Turbulent Prestonians: Edith Rigby, 1872-1948

Regular readers of this blog will know that I usually write about Turbulent Londoners, women who participated in some form of protest or dissent in London. However, I have recently moved to Preston in Lancashire, so I have decided to celebrate the turbulent history of my new city. As I was learning about Preston I came across Edith Rigby, a social reformer and suffragette, whose activism rivalled any of the London suffrage campaigners.


Edith_Rigby_(1872–1948)

Edith Rigby, 1872-1948 (Photo: Wikipedia)

Edith Rayner was born on the 18th of October 1872, one of seven children of a doctor. Although her family was quite well off, they lived in a working-class area, and Edith came to sympathise strongly with the poor and disadvantaged. She questioned the sharp divisions between Preston’s social classes, and devoted much of her life to improving the lives of working-class women, as well as fighting for women’s rights more generally.

It is though that Edith was the first woman to ride a bike in Preston, in the late 1880s. She was pelted with vegetables and eggs as she cycled around the town, but that did not put her off. In September 1893, at the age of 21, Edith married Dr. Charles Rigby. The couple moved into the elegant Winckley Square, which contained the kind of large, expensive homes that had led Edith to question the inequality between rich and poor in her early life. It seems likely that Charles was supportive of Edith and her beliefs–throughout her married life she was known as Mrs. Edith Rigby, rather than the customary Mrs. Charles Rigby. The couple adopted a two-year-old boy named Arthur in 1905, and by all accounts had a happy marriage.

In 1899, Edith founded St Peter’s School, which allowed working class women to continue their education after the age of 11. She was also critical of how Preston’s wealthy treated their servants. The Rigbys did employ servants, but they treated them well; for example, they were allowed to eat in the dining room and they did not have to wear uniforms. As the bicycle story might suggest, Edith was not afraid of causing a little scandal; she wore unconventional, practical clothing, and caused a stir by washing the front step of her house herself.

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The plaque on number 28 Winckley Square, where Edith Rigby lived with her husband (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

At the time, children started work in the local factories and mills at the age of 11 as ‘half-timers.’ Edith founded an ‘after-mill club’ for half-timer girls in Preston on Brook Street. The club was both educational and recreational , and activities included cricket, music, and trips to the swimming baths and theatre, as well as more traditional lessons such as debating. The trip to the theatre gave rise to the Brook Street Drama Society which performed An Enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen, a play about corrupt local officials and the morality of whistle blowing.

Edith was also involved in a series of campaigns to help specific groups of female workers. For example, the women of the Woods Tobacco Factory suffered from illnesses caused by nicotine poisoning and poor ventilation in the factory. When they were forced to work an extra hour per day for the same wages, Edith stepped in. She persuaded Woods’ best customer, the Co-Operative Wholesale Company, to boycott Woods until working conditions improved. In 1906, she formed a Preston branch of the Women’s Labour League, a union for female workers.

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The Woods Tobacco Factory in Preston in 2014 (Photo: Hilary Machell)

In 1907, Edith founded a Preston branch of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), the organisation founded by Emmeline Pankhurst to campaign for women’s suffrage in 1903. Edith was an active recruiter, encouraging members of the local Labour party to join the WSPU. Although soft-spoken, she was known for being incredibly persuasive. In 1908, Edith travelled to London to participate in a march on the Houses of Parliament. Along with 56 other women, Edith was arrested and sentenced to a month in prison. This was the first of seven prison sentences Edith would endure for the cause of women’s suffrage. She embarked on a hunger strike, and was subjected to force-feeding.

The following year, Winston Churchill, at this point President of the Board of Trade, visited Preston. Edith was arrested at a meeting at which Churchill spoke. After her release, she followed Churchill to Liverpool, where she smashed a window at a police station. For this, she was sentenced to two weeks imprisonment. In 1913, she threw black pudding at the local MP at a meeting in the Manchester Free Trade Hall. She chose black pudding because it was more demeaning than other foodstuffs usually used in such a protest, like milk or eggs.

Edith employed militant tactics to get her point across, even by the standards of the WSPU. On the 5th of July 1913, she planted a bomb in the Liverpool Cotton Exchange. No one was hurt, and the damage was minimal. Edith had planned it this way, because she wanted people to understand how angry the suffragettes were, and how much harm they could do if they wanted to. Edith turned herself in, and was sentenced to 9 months in prison. She also claimed responsibility for setting fire to Lord Levelhulme’s bungalow on the West Pennine moors just two days later, on the 7th July 1913. The fire destroyed valuable paintings and caused around £20000 worth of damage.

