Suffragettes with a Lichfield Angle

On April 13th we welcomed Jonathan Oates to our meeting. He started his talk by explaining that the Latin word 'suffrageum' is usually translated as 'the right to vote'.

The first country to give women the right to vote was New Zealand, in 1893 - long before the United Kingdom. In fact, the first bill in the UK failed and attempts to achieve voting rights here were rejected for many years.

However, a professor at Warwick University discovered some documents, dating from 1843, in a solicitor's office that had been kept by an assistant to the Overseer of the Poor. These papers included some womens voting records; they also showed their work and where they lived. These were working class women - were they perhaps paid to vote?

In 1874 the 3rd Reform Bill gave working class men the right to vote and in January 1875, meetings on local suffrance were held in St James' Hall in Bore Street. Speakers included the Rev. John Graham, Rector of St Chads church and Rev. Brooke Lambert, the vicar of a church in Tamworth.

Dame Millicent Garett Fawcett, the wife of Richard Fawcett, a Liberal MP, was honoured in 2018 with a statue in Parliament Square marking 100 years since women were granted the right to vote. She joined the local society for suffrage and went on to run the largest suffrage organisation, the National Union of Women's Suffrage (NUWSS).

In 1897 Millicent established a national campaign, although initially with little success as more direct action was needed. A beakaway group the Womens Social and Political Union (WSPU), was formed. As a result of their campaigning from 1903 they became known as 'the suffragetts'; when previously the name 'suffragistes' had been used. The new name was first used by the Dail Mail in 1906; a derisory term that was meant to be patronising.

The new group had been formed in 1903 by Emmeline Pankhurst with her daughters Christabel and Sylvie. They liked the new title (although the 'g' was pronounced as a hard 'g'). Many supporters joined the group and a new bill was promoted in Parliament; but in 1908 Herbert Henry Asquith, the anti-suffrage Liberal Prime Minister, made sure that the new bill failed.

In 1909 Lichfield had a visit from the suffragettes, who were attempting to speak on suffrage in the Market Square. The City Council's Tax Collector stopped this rally on the grounds that no permission had been granted. A male voice from the crowd shouted "you can't stop 'em" - but they were chased out of the Market Square by young boys and even by some women. However, the suffragettes paid their toll duty and successfully presented their views to a large crowd the following day.

Middle class women were against the movement - for example Sophia Lonsdale, daughter of Canon John Gylby Lonsdale and grand-daughter of Bishop John Lonsdale. She was a notable speaker, involved with Poor Law reform and an expert at raising living standards. She established the successful High School for Girls at Yeomanry House (opposite St John's Hospital) - the school which later moved to the Friary site. Despite this, she was anti-suffrage. She felt it would create termoil within families. Her great concern was for a safe and stable environment for children and infants.

The well known Australian suffragist, Muriel Matters, held meetings in both Lichfield's Swan Hotel and Corn Exchange. One example of her action took place in Parliament. The Ladies' Gallery had grilles over the windows, obscruring the view of MPs below and preventing any distractions. Muriel chained herself to the grille and was then removed - with the grille attached! She is therefore credited with being the first woman to "speak" in Parliament - many years before Lady Astor was elected to the Plymouth seat. Muriel also hired a hot air balloon intending to float over Parliament dropping leaflets - a leaflet bomb - unfortunately the wind changed before this could be achieved. She was a notable person and great fun. Another supporter was Lady Frances Balfour, sister-in-law of Sir Arthur Balfour.

There was increased violence, countrywide, including attacks on MPs, library burnings and supporters being chained to railings. In 1910 armed guards were posted at Lichfield Cathedral as even some Cathedrals were being targetted. Armed police also guarded the route of trains from Stafford to Trent Valley - more protection than was usually afforded to the King - resulting in panic in the City.

In 1910 a new bill reached a third reading in Parliament but Herbert Asquith foiled this by calling an election, which imposed a moratorium on all new bills. An estimated 300 furious suffragettes marched on Parliament and a pitched battle ensued. Some of the women had learned ju-jit-su and other martial arts; Police helmets were used as weapons. Emmaline Pankhurst encouraged this violence; but two were killed and the date was remembered as 'black Friday'.

Suffragettes who were good at marketing used the power of photography; and images of the police "beating up ladies in hats and frocks" were not suppressed. However, the most graphic of these events occurred when Emily Wilding Davison (of the WSPU) threw herself at the King's horse during the Epsom races. Sadly she died from her injuries. Was this a deliberate attempt at suicide? Her diaries suggest that she did not expect to die.

Violent activity was suspended during the First World War and the WSPU journal "Votes for Women" was re-named 'Britannia'. Women got behind the war effort to "keep the home fires burning". They worked on farms, on the railways and even in munition factories. While they were promised that their new jobs would be retained after the war, many were subsequently sacked despite their dedication. However, in 1918, the "Representation of the People's Act" was passed; finally giving women voting rights - at least some women as, unlike men, to qualify to vote a women had to be over 30 years of age.

Our speaker commented that this was, at best, a tarnished achievement. However, in 1928, the bill was revised and women were finally able to vote at 21 on equal terms with men; 35 years after true suffrage had been achieved in New Zealand.

Here in Lichfield, Daisy Stuart Straw became the first female City councillor in November 1919. