Turbulent Londoners: Eliza Sharples, 1803-1852

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. The first Turbulent Londoner of 2019 is Eliza Sharples, radical speaker and partner of Richard Carlile.


Eliza Sharples

Eliza Sharples (1803-1852). This image comes from a biography of Richard Carlile written by the couple’s daughter, Theophilia (Source: The Battle of the Press, 1899).

To celebrate the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, which gave some women in the UK the right to vote, all of the Turbulent Londoners I featured during 2018 were involved in some way in the campaign to increase the political rights and responsibilities of women (See the Vote100 page for the full list). Most of them were active in the mid-to late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. The history of female radicalism in London goes back much further than that however. One such radical was Eliza Sharples, who was one of the first women to speak publicly on the topics of politics and religion.

Eliza Sharples was one of 6 children, born into a middle class manufacturing family in Bolton in 1803. She was well educated, attending boarding school until she was about 20. As a young woman, Eliza was both politically and religiously conservative. When the radical Richard Carlile (a prominent atheist who campaigned for universal suffrage and freedom of the press) visited Bolton in 1827, Eliza was unimpressed. After she met him at a dinner party in 1829 however, she became curious about the man and his politics. She began to read The Republican, the paper Carlile edited. In 1830 she began writing to him. Despite Carlile being married, they fell in love, and Eliza determined to share his work.

Carlile was imprisoned multiple times for publishing radical material. In 1831 he was sentenced to two and a half years in prison for seditious libel. The following January, Eliza moved to London and began visiting Carlile in prison. Carlile invited her to speak at the Blackfriars Rotunda, a venue he took over in 1831 and used for radical lectures and meetings. Other speakers included William Cobbett, Henry Hunt, and Robert Owen. Eliza gave her first lecture on 29th of January 1832; she was advertised as the first woman to speak publicly on politics and religion. She gave two lectures on Sundays, as well as Monday and Friday evenings. The Friday evening lectures were free, ensuring the venue remained accessible to the poorest Londoners. In her lectures, Eliza argued that Christianity was the main barrier to the dissemination of knowledge, and by restricting education, religion also limited freedom.

As well as lecturing, Eliza also ran the Blackfriars Rotunda, and edited a new weekly radical journal called Isis. She was also Carlile’s biggest supporter whilst he was in prison, visiting him regularly. In 1832 Carlile’s wife, Jane, moved out of the family home. The following April, Eliza gave birth to a son, named Richard Sharples. Carlile finally acknowledged his relationship with Eliza, announcing that they were in a ‘moral marriage.’ Throughout 1832 the audiences and income from the Rotunda fell, and Carlile had to close it in 1833.

Richard Carlile was released from prison in August 1833. The couple lived near Fleet Street. Their first son died of smallpox that October, but Eliza went on to have three more children: Julian Hibbert, Hypatia, and Theophila. Eliza accompanied Carlile on his lecture tours, although he became increasingly religious as time passed, which alienated him from other radicals.

Richard Carlile died on the 10th of February 1843. Eliza now had to provide for her family alone. For a while she took charge of the sewing room at Alcott House, a small utopian spiritual community in south-west London. She inherited some money from an aunt which allowed to set up on her own, renting apartments and doing needlework. In 1849 a public subscription helped her to establish a coffee house which doubled as a discussion room at 1 Warner Place on Hackney Road. She used this venue to advocate for radical thought and women’s rights. The business wasn’t profitable however and eventually shut down, just as the Blackfriars Rotunda had. Eliza died at her home at 12 George Street in Hackney on the 11th of January 1852.

Eliza Sharples may have dedicated herself to radical ideas because she fell in love, or she may have come to her radical beliefs regardless. Whatever her reasons, she was a dedicated and enthusiastic public speaker, at a time when it was very unusual for women to speak in public on any topic, let alone politics.

Sources and further reading

Parolin, Christina. Radical Spaces: Venues of Popular Politics in London, 1790-c.1845. Canberra: Australia National University E Press, 2010.

Royle, Edward. “Carlile, Elizabeth Sharples,” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 23rd September 2004, accessed 6th November 2018. Available  https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/38370 [requires subscription to access].

Simkin, John. “Elizabeth Sharples,” Spartacus Educational. Last modified January 2017, accessed 5th November 2018. Available at https://spartacus-educational.com/Elizabeth_Sharples.htm

Simkin, John. “Richard Carlile,” Spartacus Educational. Last modified January 2017, accessed 17th December 2018. Available at https://spartacus-educational.com/PRcarlile.htm

 

Turbulent Londoners: Mary Augusta Ward, 1851-1920

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 on 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. For the last Turbulent Londoner in this Vote100 series, I am looking at one of the most prominent anti-suffrage campaigners, Mary Augusta Ward.


Mary Augusta Ward.PNG

Mary Augusta Ward in 1901. Photo by Crowdy and Loud (Source: National Portrait Gallery).

Not every woman in the early twentieth century wanted the right to vote. Some, including some very well-respected, intelligent, talented women, actively campaigned against giving women the right to vote. The most prominent of these women, now lost in obscurity because of her unpopular views, was Mary Augusta Ward, campaigner, novelist, and president of the Women’s Anti-Suffrage League.