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The Liverpool Cotton Exchange in about 1963 (Photo: Liverpool1207)

With the outbreak of World War One, the WSPU ceased campaigning and threw themselves behind the war effort. Edith disagreed with this decision, and joined the breakaway group the Independent Women’s Social and Political Union (IWSPU), setting up a branch in Preston. Although not opposed to the war like some groups such as the Women’s Freedom League and the East London Federation of Suffragettes, the IWSPU continued to campaign for the vote until it dissolved in 1918.

During the war, Edith bought a cottage outside Preston called Marigold Cottage, which she used to produce food for the war effort. Charles retired and lived with Edith at the cottage. Charles died in 1925, and Edith moved to North Wales the following year. During her later life, Edith became interested in the work of Rudolf Steiner, eventually forming her own Anthroposophical Circle. She died in 1950 near Llandudno, Wales.

Edith Rigby was a formidable woman, fiercely committed to her principles. She dedicated her life to fighting for women’s rights, particularly those of working class women, who were so frequently exploited in the factories of Lancashire. She was willing to take drastic action, and whilst I do not necessarily agree with her methods, I certainly admire her courage.

Sources and Further Reading

Caslin, Sam. “Why did Suffragette Edith Rigby Plant a Bomb at the Cotton Exchange in Liverpool?” University of Liverpool. Last modified 6th February 2018, accessed 20th March 2018. Available at  https://www.liverpool.ac.uk/history/blog/2018/suffragette-edith-rigby/

Machel, Hilary. “‘Of Course, she was Years Ahead of her Time’: Preston Suffragette Edith Rigby.” Friends of the Harris. Last modified 25th June 2014, accessed 1st March 2018. Available at http://friendsoftheharris.tumblr.com/post/89842164634/of-course-she-was-years-ahead-of-her-time 

Wikipedia. “Edith Rigby.” Last modified 18th February 2018, accessed 1st March 2018. Available at  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edith_Rigby

Wikipedia. “Independent Women’s Social and Political Union.” Last modified 3rd December 2017, accessed 1st March 2018. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Independent_Women%27s_Social_and_Political_Union

Book Review: Vanishing for the Vote- Suffrage, Citizenship and the Battle for the Census

Jill Liddington Vanishing for the Vote

Vanishing for the Vote: Suffrage, Citizenship and the Battle for the Census by Jill Liddington.

Jill Liddington. Vanishing for the Vote: Suffrage, Citizenship and the Battle for the Census. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014. RRP £16.99 Paperback.

The centenary of the Representation of the People Act 1918 is being marked in a number of ways, including the publication of a number of books on various aspects of the campaign for women’s suffrage. There are already a significant amount of excellent studies on the campaign for women’s suffrage however, including Vanishing for the Vote: Suffrage, Citizenship and the Battle for the Census by Jill Liddington, published in 2014.

Vanishing for the Vote focuses on one particular tactic in the campaign to gain women the right to vote, the 1911 census boycott. On the night of Sunday the 2nd of April, women from across the suffrage spectrum evaded, boycotted, or refused to complete the most comprehensive census survey ever attempted. The argument was that if women did not count as full citizens, then they should should not allow the government to count them. Not every suffrage campaigner agreed with the tactic however; some believed that it was more important that social policy be informed by accurate data about the population.

This census rebellion would not be a violent confrontation, like forcible feeding in prison or street battles with the police. Rather, it would be peaceful civil disobedience to challenge the very meaning of citizenship. What did it mean, in an otherwise supposedly mature democracy like Edwardian Britain, to be a grown women, yet to be treated politically like a child, a criminal or a lunatic?

Liddington, 2014; p. 2

In Vanishing for the Vote, Jill Liddington explores the boycott in depth, including: the census itself; the Women’s Freedom League, which spearheaded the boycott; some of the key personalities involved; the events of census night itself; and the protests’ significance and implications. In 2009 the original 1911 census schedules were made public by The National Archives, providing researchers with a wealth of new resources. Liddington and another historian, Elizabeth Crawford, tracked down 500 census schedules of women involved in the campaign for women’s suffrage, in order to conduct the first in-depth analysis of what happened during the boycott. The book looks big, but around half of it is actually a Gazetteer of these census schedules, a fantastic resource for anyone interested in suffrage campaigners.

