George J Barnsby
SOCIALIST HISTORY SOCIETY
SOCIALIST HISTORY OCCASIONAL PAMPHLET SERIES No 3 (1994)
ISBN of printed pamphlet 0 9523810 2 8
Suffragists & Suffragettes
The demand for votes for women had been raised by Mary Wollstonecraft in her Vindication Of The Rights Of Women in 1792 during the radical surge following the French Revolution. After the Napoleonic Wars the limited 1832 Reform Act gave the vote to ‘male persons’, and the demand for votes for women was not raised strongly again until the 1860s. In 1865 John Stuart Mill was elected to Parliament and declared that if 100 signatures could be collected in support, he would raise the question in Parliament. From existing suffrage centres of London, headed by Elizabeth Garrett, and from Manchester led by Dr. Richard Pankhurst, 1,499 signatures were collected. Before the question could be raised; the 1867 Reform Act widened the franchise but specifically limited the vote to men. It was then argued in Parliament that ‘man’ embraced mankind and therefore included women. This issue was fought through the law courts and lost in 1869. From this time the arena for demanding votes for women could only be Parliament.
In 1870, for the first time a Women’s Disabilities Removal Bill, drafted by Richard Pankhurst, was introduced into Parliament by Jacob Bright (J. S. Mill had been defeated in the 1868 election). It passed its second reading in the House of Commons by 124 votes to 91 and hopes were high that the matter would soon be settled. But Gladstone refused to give time for the Committee stage, the Bill fell, and women faced that bitter opposition of the politicians which lasted until the role of women in the First World War made it impossible to refuse their demand any longer.
The early suffrage movement was a middle class affair, part of the general process of their emancipation, typified by the life of Sister Dora of Walsall. But a new suffrage phase began in October 1903 with the formation of the Women’s Social and Political Union and this was rooted in the Labour Movement. Richard and Emmeline Pankhurst were both members of the Independent Labour Party and working class women were increasingly drawn into the WSPU and the later breakaway, the Women’s Freedom League.
The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies
The earlier middle class Suffrage Societies, although originating independently, formed a National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. By 1902 there was a Birmingham and Midlands section of the NUWSS and it is from their annual reports beginning in 1902-3 that we first learn of suffrage activity in the Black Country. In that year a branch of the NUWSS was reported at Stourbridge where Miss Moorhouse was the secretary. The following year a branch was reported at Wolverhampton where Mrs. Taylor and Mrs. Davies were joint secretaries. The Stourbridge branch is also reported in 1905-6 but after that it is not recorded.
The Wolverhampton NUWSS branch continued to exist and by 1909-10 was in a position to publish its own annual report. One of the great values of these reports is that they record the names of all the members each year. The Birmingham report for 1907-08 gives the names of the Wolverhampton branch officers. The president, Mrs. Thomas Graham lived at Tettenhall Court and was related to the then liberal local paper owner, the Express & Star. Mrs. Taylor, who was still secretary lived at Kettering Villa, Waterloo Road. Mrs. May, whose address was not given, was treasurer.
By 1906-07 the NUWSS in Birmingham and the Midlands was expanding, but it was generously acknowledged that it was largely the zeal, enthusiasm, and militancy of the rival WSPU which had made women’s suffrage practical politics at that time. The WSPU had ‘inspired enthusiasm in an immense number of hitherto onookers; but their methods have undeniably alienated many old supporters.’ The committee went on to reiterate their resolve to continue their work ‘as heretofore on strictly constitutional lines’.
The following year, 1908-09, the NUWSS reported ‘phenomenal progress.’ It was also a year of rapid development for the Women’s Social & Political Union. The two main suffrage organisations, although differing with regard to methods, flourished together.
The Women’s Social and Political Union 1903-1908
The main franchise events after the formation of the Women’s Social & Political Union in 1903 had been the talking out of a Women’s Suffrage Bill in 1904 and a resolution in the House of Commons by Keir Hardie in 1906 which had been ridiculed by MPs. In May of that year had occurred the first great women’s suffrage demonstration when the then Prime Minister, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, received a deputation of 300 women. Unfortunately, Campbell-Bannerman died soon after and the violently anti-women’s suffrage Asquith became Prime Minister. In 1907 the first Women’s Parliament met at Carton Hall and a Suffragette deputation attempted to force their way to Parliament to present a petition to the Prime Minister who had refused to see them. Many women had been arrested and imprisoned by this time as they attempted nationally and locally to press the case for women’s suffrage. Another women’s suffrage Bill was also rejected that year. Also in 1907 there was a breakaway from the WSPU by a group of women protesting against the ‘dictatorial’ methods of the Pankhursts; they formed the Women’s Freedom League.
In the Black Country Emma Sproson from Wolverhampton, who was to become the leading suffragette figure, had participated in these national events and had suffered imprisonment. Red Emma, as she was to be known, and her equally active husband, Frank Sproson, who was a postman, first seem to have come to public prominence with a court case they brought against their landlord in 1904. They sued him for £5 fordamage to their furniture and pictures through dilapidation caused by the landlord’s failure to carry out repairs. As was to be expected, their claim was lost; if one claim for lack of repairs had succeeded, a torrent of others would have followed.
On 13 February 1907 Emma attended the first Women’s Parliament in London. She was one of more than 50 other women who were arrested as they attempted to force their way past mounted police to reach the House of Commons and present their petition. Emma was fined 10/- or imprisonment for 14 days. Like the other suffragettes she opted for prison and served her sentence in Holloway during February 1907. Her case raised great interest and sympathy in the Black Country. Frank Sproson received offers to look after their children and he wrote to Emma in prison stating that he was proud of her and admired her courage. Greetings came from other organisations, including the Women’s Co-operative Guild.
Suffragette activity in Wolverhampton was already under way by this time. In November 1906 Mrs. Emmeline Pankhurst delivered two addresses at the Wolverhampton Labour Church. In July 1907 the Suffragettes were on Wolverhampton Market Place where Emma Sproson gave ‘an interesting speech’ (according to the Wolverhampton Journal) on the ‘Government and the Barmaids’. By the end of 1907 the Suffragette paper Votes For Women was appearing, from which we learn that Emma Sproson was secretary of the local WSPU and Nell Kenney was touring the area and was holding meetings in Wolverhampton and Walsall. The Suffragists were also moving (the Daily Mail had coined the word Suffragette for the more militant WSPU and they were happy to adopt it.) The Wolverhampton National Union of Womens’ Suffrage Societies held an ‘at home’ at Highfields, the residence of Mrs. B. Jones. Here Mrs Osler, the leader of the Birmingham NUWSS, gave an ‘eloquent’ address on Sweated Industries. The subject would suggest that there was not at that time sufficient interest in women’s suffrage to hold a meeting directly on the subject. But on the other hand sweated industries was almost the only issue on which suffragettes could be diverted from their main task of votes for women.
1908 was the year in which women’s suffrage came of age in Wolverhampton. The appointment of ministers of the crown had necessitated by- elections in each of the affected constituencies. Wolverhampton East was one of these constituencies whose member was Sir Henry Fowler. The Suffragettes were able to concentrate on each of these by-elections. They came with one message and one message only – defeat the Liberal candidate whose government refused to give women the vote. Both candidates had hoped to avoid the wrath of the women by personally avowing – and writing it into their election addresses – that they were in favour of votes for women. But the women were not to be side tracked. They brought into Wolverhampton their big guns and established themselves in Committee Rooms at 20 Broad Street under their redoubtable national ‘general’ Flora Drummond. The Special Correspondent of Votes For Women started her main report with a description of Wolverhampton:
To anyone who sets out to find a bit of Merry England I would say do not go to East Wolverhampton to look for it…You will find dull and monotonous streets and waste places where mines have been. You will see careworn and apathetic men, forlorn looking women, and pale-faced little children. East Wolverhampton is not the place to make any English heart glad or proud of the country in which we live. It is Liberal; Liberal from the commencement of Liberalism; Liberal to the backbone; and the problem of unemployment grows worse and worse there, and the conditions of the people ever more sordid and deplorable. The wages of the men are low; the wages of the women are a scandal. The homes are poor, the children are not properly clothed or adequately fed.