Born on the the 11th of June in Hobart, Tasmania, Mary Arnold was part of a family that was highly influential on British intellectual life. Her family left Australia when she was 5, and Mary spent much of her childhood in boarding schools. She moved back in with her family in Oxford in 1867; her father was a lecturer there. During this period she starting conducting research and writing stories and novels. In July 1871 Mary met Humphry Ward, a fellow of Brasenose College. They were married on the 6th April 1872. The couple had three children: Dorothy in 1874, Arnold in 1876, and Janet in 1879. Female education was a cause close to Mary’s heart. She helped establish the Lectures for Women Committee, which then led to the foundation of Somerville College in 1879, one of the first colleges for women at Oxford University.

In 1881 Humphry became a writer for The Times and the family moved to London. Mary started to get her writing published. In 1888 she achieved widespread critical and commercial success with Robert Elsmere; she became the highest earning novelist in England. Mary was also very active with charitable works during this period; in 1897 she founded the Passmore Edwards Settlement in Tavistock Square near Euston Station. Settlement Houses were established all over London in the Victorian period to offer social services to the poor and campaign for social justice and equality. Mary wanted equal access to education, irrespective of background. For a small annual fee, members of the Passmore Edwards Settlement could take intellectual and practical classes, participate in social activities and participate in self-help groups.

At the Passmore Edwards Settlement, Mary pioneered the Play Centre movement in England, providing care for children after school and during the school holidays. This enabled working class mothers to work full time. The Settlement was also the location of the first school in England for disabled children, opening in 1899. After her death, the Settlement was renamed the Mary Ward Settlement, and it still exists. The Mary Ward Centre is an adult education college, whilst the Mary Ward Legal Centre offers free legal advice to Londoners. Mary wanted the Settlement to be “A place for ideals, a place for enthusiasm,” and that legacy continues today.

mw175144

Mary Augusta Ward poses for a photograph by Henry Walter Barnet (Source: National Portrait Gallery).

In 1908, Mary agreed to become President of the Women’s Anti-Suffrage League. She threw herself into the campaign with her usual dedication, writing articles, giving speeches, and founding and editing the Anti-Suffrage Review. By June 1910, 320,000 people had signed an anti-suffrage petition. The group has 15,000 members, and 110 branches. Having women like Mary in the anti-suffrage movement allowed the argument to be made that respectable, intelligent women did not want the vote.

There has been much speculation about why Mary agreed to take such a prominent position in the anti-suffrage campaign. It cost her dearly; she alienated friends, family, and colleagues at the Settlement. The popularity of her writing was also affected. It did earn her political capital for the causes she was passionate about; the education of children and the working classes. Her anti-suffrage stance was also motivated by fear. Mary saw suffragettes as terrorists, and was also wary of the influence of lesbians in the pro-suffrage movement. Finally, Mary’s reasons for opposing women’s suffrage also related to the British Empire. Mary believed that only the special knowledge of men could solve the problems facing the empire. She also argued that the vote was a reward that men deserved because they risked their lives to protect the empire. Women did not take such risks, and therefore did not deserve the right to vote. This argument is flawed, as many of the working-class men who served in the British military did not have the right to vote until the 1918 Representation of the People Act, but it was Mary’s argument nonetheless.

During the First World War, Mary was the first female journalist to visit the Western Front. She wrote propaganda for American audiences, and is credited with helping persuade the USA to join the war. She was made a CBE in March 1919, and was invited to become Britain’s first female magistrate in February 1920. Her health was very poor by this point, however, and she died on the 24th of March.

Mary Augusta Ward fought hard for a position that we now find difficult to comprehend. If she hadn’t fought so hard for the anti-suffrage cause, she would probably be remembered as a talented novelist and dedicated philanthropist and campaigner. As it is, she is barely remembered at all.

Sources and Further Reading

Griffiths, Jack. “Anti-Suffrage: The British Women Who Didn’t Want the Vote.” History Answers. Last modified 22 October 2015, accessed 2 October 2018. Available at  https://www.historyanswers.co.uk/people-politics/the-gruesome-origin-of-sweet-fanny-adams/

Mary Ward Centre. “Settlement History.” No date, accessed 3 October 2018. Available at  http://www.marywardcentre.ac.uk/history/

Simkin, John. “Mary Humphry Ward.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified June 2017, accessed 2 October 2018. Available at https://spartacus-educational.com/Wward.htm

Sutherland, John. “The Suffragettes’ Unlikeliest Enemy.” The Guardian. Last modified 4 June 2013, accessed 2 October 2018. Available at  https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/jun/04/suffragettes-mary-ward

Sutherland, John. “Ward [nee Arnold], Mary Augusta [known as Mrs Humphry Ward].” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 10 January 2013, accessed 30 September 2018. Available at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/36736 [this link requires a subscription to access].

Wikipedia. “Mary Augusta Ward.” Last modified 19 Septmber 2018, accessed 30 September 2018. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Augusta_Ward

Turbulent Londoners: Jessie Kenney, 1887-1985

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. This post is about Jessie Kenney, younger sister of Annie Kenney, the best-known working class member of the Women’s Social and Political Union.


