway in greyscale

HONORARY SECRETARY AGNES ETHEL CONWAY (WWC Z-30) Honorary Secretary Agnes Ethel Conway MBE, Imperial War Museum. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:

Early life and experience of suffrage

Agnes Ethel Conway was born in London in 1885. Her mother, Katrina, was American, the step daughter of a wealthy Wall Street banker. Her father, Martin Conway, was a Cambridge educated art-historian, mountaineer, collector, politician, and (eventually) first Director-General of the Imperial War Museum. Agnes was an only child, and could rely on her parents’ support in pursuing her interests.

In the autumn term 1903, age 18, she entered Newnham College, Cambridge, one of two women’s colleges at the University. She wanted to study ancient history, and almost immediately on arrival also decided to pursue archaeological studies under the eye of Jane Harrison, Newnham’s Lecturer in Classical Archaeology. At Newnham she became interested in women’s movements, becoming president of the Women’s University Settlement Society.

She also began attending lectures on women’s suffrage at Newnham, and began, slowly, forming her own opinions on the subject. She wanted to go along with a number of other Newnham students to the women’s suffrage procession in London on 9 February 1907 (later known as the “Mud March”). Although she didn’t end up marching, she wrote her mother an enthusiastic letter reporting on the debate on suffragette methods held at Newnham on the day the marching students returned from London.

Agnes Conway was not a suffragette, supporting instead the non-militant activities of the suffragists. In early 1908 she became a member of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), representing Whitby. A number of her Newnham friends, including Elinor Rendel and Ray Costelloe (later Ray Strachey) were also involved in the suffrage movement. But her interest in women’s issues continued, strengthened as she left Newnham, and established herself as a researcher, writer and traveller. While working on her first book, A Children’s Book of Art, she continued to attend NUWSS meetings, and sat in a box in the Albert Hall assigned to Newnham women to listen to the speeches at the march of the 10,000 women on 13 June 1908.She had a lot of competing interests, however; suffrage was not her only priority. Having embarked on further archaeological research, she began to travel abroad more regularly, spending time as a tourist and as a student during the next few years in Italy, partly as a student at the British School at Rome, and in Greece, as a student at the British School at Athens.

First World War and work with IWM

Her stint at the British School at Athens in the company of fellow-Newnhamite Evelyn Radford is recorded in A Ride Through the Balkans: On Classic Ground with a Camera, which she was writing in the summer of 1914 on her return from Greece. She knew, once war was declared, that her life would change significantly, and so it did. She moved between Kent and London to undertake various war-related activities, fundraising for and organising services for refugees. In February 1916, she was asked to act as Registrar to the Federation of University Women to run their War Register, a list of university women seeking and undertaking war-related work, in collaboration with the Board of Trade. But she left this job toward the end of the year to run a supplies depot in Kent. The shifting needs of war-work exactly suited Agnes’s nature – she loved being busy and getting involved in projects.

Towards the spring of 1917 there was a new project arising. With the appointment of her father as the Director-General of a new ‘official war museum’, Agnes too obtained a position as a member of the museum’s Sub-Committee on Women’s Work. She drafted a plan to underpin the collecting policies, and worked with the Sub-Committee chairman, Lady Norman, to revise this draft into a working scheme.

One of her first activities was to obtain evidence of the activities undertaken in the UK by various committees in relation to Belgian refugees, a cause close to her own heart. She took advantage of her many contacts (she was a very sociable person with numerous connections to the artistic, literary and intellectual establishment) and made new ones to gather materials and begin to understand the breadth of women’s experiences and contributions during the war.

In 1918, as her work on the Museum’s collections continued, she was made a Member of the British Empire. At war’s end, she continued her work on the Museum’s collections, but again diversified her activities. An inveterate traveller, in the autumn of 1919 she embarked for Africa, spending time with friends in Sierra Leone (then a British protectorate) and going with them around the country.

The interest in suffrage continued too – although women over 30 with property were given the vote in 1918 with the Representation of the People’s Act – this allowed only a minority of women to become enfranchised. Agnes attended National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship (N. U. S. E. C.) and Equal Franchise meetings in the early-mid 1920s.

