Cover photo: veritasmalta
A mention of a certain Mabel Strickland is going to conjure up a number of visions: perhaps as the founder of the Times of Malta, maybe the figure behind a booming, defiant voice raised high against Mintoffian politics or even a member of one of the most influential families on the island.
One thing is unequivocal – Strickland was a 20th-century woman of reckonings – her mark still echoes on today.
Mabel Strickland was born in Malta to an aristocratic family, at the dawn of the 20th century. Her father, Lord Strickland, carved out a prominent career in politics, serving as a chief secretary to the governor of Malta and moving on to govern the Commonwealth of Australia.
Mabel joined her father’s travels from a tender age, taught by a string of governesses, but never given the chance to learn the language of her homeland – Maltese – becoming a lifelong regret.
A young political Mabel, the “She-Devil”
The Stricklands returned to Malta towards the end of the Great War in 1917.
Mabel, 18, worked briefly at the Royal Navy headquarters and then shadowed her father’s work in local affairs, as a passionate accomplice.
Cut to the end of the 1920’s, and Mabel was a prodigal politician – she was familiar with most aspects of Maltese public life, framed by a looming Fascist Italy looking to interfere.
As Lord Strickland rose to be Prime Minister in 1927, Mabel became an important kingpin, turning into his advisor and interpreter of public opinion. As tensions with Italy grew, on one occasion, a young and increasingly outspoken Mabel warned the Italian Consul General not to hone the Italian flag on his car, because a Fascist Italian in Malta risked being “hunted down like a scabby dog”. Fascists responded by calling her “Malta’s She-Devil”.
The She-Devil was able to continue attacking Italian Fascists when she helped found the Times of Malta and Il-Berqa in 1935.
As editor-in-chief, Mabel struck out against Mussolini and his claims to Malta and later used her platform to question Mintoff’s increasingly brutal reign. But she also used her position to suggest sound social and economic developments for her beloved island.
With Mabel’s lead, Times of Malta never missed a single issue in its 85 years of release, even in the face of the destructive bombing of World War II or a shocking night which saw the newspaper’s building burnt to the ground.
Indeed, when Mussolini joined sides with Nazi Germany in the summer of 1940, Italy unleashed a massive air raid campaign on Malta, turning it into the most heavily bombed area in the world. Still, the Maltese refused to surrender.
Mabel did her part to keep the morale up – working inside her newspaper offices at all hours, directing her staff like an army and ploughing through despite a lack of food, supplies and looming danger of war.
She was said to ignore all air raid sirens to get her papers out on time, allegedly only going into a shelter once, a lucky escape during one the heaviest attacks on the harbour areas.
The air attacks did eventually strike the buildings of the Strickland’s newspapers, but printing went on anyway, albeit with burnt newspaper edges.
Miss Mabel the MP
The year 1940 wasn’t a good time for Mabel – the destruction of the Times of Malta building coincided with the death of her father.
This is when she became de facto leader of the Constitutional Party and took over her family’s businesses.
It was a time of changing tides. Her party, staunchly pro-British and conservative, faced an internal crisis and dissolved by 1946. The nation also saw calls for universal suffrage, despite objections from the church.
In 1945, three women were appointed to Malta’s National Assembly for the first time in history – J. Burns Debono, Helen Buhagiar, and Mabel Strickland. Two years later, women received the vote and Agatha Barbara went on to break political ceilings at a time when people truly believed a women’s place was in the kitchen.
While Strickland did get re-appointed in 1951 to the National Assembly and again in 1962 as the leader of her Progressive Constitutional Party, her political career ran rather flat. Her colonial view of the world and conservative roots were eclipsed by Labour’s socialist ideas, as well as stubborn gender stereotypes.
Once, pointing to her breasts, Strickland said: “If it wasn’t for these I would be Prime Minister of Malta”.
Her lack of Maltese language skills also proved to be a major hurdle during political campaigns.
Along came the tumultuous elections of 1971.
Strickland contested and sustained stones and verbal attacks, but no candidate from her party won a single seat in Parliament. Despite mounting tensions, her newspapers continuously attacked Mintoff’s government, accusing it of being undemocratic.
It really escalated when Labour militants threw firebombs at the building in October of 1979 – destroying virtually everything. Machinery, records, the editorial office and computer room of the Times of Malta was burnt to smithereens, akin to the remnants from attacks led by Fascist Italy during the war.
Strickland was so shaken by the attacks known as Black Monday, she allegedly suffered a heart attack and never recovered. Nonetheless, as in the war, Times of Malta’s papers were circulating the next day.
During her twilight days, Strickland remained confined to her Lija home and passed away in November 1988. She never married nor did she bear any children, and chose her great-nephew, Robert Hornyold-Strickland, as her sole heir. The battle for his inheritance is still going on today.
The legacy of Mabel Strickland
A lot can be said of Miss Mabel. She was awarded the Order of the British Empire for her wartime dedication to duty in 1944. When King VI broke British tradition and granted the entire nation the George Cross for its bravery – she stuck it proudly on the front page of her newspaper.
In 1971, the Commonwealth Press Union awarded her the Astor Award for her life’s dedication to the press.
Written alongside the award was: “[Mabel] has displayed boundless energy in knitting together the common interests and the common purpose of the press, not only of smaller countries such as her own but those of the larger Commonwealth nations… she has campaigned staunchly for the compassionate understanding of national problems, for press freedom, and for the training and recognition of journalists.”
It is no coincidence that the only other Maltese person to receive the award was Daphne Caruana Galizia, following her brutal death in 2017.
In parallel, both women stood fiercely in the face of a whirlwind of threats, physical intimidation and attacks, in life and posthumously.
Still, both women fought for a vision of free press – making it their life’s work to make sure it is given the pillar of freedom it deserves.
Though Mabel never made major inroads politically, her lasting impact both on the Maltese free press as well as the Maltese psyche at large can be seen, felt and read to this very day.
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