Jessie Kenney

Jessie Kenney (Source: Unbound).

Most people who are familiar with the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) know about Annie Kenney, the charismatic working class organiser from Oldham in Greater Manchester. What fewer people know is that Annie’s sisters were also involved in the fight for women’s suffrage. Annie’s younger sister, Jessie, was also a full-time organiser for the WSPU, although she had a different skill set to Annie.

Jessie Kenney was born in Oldham in 1887, the ninth of 12 children. When she was 13, she left school to start working in a cotton mill, although she continued her education through evening classes. In 1905, she went with her sister Annie to the Oldham Clarion Vocal Club to listen to Teresa Billington-Grieg and Christabel Pankhurst speak about women’s suffrage. After that, both sisters joined the WSPU. Annie, eight years older than Jessie, was a charismatic and engaging speaker. Jessie’s skills were more organisational, and in 1906 she began working for the WSPU full time as Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence‘s secretary.

Jessie used her organisational skills to great effect, arranging deputations to visit politicians and interrupt meetings. On the 23rd of February 1909 Jessie took advantage of a loophole that allowed ‘human letters’ to be sent through the Royal Mail to send Daisy Soloman and Elspeth McClellan to the Prime Minister from the Strand Post Office. In October 1910, she organised the WSPU’s campaign during the Walthamstow by-election. In 1912, she did the same in South Hackney.

Jessie did not just organise WSPU actions, she also took part in them. She was imprisoned for a month after being arrested at a protest in Parliament Square on the 30th of June 1908. On the 10th of December 1909 she disguised herself as a telegraph boy in order to try and access the Prime Minister Herbert Asquith at a public meeting in Manchester. On the 5th of September 1910, along with Elsie Howey and Vera Wentworth, she accosted Asquith and Herbert Gladstone whilst they were play golf.

Jessie Kenney's office

Jessie Kenney’s office in the WSPU headquarters in Clement’s Inn, London. The picture was taken by an H. Seargeant in July 1911 (Source: Museum of London).

In 1913 Jessie was taken ill and sent to Switzerland to recover. She didn’t destroy her papers before she left, and evidence that the authorities found in her flat was used to convict the WSPU’s chemist, Edwy Clayton, to 21 months in prison for his role in the group’s arson campaign. In 1914, Jessie went to stay with Christabel Pankhurst, who was living in hiding in Paris. Between July and August, she travelled to Glasgow once a week to make sure the WSPU’s newspaper, The Suffragette, was published successfully.

When Britain joined the First World War in August 1914, Jessie threw herself into the war effort with the rest of the WSPU. In 1915, she travelled to America to organise the early stages of the Pankhurst’s Serbian Mission. The following year, she helped to organise the WSPU’s War Work Procession in London, encouraging women to join the war effort. In 1917, Jessie travelled to Russia with Emmeline Pankhurst to meet with the Provisional Government and try and persuade them to keep Russia in the war.

After the war, Jessie worked for the American Red Cross in Paris. She decided she wanted to be a Radio Officer on a ship, and trained at the North Wales Wireless College. She got a first class certificate in Radio Telegraphy, but was unable to get a job in such a male-dominated industry. Instead she worked as a steward on cruise liners before settling in Battersea and working as an administrative secretary in a school. She died 1985.

Jessie Kenney may not be as famous as her sister, but there is no doubt that she worked just as hard to win women the right to vote. Her skills kept her out of the spotlight, but she made an invaluable contribution to the WSPU and deserves just as much recognition as any other woman who campaigned for the right to vote.

References and Further Reading

ArchivesHub. “Papers of Jessie Kenney.” No date, accessed 14 October 2018. Available at https://archiveshub.jisc.ac.uk/search/archives/046b1a57-c944-3de8-bc81-00176e398001

Simkin, John. “Jessie Kenney.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified February 2015, accessed 14 October 2018. Available at https://spartacus-educational.com/WkenneyJ.htm

Wikipedia, “Jessie Kenney.” Last modified 15 August 2018, accessed 9 October 2018. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jessie_Kenney

Turbulent Londoners: Helen Taylor, 1831-1907

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. This post is about Helen Taylor, a feminist and campaigner.


220px-J_S_Mill_and_H_Taylor

Helen Taylor with her stepfather, John Stuart Mill (Source: Wikipedia).

Much of the attention during this centenary year of women’s suffrage has been on the groups who were active immediately before some women won the right to vote in 1918. Whilst groups such as the Women’s Social and Political Union, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies and the Women’s Freedom League were very important in the struggle for the right to vote, the campaign actually went back much further than that, to the mid-nineteenth century. One of the first prominent campaigners for women’s rights was Helen Taylor, daughter of Harriet Taylor Mill.

Helen Taylor was born in London on the 27th of July 1831, the only daughter and youngest child of John and Harriet Taylor. Helen had little formal education as a child, but travelled widely in Europe with her mother. Her father died when she was a teenager in 1849, and her mother remarried the philosopher and politician, John Stuart Mill, two years later. Helen wanted to be an actress, and in 1856 went to work for a provincial theatre company in the north-east of England. She left when her mother died in 1858, however, and never returned to the stage.