The book is clear and well-written, and although the structure appears unusual at first, it makes sense as the book unfolds. In the Introduction, Jill argues that Vanishing for the Vote is suitable for  academic and popular audiences. Whilst the writing is accessible, I think some of the content would alienate readers that are just interested in history; Liddington explains the methodology of collecting the census details and explores the relevant literature in quite some detail, so it feels more like an academic history book than a popular one. Liddington takes a balanced approach to the debate about the boycott, taking the time to explain the history of, and logic behind, the census itself as well as the campaign to boycott it. As a result, Vanishing for the Vote is not just about how suffrage campaigners asserted their rights as British citizens, but also about how the Edwardian state was attempting to improve the lives of its citizens. As Liddington often argues, it was government by the people versus government for the people. Supporters of women’s suffrage had to decide what was more important to them–the right to vote, or accurate data to inform social reform.

Most people are familiar with the suffragette tactics of smashing windows, arson, and hunger strikes. Vanishing for the Vote is a thorough, engaging, and balanced exploration of one of the lesser known tactics employed by campaigners for women’s suffrage. If your curiosity has been piqued by the centenary celebrations, then it is definitely worth a read.

 

London’s Protest Stickers: Gender

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Stickers of all kinds are a common sight on the streets of London (Photo: Hannah Awcock, 12/03/15).

Gender-related issues and sexism have been hot topics of debate recently, thanks to campaigns such as #MeToo, and Time’s Up. #MeToo was a social media campaign to demonstrate the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment, with women sharing their own experiences to show just how common it is. The Times Up movement calls for an end to sexual harassment, assault and inequality in the film industry, developing in response to the Harvey Weinstein scandal. Many women wore back at the 2018 BAFTA awards to show their support. The campaign has also had an effect in the music industry, with attendees at the 2018 Brit awards showing their support by carrying white roses on the red carpet. This is a recent upsurge in an ongoing series of struggles to achieve gender equality that is reflected in London’s protest stickers.

To see where I found these stickers in the city, check out the Turbulent London Map.

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This sticker was produced by Revolutionary Socialists in the 21st Century. It is quite common on London’s streets (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Gordon Street, Bloomsbury, 12/03/15).

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This sticker connects feminism with anti-fascism. They two flags is the most common symbol of anti-fascism, and the phrasing of the sticker is also often associated with anti-fascist stickers; “Goodnight White Pride” is a particularly common phrase (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Albany Road, 02/04/15).

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Class War is an anarchist group that organises direct action against a society that it sees as deeply unequal. The Women’s Death Brigade is a branch of Class War with a feminist focus (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Euston Road, 05/09/15).

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Intersectionality is the idea that different aspects of a person (race, gender, sexuality etc.) do not exist separately from each other. Therefore, in order to solve issues such as sexism or racism, we need to combat all of them simultaneously, not just one. This sticker links sexism and homophobia, as well as representing Snow White in a more violent pose than we’re used to (Photo: Hannah Awcock, New Cross Road, 20/03/16).

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Sisters Uncut is a direct action campaign group formed to protest against cuts to domestic violence services in the UK. Research suggests that women are disproportionately affected by recent austerity, bearing more of the burden than men (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Lewisham Way, 20/03/16).

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One of Sisters Uncut’s best known tactics is crashing red carpets-they did it at the premier of the 2015 film Suffragette, and the 2018 BAFTA awards. The colours that Sisters Uncut use, white, green, and purple, echo those of the suffragette group the Women’s Social and Political Union (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Torrington Place, 20/10/15).

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This is arguably more of a poster than a sticker, but I liked it too much to leave it out. George Osborne was the Chancellor of the Exchequer between 2010 and 2016 (Photo: Hannah Awcock, 20/03/16 New Cross Road).

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Sexual consent has been another big issue for feminist campaigns in recent years. I Heart Consent is an educational consent campaign ran by the National Union of Students and Sexpression UK which focuses on universities and colleges (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Charing Cross Road, 23/03/17).

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This photo is a fantastic illustration of how the placement of a sticker can contribute to its meaning and impact (Photo: Hannah Awcock, King’s College London, 31/05/15).

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Unfortunately, feminism does not always present a united front. There is an ongoing debate over whether transgender women count as ‘real’ women, with some feminists arguing that transgender women cannot truly understand what it is like to deal with the prejudices faced by women. More generally, some people question whether or not is even possible to be genuinely transgender. This sticker is a reaction to such debates (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Victoria Station, 10/03/15)

Turbulent Londoners: Muriel Matters, 1877-1969

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past, with a particular focus of women, whose contribution to history is often overlooked. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. To celebrate the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, all of the Turbulent Londoners featured in 2018 will have been involved in the campaign for women’s suffrage. The third of my suffrage activists is Muriel Matters, an Australian actress, lecturer, and journalist with a flair for dramatic stunts.


Muriel Matters

Muriel Matters, 1877-1969 (Photo: Frosty Ramblings).

