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.

Protest Stickers: Egham 2

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Protest stickers at the main entrance to Royal Holloway, University of London (Photo: Hannah Awcock, 16/11/16).

Around the time I was putting together the first Protest Stickers: Egham blog post, person or persons unknown went on a protest stickering spree on and around the Royal Holloway campus. I can’t know for certain that they were all put up at the same time by the same person (or people), but I suspect that they were. The next time I was back on campus two weeks later, quite a few had been peeled or scratched off, so I think that I just happened to be at Royal Holloway just after they were all put up. All of the photos in this post were taken on one of these two days, the 16th and the 30th of November.  Most of the stickers were anti-fascist, which is a very common topic for protest stickers, and also another reason why I think that they were all put up at the same time.

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This is the only sticker that explicitly mentions a campaign group. Anti-fascist groups often put up stickers when they travel to other places, and it appears that the London Anti-Fascists  are no exception (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Harvest Road, 16/11/16).

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I like the powerful visual imagery of this sticker, which I found at the traffic lights at the top of Egham Hill, close to the Royal Holloway campus (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Egham Hill, 30/11/16).

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This sticker uses the same image as the last one, but the wording is slightly different (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Harvest Road, 16/11/16).

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My Dad is not a big fan of board games, and whenever we force him to play Monopoly he always sabotages the game by adopting this approach, and refusing to buy anything. I’m pretty certain this sticker isn’t referring to my Dad’s Monopoly style though (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Royal Holloway Campus, 16/11/16).

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This sticker was located at the main entrance to Royal Holloway, making its message all the more meaningful. Someone took exception to it however, as when I went back two weeks later it had been completely removed (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Royal Holloway Campus, 16/11/16 and 30/11/16).

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This sticker was on the other side of Royal Holloway’s main entrance. It was also removed by the time I went back, but not quite as effectively. I wonder if it was the same person who scratched both of them off (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Royal Holloway Campus, 16/11/16 and 30/11/16).

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This sticker is also at the traffic lights at the top of Egham Hill. It has also been scratched away, but because of its location nest to a pedestrian crossing, I am inclined to suspect it was more to do with boredom whilst waiting for the lights to change than a strong opposition to the sticker’s message (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Egham Hill, 30/11/6).

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This is the same sticker, on the road between the traffic lights and Englefield Green, a village even smaller than Egham. It has not been defaced, so the sticker’s message is clear (Photo: Hannah Awcock, St. Jude Road’s, 30/11/16).

 

Protest Stickers: Egham

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Founders building on the Royal Holloway, University of London campus (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Generally, protest stickers tend to be found in large towns and cities rather than smaller towns and villages. There are some exceptions however, such as Egham, a small town in suburban Surrey. It is the location of Royal Holloway, the University of London college at which I have been studying for the last seven years. Students have historically been associated with radical politics, and student politics has experienced a resurgence since the campaign against the increase in English university tuition fees in 2010.

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In recent years, there has been a backlash against the commodification of university education. For some, the focus of contemporary university programmes is too much on developing productive employees rather than education for the sake of education. This sticker is a reflection of this opinion, alluding to the university as a factory, churning out workers to keep the economy going (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Royal Holloway campus, 26/11/15).

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The recent EU referendum permeated almost every aspect of British life. The position of students and academics from the EU, vital to the health of the British academic system, is uncertain in post-Brexit Britain. The National Union of Students (NUS) campaigned for a Remain vote (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Royal Holloway Campus, 08/06/16).

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Most of the stickers I’ve come across in Egham are not directly related to student politics. This sticker is also advocating a Remain vote in the EU referendum, but it is a generic sticker that I have seen elsewhere, such as London and Brighton (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Royal Holloway Campus, 08/06/16).

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Some stickers become so weathered that it can be difficult to see their original message. It is possible to make out two clasped hands however, which a common visual symbol of solidarity. If I had to guess, I would say that the words read ‘Solidarity Forever’ (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Egham High Street, 24/02/16).

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ACAB (All Cops Are Bastards) is a common way of expressing discontent with the police in Britain. This sticker demonstrates that the phrase is also recognised in other countries, in this case Germany. ‘Acht Cola Acht Bier’ (which means eight cokes and eight beers) is apparently a common method in Germany of disguising ACAB as a drinks order (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Egham High Street, 24/02/16).

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This sticker is also in German. The texts beneath the symbols of the five major world religions translates to ‘Do not be afraid of each other,’ an admirable sentiment (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Royal Holloway Campus, 01/02/16).

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This sticker, which is located near the library on the Royal Holloway Campus, looks as if attempts have been made to deliberately scratch it off. It is difficult to judge the motivation of people who deface protest stickers; this could have been done by students on a cigarette break, or by someone who opposes the sticker’s message (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Royal Holloway Campus, 01/02/16).

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This sticker was produced by the 161 Crew, a Polish Anti-fascist group (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Egham Hill, 01/02/16).

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Anti-fascist groups are some of the most prolific stickerers I have ever come across. When localised groups travel, they often put stickers up in the place that they travel to. I assume that is what happened here (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Egham Hill, 01/02/16).

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There are over 100 student Amnesty International groups in the UK, so they are a familiar presence on many university campuses (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Royal Holloway Campus, 14/01/16).

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M31 was an event that took place in 2012, so this sticker is at least 4 years old. Not many stickers achieve this kind of longevity (Photo: Hannah Awcock, 01/02/16).