After her mother’s death, Helen moved in with her stepfather and became his assistant. John valued the intelligence and input of his stepdaughter, as he had with his wife; he claimed that his later work was the result of three minds, not one. The two of them split their time between Blackheath in London, and Avignon, where John had bought a house so he could be close to his wife’s grave.

Helen shared a deep passion for the cause of women’s suffrage with John. They both believed that a woman’s right to vote should not be determined by her marital status. This was an issue that divided suffrage campaigners in the 1860s. Helen played a key role in the 1866 petition calling for right to vote to be extended to all householders, not only men. Helen helped to draft the petition, and was the link between the women who organised it and her stepfather, who presented the petition to parliament on the 7th of June. 1,499 women signed the petition, and although it was dismissed by the parliament, it is often viewed as the start of the organised campaign for the vote.

26550648266_4278406057_o

The first page of a pamphlet version of the 1866 petition presented to parliament asking that some women be given the right to vote (Source: LSE)

Despite her firm and often loudly voiced opinions, Helen was popular amongst feminists in London. She was a member of the Kensington Group, a female discussion group formed in 1865. After the 1866 petition was rejected, this group formed the basis of the London Society for Women’s Suffrage. After John Stuart Mill’s death in 1873, Helen spent time editing and publishing his work.

The Contagious Diseases Acts were a series of controversial laws that regulated prostitution in military areas. They placed most of the responsibility, and punishment, on the women rather than their customers. During the 1870s there was a strong campaign to repeal the Acts. Helen supported this campaign, and saw it as evidence that women needed to be represented in parliament. She worried that the suffrage cause would be damaged by an association with prostitution, however, and tried to keep the two causes separate.

When John Stuart Mill died, Helen was left financially independent and able to devote herself entirely to her own projects. In 1876, she stood for election to the Southwark school board. She won, and was re-elected twice more before she retired in 1884. She was very popular in this role, campaigning for free and universal education, the abolition of corporal punishment, and for free meals and clothing for the poorest children. Helen was also a supporter of Irish Home Rule, particularly land reform. She was the only woman to serve on the executive of the Land Nationalisation League.

Helen had strong views on morality; she was a member of the Moral Reform Union and the National Vigilance Association. In 1885, secretary of the Vigilance Association William Alexander Coote failed to secure the Liberal nomination for the constituency of Camberwell North. Enraged by this, Helen decided to stand for election herself, 34 years before women were actually allowed to stand for election as MPs. The returning officer refused to accept her nomination or election deposit, but her radical campaign platform gained a lot of attention–she advocated universal suffrage, home rule for Ireland, free universal education, graduated direct income tax, and the banning of war unless the people consented to it.

In the late 1880s Helen retired from public life, and spent most of her time in Avignon, where her mother was buried. She returned in England in late 1904 due to poor health, and was cared for by her niece in Torquay. She died on the 29th of January 1907. Helen Taylor was a woman of strong opinions, which she was not afraid to express. This led to strained relationships with other feminist activists, but she was well respected for her intelligence and determination. She helped pave the way for the women whose campaigning in the early 1900s would eventually win women the right to vote.

Sources and Further Reading

Levine, Philippa. “Taylor, Helen.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 8th October 2009, accessed 31st August 2018. Available at http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-36431?rskey=nioAzW&result=1 [requires subscription to access].

LSE. “The 1866 Women’s Suffrage Petition.” Last modified 7th June 2106, accessed 31st August 2018. Available at http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/lsehistory/2016/06/07/the-1866-womens-suffrage-petition/

Simkin, John. “Kensington Society.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified September 1997, accessed 31st August 2018. Available at http://spartacus-educational.com/Wkensington.htm

Wikipedia. “Helen Taylor (feminist).” Last modified 13th March 2018, accessed 31st August 2018. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helen_Taylor_(feminist)

Turbulent Londoners: Flora Drummond, 1879-1949

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 on 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. This post is about Flora Drummond, a WSPU organiser who was nicknamed ‘The General.’


Wdrummond

Flora Drummond as a young woman (Source: Spartacus Educational).

Flora Drummond (nee. Gibson, later Simpson) was a talented organiser and public speaker. She became involved in the suffrage movement after a personal experience of injustice, and went on to become one of the most well-known organisers in the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). Thanks to her effective organisation skills she became known as ‘the General’ and embraced this nickname, leading suffragette marches dressed in military style uniform and riding a horse.

Flora Gibson was born on 4th August 1878, the daughter of a tailor. Although she was born in Manchester, she grew up on the Isle of Arran in Scotland. When she was 14 she left school and moved to Glasgow to continue her education. She completed the qualification to be a postmistress, but was denied a job because of new regulations that required workers to be at least 5 foot 2 inches tall. Flora was 5 foot 1 inch. She felt this injustice very deeply, believing that the rule discriminated against women because they were shorter on average. Despite this setback, she went on to get further qualifications in short hand and typing.

In 1898, Flora married Joseph Drummond, and the couple moved to Manchester. Both were active in the Fabian Society and International Labour Party. Flora worked in various factories, so she could better understand what life was like for the women who had no choice but to work there. When her husband became unemployed, however, Flora became the sole breadwinner and worked as manager at the Oliver Typewriter Company.

