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)

On This Day: Women’s Sunday, 21st June 1908

Women's Sunday Ticket

A ticket for Women’s Sunday (Source: Museum of London).

On the 13th of June 1908, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), organised a huge march in London to demonstrate the strength of their commitment to women’s suffrage. Just a week later, on the 21st of June, the Women’s Social Political Union (WSPU) organised a ‘monster meeting,’ also in London. The WSPU was much smaller than the NUWSS, but its militant tactics were better at grabbing headlines, and it is by far the best-known women’s suffrage group now. In June 1908, however, the WSPU decided to try a more peaceful method of campaigning, which was a resounding success. Up to 500,000 people gathered in Hyde Park to hear 80 speakers talk about women’s suffrage at the biggest political demonstration the UK had ever seen.

The meeting was organised by WSPU Treasurer, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, and her husband Frederick. Like the NUWSS’s march a week earlier, the demonstration was organised in response to Prime Minister Herbert Asquith’s challenge to prove the strength of feeling behind the demand that women be given the vote. Special trains were chartered to transport WSPU supporters to London from around the country, and a Sunday was chosen in order to maximise working class attendance.

Women's Sunday More Crowds

The crowds in Hyde Park, surrounding some of the 700 banners carried by the WSPU marchers (Source: Museum of London.

7 processions totaling 30,000 suffragettes marched from around London to Hyde Park. This was the first time that the WSPU’s now infamous colours of purple, green, and white were featured in public. Women were asked to wear white dresses, and accessorise with green and purple. The effect was striking. Emmeline Pankhurst and Elizabeth Wolstenholme-Elmy led the procession from Euston Road, Annie Kenney headed the march from Paddington, and Christabel Pankhurst and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence helmed the demonstration from Victoria Embankment. Flora ‘the General’ Drummond, a formidable suffragette known for leading marches in a military-style uniform, visited each of the 7 processions. Like the NUWSS procession the previous week, banners played an important role in the marches. The suffragettes carried up to 700, although none are known to survive.

Women's Sunday Platform 6

A photo of speaker’s platform 6, taken by professional photographer Christina Broom (Source: Museum of London).

20 raised platforms had been constructed in Hyde Park, from which 80 prominent supporters of women’s suffrage gave speeches, including Emmeline Pankhurst (of course!) Keir Hardy, Barnard Shaw, Israel Zangwill, and Amy Catherine Robbins (wife of H.G. Wells). The meeting was considered to be a great success, although several newspapers pointed out that most of those attending were there out of curiosity rather than support for the cause. I don’t really see this as a problem though; surely it was a good opportunity to win over a few converts to the cause.

It seems unlikely that the WSPU deliberately planned Women’s Sunday to be a week after the NUWSS procession, but the sight of women marching through the streets of London, proud, defiant, and well-ordered, was still enough of a novelty to draw hundreds of thousands of people to Hyde Park.

Sources and Further Reading

Marches, Protest, and Militancy. “Women’s Sunday: Hyde Park 1908.” Last modified 14 April 2016, accessed 6 June 2018. Available at  https://womenofinfluencesite.wordpress.com/2016/04/14/womens-sunday-hyde-park-1908/

Wikipedia. “Women’s Sunday.” Last modified 18th March 2018, accessed 6 June 2018. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women%27s_Sunday

Women of Tunbridge Wells History Project. “‘Women’s Sunday’: Hyde Park Rally 21st June 1908.” Inspiring Women: Hidden Histories from West Kent. No date, accessed 11 June 2018. Available at https://www.kent.ac.uk/sspssr/womenshistorykent/themes/suffrage/womenssunday.html

On This Day: NUWSS Suffrage Procession, 13th June 1908

NUWSS Suffrage Procession.PNG

Banner bearers at the NUWSS’s Suffrage Procession on the 13th of June 1908. The photo was taken by professional photographer, Christina Broom (Source: Museum of London).

As the first decade of the twentieth century drew to a close, the campaign for women’s suffrage had been going on for half a century. As the decades wore on, the women involved became increasingly creative with their tactics. The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) was founded as the National Society for Women’s Suffrage in 1872. They were suffragists, believing in peaceful, constitutional campaigning. The NUWSS had first experimented with mass marches the previous year; despite the wet weather, what came to be known as the Mud March was a resounding success. The women were praised for their determination and organisation skills. In the summer of 1908, the NUWSS decided to hold another march.

In 1908, women’s suffrage seemed both tantalisingly close, and as distant as ever. In February, a women’s suffrage bill was blocked by the government after passing its second reading in Parliament. Herbert Asquith became Prime Minister in April, and challenged British women to prove that they wanted to vote. The NUWSS organised their Suffrage Procession in response to this challenge, and also to prove that their organisational skills were such that they deserved the vote.