All of the suffrage campaigners I have featured so far as Turbulent Londoners have been British. London has always been a city of migrants, however, and many of the activists involved in the campaign for women’s suffrage were born elsewhere. Muriel Matters was an Australian lecturer, journalist, actress, and elocutionist who put her flair for the dramatic to good use fighting for a right that South Australian women had had since 1894.

Muriel Matters was born on the 12th of November 1877 to a large Methodist family in Adelaide, South Australia. As a child she was introduced to the writing of Walt Whitman and Henrik Ibsen, who strongly influenced her political consciousness. In 1894, when Muriel was still a teenager, South Australia became the first self-governing territory to give women the vote on the same standing as men.

Muriel studied music at the University of Adelaide, and by the late 1890s she was acting and conducting recitals in Adelaide, Sydney, and Melbourne. In 1905, at the age of 28, Muriel moved to London to try and further her acting career. Leaving a country where women had the right to vote in all federal elections, Muriel arrived in a country where women could not vote at all. Facing stiff competition for acting work, Muriel also had to take on work as a journalist. She interviewed the exiled anarchist Prince Peter Kropotkin, and later performed at his home. Kropotkin challenged Muriel to do something more useful with her talents than acting–she later identified this as a defining moment in her life. She joined the Women’s Freedom League (WFL), a group which had broken away from the WSPU in 1907 because of the lack of democracy in the organisation. The President of the WFL was Charlotte Despard, a formidable woman who is one of my favourite Turbulent Londoners.

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The first ‘Votes for Women’ caravan tour in 1908 (Source: The Women’s Library/Mary Evans Picture Library).

Between early May and Mid-October 1908, Muriel was the ‘Organiser in Charge’ of the first ‘Votes for Women’ caravan tour around the South of England. WFL activists visited towns in Surrey, Sussex, East Anglia, and Kent, with the aim of talking about women’s suffrage and forming new branches. Despite problems with hecklers, the tour was very successful, and many of the other suffrage societies would later run caravan tours of their own.

Not one to rest on her laurels, on the 28th of October 1908 Muriel took part in a dramatic protest at the House of Parliament organised by the WFL. They were protesting against an iron grille in the Ladie’s Gallery that obscured the view of the House of Commons and was seen as a symbol of women’s oppression. Muriel and another activist called Helen Fox chained themselves to the offending grille, and loudly lectured the MPs below on the benefits of women’s enfranchisement. The grille had to be removed so that a blacksmith could remove the two women. Released without charge, Muriel rejoined the protest outside the House of Commons, and was eventually arrested for trying to rush the lobby. The next day she was sentenced to one month in Holloway Prison.

A few months later, the state opening of Parliament on the 16th of February 1909 was marked by a procession led by King Edward. In order to gain attention and promote the suffrage cause, Muriel hired a dirigible air balloon. With ‘Votes for Women’ on one side, and ‘WFL’ on the other, she planned to fly over central London, showering the King and Parliament with pro-suffrage leaflets. The weather conditions and a poor motor meant that Muriel didn’t make it to Westminster, but she did fly over London for one and a half hours, dropping 56lbs of leaflets. The stunt made headlines all over the world.

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Muriel Matters on her balloon flight over London (Source: Balloonteam.net).

From May to July 1910, Muriel embarked on a lecture tour of Australia. She was an engaging speaker, making use of illustrations and even changing into a replica of the dress she wore whilst in prison. She advocated prison reform, equal pay, and the vote. At the end of the tour, she helped persuade the Australian senate to pass a resolution informing the British Prime Minister Asquith of the positive experiences of women’s suffrage. In October 1913, Muriel helped persuade the National Federation of Mineworker’s to support women’s suffrage.

On the 15th October 1914, Muriel married William Arnold Porter, a divorced dentist from Boston. She decided to double-barrel her surname. In June 1915, she laid out her opposition to war in an address called ‘The False Mysticism of War.’ She argued that it was not an effective method of solving problems, and justifications for it were based on false pretences. She particularly objected to Christianity as a justification for war, and questioned the significance of nationality. Views such as these were extremely unpopular at the time, and it took great bravery to voice them.

In 1916 Muriel went to Barcelona for a year to learn about the Montesorri method of teaching, a child-centred approach which promotes the development of the whole child, including physical, social, emotional, and cognitive development. Muriel believed that access to education should be universal, and she took what she learnt in Barcelona back to charity work she was doing in East London. In 1922, she toured Australia again, this time advocating the Montesorri method.

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Muriel Matters addressing a crowd in Caernarfon, Wales, in 1909 (Source: Harper Collins Australia).