Turbulent Londoners: Elisabeth Jesser Reid, 1789-1866

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 twelth Turbulent Londoner is Elisabeth Jesser Reid. She was the founder of Bedford College, which is now part of Royal Holloway and Bedford New College, my university.


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Elisabeth Jesser Reid was a formidable woman (Source: Royal Holloway, University of London).

Elisabeth Jesser Reid was a social reformer, abolitionist, and advocate of women’s education. Known as single-minded and tactless, she used her relatively privileged status as an independent widow to further the causes she believed in. This included founding Bedford College, one of the first venues of higher education for women in Britain.

The second daughter of wealthy Unitarian ironmonger William Sturch and his wife Elisabeth, Elisabeth Jesser Sturch was born to a life of relative privilege on the 25th of December 1789. In 1821 she married John Reid, a physician. Dr. Reid owned land on the River Clyde in Glasgow, which became valuable as the port expanded. When John died only 13 months after their marriage, Elisabeth was left with a large, independent income. Historically, widows with an independent income have enjoyed more freedom than other women, being beyond the control of both father and husband. Elisabeth used her freedom to fight for the causes she supported.

Elisabeth was a social reformer. She used her money to support benevolent schemes set up by women, such as Harriet Martineau’s project to enable the poor in the Lake District to buy their own homes. She also sponsored the studies of pupils who couldn’t otherwise afford it. Another of Elisabeth’s passions was abolitionism. She attended the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London in 1840, where she met female American delegates who had not been permitted to speak, such as Lucretia Mott. She was a member of the Garrisonian London Emancipation Committee, the British branch of an anti-slavery group that held progressive views on gender and racial equality.

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A plaque in Bedford Square in Bloomsbury, commemorating the foundation of Bedford College (Source: Plaques of London).

Elisabeth Jesser Reid is best known for her role in the development of female education. In 1849 she founded Bedford College, with a loan of £1500, which she converted to a gift in 1856 when the college was experiencing financial difficulties. The college was first located at 47 Bedford Square in Bloomsbury, moving to Regent’s Park in 1874. Although not the first college for the higher education of women in Britain, it was the first that believed in education for purposes other than vocational training. Bedford College aimed to enable women to improve themselves as they wanted to, not just gain the skills to become a governess.

This philosophy was radical, and Elisabeth was frustrated by the lack of support she received, particularly from prominent men. She expected hundreds of applications when the college opened, and was bitterly disappointed to receive only around a dozen. Nevertheless, she persevered, insisting that 3 Lady Visitors were included in the governing body, which was the first  time women officially shared in controlling the direction of a British institution. She used her social connections to get respected scholars to teach at the college, and eventually the college became successful. Notable early students include  novelist George Eliot, feminist and artist Barbara Bodichon, and Sarah Parker Redmond, the first black woman to do a lecture tour in the UK on the topic of slavery. Bedford College became part of the University of London in 1900, and merged with Royal Holloway in 1985, to become Royal Holloway and Bedford new College. In this form it is still going strong today, with over 8000 students (and a wonderful geography department!)

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The graduation photo of Marian Sherrett, who graduated from Bedford College with a first class German BA Honours degree in 1886. This photo is held by the archives at Royal Holloway, which holds archival sources about Elisabeth Jesser Reid and Bedford College (Source: Royal Holloway Archives).

I feel a personal connection to Elisabeth Jesser Reid because of the happy and fulfilling times I have spent at Royal Holloway and Bedford New College, but even without that I would admire her as a headstrong and opinionated woman who did not let her relative freedom go to waste. She used her wealth and independence to make the world a better place, and she fought hard for what she believed in, significantly advancing women’s education.

Sources and Further Reading

Anon. “Black History Month: Garrisonian Abolitionists.” Oxford University Press Blog. Last modified 27 February 2007, accessed 25 February 2016. Available at  http://blog.oup.com/2007/02/black_history_m4/ 

Anon. “Elisabeth Jesser Reid: Pioneering Education for Women.” Royal Holloway, University of London. No date, accessed 27 February 2016. Available at  https://www.royalholloway.ac.uk/aboutus/ourhistory/elisabethjesserreid.aspx

Anon. “Elizabeth Jesser Reid.” Wikipedia. Last modified 13 January 2016, accessed 25 February 2016. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_Jesser_Reid

Anon. “History of Elizabeth Jesser Reid.” Reflex Managed Offices. Last modified 9 September 2015, accessed 25 February 2016. Available at http://www.reflex.london/history-of-elizabeth-jesser-reid/

Colville, Deborah. “Bloomsbury People.” UCL Bloomsbury Project. Last modified 7 April 2011, accessed 25 February 2016. Available at http://www.ucl.ac.uk/bloomsbury-project/articles/individuals/reid_elisabeth_jesser.htm

Oldfield, Sybil. “Reid [nee Sturch], Elisabeth Jesser.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified May 2011, accessed 25 February 2016. Available at  http://www.oxforddnb.com.ezproxy01.rhul.ac.uk/view/article/37888 (This website is behind a paywall, I had to use my Royal Holloway login to access it).

Pakenham-Walsh, M. ‘Bedford College, 1849-1985’ in Crook J (ed.) Bedford College University of London- Memories of 150 Years. Royal Holloway and Bedford New College: Egham, Surrey (2001): 13-46