NUWSS Bugler girl tea towel

Designed by Caroline Watts, the Bugler Girl became of the most recognisable images of the suffrage campaign (Source: radicalteatowel.co.uk).

Artist and illustrator Caroline Watts designed the Bugler Girl poster to advertise the march. Despite her military appearance, the NUWSS were keen to emphasise her peaceful nature, and the image went on to be used quite often within the suffrage campaign in both the UK and the US. On the afternoon of the 13th of June 1908, 10,000 women gathered on the Embankment in central London. They then proceeded to march, in neat rows of either 4 or 6, to the Royal Albert Hall where a meeting was held. Every detail of the march was planned, including the order of the procession, which was as follows: provincial NUWSS groups, in alphabetical order; colonials and internationals; professions, including medical women, business women, writers, actors, and farmers; other societies, including the Women’s Co-operative Guild, the National Union of Women Workers, Liberals, Fabians, Conservatives and the Women’s Freedom League (who’s President was Charlotte Despard); and finally, the local branches of the London Society for Women’s Suffrage. The march was led by NUWSS president, Millicent Garrett Fawcett, and Lady Frances Balfour.

NUWSS Suffrage Procession Programme

The souvenir programme for the march and meeting (Source: Woman and her Sphere).

The International Conference for Women’s Suffrage began in Amsterdam on the 15th of June, which meant that a lot of important international suffragists could be in London for the march, adding another feather to the NUWSS’s cap. Representatives came from around the world, including the US, Australia, Russia, Hungary, South Africa, and France. The marchers were accompanied by 15 marching bands. The women carried 76 banners designed and made by the Artist’s Suffrage League (ASL), a group of professional artists established in 1907 to produce banners, posters, postcards, and similar materials for the suffrage campaign. Many of the banners were designed by Mary Lowndes, chair of the ASL and designer of stained-glass windows.

NUWSS huddersfield-banner

The banner designed by the ASL for the Huddersfield and District branch of the NUWSS, to carry with them during the Suffrage Procession (Source: Kirlees Museums and Galleries/Woman and her Sphere).

There were two main types of banners. The first type represented the various branches of the NUWSS. The organisers wanted to emphasise that the demonstration was representative of the whole country. The second type of banner commemorated prominent women, both past and present, including: Marie Curie, Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Joan of Arc, Elizabeth I, Mary Wollstonecraft, Caroline Herschel, Florence Nightingale, and Queen Victoria (despite her vehement opposition to women’s suffrage). The banners were on display in Caxton Hall in Westminster, which was frequently used by suffrage campaigners, for a few days before the march, and they toured the country afterwards. Local suffrage groups could hire the banners to host exhibitions, and they were displayed in Manchester, Cambridge, Birmingham, Liverpool, and Brighton, amongst others. Many of the banners were also used in later marches and demonstrations.

The 1908 NUWSS Suffrage Procession was a great success. The women demonstrated their commitment to the cause, as well as illustrating their significant organisational skills, part of an attempt to persuade the public that women were capable of shouldering the responsibility of voting. The beautiful, hand-made banners also showed off the women’s feminine side, as well as capturing the attention of spectators and the media. Peaceful mass demonstrations were an ideal way for the suffragists to attract publicity and show their conviction. But the suffragettes also made use of such tactics, holding their own ‘Monster Meeting’ in London only a week after the NUWSS.

Sources and Further Reading

Crawford, Elizabeth. “Suffrage Stories: An Army of Banners- Designed for the NUWSS Suffrage Procession 13 June 1908.” Woman and her Sphere. Last modified 26 November 2014. Accessed 4 June 2018. Available at  https://womanandhersphere.com/2014/11/26/suffrage-stories-an-army-of-banners-designed-for-the-nuwss-suffrage-procession-13-june-1908/

Crawford, Elizabeth. “Suffrage Stories/Women Artists: Caroline Watts and the Bugler Girl.” Woman and her Sphere. Last modified 3 December 2014, accessed 6 June 2018. Available at https://womanandhersphere.com/2014/12/03/suffrage-storieswomen-artists-caroline-watts-and-the-bugler-girl/ 

Keyte, Suzanne. “Celebrating 100 Years of Votes for Women: Women’s Suffrage at the Royal Albert Hall.” Royal Albert Hall. Last modified 5 February 2018. Accessed 4 June 2018. Available at https://www.royalalberthall.com/about-the-hall/news/2018/february/celebrating-100-years-of-votes-for-women-womens-suffrage-and-the-royal-albert-hall/

Observer, The. “From the Observer Archive, 14 June 1908: 10000 Women March for Suffrage. Last modified 17 June 2012. Accessed 4 June 2018. Available at  https://www.theguardian.com/news/2012/jun/17/archive-1908-suffragette-march