In the 1924 General Election, Muriel ran as the Labour candidate for Hastings. She ran on a socialist platform, advocating a fairer distribution of wealth, work for the unemployed, and gender equality. She didn’t win- Hastings was a safe Conservative seat, and wasn’t won by Labour until 1997. The ability to stand in itself was victory enough for Muriel. After the election, Muriel and her husband settled in Hastings. William died in 1949, and Muriel died 20 years later, on the 17th of November 1969, at the age of 92. Provocative until the end, she was remembered locally as being partial to a spot of skinny dipping at the nearby Pelham Beach.

Australian-born Muriel Matters launched herself wholeheartedly into the the campaign for women’s suffrage in her adopted country. Her flair for dramatic acts of non-violent civil disobedience helped her attract valuable attention and publicity for the cause of women’s suffrage.

Sources and Further Reading

Fallon, Amy. “Muriel Matters: An Australian Suffragette’s Unsung Legacy.” Last modified 11 October 2013, accessed 8 February 2018. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2013/oct/11/muriels-neglecting-an-australian-suffragettes-unsung-legacy

Friends of Hastings Cemetery. “Muriel Matters Porter.” No date, accessed 8 February. Available at http://friendsofhastingscemetery.org.uk/mattersm.html

The Muriel Matters Society Inc. “About Muriel.” No date, accessed 8 February 2018. Available at https://murielmatterssociety.com.au/home-page/who-was-muriel-matters/

Wikipedia. “Muriel Matters.” Last modified 20 January 2018, accessed 8 February 2018. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muriel_Matters

Suffrage: Education, Activism and Votes for Women Exhibition at Royal Holloway

Royal Holloway, University of London, has pretty good credentials when it comes to historical feminism. Officially called Royal Holloway and Bedford New College, it was formed from a merger of Royal Holloway and Bedford College in 1985. Both of the original institutions started out as women’s colleges. Bedford College was the first higher education college for women in the United Kingdom, founded by Elisabeth Jesser Reid in 1849. Royal Holloway was founded in 1879 by the entrepreneur and philanthropist Thomas Holloway. As such, both colleges have a number of notable female alumni, including…

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The Emily Wilding Davison Building is a striking new Library and Student Services hub located in the centre of Royal Holloway’s campus. It is named after the well-known suffragette who was killed at the Epsom Derby in 1913 after running in front of the King’s horse, who attended Royal Holloway in the early 1890s (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

In 2017, Royal Holloway opened a new library building named after the well-known suffragette, Emily Wilding Davison. She studied English at Royal Holloway in 1891 although she could not complete her studies because she could not afford the fees after the death of her father in 1893. The Emily Wilding Davison Building includes a small exhibition space, which is currently hosting Suffrage: Education, Activism and Votes for Women until the 17th of March 2018. As someone studying historical protest at Royal Holloway, I felt almost obliged to go and check it out.

The exhibition includes items from Royal Holloway’s own Special Collections, as well as the British Film Institute, the Museum of London, and the Women’s Library at the London School of Economics. It covers the period from the foundation of Bedford College in 1849 to 1918, when the Representation of the People Act entitled some women to vote. The items are mostly textual, but there are also images, video footage, posters, and suffrage-based souvenirs.

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The exhibition space in the Emily Wilding Davison Building (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The exhibition space is small, but Suffrage makes good use of it. It is covers both suffragettes and suffragists, which is good to see– although suffragette organisations like the Women’s Social and Political Union and the Women’s Freedom League were good at attracting publicity and are still quite well-known, most of the women who campaigned for the right to vote were suffragists, believing in legal methods of persuasion. Unsurprisingly given the exhibition’s location, Suffrage also makes a strong connection between the suffrage campaign and women’s education. The fight for the right to vote is one of the most studied and represented campaigns in British history, particularly in this centenary year, so it is refreshing to see the topic approached from a different angle. I also like the long time period covered by the exhibition; events after 1905 tend to receive the most attention, but campaigners had been working hard for half a century before that.

At the back of the exhibition, almost hidden behind a partition, footage of suffrage demonstrations is projected onto a wall. The campaign was one of the first to be filmed quite extensively, and I have always found the black and white grainy footage captivating. I suspect that I am not the only one who enjoys watching such footage, I think it helps to make historical protest more accessible. I was pleased to see the films included in Suffrage, therefore, although I think they could have been given more prominence.

Due to its origins, Royal Holloway and Bedford New College has a strong connection to women’s history. Suffrage: Education, Activism and Votes for Women highlights some of that history in a balanced and accessible way, as well as showcasing the College’s impressive archival collections.