Flora joined the WSPU in Manchester, and moved with it down to London in 1906, when she became a paid full-time organiser, along with Annie Kenney and Minnie Baldock. Her extensive organisational skills were quickly recognised by the WSPU; in 1908 she was put in charge of the group’s headquarters in Clement’s Inn. She was popular and innovative in this role. Flora also had a flair for dramatic protests. That same year, she hired a boat and floated on the Thames outside the Houses of Parliament, addressing the MPs that were sat on the riverside terrace. In October, Flora was a key organiser of a rally in Trafalgar Square. Because of her role, she was arrested for inciting suffragettes to rush the House of Commons, and was sentenced to 3 months in prison, alongside Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst. She was released early when it was discovered she was pregnant. Flora would be imprisoned a total of 9 times for the suffrage cause, and went on hunger strike on several of those occasions. It was around this time that Flora acquired the nickname ‘the General,’ for her enthusiastic and effective organisation skills. She embraced the nickname, and began wearing a military style uniform on demonstrations.

'General' Flora Drummond, 1907.

Flora loved her nickname, ‘the General,’ and played into it, wearing a military style uniform on protests (Source: Getty Images).

In October 1909, Flora moved to Glasgow and organised the first militant pro-suffrage march in Edinburgh. She also ran the WSPU’s general election campaign in 1910, before returning to London in 1911. Flora was captain of the WSPU’s Cycling Scouts. Based in London, this group of women would cycle out to the surrounding countryside to give pro-suffrage speeches. By 1914, Flora’s health was suffering from repeated imprisonments and hunger strikes. She returned to the Isle of Arran to recuperate, but came back to London when war broke out. From this point onward, however, she focused on public speaking and administration, avoiding direct action in order to minimise her chances of arrest; her organisational skills meant she was more useful to the cause outside of prison anyway. During the First World War, Flora stayed loyal to Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst and threw herself behind the war effort. Proving she had abandoned the left-wing politics of her youth, Flora toured the country trying to persuade trade unionists not to strike.

In 1918, Flora helped Christabel in her unsuccessful election campaign standing for the Women’s Party in Smethick. In 1922, she divorced Joseph and later married Alan Simpson. Flora co-founded the Women’s Guild of Empire, a right-wing campaign group opposed to both communism and fascism. The group’s main aim was to increase patriotism amongst working-class women and prevent strikes and lockouts. In 1925, the group had 40,000 members. The following year, Flora led the Great Prosperity March, which demanded an end to the unrest which would soon peak with the General Strike.

Flora Drummond older

A portrait of Flora by the artist Flora Lion painted in 1936. Flora is wear a medal in the WSPU colours (Source: National Galleries Scotland).

Flora died on the Isle of Arran on 7th January 1949. Well-liked, witty, and innovative, she is well known as one of the most dynamic members of the WSPU. She continued campaigning for what she believed in even after women won right to the vote, and even in her old age she was a good-natured and determined woman. Although I disagree with her later politics, I wouldn’t mind being a bit more ‘Flora.’

Sources and Further Reading

BBC Scotland. “Ballots, Bikes and Broken Windows: How Two Scottish Suffragettes Fought for the Right to Vote. Last modified 6 February 2018, accessed 6 August 2018. Available at  http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/5cdhGvg5Lcy52KPV7xY7YBS/ballots-bikes-and-broken-windows-how-two-scottish-suffragettes-fought-for-the-right-to-vote

Cowman, Crista. “Drummond [nee Gibson; other married name Simpson], Flora McKinnon.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 6 January 2011, accessed 6 August 2018. Available at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/39177 [this reference requires a subscription to access].

Simkin, John. “Flora Drummond. ” Last modified January 2015, accessed 6 August 2018. Available at http://spartacus-educational.com/Wdrummond.htm

The Herald Scotland. “Belated Salute to the General.” Last modified 15th May 2001, accessed 6 August 2018. Available at http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/12168905.Belated_salute_to_the__apos_General_apos__At_last_a_memorial_is_to_be_erected_to__an_extraordinary_Scots_suffragette___as_Jennifer_Cunningham_discovers/

Wikipedia. “Flora Drummond.” Last modified 11 July 2018, accessed 6 August 2018. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flora_Drummond

Turbulent Londoners: Dora Montefiore, 1851-1933

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. Next up is Dora Montefiore, a journalist, pamphleteer and socialist.


Dora Montefiore

Dora Montefiore, 1851-1933 (Source: Working Class Movement Library.)

The women who campaigned for the right to vote are usually divided into two camps: suffragettes and suffragists. Some women, however, blurred the lines. Dora Montefiore was one such woman, who was a member of a dizzying number of groups, including the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), the Women’s Tax Resistance League, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), the Adult Suffrage Society, the Women’s Freedom League (WFL), the Social Democratic Federation/British Socialist Party, and the Communist Party of Great Britain. She held prominent positions in some of these groups, and also contributed her skills as a writer to the women’s movement and socialism.