The by-election was taking place at the tail end of the period of mass unemployment 1905-09 and just before the years 1910-14 when Black Country workers were to take their revenge during the Great Unrest and remove the worst of the degrading poverty that made the Black Country synonymous with the worst poverty in Britain. The two candidates were the Liberal, Alderman George R. Thorne, well-known locally and L. S. Amery, the Unionist, who came from afar. At the previous election Fowler, the Liberal, had 5610 votes and Amery 2745. According to Votes For Women, Amery came with the gospel of Tariff Reform as a cure for unemployment, but Thorne had nothing to offer except to stick with Free Trade, ‘unless they want to be more miserable even than they are now, and lest they bring upon themselves still worse conditions and dear food to add to their other evils.’ It was at once clear that the women were to make all the running and they added an immense interest to the election.
One of the WSPU’s main attractions was Annie Kenney. She had claimed a spot for an open-air meeting and collected a crowd, when the Liberals drove up with a bevy of important speakers and claimed it was their pitch. Annie said there was room for both of them and the crowd could listen to whom they please. The Liberals declined the challenge and drove off: A woman standing with folded arms summed up the situation, ‘There ain’t no flies on Annie Kenney.’
The report went on to speak of a dinner hour meeting at an Axle works when the Liberals were left without a listener while men and women crowded round the Suffragettes. You could see men nudging one another and overhear the whisper ‘Her knows what her’s talking about. Every word is gospel truth.’ One woman said to another ‘Aye, Martha did ye ever hear the like of it; isn’t it grand! To think of those ladies working for the likes of us.’
In April 1908, leading up to the election, there was the cup-final at Crystal Palace, which the Suffragettes were not going to ignore (at the boat race they had run a launch with Votes for Women pennants and banners). And who was to win the cup that year but Wolverhampton Wanderers! Suffragette leaflets were distributed at all railway stations, a kite was flown over the ground and after the game leaflets were again distributed, this time with envelopes bearing the teams’ colours inviting the men’s wives to a meeting.
The main campaign had been carefully prepared. Women’s meetings were planned at the Central Hall every afternoon from the 29th April until 4th May, a public meeting at St. Peter’s Institute. and dinner hour meetings at Manders Varnish Works, Dudley Tyre Works, Patent Axle Box Works, Evell Cawell’s factory, the Steel Trap Makers, The Locksmiths’ Industries and Chubb’s Locks. The miners in Short Heath ward were to be visited and evening meetings held at all available places, although the Market Square seemed to be the place for open-air meetings, the report stated.
The full-time WSPU team consisted of Mrs. Drummond, Gladice Keevil the Birmingham organiser, and the reporter (name unknown). They were supplemented by Mrs. Bartlett, Miss Bloomfield, Miss Higgins, and Miss Swainston, who were already there while others were expected. This first report ended, ‘Everyone we have met has been most sympathetic; the police have been very obliging and ready to help in every way.’
Before the election, in March 1908, there had been a ‘dastardly outrage’ at a Suffragette meeting at the Co-operative Hall in Wolverhampton. During a speech by Mrs. Billington-Grey (‘a most eloquent and convincing speaker’ according to the Wolverhampton Journal) a test tube was thrown containing sulphuretted hydrogen. This struck Mrs. Taylor of Rugby Street, whose face was injured. Such violence did not mar the by-election, however, the high point of which was mass meetings at the Empire Theatre. The Empire, one of the early ‘bioscopic entertainment’ venues, held 2,500 but over 3,000 were packed into the theatre for the Suffragette meetings. The first, on the Thursday of the week before the election, starred Christabel Pankhurst. ‘Best speech I ever heard in my life,’ chuckled an old man. ‘Not a man to touch her to my thinking.’
The next meeting, on the Sunday, was scheduled for 7.30 pm. At 5.30 the crowd was so large and determined that fourteen policemen could not cope with it. At 5.45 the door was smashed and men and women poured in. Hundreds had to be turned away. When the speakers arrived at 7 pm Mrs. Drummond decided to start the meeting at once. The speakers were Mrs. Pethwick-Lawrence, Mary Neal and Annie Kenney. Mrs. Pethwick-Lawrence played to the men in the audience. She told a story of how she had each course whipped away from her at a meal in Paris because she kept saying ‘thank you’ to the waiter. ‘But you men are always ready to say ‘thank you’ before you get anything; any promise is good enough to take you in. No wonder the Government does nothing for you when you are so easily satisfied with words.’ How the men liked having this point rubbed in, goes on the report. ‘You will never get anything till the women come along to show you how to do it. A woman can see through a brick wall before you men see through a five-barred gate.
The final meeting, on the eve of poll, was equally successful. The meeting was due to begin at 3.30 pm. At 2 pm hundreds were waiting for admission. At 2.15 the crowd was so large that the doors had to be opened. Long before 3 pm the Empire was packed and the meeting began soon after. The report states, ‘Mrs. Kerwood was in the chair and she dealt with the policy of the Union. Mrs, Drummond made a fighting speech which brought cheers from the audience. Miss Keevil’s speech was a strong appeal to men voters to strike a blow for them tomorrow, and the meeting closed at 5 o’clock amid rousing cheers for the women.
The election result was five votes short of the success the women wanted. Thorne, the Liberal, was returned with a majority of just eight votes. It was a remarkable result to almost overturn a majority of 2,865. The above report in Votes For Women has detailed the election from the point of view of the Suffragettes. Reports from the then liberal Express & Star show rather a different emphasis. There was, apparently, some opposition to the women at their Empire Theatre meetings. The women were also questioned on the basic issue of the election, Free Trade v Tariff Reform. Their tactic was to claim that neither would benefit working people until women had the vote. The women were also vulnerable to the charge that they were supporting (and were supported by) the Tories in making their only target the defeat of the Liberal, Theodore Mander. The Tory local council leader was seen in a box at one of the meetings, the Express & Star alleged. Again, the charge was brushed aside by claiming the greatest evil was that women did not have the vote.
After the election the Liberal victor, Thorne, said:
The forces employed against me must give concern to all wishing to preserve the purity of political life. I don’t think the Suffragette organisation did me any harm. They showed their foolishness in opposing a life-long supporter of their cause. I never hesitated in supporting their demands until I saw the utter folly of their action here. If anything could have turned me from support of Women’s Suffrage it was the action of women here, but it hasn’t.
Suffragette propaganda continued in Wolverhampton after the election, led by Emma Sproson. The election appears to mark a watershed in the attitude of both men and women to female suffrage and Emma seems never to have the experience she had in April 1907 when the Express & Star reported a meeting on the Market Place under the heading ‘Suffragettes Mobbed.’ Emma was greeted with “Whoa Emma; Have a drop of gin; go and look after the kids; what ay yer paid for doing this?” and much more. The main speaker was Mrs. Baines from Stockport and she got no better treatment. ‘The crowd was inclined to be spiteful rather than good humoured’, the paper reported in a prize understatement. Stones were thrown and a Mr. Duffy of the Wolverhampton Highways Department was injured.
Emma was also showing the resourcefulness which was always a feature of whatever she did. In November 1907 she made a scene at the police court. A woman was being tried for being drunk. Emma said that women had no part in making laws and therefore should not be vied under them; she was removed from the Court.
At the end of April Gladice Keevil was announcing her plans for May. She was bringing Mrs. Pethwick-Lawrence into Wolverhampton on Wednesday the 3rd to a meeting at Victoria Hall and the next day there was a meeting in the Market Square. There was also to be an open-air meeting the following Saturday in the Market place. Gladice was in Wolverhampton the whole of that week holding Market place meetings on Saturday, Monday, Thursday and Friday with a meeting at Wednesfield on the Tuesday and Tettenhall the next day.
In June 1908 the WSPU held a great Hyde Park rally when the purple, white and green first became their official colours. A vain was booked to leave Wolverhampton at 7.15 am, return fare 7/6d. When activity resumed in the autumn, the Women’s Freedom League brought Mrs. Despard to Wolverhampton for a meeting at the Central Hall, where, according to the Wolverhampton Journal she ‘showed a tolerance and broadmindedness not often exhibited by women speakers.’ In November Mrs. Pankhurst was back in Wolverhampton making ‘a very capable speech’ to an audience at the Baths Assembly Room. Dr. Helena Jones and Miss Joachim also spoke.
