Elam (Dacre Fox), Norah (1878–1961), suffragist and fascist, was born Norah Doherty in Blackrock, Co. Dublin, on 5 May 1878, third of nine children (three daughters and six sons) of John Doherty, businessman, and his wife Charlotte Isabel (née Clarke). The family moved in 1888 to London, where John Doherty conducted a printing business until his death in 1929. According to Norah's later reminiscences, Doherty was a tyrannical father and husband, who drove one of his sons to suicide and regarded women (including his wife and daughters) as inherently inferior to men. As a child she had tried to intervene when he struck his guard dogs with a whip, whereupon he struck her; she retained a lifelong concern over cruelty to animals and became a prominent anti-vivisectionist. Norah's articulacy suggests that she received some formal education, though its location and extent are not recorded. As an adult she spoke with Received Pronunciation, rather than an Irish accent.
John Doherty was a protestant supporter of home rule (the family were Church of Ireland), and after moving to London became a JP and lifelong member of the National Liberal Club. Although it is not clear whether Norah regarded herself as Irish, towards the end of her life she spoke sympathetically of the IRA and expressed hostility to the Black and Tans (though she also denounced the ability of Constance Markievicz (qv) to obtain election to a parliament against which she was in revolt).
Norah married (8 May 1909) Charles Richard Dacre Fox, a stationery clerk (his father was a surgeon), in the anglican parish church at Hampton, Middlesex (where the Doherty residence was located). Although both spouses later gave the impression that 'Dacre Fox' was a double-barrelled surname, Dacre was, in fact, a middle name. The marriage broke down within a few years, partly because of childlessness (Charles and Norah mistakenly believed she was infertile) and possibly also because of Norah's prominent involvement from 1912 in the militant suffragist activities of the Women's Social and Political Union led by Emmeline Pankhurst. The WSPU was a highly authoritarian organisation (Pankhurst regularly purged the discontented, including two of her three daughters), and its militancy was escalating in response to the force-feeding of imprisoned suffragists on hunger strike. The government subsequently passed the 'cat and mouse act', providing for prisoners to be released on licence (e.g., to prevent death on hunger strike) but to serve the rest of their sentences if re-arrested.
Shortly after joining the WSPU, Norah (generally referred to as Mrs Dacre Fox) became Kingston and District secretary, organising fund-raising events and branch meetings in Surrey and writing reports for the WSPU weekly, the Suffragette. From November 1912 she spoke three to five times a week in London, Kent and Surrey, writing her own speeches, often on the basis of suggestions by Pankhurst's favourite daughter, Christabel. Norah was regarded as 'an orator of extraordinary force and eloquence' (Cork Examiner, 19 November 1918). By 1913 Norah had become general secretary of the WSPU, one of the core group around Pankhurst and one of the few members contributing under her own name to the Suffragette, of which she made up the middle pages with Christabel's close friend Grace Roe. Norah regularly chaired WSPU weekly meetings, at which she made speeches and delivered WSPU press statements (which she also communicated to The Times and other newspapers). She displayed a gift for political theatre – a major feature of the WSPU campaign – and ingenious fund-raising devices. On one occasion, when detectives invaded a meeting to arrest the prominent militant Annie Kenney, members of the audience seized two hats and a walking stick belonging to the detectives; these were handed up to the stage, where Norah auctioned them off. She was an outspoken defender of militancy, at one point justifying physical assault on the medical officer at Holloway women's prison by alleging that he was complicit in the torture of suffragist prisoners.
In 1914 Norah led several delegations to individual anglican bishops, urging them to protest publicly against the forcible feeding of suffragist prisoners. (The bishops' unsatisfactory response may have influenced her adoption of atheism in later life.) She regularly contrasted the lenient treatment of Sir Edward Carson (qv) and other politicians inciting to revolt in Ulster with the regular prosecution of suffragists for incitement to violence. When summoned for incitement in May 1914, Norah presented herself at the London residence of the 5th marquess of Lansdowne (qv) appealing for sanctuary on the grounds that his impunity should be extended to her. She was sentenced to thirty days' imprisonment, but was released after a hunger and thirst strike (15–19 May). She was re-arrested on 10 July after interrupting a sermon delivered by the bishop of London at Westminster Abbey. After another hunger and thirst strike and subjection to forced feeding, she was re-released on 15 July. Re-arrested on 30 July after protesting outside Buckingham Palace during an inter-party conference aimed at securing compromise on home rule, she suffered a further short term of imprisonment. In August 1914 she was again arrested while protesting outside the Home Office, but was not re-imprisoned.