Born Dora Fuller in Surrey on the 20th December 1851 into a wealthy family, Dora had a privileged childhood, with a good education from governesses and a private school in Brighton. In 1874, she moved to Sydney to help her brother’s wife. She met wealthy merchant George Barrow Montefiore, and they were married in February 1881. They had two children in 1883 and 1887. George died in 1889, and Dora discovered that she didn’t have the automatic right to become guardian of her own children, it had to be specified in her husband’s will. It was this stark inequality that converted Dora into a women’s rights campaigner. In March 1891, she held the first meeting of the Womanhood Suffrage League of New South Wales at her house.

In 1892 Dora left Australia, spending a few years in Paris before settling in England. She threw herself into the women’s movement here, serving on the executive of the NUWSS under Millicent Garrett Fawcett and founding the Women’s Tax Resistance League in 1897. She refused to pay taxes during the Boer War (1899-1902) on the grounds that the money would be used to fund a war that she had no say in. Bailiffs seized and auctioned her goods to cover the tax bill.

When the WSPU was formed Dora also became an enthusiastic member. She was good friends with Minnie Baldock, and was a regular speaker at the Canning Town branch of the WSPU, which was the first branch in East London, founded by Minnie. In 1906, Dora refused to pay her taxes again, this time until women were given the right to vote. In May and June, she barricaded herself into her house in Hammersmith for 6 weeks to prevent bailiffs seizing her goods. She hung a banner on the wall that read: “Women should vote for the laws they obey and the taxes they pay.” In October, she was arrested and imprisoned, along with several others, for demanding the right to vote in the lobby of the House of Commons.

suffragette-fort-hammersmith

Dora Montefiore’s barricaded house in Hammersmith in the summer of 1906 (Source: LBHF Libraries)

Dora was nothing if not principled, however, and by the end of 1906 she had left the WSPU because she disagreed with it’s autocratic structure that gave significant power to a small group of wealthy women. The following year, she joined the Adult Suffrage Society, and was elected honorary secretary in 1909. The Adult Suffrage Society believed that a limited franchise would disadvantage the working classes and might delay universal adult suffrage, rejecting the idea that is was an important stepping stone.

After leaving the WSPU, Dora remained close to Sylvia Pankhurst, who shared her belief in socialism. Dora was a longstanding member of the Social Democratic Federation, later the British Socialist Party. She advocated a socialism that was also concerned with women’s issues and in 1904, she helped establish the party’s women’s organisation. She left the group in 1912 because of her opposition to militarism. When the Communist Party of Great Britain was formed in 1920, Dora, aged 69, was elected to the provisional council.

Dora was a journalist, writer, and pamphleteer. In 1898, she published a book of poetry called Singings through the Dark. From 1902 to 1906 she wrote a women’s column in The New Age, and she contributed to the Social Democratic Foundation’s journal, Justice. She would later write for the Daily Herald and New York Call. In 1911, whilst in Australia visiting her son, she edited the International Socialist Review of Australasia when its owner fell ill. Most of the pamphlets she wrote were about women and socialism. For example, in 1907 she wrote Some Words to Socialist Women.

In 1921, Dora’s son died from the effects of mustard gas poisoning he had received fighting on the Western Front during the war. She had to promise not to engage in Communist campaigning in order to be allowed to visit her daughter-in-law and grandchildren in Australia. Despite this promise, Dora used the time to make connections with the Australian communist movement; in 1924, she represented the Communist Party of Australia in Moscow at the fifth World Congress of the Communist International. She had long taken an international approach to her campaigning, attending conferences in Europe, the United States, Australia, and South Africa.

Dora Montefiore died at her home in Hastings, Sussex, on the 21st of December 1933. She is commemorated on the plinth of Millicent Garrett Fawcett’s statue in Parliament Square. She was a committed socialist and suffrage campaigner, and did what she thought was right, even when that meant leaving groups that she had previously devoted herself to. She also pioneered one of the lesser-known tactics of the women’s suffrage movement, tax resistance. It was a strategy that combined civil disobedience with non-violence, and became an important tool in the suffrage arsenal. She is not well-known today, that does not make her contribution any less significant.

Sources and Further Reading

Matgamna, Sean. “Dora Montefiore: A Half-forgotten Socialist Feminist.” Marxists.org. No date, accessed June 15, 2018. Available at  https://www.marxists.org/archive/montefiore/biography.htm

Simkin, John. “Adult Suffrage Society.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified August 2014, accessed June 15, 2018. Available at http://spartacus-educational.com/Wadult.htm

Simkin, Jon. “Dora Montefiore.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified February 2015, accessed June 15, 2018. Available at http://spartacus-educational.com/Wmontefefiore.htm

Wikipedia. “Dora Montefiore. Last modified April 26, 2018, accessed June 15, 2018. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dora_Montefiore

Working Class Movement Library. “Dora Montefiore.” No date, accessed June 15, 2018. Available at https://www.wcml.org.uk/our-collections/activists/dora-montefiore/

 

Turbulent Londoners: Lady Constance Lytton, 1869-1923

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. This post is about Lady Constance Lytton, an aristocrat who was imprisoned four times for the suffrage movement.


Lady Constance Lytton

Lady Constance Lytton, 1869-1923 (Photo: Museum of London).