In Parliament, despite a Women’s Suffrage Bill by H. Y. Stanger having passed its second reading in the Commons with a majority of 179 in 1908, and another by Geoffrey Howard in March 1909, Asquith, the Prime Minister, insisted that the only Bill he could accept was a Government one. But this, of course, he refused to put forward. For the frustrated women, therefore ]909 was a year of increasing violence, the first hunger strikes and the beginning of forced feeding at Winson Green. Locally, Gladice Keevil gave a report in January 1909 on the state of the work in Wolverhampton. A rally of members had been held at the Dingle when the work was reorganised due to the temporary absence of Miss Lillian Bradburn, who ‘had been such a splendid worker’. In her absence, Miss Boswell assisted by Miss Jessie Barnet would take her place. Miss Clarke and Miss Beresford had taken over the literature and Miss Nelson was assisting with the At Homes. This sounds like a young. energetic, local team. The absence of Emma Sproson’s name suggests that she had gone over to the Women’s Freedom League.
The Wolverhampton programme had been disrupted by the problem of finding permanent rooms. On Thursday 14th January there was an ‘At Home’ at the Baths Assembly Rooms with Gladice Keevil as speaker. Another ‘At Home’ was on Thursday 21st January at 7.30pm with Amiee Law and Una Dugdale in charge. Miss Law was also at Bilston on the 28th, debating Votes for Women.
A Treasurer’s note stated that they were organising guarantees of 1/- a week to pay the organiser’s salary. One had already come forward and she was sure that another 39 could be found. ‘Some people are under the delusion that this Union is supported by the wealthy classes. That is not so. It is supported by women who understand ‘sympathy’ to mean service and self-sacrifice,’ her report concluded.
For February 1909 Gladice reported that a cabinet minister, Lord Crewe, had been at Brierley Hill and a Suffragette had got into the meeting. When she heckled the speaker, he had agreed to reply, but before he could the Suffragette was ‘roughly hurried from the meeting although the chairman described her interruption as ‘dignified and ladylike.’ In Wolverhampton a meeting was advertised, at St. Peter’s Institute at 7.30 on Wednesday 10th February. A report of this meeting stated that there was ‘A large attendance in spite of unpleasant weather.’ It ended with the remark that ‘We were all glad to meet again after a long break due to changing day and place and time (of meeting).’ So, for the time being, the main monthly meeting was to be at St. Peter’s Institute at 7.30pm. By the end of February Gladice was able to report that the work in Wolverhampton was ‘once more steadily going ahead.’ She had addressed the Literary Club at the Masonic Hall. A great deal of disagreement had been expected, but in the event, only the methods employed by the Suffragettes were criticised.
In March 1909 the Suffragettes were trying to stimulate organisation in Dudley. They had tried to enter the room where Sidney Burton was addressing a Chamber of Commerce dinner, but found, to their, and the local people’s astonishment that it was guarded by several policemen. They also held a meeting in the Market Place where Dr. Jones addressed ‘a large and interested audience.’ Gladice ended her report,’We find we have many friends in Dudley and before long I hope to speak at drawing room meetings in the neighbourhood.
Gladice’s April report stated that attendance at the Wednesday meeting at St. Peter’s had been curtailed by bad weather. Miss Corson, who had been in the chair, had now gone to London to train to be a WSPU organiser, and she was the second organiser that Wolverhampton had provided. In May 1909 the Women’s Freedom League staged a mass meeting at the Agricultural Hall. ‘Eloquent and convincing speeches were given by Countess Russell, Miss Schofield and Miss Saunderson,’ according to the Wolverhampton Journal, ‘all of them good examples of militant Suffragettes. At the June WSPU meeting at St. Peter’s a large crowd was reported. ‘Mrs. Massey spoke without the slightest interruption.’ Activity continued into July. At the monthly meeting ‘Miss Phillips explained the methods of the Women’s Social and Political Union’ and, it appears that they also held a meeting at 52 Queen Street where Mrs. Arnold Shaw spoke on Countries where Women Vote. These countries included at that time New Zealand, two states in Australia, several in the USA and Finland. From the autumn of 1909 Votes For Women appeared in a new, larger format with more advertisements. These included one for the Leasowes at Halesowen:
An English beauty spot of world wide repute, a place of poetic interest now adapted as: 1. A Guest House for Vegetarians who can enjoy golf, tennis. badminton, swimming, sun and air baths etc. 2. A Retreat for Rest and Healing with or without Swedish massage and remedial movements. Send for illustrated booklet.
On September 17th an incident occurred which was to become a landmark in the movement. Asquith came to Birmingham to hold a meeting at the Bingley Hall. Extraordinary precautions were taken to prevent Suffragettes entering the meeting and a canopy was laid over the roof to prevent the women getting on the roof. All was in vain. Men deputised for women in disrupting the meeting and two Suffragettes, Mary Leigh and Charlotte Marsh got onto the roof and hurled tiles at Asquith as he left. In all nine women were convicted for this protest. They went on hunger strike and on September 24th 1909, forcible feeding began in British prisons at Winson Green, Birmingham. The whole Midlands movement was mobilised to protest at this barbarity and demand the release of the victims. Nightly rallies took place outside the prison to which Black Country Suffragettes were, no doubt, drawn. The horror of the forced feeding brought many women into the movement. In Wolverhampton the October meeting had been transferred to the Star & Garter Hotel as a reception for Lady Constance Lytton (who was herself to become a forced feeding victim) and this became a protest meeting. This was arranged under the leadership of Miss Boswell and the same report stated that Miss Bradburn ‘had been warmly welcomed back.’
National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies 1909-1914
While the Suffragettes increased in numbers and influence, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies also flourished in its different way. From 1909 our sources for the local NUWSS are annual reports from the Wolverhampton branch, the new NUWSS newspaper Common Cause and the local press, of which the Wolverhampton Journal gave the fullest and most sympathetic coverage. From this last source we learn of an NUWSS meeting in June 1907 at the residence of the secretary, Mrs. Taylor, Kettering Villas, Waterloo Road. L.S. Amery was the chief speaker at this meeting. He expressed his ‘entire approbation’ of the movement. Amery had therefore established his position on female suffrage before the parliamentary election in Wolverhampton the next year. The next recorded NUWSS meeting is in October 1907 at Highfields, the residence of Mrs. B. Jones, where Mrs. Osler, the outstanding leader of the Birmingham branch of the NUWSSI gave an ‘eloquent address’ on Sweated Industries. Activity in 1908 included in May the Wolverhampton branch AGM held at the YWCA with Mrs. T. Graham presiding. ‘Increases both financially and numerically’ were recorded. There was a meeting in May, and another in September when Mrs. Taylor spoke on Laws that Affect Women. In November the NUWSS held a joint meeting with the Wolverhampton Women’s Liberal Association and in December a speaker from Australia spoke on the Suffrage in that country.
By 1909, following the Wolverhampton by-election, activity became more public. In March the NUWSS held a debate at St. Peter’s Institute with Lady Isabel Margesson and H.Y. Stanger KC., MP. among the speakers. The next month a ‘large and influential meeting’ took place at St. Peter’s Institute. Philip Snowden, the Labour Party leader and Mrs. Arnold Shaw were the speakers. From May a series of At Homes were arranged beginning with one at 52 Queen Street with Mrs. Arnold Shaw presiding. Here, Miss M. C. Matheson (the part author of the important book Women’s Work And Wages dealing with Birmingham women) spoke on the Industrial Position of Women. In June Miss Sadler, a factory inspector spoke on the Factory & Workshops Act. The next month Miss L.R. Taylor of Birmingham spoke on Women of the Bible. It is clear that these Liberal women were covering the whole gamut of women’s issues at that time. Meetings after this seem to have moved back to members’ houses. In August it was at the secretary’s house and in September at Park House, the home of Mrs. Arnold Shaw. Common Cause, the newspaper of the NUWSS which began as a monthly in 1909 but quickly became a weekly paper, records the following societies in the West Midlands at the end of 1909 – Birmingham, Coventry, Rugby, Sutton Coldfield, Solihull, Stratford-on-Avon and Wolverhampton.
From 1910 the Wolverhampton Journal fails us and Common Cause has little to say about Wolverhampton. Fortunately we have printed annual reports for Wolverhampton branch of the NUWSS from 1909-10. The first report states that the special work of the year was forming a Study Circle. For the 1910 election a Voters’ Petition was being prepared and a campaign mounted to support Shackleton, the Labour MP’s, bill on the Suffrage. Their future policy was to put up Suffrage candidates in constituencies where there were small majorities. They called members’ attention to the new newspaper Common Cause. Forty seven meetings had been held during the year, fourteen of them committee meetings. A Midlands Federation of WSS had been formed and their representative was Miss McMillan. The work of the branch was done by a small, devoted band, it was claimed, and others were urged to sacrifice their time and talents for the ‘Cause’. The number of members was 103. Officers were: Mrs. Arnold Shaw, president; Mrs. Major and Mrs. T. Graham vice presidents; Mrs. M.A. May treasurer; the secretary’s duties were shared between Mrs. F.D. Taylor and Mrs. McMillan. The committee consisted of Mesdames Bates, Caldecott, F. Carr, Clarkson, Conchie, Goodby, B.H. Jones, Kidson, Price Lewis, R.D. Lewis Marsh and the Misses Harper and Illeridge.