After the war – archaeology and exploration

But the call to travel was strong. In 1927 she planned a trip to the Middle East, going from Cairo to Jerusalem, then on to Transjordan, stopping at Amman and spending a few days at Petra. This trip marked a dramatic change in Agnes’s life, when her interests turned once more to focus on archaeology.

She returned to the UK, and started planning. She would find a way go back to Transjordan, because she wanted to start a research project on the religious sites she had seen peppered atop Petra’s ancient cityscape. She was fascinated by the religious practices of Petra, and researched as much as she could on the topic over the spring of 1928. Transjordan, then managed by Britain under a Mandate from the League of Nations, had its own Department of Antiquities, responsible for issuing permits for excavation and generally overseeing the sites and antiquities of the country. Its Chief Inspector was a former architect named George Horsfield – he was the main British official working in the Department. If Agnes wanted to embark on any archaeological work at Petra, she would need his permission to do so.

They met in England in the autumn of 1928, and Horsfield offered a permit for a scheme of work at Petra. He would conduct an excavation there, Agnes could pursue her research, and two others, a Danish scholar called Ditlef Nielsen, and a Palestinian doctor and folklore expert, Tawfik (Tewfik) Canaan, would undertake their own projects at the same time. Over the next few months, Agnes planned her research project, and started fundraising to support the work. She departed London for Petra in late February 1929, finally arriving on site, after stopping in Jerusalem to buy supplies, in late March. During the course of the short season, lasting to early May, she wandered through Petra day after day, observing and making notes, and taking photographs. Her particular interest was in finding and mapping the religious sites, and understanding their use as far as was possible.

On her return from London, she started giving lectures, developing her public visibility as an archaeologist. She also published an article on the Petra excavations in the Illustrated London News, which had long been popular venue for archaeologists to reach a wide reading public. She brought her knowledge to international audiences too, embarking on a lecture tour in the United States. Her working relationship with George Horsfield became ever closer, leading to their engagement in the autumn of 1931. By this point she had become known for her archaeological work, and the newspapers featuring a notice of their engagement promoted them as an archaeological couple. The illustrated society paper The Sketch devoted an entire page of pictures to their impending nuptials, one of which shows them both on site at Petra.

They were married in Jerusalem in January 1932; George Horsfield’s position in the Transjordan Government meant that Agnes relocated to Transjordan on her marriage. This suited her exactly. She had all the activity she wanted – travel, intellectual stimulation, and a new circle of acquaintances. The Horsfields lived in Jerash, an ancient Roman city north of Amman, in a house right in the midst of the ruins. Jerash was a burgeoning tourist destination, and many people passed through to visit the ruins.

Agnes was not only interested in Transjordan’s ancient past; on her marriage to George Horsfield she also became part of modern Transjordanian society. She demonstrated her knowledge of this modern context through photographs of the celebrations in Amman for the wedding of the Amir (King) Abdullah’s son, Prince Talal, published in the Illustrated London News in 1935. With her marriage to George, archaeology became the main focus of Agnes’s life. But it’s important, I think, not to forget the diversity of her experience before her marriage. She was incredibly privileged, having the freedom and support to pursue her various interests. Her legacy,really, is in the wonderful records she left behind – she was interested in many aspects of life, took full advantage of the opportunities she was given, and recognised the importance of the events she lived through enough to ensure they were recorded and kept for posterity.

Many thanks to Dr Amara Thornton for providing this biography

Amara Thornton is an Honorary Research Associate at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London. She obtained her PhD in 2011 from the Institute for a thesis on the social history of British archaeologists working in the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East between 1870 and 1939. Agnes Conway was one of the archaeologists prominently featured in this work, and Amara is continuing to research in Agnes’s extant archives. Amara is Coordinator of the Institute’s History of Archaeology Network, and Principal Investigator on Filming Antiquity, a project researching and digitising excavation films from the 1930s. Her first book, Archaeologists in Print, will be published by UCL Press in 2018.