Lady Constance Georgina Bulwer-Lytton was a woman of privilege, although she was never really comfortable with the aristocratic life. Suffering from poor health for most of her life, she struggled to find a purpose to life until she decided to join the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1910. Her dedication to the suffrage movement dovetailed with her interest in prison reform, and she relished being imprisoned four times for the cause. On the third occasion she was force fed.

Constance Lytton was born on the 12th of January 1869 in Vienna. The third of seven children of Edith Villiers and Robert Bulwer-Lytton, the first Earl of Lytton, to say that Constance was privileged is a bit of an understatement. Her father was the Viceroy of India, and she lived there until she was 11. She was private and shy, and never really took to the aristocratic way of life. When her father died in 1891 she retired from public life to look after her mother. The following year, her mother refused to allow her to marry someone from a ‘lower social order.’ Constance spent several years hoping her mother would change her mind, but it was not to be, and Constance never married.

In 1905, Constance was left £1000 by her great-aunt. She wanted to donate the money to the revival of morris dancing, and her brother suggested she give it to the Esperance Club, founded by Emmeline Pethwick-Lawrence and Mary Neal. Both suffrage campaigners themselves, Emmeline and Mary established the Esperance Club, a dance and drama club for working class girls. Over the next few years, Constance met other suffragettes, including Annie Kenney. Constance had an interest in prison reform and was initially sympathetic to suffragette prisoners, although she disapproved of their militant methods. Her objections were eventually overcome, however, and she joined the WSPU in January 1909.

Constance Lytton group shot

Constance (left) with several other prominent suffragettes (Photo: Her Blueprint).

Constance became a paid WSPU organiser in June 1910; she travelled the country making pro-Suffrage speeches and used her family connections to lobby Parliament. She wasted no time getting involved in the direct action side of the suffrage campaign though, on the 24th of February 1909 she took part in a demonstration at the House of Commons which earnt her her first prison sentence. Constance had a weak heart, and spent most of her sentence in the infirmary, being treated well. Whilst in prison, she attempted to carve ‘Votes for Women’ into her own skin, from her chest to her cheek, so her allegiance would always be visible. She carved the V above her heart, but was prevented from completing this unorthodox protest when she asked for a sterile dressing.

jane_warton

Constance Lytton in disguise as Jane Warton (Photo: Museum of London).

The second time Constance was imprisoned, she was released as soon as she began a hunger strike and a doctor discovered her weak heart. The government were reluctant to make a martyr of such a prominent, well-connected suffragette. Convinced that her social status was earning her special treatment, Constance adopted the persona of Jane Warton, a working-class London seamstress. Jane Warton travelled to Liverpool in October 1909 and was sentenced to fourteen days hard labour after throwing rocks at an MP’s car. She went on hunger strike, and was force fed eight times before her true identity was discovered and she was released.

Severely weakened by her ordeal, Constance wrote accounts of her experiences for The Times and Votes for Women, the WSPU’s newspaper. She also gave lectures about Jane Warton’s time in prison, and her accounts are credited with helping to end the practice of force feeding suffragettes. It came at a high price; Constance had a heart attack in August 1910, followed by several strokes that left her right side paralysed. In November 1911, Constance was imprisoned again, and found conditions for suffragettes much improved. Her health forced her to step back from direct action campaigning, but she continued to write pamphlets and other materials in support of women’s suffrage. In 1914 Prisons and Prisoners, her account of her experiences in prison, was published.

At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, the WSPU suspended their pro-suffrage campaigning. Constance turned her attention to Marie Stopes’ campaign to establish birth control clinics. Her health never recovered, and she was looked after by her mother for the rest of her life. She died on the 2nd May 1923.

Constance Lytton was never comfortable with her privilege, but she used it to campaign for women’s right to vote, and to expose the cruelty of the treatment of suffrage campaigners in prison. She sacrificed her already poor health to draw attention to the disparity between the treatment of working- and upper-class prisoners, and I admire her determination.

 

Sources and Further Reading

Birkby, Michelle. “Lady Constance Lytton: The Suffering Suffragette.” Historia. Last modified 5th February 2018, accessed 17th May 2018. Available at http://www.historiamag.com/lady-constance-lytton-suffragette/

Jenkins, Lyndsey. Lady Constance Lytton: Aristocrat, Suffragette, Martyr. London: Biteback, 2015.

Simkin, John. “Constance Lytton.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified February 2015, accessed 17th May 2018. Available at http://spartacus-educational.com/Wlytton.htm 

Wikipedia, “Lady Constance Bulwer-Lytton.” Last modified 1st January 2018, accessed 17th May 2018. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lady_Constance_Bulwer-Lytton

Turbulent Londoners: Rosa May Billinghurst, 1875-1953

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. Next up is Rosa May Billinghurst, known at the time as ‘the cripple suffragette.’


Rosa May Billinghurst Close up

Rosa May Billinghurst (Source: Sheilahanlon.com)

Rosa May Billinghurst was born on the 31st May 1875 to a well-off middle class family in Lewisham, south east London. She suffered with polio as a young child which left her unable to walk; she wore leg irons and used crutches or a modified tricycle for the rest of her life. This would not prevent her from throwing herself headlong into the campaign for women’s suffrage however. In fact, she often used her disability to the advantage of the cause.