By 1911 another Black Country society had been formed. This was at West Bromwich where Mrs. Langley Browne of Moor House was secretary. Wolverhampton activity is known again only from the annual report for 1911- 12. This recorded ‘Quiet steady work and progress.’ Twenty two meetings had been held, eight of them committee meetings. Despite the decreased activity membership had risen to 127. A Loyal Address had been sent to Their Majesties on their Coronation Day. In June seven members went to London to join in the Great Procession. This was one of the most successful national demonstrations staged by the NUWSS in London, a processions seven miles long of women marching seven abreast. The local banner, which had been presented by the president, Mrs. Major, had been carried by Miss Nelson and Miss Reynolds. In October the Society had addressed the Adult Morning Schools and, with the aid of a motor car had held three meetings at Heath Town, Mount Zion and Stafford Street. In November there had been a meeting for Headmistresses with a view to getting them to pass a resolution at their annual conference. Unfavourable comment was made on Asquith’s announcement that he would introduce a bill for the enfranchisement of all men but no women, and a protest was made at the ‘barbarous sentence’ on Miss Malecka. Mrs. Richards, the ex-mayoress, had promised her garden for a White Elephant sale.
The ninth annual report of the Wolverhampton society for 1912-13 suggests that activity was still not increasing. Nineteen meetings had been held. Two of these were public meetings, another six were drawing room meetings and there had been eleven committee meetings. A member had been sent to the Summer School at Malvern. Mrs. Ring of Birmingham had been their speaker at a Trades’ Council meeting. A ‘number’ of signatures had been collected for the Friends of Suffrage Scheme, adopted to ascertain who was in sympathy with them. Common Cause had been supplied to the public library. They ‘hoped Wolverhampton Conservative women would impress on Bird, the MP, the need to support the next suffrage bill’. Membership had increased to 197, however. The balance sheet showed that £22-1-11 had been received. The collectors’ districts show clearly the middle class nature of the organisation. These were Tettenhall 1 and 2; Waterloo Road 1 and 2; Whitemore Beans; Merridale Road; Penn Road; Lea Road; Blakenhall and Bilston. However, the columns of Common Cause show that 1912 was a crucial year for the development of the NUWSS in the rest of the Black Country. In January West Bromwich NUWSS made contact with the working class. A ‘cottage meeting’ had been held on January 10th. when a working woman asked a few friends to meet two Suffrage women in her home. This meeting was reported to have ‘been a very satisfactory idea and had very useful results.’ On January 28th. Miss Morrison had addressed two large Adult Schools and a few days later at the West Bromwich usual monthly meeting, ‘the chair was taken by Councillor Cox, the Liberal agent and much interest had been evinced.’
In March a list of local authorities which had passed resolutions in favour of Votes for Women included West Bromwich and Wolverhampton. At a Franchise Fete at Langton £280 had been raised in the two days. ‘One of the most interesting stalls was Miss Langley-Browne’s West Bromwich stall of autograph books.’ In May Common Cause reported three new Societies in the West Midlands at Bromsgrove, Lichfield and Walsall. A preparatory meeting had been held in Walsall on May 21st. addressed by Mr. Baillie-Weaver and Mrs. W. E. Dowson, at which 20 members were already reported. The next week it was reported that ‘after a vigorous campaign by our organising secretary Miss E. Coyle and Miss Harding a branch of 26 members has been formed.’ By July 1912 the Walsall secretary was reported to be Miss Rubery of 7 Mellish Road and regular activity was taking place. A ‘successful and well attended At Home’ had been given by a member of the Walsall society at the Masonic Hall. The speakers had been the Hon. Mrs. Basil Hanbury and Mrs. Harley, the president of the West Midlands Federation of the NUWSS. In the chair had been the Rev. Hen. S. G. W. Maitland. A resolution had been passed urging the local member, Cooper, to vote for the Women’s Suffrage amendment. A ‘good quantity’ of literature had been sold and eleven new members made. In West Bromwich in July a garden party had been held at the residence of Mrs. Pearce. Mr. Pearce ARCA had given an address ‘chiefly on the need for young women to be on a jury when young girls were on trial for infanticide etc.’ He had recently been on a jury at Stafford.
Miss Merivale Mayer was said to be visiting the West Bromwich society in October. The secretary reported that she had received a satisfactory letter from the local MP, Lord Lewisham, promising support. He would vote for the omission of ‘male’ from Clause 1 of Asquith’s Reform Bill, for the Norwegian amendment, and failing that the Women Householder’s Amendment. If votes for women were not included he would vote against the third reading. He would also vote for the Snowden amendment on the Home Rule Bill which would give votes for women in Ireland.
In November 1912 another local society was formed. This was at Wednesbury where, ‘after a great deal of difficult work a Society had been formed with an efficient Hen. Sec. Mrs. Thomas.’ The society had thirty members. At the West Bromwich AGM in November the chair was taken by the headmaster of the Municipal School of Art, J.A. Pearce. Mrs. Pearce had been responsible for a performance of Man and Woman. The annual report showed ‘a considerable amount of work, a steady increase in members and more general interest.’
Common Cause during 1912 also reported activity in Wolverhampton in more detail than the staid annual report, but confirms that work was difficult. For instance, at two drawing room meetings in February at which sixteen new members were made, ‘a great deal of fresh enthusiasm was aroused.’ Drawing room meetings continued to be the main activity hosted by Mrs. Graham, Mrs. Taylor, Mrs. Major and, a new name Mrs. Atkinson of Weardale, Newbridge. These meetings listened to speakers on various disabilities of women and then passed resolutions demanding the vote. A meeting in November had Miss Beatrice Pearson in the chair who was standing for the local council and she was ‘wished success.’ A meeting the next month at the Agricultural Hall under the auspices of the Liberal Association had F. D. Acland, an Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs, as guest. He personally was in favour of Votes for Women at 21, and looked forward to a new era.
1913 was, however, a year of considerable activity for the NUWSS. It seems to have begun in December 1912 with a great deal of lobbying of Sir A. G. Boscawen for his support for the inclusion of women in the forthcoming Bill in Parliament. This was organised by the West Midlands Federation of the NUWSS and also involved interviewing ‘leading voters’ such as Alderman Cook in Dudley; this activity extended to Brierley Hill, Netherton, Tipton, and Cradley Heath. The results suggested that Boscawen would support the women, but that he made no positive commitment. Miss Sugden was doing ‘good work’ at Kingswinford and Droitwich where she had been sent on a similar mission to arrange deputations to two other local MPs, Lyttelton and Staveley-Hill. ‘It was found impossible at the present time, and Memorials were sent instead signed extensively.’ In Wolverhampton ‘a very successful’ meeting had been arranged by Liberal women at the Liberal Club with Mrs. Thorne, the MPs wife, presiding. A resolution was unanimously carried for the inclusion of women in the forthcoming government Reform Bill and urging the East Wolverhampton MP, Thorne, to support it. Similar activity was also undertaken in West Bromwich.
By the beginning of April a number of new NUWSS local societies were reported. At Stourbridge Miss E. Donning of Elm Lodge, Hagley, was secretary pro-tem. At West Bromwich the local society was meeting at the Liberal Lecture Room with Mrs. Langley-Bourne the secretary. In Wednesbury Mrs. Thomas of Lonsdale Street was the local secretary and there was a branch at Walsall. In Wolverhampton Mrs. Taylor was still secretary.
In August 1913 the NUWSS undertook probably its most ambitious project, a National Pilgrimage, culminating in London. Common Cause reported that all West Midlands societies were busily engaged in preparations for the Great Pilgrimage from June and Miss Watson, an organisation secretary appointed the previous month was doing ‘good work strengthening Wolverhampton.’ During June the Wolverhampton AGM in St. Peter’s Institute was reported and also an At Home in Wednesbury at the YMCA where Mrs. Bradmore and Mrs. Nash had acted as hostesses with Mrs. Griffiths in the chair and Miss Wright as the speaker. Another new society was also announced. This was the Dudley Suffrage Society formed on May 20th, at a drawing room meeting at St. John’s vicarage with Mrs. Langley Bourne and Miss Knight as speakers. Officers and a committee had been elected and the society began with 27 members.