Norah joined Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst in supporting the British cause in the first world war, undertaking speaking tours in industrial areas and demanding greater official recognition for women's war work. At one point, she and Mrs Pankhurst symbolically descended a south Wales coal mine and cut coal at the face (later claims that Norah worked in a munitions factory may refer to some such symbolic gesture). A brief Pathé newsreel sequence (1916) showing 'Mrs Dacre Fox and Mrs Pankhurst' addressing a meeting in Trafalgar Square, calling for greater assistance to allied governments in Greece and Romania, is often reproduced in audio-visual collections of suffragist material. Norah supervised (1916–17) a typing pool for the Medical Research Council (probably with the aim of securing material for her anti-vivisection activities).
On 16 March 1918, after the enactment of women's suffrage, Norah was presented by Pankhurst with a suffrage medal with three bars (for her three imprisonments) at a ceremony honouring veteran suffragists. By then, Norah had become associated with right-wing groups, such as the British Empire Union, in leading a campaign for the internment and post-war deportation of all persons descended from enemy nations (whether British citizens or not) and the imposition of stringent peace terms on Germany.
At the 1918 general election Norah stood as an independent in Richmond (Surrey), the constituency expected to be contested by the outgoing home secretary, Sir George Cave, whom Norah considered soft in his treatment of aliens. According to contemporary press coverage, Cave's decision to take a peerage and become a law lord was influenced by her candidacy, which was seen as a serious threat to his seat, either directly or by splitting the right-wing vote. (There was uncertainty about how the greatly expanded electorate would behave and whether newly enfranchised women might vote as a bloc.) Norah came second with 20.4 per cent of the vote, but was defeated by the Conservative candidate, who received 47.4 per cent. She continued her anti-alien campaign until it was overtaken by her personal life.
In the early 1920s, Norah entered an extra-marital relationship with Dudley Elam (1872–1948), a former anglican clergyman turned civil servant and private tutor, who was married with two children and possessed independent private means. On 19 May 1922 she gave birth to her only child, a son named Aubrey (known as Tony). Norah later claimed that she had refused to marry Elam on feminist grounds, but it is possible that, under the fault-based divorce laws then in force, either or both of their spouses refused to agree to a divorce. (Charles Dacre Fox died in 1942, having formed another relationship; Dudley Elam's wife outlived him.) In 1928 Norah changed her surname to Elam by deed poll. Their relationship was volatile and sometimes violent (on both sides), with Norah the dominant partner. Norah's relationship with her son was deeply troubled and dominated by resentment on both sides. After her father's death in 1929, Norah and a sister took control of his printing business, excluding their brothers. The business, and Norah personally, went bankrupt in 1931, partly through her mismanagement; she was discharged from bankruptcy in 1933.
By 1928 the Elams were living in Northchapel, West Sussex, where they were active in the Conservative party. In 1934 they joined the British Union of Fascists (BUF) led by Oswald Mosley; Norah became women's organiser for Sussex, and regularly addressed public meetings alongside William Joyce (qv). (In later life, she expressed dislike for Joyce, but held that he should not have been executed, since as an Irishman he could not be a traitor to Britain.) In 1936 she was selected as the BUF's prospective parliamentary candidate for Northampton. The BUF capitalised on her suffragist background to defend itself against accusations of wishing to return women to the home, and she became a regular contributor to its journals, the Blackshirt and Fascist Quarterly; in these articles, she compared Mosley's charismatic personal leadership to that of Mrs Pankhurst, and complained that after winning the vote many suffragists, abandoning their hopes of wider social transformation, had become subservient to the old political parties (which she described in anti-semitic terms). She was close to the Mosleys for a time, and was involved in other far-right organisations, including The Link and the Right Club.
A prominent member in the inter-war period of the London and Provincial Anti-Vivisection Society (LPAVS), Norah published two anti-vivisection pamphlets in 1934 and 1935. Other LPAVS members, including her longstanding friend and WPSU colleague Mary Allen, were fascists, and after the outbreak of war Norah, with Mosley's authority, used the LPAVS to conceal BUF funds in the hope of avoiding confiscation. Norah's hostility to vivisection reflected a wider distrust of medical science (she was an anti-vaccinationist) and belief in 'natural' remedies.
Both Elams were interned on 23 May 1940 in a general round-up of BUF members; Dudley was released in late 1940 and Norah in February 1942. Subsequently she was active in a support committee for the relatives of BUF members interned under defence regulation 18B. Although shared imprisonment had strengthened Norah's friendship with Mosley's wife, Diana (née Mitford) – the Elams accommodated her sister Unity Mitford when she came to London to visit the imprisoned Mosleys – Mosley came to see the Elams as a liability, and they were marginalised in his attempt to recreate his movement after 1945. Norah subsequently grew close to the more radical fascist, anti-semite and holocaust denier Arnold Leese (1878–1956), though she never formally broke with Mosley. After 1945, the Elams moved to Twickenham, where after Dudley's death Norah spent her declining years in embittered proximity to her son and his family. She died in Middlesex Hospital on 2 March 1961.