As a young women Rosa volunteered with the poor in Greenwich, taught Sunday School, and was a member of the Band of Hope, a charity which taught children about the benefits of sobriety and teetotalism. She was also a member of the Women’s Liberal Association, although she later rejected the Liberal Party because of its approach to women’s suffrage. Rosa came to believe that women’s inferior position in society held back society as a whole.

Rosa joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1907 and took an active part in marches and demonstrations despite her limited mobility. In 1910, she founded a Greenwich branch of the WSPU and served as its Secretary. On the 18th of November, she took part in the demonstration that would become known as Black Friday. The demonstration was organised to protest the government’s abandonment of the Conciliation Bill, which would have given about one million of the wealthiest women the right to vote. The police used excessive force in quelling the demonstration, arresting 119 people, and assaulting many more. In a pattern that would become familiar to Rosa, police officers threw her out of her tricycle and sabotaged it, leaving her unable to move. Unfortunately, this behaviour was echoed by police officers almost a century later, when Jody McIntyre was pulled from his wheelchair twice during the Student Tuition Fee Demonstrations in 2010.

Rosa May Billinghurst tricycle

Rosa and her adapted tricycle at a Votes for Women demonstration (Source: LSE Library).

Rosa used her tricycle to its full advantage however. During demonstrations, she would decorate her tricycle with coloured ribbons and WSPU banners. During confrontations with the police, she would place her crutches on either side of the tricycle and repeatedly charge at police lines, happy to use herself as a battering ram. She was also known to hide the tools of the suffragette’s trade–stones for smashing windows and packages of thick brown liquid for pouring into post boxes and destroying letters–under the blanket that covered her knees. In addition, Rosa was fully aware of the publicity she could attract as a disabled suffragette; it was very difficult to portray her in a negative light without seeming particularly callous.

In March 1912 Rosa took part the WSPU’s campaign of mass window smashing. She was sentenced to one month’s hard labour for smashing a window on Henrietta Street. The sentence caused confusion amongst prison authorities, who did not know what kind of labour she could be put to. In December, she was caught sabotaging post boxes in Deptford, also part of a wider WSPU campaign. She was apparently glad to be arrested, believing that it would finally get the media attention the campaign had been trying to achieve. Rosa was sentenced to 8 months in prison. She went on hunger strike, and the subsequent force-feeding had such an effect on her health that she was released after two weeks.

Despite this traumatic ordeal, Rosa continued to participate in direct action. On the 24th of May 1913, she chained herself to the gates of Buckingham Palace. The following month, on the 14th of June, she took part in Emily Wilding Davison’s funeral procession. Emily had died after attempting to attach a Votes for Women sash to the King’s horse during the Epsom Derby, and she was celebrated as a martyr for the cause.

rosa May Billinghurst and police.PNG

Rosa grappling with police (Source: LSE Library).

 

Emmeline and Christabel’s decision to suspend WSPU campaigning at the outbreak of the First World War in order to concentrate on the war effort was a controversial one. Rosa joined the Women’s Freedom League, who continued to campaign, suggesting that she didn’t personally agree with the Pankhurst’s decision. However, she remained loyal to the Pankhursts and the WSPU, helping in Christabel’s 1918 election campaign in Smethwick as the candidate for the Women’s Party. Emmeline and Christabel had founded the Women’s Party when the dissolved the WSPU in November 1917. Christabel lost, but only by 800 votes.

Rosa withdrew from activism after the passage of the Representation of the People Act in 1918. During her time in the WSPU, however, she was a fierce campaigner who used her disability to the best possible advantage.

Sources and Further Reading

Fox, Kathryn. “Rosa May Billinghurst: Disabled Suffragette Campaigner.” Huffpost UK. Last modified 23rd December 2017, accessed 22nd March 2018. Available at  https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/rosa-may-billinghurst-disabled-suffragette-campaigner_uk_5a37f1dde4b02bd1c8c608c8

Fox, Katie. “Rosa May Billinghurst: The Disabled Suffragette Abused by Police and Force-fed in Prison.” i. Last modified 5th February 2018, accessed 22nd March 2018. Available at https://inews.co.uk/news/uk/rosa-may-billinghurst-disabled-suffragette-abused-police-force-fed-prison/

Hanlon, Sheila. “Rosa May Billinghurst: Suffragette on Three Wheels.” SheilaHanlon.com. No date, accessed 22nd March 2018. Available at http://www.sheilahanlon.com/?page_id=1314 

John Simkin. “May Billinghurst.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified March 2017, accessed 22nd March 2018. Available at http://spartacus-educational.com/Wbillinghurst.htm 

Wikipedia. “Rosa May Billinghurst.” Last modified 4th February 2018, accessed 22nd March 2018. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rosa_May_Billinghurst

Wikipedia. “Women’s Party (UK).” Last modified 29th January 2018, accessed 23rd March 2018. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women%27s_Party_(UK)

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.

Edith Rigby House and Plaque v2.PNG

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.

Woods Tobacco Factory 2014.jpg

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.

cottonexchange1963.jpg

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

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.

CARAVAN TOUR/WFL 20C

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.

Muriel Matters dirigible

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.

Miss-Muriel-Matters-addressing-crowd-407x457

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