In July the Pilgrimage took place. The Watling Street Pilgrims passed through this area and were ‘generously entertained’ by the Stafford, Wolverhampton, West Bromwich and Birmingham societies. The annual NUWSS report for Wolverhampton stated that the Pilgrims were met at Oxley, and with a band playing, marched to St. Peter’s Institute where they were given tea. A subsequent meeting on the Market Place was believed to be ‘the largest ever held in Wolverhampton.’ At the Midlands Federation meeting in Birmingham in September progress had been such that there was a ‘lively discussion’ on the need to split the Federation into two and how this was to be done. Eventually a sub-committee was set up to suggest how the split sboud be arranged. Miss Knight started work that month as an Organising Secretary directly employed by the Federation. Miss Thompson was to go to Wolverhampton to ‘work up the trade unions there.’ Activity recorded in October included a Wolver- hampton meeting at Mrs. Taylor’s with Mrs. Highfield Jones in the chair and Dr. Minnie Benner as speaker; 34 Common Causes were sold.
In West Bromwich members’ meetings had heard Mrs. Gertrude Chapman speak on Mary Wollstonecraft, and Miss S. Cooke BA reviewed the Condition of Women in France from the Revolution to the Present Time. In Dudley there had been a drawing room meeting at the residence of Mrs. Watson when the speaker had been Miss Watson. There had also been a public meeting in Dudley on October 10th. The speakers had been Miss Geraldine Cooke and Miss Noel Wright. In Walsall on 25th. October there had been a joint meeting of the NUWSS and the Church League at the Corporation Hall with Mrs. Kempthorne in the chair. The speaker was Miss Abadam who spoke on the Necessity of Women’s Direct Power in Legislation. In November it was reported, with regret, that Miss Noel Wright had suffered a breakdown in health. She had been ordered a complete rest and was leaving the country. She had been the ‘life and soul of the Federation from its beginning.
In Wednesbury the AGM had been held at the YMCA with Mrs. Isaac Griffiths in the chair and Miss Thorrington the speaker. In Wolverhampton Miss Thompson, assisted by Mrs. Taylor, was working with the trade unions. They had visited thirty two trade union secretaries. So far two unions had passed the Women’s Suffrage resolution – the Amalgamated Society of Engineers Numbers 2 and 4 branches. Thirty had agreed to put the question to their branches. Seven would have nothing to do with it. The ‘work has been very heavy’, was the comment made on this activity. At the October monthly meeting at St. Peter’s Institute the Wolverhampton branch had listened to Miss Geraldine Cook and Miss Pearson on the Child and the State. In West Bromwich in November there had been a public meeting with Miss Earl in the chair at which Mrs. Abadan spoke again on the Child and the State. There had also been a debate with the Literary Br Debating Society in West Bromwich at which Votes for Women had been carried by 48 to 27. The Stourbridge society held their AGM on November 7th. with Mrs. McDonnell in the chair. The speaker was Miss Watson. Four days later a meeting had been held at Stourbridge Town Hall addressed by Keir Hardie where there had been ‘several references to women’s suffrage.’
During December 1913 in West Bromwich Mrs. Langley Bourne had helped arrange a meeting of the Conservative & Unionist Women’s Franchise Association at which Lady Betty Balfour and Mrs. Violet Martin were the speakers. ‘Many friends of Women’s Suffrage enrolled,’ it was stated. Wolverhampton was following up the trade union work. The local branch of the National Union of Teachers with 50 members had passed a resolution in favour of Women’s Suffrage with only three against (two men and a woman).
The Directory of Branches in Common Cause in December 1913 showed local branches in Dudley (sec. pro, tem Miss E. M. A. Cole, 28 Grange Rd.); Stourbridge (Miss E. Downing, The Flms, Hagley); Walsall (sec. pro, tem Miss Lowry, 74 Lysways St); Wednesbury (Mrs. Thomas, 1 Loxdale St); West Bromwich (Mrs. Langley Browne) and Wolverhampton (Mrs. F.D. Taylor).
NUWSS activity continued as usual into the fateful year of 1914. In January Stourbridge reported a meeting and social event at the Cafe Chantant. A speech was given by Miss Watson after which a performance of ‘A Chat with Mrs. Chicky’ took place. Also in January the last meeting of the united West Midlands Federation occurred. It was apparently divided into a Central Counties Federation covering Warwickshire and adjacent counties, and a new West Midlands Federation covering the Black Country and Shropshire. In Wednesbury the local NUWSS was invited to take part in a debate at a Social Club at Squire’s Walk. The subject was ‘Should the Franchise be extended to Women?’ Mrs. Carol King spoke for the motion and Mr. T. J. Troman against. Only social club members were entitled to vote. The result was a tie and the chairman refused to give a casting vote.
In February 1914 West Bromwich held a public meeting with J. A. Pickles MA in the chair. Miss Helen Fraser spoke on the Disabilities of Wives and Widows. Great efforts were being made, it was said, to involve members in the election of delegates to another great meeting of the NUWSS at the Albert Hall in London. For this meeting delegates from a wide circle of organisations outside the women’s movement were sought. A meeting later in the month of the Central Counties Federation reported that fifteen organisations in the Birmingham area had elected delegates. These included the Birmingham Socialist Church and the Birmingham Trades Council, the Smethwick branch of the Friendly Society of Ironfounders, a West Bromwich Adult School, the West Bromwich British Socialist Party, the West Bromwich Independent Labour Party and the West Bromwich Trades Council. By this time there was so much NUWSS activity that Common Cause had to ration reports from societies, despite allotting them more space in an enlarged paper.
In June Wolverhampton reported a very successful meeting at Bilston. Mrs. Osler the Birmingham NUWSS secretary, was the speaker and sixteen new members had been made. This was also the occasion of the Wolverhampton AGM. This was at St. Peter’s Institute. The chairman was Councillor Geoffrey le M. Manders. The speakers were Miss Pearson and Julian Osler Esq. A performance of ‘A Chat with Mrs. Chicky’ by two members was ‘much appreciated’. There was a public meeting in Stourbridge in July when Mrs. Ring, of Birmingham, spoke on ‘Sweated Industries’. The Rev. H. A. Hill Reston, the vicar of Wordsley, was in the chair.
In August 1914 the war broke out. It was totally unexpected. Common Cause was reduced in size, federation reports disappeared and only some branch reports were printed. From this time all activity was concerned with the war. In October the setting up of a Birmingham Clothing Depot and an Active Service Fund were reported. In November Wednesbury reported a Mending Party held every week in a room lent to them by the Women’s Go-operative Guild, several of whom were members. The Guild had also offered a shop for the display of he NUWSS’ ‘patched creations’. It was suggested that children’s garments be sent to the headmasters of schools and other garments to the Central Red Cross (‘our Hen. Sec. is on the committee’). A third suggestion was that garments be given to local midwives, nurses or health visitors for distribution. The Directory in Common Cause at the end of 1914 showed branches at Dudley (Mrs. Powell, the Vicarage St. John’s), Stourbridge (Miss E. Downing), Walsall (Miss Lowry, still pro-tem), Wednesbury (Miss Westley, the Market Place), and Wolverhampton; but not West Bromwich. It is clear that the NUWSS, as with the WSPU, both nationally and locally dropped all women’s suffrage activities on the outbreak of war and devoted all their efforts to supporting the war.
The Suffragettes 1910-1918
Having followed the fortunes of the Liberal dominated NUWSS to 1914 we must return to the militant Women’s Social & Political Union whose activities we left in 1909 when violence, hunger strikes and forcible feeding had begun. 1910 was a quiet year – until November. The women needed a period of recuperation from the violence inflicted on them. Hopes were once again high that some female suffrage measure would be passed through the work of a Conciliation Committee which represented all political parties, including the Conservatives. Their eventual proposal was to enfranchise those women householders (or occupiers) of business premises of f10 a year rateable value. Because it had been agreed across political parties, however, the Bill could not be amended. 1910 was also the year of two general elections, on the issue of the reform of the House of Lords, one in January and another in December. These elections provided opportunities for obtaining pledges of support. The death of Edward VII in May and the coronation of George V early the next year led to periods of national mourning and then celebration when militancy seemed inappropriate to many, including Mrs. and Christabel Pankhurst.
The Conciliation Bill was introduced in Parliament by D. J. Shackleton in June and passed its Second Reading by a majority of 139. But the fact that it could not be amended and the hostility of the most important ministers including Asquith, Lloyd George and Winston Churchill doomed the Bill. The truce was maintained until November in an attempt to gain government assurances that the Bill would be given government time, but with the dissolution of Parliament at hand, the women attempted a deputation to Parliament to meet Asquith. They were met with horrifying violence from both plain clothed and uniformed police. 119 arrests were made and two women subsequently died from their treatment. This was Black Friday November 18th.
Local activity continued throughout 1910. In Wolverhampton there was an At Home in January addressed by Gladice Keevil, the district organiser. The next month there were two At Homes addressed by Charlotte Marsh. In March, ‘Miss Marsh again charmed Wolverhampton.’ In connection with a ‘Mission’ of Mrs. Pankhurst in April a meeting was held at Queen’s College, Birmingham with ‘many important people’, including Mrs. Bird, the wife of the Conservative Wolverhampton MP. In May the Wolverhampton secretary was Miss Helen Boswell of 117 Dunstall Road. She reported a well attended meeting at which men had debated ‘Would the Country benefit by giving the Vote to Women’. ‘The audience was most sympathetic and enthusiastic, many of them speaking for the Cause and only one against.’ In June and July 1910 the Suffragettes organised two of their greatest demonstrations. A march from Victoria Embankment stretched the whole length of the Embankment and the last of the marchers did not reach the Albert Hall until 9pm. This was a joint affair with the Women’s Freedom League and the Franchise League. The next month a monster demonstration in Hyde Park required 40 platforms and 150 speakers. Both of these would have been attended by Black Country suffragettes.
During the summer the order went out from the WSPU leaders for open-air meetings wherever possible to explain the Conciliation Bill and its prospects. Wolverhampton responded by holding weekly Monday evening meetings on the Market Place addressed by such speakers as Gladys Hazell, Hilda Burkett and Mrs. Bessie Smith. In the autumn Wolverhampton monthly indoor activity resumed with a meeting at Povey’s Cafe addressed by Gladice Keevil. From the autumn there were reports of WSPU activity in other Black Country towns. In Smethwick on Monday 19th September a dinner hour meeting was advertised at Bridge Street, with Miss R. Dale. The next night a meeting was to take place at Claremont Road, Smethwick with Miss Dorothy Evans. On Wednesday 21st. a meeting was to be held outside Tangye’s with Mrs. Bessie Smith. We don’t know whether these meetings took place, but at the end of September Gladice Keevil was said to be addressing ‘enthusiastic meetings at Smethwick and elsewhere.’ In October Dorothy Evans addressed a meeting at Warley Institute.
At Stourbridge a branch was announced in September, but the organiser was given as Dorothy Evans in Birmingham. A meeting took place in the Corn Exchange with Miss C. E. Dugdale and Gladice Keevil speaking. In November Gladice was speaking to the Stourbridge Young Liberal Association. The only other Black Country town reporting acivity was West Bromwich where Dorothy Evans attended a debate at the People’s Hall in October. Dorothy was one of the 153 arrested on Black Friday 18th November at the Battle of Downing Street. She was charged with obstruction, but discharged, as were most of those arrested on that day.
The Suffragette truce continued uneasily into 1911. During this year the removal of the veto of the House of Lords led to the threat of revolt in Ulster if Irish Home Rule were passed into law and the Suffragettes complained bitterly that this sedition went unpunished while Suffragettes were sent to jail. 1911 was also the year of the development of the Great Industrial Unrest and it came to be thought that Britain was becoming ungovernable. In May the Conciliation Bill was again debated and passed. But in November Asquith announced a Manhood Suffrage Bill extending the number of men entitled to vote but specifically excluding women. Asquith stated however, that an amendment to include women would be accepted and a free vote of the House allowed. This satisfied the Suffragists but not the leaders of the Suffragettes and the end of the year saw a renewal of violence with an organised campaign of window smashing.
Other forms of resistance during 1911 were a boycotting of the Census in January and refusal to pay taxes. Of the former we have no reports for the Black Country. Of the latter, No Vote, No Tax had been a policy of the Women’s Freedom League from its inception. The WSPU was persuaded to adopt this policy in November 1910 and about the same time a Women’s Tax Resistance League was formed. In May, two women were imprisoned for failure to take out dog licences. One of these was Wolverhampton’s Emma Sproson. She went to prison for a second time when she was sentenced to a week in Stafford gaol. When she came out she was interviewed by the Wolverhampton Chronicle. She told them that she would not pay the licence, would keep her two dogs and would continue to defy the law. ‘Mrs. Sproson said little about conditions in Stafford, but much about women and the vote.’ It is clear that Emma Sproson remained a staunch Suffragette, but her subsequent work with the local movement after 1909 was not with the WSPU. In the Sproson papers in Wolverhampton library, there is a short history of the Suffragette movement by Emma, but it is disappointing in that it deals with the development of the national movement and says nothing about local Suffragette actvity. Her tax resistance suggests that she was a member of the Women’s Freedom League and perhaps had differences with the local WSPU.
1911 was possibly the most active year of the WSPU in the Black Country. It saw the development of the Walsall branch which was increasingly to dominate Black Country activity. The first mention of a Walsall branch was in February 1911, but the organiser was given as Bertha Ryland, who was a Birmingham suffragette. A meeting had been arranged at the YMCA Hall, Freer Street with Lady Isabel Margeson and Mrs. Hugh A. Franklin. The latter was speaking on ‘Why I struck Churchill’, for which she had served a month’s imprisonment. At the end of February it was announced that the Hen. Sec. of the branch was Miss Eveline Thacker of Field House, Buchanan Road, Walsall. Several new members had been made at the previous meeting and the branch had decided to hold monthly meetings in the town. Mrs. Layton and Mrs. Barber had kindly consented to lend their rooms for the purpose and other members were urged to do the same. Members were urged to increase the circulation of Votes For Women. This could be done by ‘selling in the central streets or house to house calling and getting the newsagent to display a poster each week.’ The next meeting would be at Mrs. Layton’s with Mrs. Bates the speaker. A subsequent meeting was to be held at 38 Ablewell Street. The meeting at Mrs. Layton’s was reported as ‘well attended.’ The report went on, ‘this is a young branch. Collections have been organised during Self-Denial Week and most members have promised to call on at least 20 houses. 200 of the Brailsford leaflet (H. N. Brailsford was organising the Conciliation Bill – GB) have been distributed to officials, clergy, doctors, and responsible men and women.’
During the summer Walsall held open-air meetings. In June, Dorothy Evans addressed a meeting in the Market Place and the next week she spoke at Town’s End Bank. In June also members were urged to buy tickets for the great summer demonstration in London. In the autumn indoor meetings resumed under a new secretary, Mrs. E. H. Cotterell of 347 Sargents Hill. On October 16th Mrs. Kineton Parkes was to address a meeting on Tax Resistance and Mrs. Louis Fagan was to speak on the Suffrage. In fact Dorothy Evans spoke on Tax Resistance. At this meeting ‘new members were made and the paper sold well.’ Mrs. Cotterell appealed for members to allow their drawing rooms to be used for meetings. At the end of the year the Walsall branch was busy arranging for a Mrs. Pankhurst meeting in January and assistance was urged.
Wolverhampton activity also continued into 1911. In February Gladys Hazell spoke at the Labour Church. Helen Boswell remained the secretary. In March there was an At Home at the Victoria Hotel with Lady Margesson. This meeting was reported as ‘very successful’. Lady Margesson spoke on Women’s Responsibilities to the State. ‘Several new members and many sympathisers were made.’ In May the branch was extending its open-air meetings to Bilston as well as holding its own meetings on the Market Place. Like Walsall the branch was also advertising tickets for a special train to the great national demonstration. Reports of Wolverhampton branch activities, however, end after the summer of 1911.
In West Bromwich also activity continued. In May the secretary was given as Mrs. Brockhouse of Lawnside, Hill Top. Members and friends were urged to make a success of a meeting in the Free Library Lecture Hall by house to house sale of tickets and attending open air meetings. These were to be held on the Monday and Wednesday at 8 pm at the corner of Paradise Street and St. Michael’s Street to advertise the main meeting on the Thursday at which Gladys Hazell and Harry Brockhouse were the speakers. The meeting was deemed ‘a huge success’ and Miss Rylacd and Mrs. Brockhouse who arranged it were thanked. At the meeting a sketch was given by members entitled ‘How Cranston was converted to Militant Tactics and Boycotted the Census’. Open- air meetings continued at Paradise Street in June with Mrs. Bessie Smith one week and Dorothy Evans the next. West Bromwich also sold tickets for the great demonstration. Reports, however, cease after June.
A development in 1911 was activity at Kingswinford. A branch was formed operating from the Cross Hotel, Kingswinford, with Bertha Ryland as organiser. In October a reception was being organised at this Hotel for November 8th at 3.30 pm. The Rev. Claude Hinscliff was to speak on ‘Some Social Aspects of Votes for Women’, with Dorothy Evans in the chair. ‘Miss Peers has kindly consented to send out invitations to Kingswinford, Stourbridge, Dudley and district.’ A subsequent report stated that ‘There was great interest in the coming event in Kingswinford.’ Afterwards the reception was considered ‘very successful’. A subsequent meeting was called to assess the situation. Mrs. Skelding of Kingswinford and Mrs. Higgs of Pensnett were to contact the Women’s Unionist Association. Dorothy Evans stated that ‘Funds were urgently needed to spread the message in this district.’ Nothing more was heard of work in Kingswinford, however, and it seems that efforts to stimulate work in the Dudley and Stourbridge areas did not bear fruit.
In 1912 Walsall WSPU continued to lead the way. A shop and office was opened at 19 Leicester Street with Miss F. Ward the honorary organiser. Thanks were offered to Mrs. Cotterell, Mrs. Wood and Miss Willis for providing office furniture etc. Members were urged to make the Pankhurst meeting a success by canvassing, paper selling and a poster parade. Sights had now been raised and the meeting transferred from the Temperance Hall to the Town Hall. The meeting was later reported to have been a ‘great success due to the work of canvassing, ticket selling etc.’ Another meeting had been arranged for February 22nd with Mrs. Kineton Parkes as the main speaker. ‘Volunteers for a poster parade and paper selling are urgently needed.’ A report the next week stated that ‘Canvassing is being carried on vigorously and the Thursday meetings are being anticipated with keen interest.’ Mrs. Thacker of Field House, Buchanan Road had kindly lent her drawing room for Mrs. Kineton Parkes’ meeting on the 22nd. Another meeting had also been arranged at the small Temperance Hall in the evening for those who could not hear Mrs. Kineton Parkes in the afternoon. It was hoped that members had begun collecting for the Jumble Sale on March 28th. In the event, Mrs. Thacker’s rooms were not available due to illness in the family and the meeting was transferred to the Go-operative Rooms, Bridge Street. The two meetings turned out to be ‘enthusiastic Tax Resistance meetings.’ The usual resolutions on Women’s Suffrage were unanimously passed and ‘many new members joined.’ This report appealed for help in the shop and asked members to provide ‘marmalade, chutney, or anything that would sell.’
The Thursday afternoon meetings at the Co-op Rooms seem to have become weekly. Nurse Hutchinson spoke on the 28th February. The next Thursday afternoon meeting was ‘for women only’ and was addressed by Miss Abadan. The work was extended to Bloxwich by Miss Abadan holding an evening public meeting at Bloxwich Co-op Rooms the same evening. These turned out to be ‘very good meetings. Miss Abadan gave stirring speeches on the horrors of the white slave traffic.’ (This was at the time when the question of prostitution and English girls appearing in French brothels and others further east was a public issue – GB).
The Jumble Sale was moved to Saturday 30th March at the small Temperance Hall and was ‘very successful.’ At the Thursday afternoon meeting chaired by Miss Eveline Thacker the speaker was Mrs. Kerwood who, ‘Appealed to members to work harder than ever.’ Nurse McDonald joined the branch and ‘the papers sold well.’
In May, Walsall members were urged to support a meeting on the 8th at 7.30pm with Miss Georgina Brackenbury. Georgina was one of the heroines of the Suffragette movement. She and her sister had taken part in the Trojan Horse incident in 1908 when twenty women in a van had tried to storm the Parliament by jumping out of the van when it reached the entrance of the House of Commons. They found the entrance heavily guarded by police and they ended up in prison. The Walsall report asked for house to house paper sellers and office minders. At the end of July it was announced that the Walsall office would only be open during August on Fridays from 10.30 to 12.30 ‘when papers etc. may be obtained.’ But a meeting was held in Aldridge in July which was no doubt facilitated by the Walsall branch. An At Home was held at Moot House, Aldridge ‘by kind invitation of Miss Hepburn and Miss Cooke.’ Dr. E. W. Jones made ‘an eloquent and touching speech’ on the White Slave traffic. Open air meetings were already established in Aldridge, it seems for, Mrs. Dove Wilcox, ‘again addressed an open air meeting there.
We do not know whether open-air meetings were held in Walsall during the summer, but in the autumn meetings resumed. The first was scheduled for October 2nd when Mrs. Cook from Paddington was to be the speaker. After this meetings would be held every Wednesday at 3 pm. at the Co-op Hall. A jumble sale was also arranged for that month. It was also announced that a Library of Suffrage would be started with books lent al 2d a week. Suffrage books were asked for. Contributions were also solicited by Miss E. Ward, the organiser, to the Walsall Purse which would be presented at the Albert Hall meeting. Later it was reported that the first meeting was a great success and ‘all had been delighted with Muriel Cook’s address.
Later in the month thanks were given to Mrs. Barnard for the first instalment of library books and it was announced that the library was functioning. Thanks were also given to Misses Earle, Ryland, Broughton, Cooke, Thacker and Hepburn and also Mrs. Barnard for jumble. In November poster parades seem to have been a particular feature of Walsall activity. These were said to ‘have caused great excitement’, but no further details are given.
Wolverhampton activity continued steadily during 1912. A public meeting was arranged for Monday February 12th with Mrs.Pankhurst. Reserved tickets were 2/- and 1/-, with unnumbered seats 6d. Tickets could be obtained from Barkers, stationers, of Queen Square. There was now a paid organiser in Wolverhampton. It was Miss Gladys Hazell whose address was c/o Mrs. Boswell, Albert Road. The honorary secretary was still Helen Boswell. The members were complimented as ‘giving proof of their devotion by the perseverance with which they have canvassed their districts in their free time. Further details of the Pankhurst meeting were given. it was to be at the Baths Assembly Rooms with Dorothy Evans in the chair. No report of that meeting has been found.
At the end of February Gladys Hazell was organising a Social Science class in Wolverhampton. This is, however, the last reference to activity in Wolverhampton for 1912 in either Votes For Women or The Suffragette. But given the known strength of the Suffragettes in Wolverhampton and their stable organisation it is difficult to believe that activity ceased.
Other Black Country towns where there was Suffragette activity in 1912 included Stourbridge, Smethwick and Kingswinford. In Kingswinford we know of only one meeting in February at which Dorothy Evans spoke. This was under the auspices of the Birmingham suffragettes. In Stourbridge there was a meeting at the Labour Hall with Mrs. Bessie Smith on Sunday 31st March. The meetings in Smethwick took place on Sunday March 24th 1912 when Mrs. E. M. Dale addressed the Labour Church in the morning and a Town Hall meeting in the evening. As with activity in Wolverhampton, there is no reason to believe that this was the limit of activity in other Black Country towns. But from the middle of 1912 there are serious difficulties in tracing Black Country suffragette activity. The nature of these difficulties is explained below.
1913 was the year when WSPU militancy erupted into arson under the dictatorship of Christabel and Mrs. Pankhurst. Christabel had escaped to France in March 1912 and from that date the campaign was virtually run from there. In March 1913 in response to hunger strikes and the opprobrium attached to forced feeding the Cat & Mouse Act was passed whereby women were released just before they reached the point of death and then re-arrested within a few weeks when they had partially recovered. On June 4th Emily Davison threw herself in front of the king’s horse at the Derby and was killed. These developments towards incendiarism and conspiracy led to differences within the movement. The Pethwick-Lawrences counselled a period of education rather than renewed violence. The Pankhursts disagreed and the Pethwick Lawrences were peremptorily expelled from the WSPU. Votes For Women continued under Pethwick Lawrence editorship, but in October 1912 the Pankhursts started a new paper THE Suffragette. An immediate result was the abrupt disappearance of all local campaign reports from Votes For Women. But there is some doubt whether all campaign reports were transferred to The Suffragette. Locally, it is Walsall activities which are best reported in that paper, leaving it an open question whether the lack of reports from other towns indicate a cessation of activity or a lack of confidence in the Pankhurst regime.
Walsall continued to report routine activities; lantern slide meetings at the Co-op Hall and drawing room meetings during January and a talk on ‘Sweated Labour’ in March. Thanks for marmalade and sweets the same month suggest that the office and shop still functioned. In July Walsall members were asked for contributions towards the funeral of ‘our brave Comrade Emily Davison.’ The next mention of Walsall is not until December when members were urged to sell the special Christmas number of The Suffragette.
Wolverhampton contributed only two notices to the paper. An Invitation Meeting at the Victoria Hotel organised by Gladys Hazell from Birmingham in April, and a subsequent notice stating that the meeting had been transferred to the Labour Assembly Rooms, Queen Square. Whether this change of venue indicated a lowering of expectations or whether the Victoria Hotel was objecting to the meeting is not known. This is the only event advertised for Wolverhampton and there are no accounts of activity in other Black Country towns in either The Suffragette or Votes For Women.
However, Black Country suffragettes became implicated in the arson and violence that ensued as Asquith’s perfidy became clearer and Suffragette violence escalated. The national arson campaign began in February 1913 when a house being built for Lloyd George at Walton Heath was partially destroyed by a bomb. On February 24th a WSPU stall at Walsall was overturned by a hostile crowd. Soon after this the Birmingham area arson campaign got under way. In June a house at Olton was set on fire followed by others at Four Oaks and Selly Park. The authorities attempted to avert an intensification of the campaign on the occasion of a visit to Birmingham by Asquith in July by arresting leading Suffragettes. Among these were two from Walsall who described themselves as organisers, Florence Ward, aged 50, and Louisa Shepherd, 38.
But the commencement of the Birmingham area arson campaign is associated with the Black Country by two events. The first was the firing of a cannon at Dudley Castle. This occurred in April 1913. The local papers reported it as a ‘Midnight Suffragist Outrage’. Somebody entered the Castle and primed and fired one of the ornamental Crimean cannons there. With the roar of the cannon went a great flash which lit up Dudley. On the gun was painted the slogan ‘VOTES FOR WOMEN’. The questions were, who had cleared the barrel of the gun from the debris of years, how had the gun been fired despite being ‘spiked’ (the ignition hole plugged), and could women have achieved these technical feats without blowing up the cannon or killing themselves. The answer was given the next week with a very circumstantial but anonymous account to the Dudley Herald of how the cannon had been actually fired. Those responsible for the feat were ‘a group of local young men.’ One assumes that they were favourable to the cause of women’s suffrage, but this question was not broached in the correspondence, nor subsequently elucidated. The other event associating the Black Country with the Birmingham area arson campaign was the burning of Rowley Regis church in June 1913. Nothing to associate this with the Suffragettes was left at the scene and the WSPU denied that their members were involved. The police, however, were reported as believing that it was the work of the Suffragettes, even though there was no evidence of this. The Birmingham Post believed it was either the Suffragettes or local strikers incensed by the views of the vicar.
By 1914 all hopes of votes for women had long evaporated. The Bill for Manhood Suffrage that Asquith was to have introduced in the House of Commons in 1913 promising to accept any amendment passed extending this to women, was ruled out by the Speaker as constituting not an amendment, but so altering the bill as to be a different measure. Asquith had no intention of introducing a bill giving equal suffrage to women and could only suggest that the women pursue the previous Conciliation Bill. The only Black Country activity recorded by The Suffragette in 1914 was at Walsall. In February thanks were being given to those who canvassed for a Pelsall meeting and giving the name of the Hon. Sec. as Nancee Cotterell at 19 Leicester Street. In May, the branch was asking for assistance from neighbouring areas. The campaign of violence continued in Birmingham up to the outbreak of war and included such controversial actions as daubing the cathedral and slashing a famous painting in the Art Gallery. For further evidence of activity of Suffrage societies in the Black Country in 1914 we look to the local Directories. Only Walsall recorded the existence of a WSPU branch; Miss Florence Ward of 85 Sutton Crescent was the honorary organiser and Mrs. Edgar Cotterell of 347 Birmingham Road was the hon. sec. Membership entrance fee was l/-. Fortnightly meetings were held at the Athenaeum Buildings, Bridge Street. The first entry for the WSPU in the Walsall Red Book was in 1912 and entries continued every year to 1918.
For Wolverhampton the WSPU does not appear in the local Red Book, but entries for the NUWSS begin in 1914. They continue until after the war when the old guard leadership was still in office. These included the secretary Mrs. F. D. Taylor, the president Mrs. Major and vice-president Mrs. T. Graham. There are no references to Suffrage societies in Dudley ‘Directory’ of 1914, and this also applies to the whole area between Dudley and Stourbridge which was covered by the Dudley Herald Year Book. As is known, immediately on the outbreak of war in August 1914, the WSPU leadership abruptly dropped all Suffrage activity and offered the services of the organisation to prosecuting the war. By then Mrs. Pankhurst and Christabel had moved far from their Socialist roots and become extremely jingoistic. Sylvia Pankhurst, whose East London Federation was expelled from the WSPU by her mother and sister, became anti-war and for a short time after 1920 she was a member of the Communist Party. The Pethwick-Lawrences, who with Christabel were a triumvirate who had virtually run the WSPU until they were expelled, were against the war. In 1916 Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst changed the name of The Suffragette to Brittania and in 1917, equally arbitrarily, ended the existence of the WSPU by re-naming it the Women’s Party.
The NUWSS, a largely middle class, Liberal organisation supported the war, and continued some suffrage work. But all of its leading national organisers opposed the war. Of local suffragettes, some were in the Independent Labour Party which opposed the war from the beginning, and Emma Sproson was active in anti-war work.
After the war, Christabel Pankhurst stood at Smethwick as a Women’s Party candidate but was narrowly beaten. The vote was granted to women in 1918 under the Representation of the People’s Act which gave the vote to all men at age 21 and to women at 30. This was one year after women in Russia had obtained the vote as a result of the Russian Revolution. It is widely held that women were given the vote as a result of their services during the war. This was not the experience of women in other countries notably France and Germany where there had not been a strong pre-war women’s suffrage movement. It is therefore much more likely that women were given the vote in Britain because of the fear that the pre-war violence would erupt on a even greater scale if the vote were withheld. The sting in the tail was that if all women had been given the vote they would have outnumbered men as a result of natural causes and the vast male fatalities of the war. Fear of how women would vote and the anti-feminist view of the natural ‘waywardness’ of women in all matters prevailed and the vote was given only to women of 30 and above. Not until 1928 was that anomaly removed.
The Black Country experience suggests that the work of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies has been under-estimated; they were first in the field and remained to the end. The Women’s Social and Political Union was the more daring, its women the most courageous, and its policy lit the flame that made women’s suffrage ultimately inevitable. Yet, as the local NUWSS observed, their militancy did alienate many women, During the years of the arson campaign up to 1914 it seems that WSPU organisation in the Black Country had almost disappeared; and the leading Black Country suffragette, Emma Sproson, had long since left the WSPU for the Women’s Freedom League. Perhaps the most useful lesson from local material is that in the campaign for the vote for women which lasted for so many years, exciting and dangerous moments were not the norm. Like every great campaign, and there can have been few more important than that for women’s suffrage, it was the unspectacular, slogging work of organisation and administration year after year which made eventual victory possible.
Michele Shoebridge, The Women’s Suffrage Movement In Birmingham And District 1903-1919 (Unpublished Wolverhampton Polytechnic MA 1983).
Birmingham & Midland Women’s Suffrage Societies’ Annual Reports 1902-03 to 1913-14.
Wolverhampton Branch National Union Of Women’s Suffrage Societies’ Annual Reports 1909-10 to 1914-15.
Emma Sproson Papers in Wolverhampton Central Library.
The Women’s Suffrage newspapers: Votes For Women (from 1909); Common Cause (from 1909) the paper of the NUWSS, The Suffragette (from 1912). Local newspapers: Wolverhampton Journal (1902-09); Dudley Herald, Walsall Observer, and Wolverhampton Chronicle.
For the national picture I have used: Sylvia Pankhurst, The Suffragette Movement. Virago edition 1977; F. W. Pethwick-Lawrence, Fate Has Been Kind, also the chronology in Antonia Raeburn, Militant Suffragettes.
For the international movement see: Trevor Lloyd, Suffragettes International (1971)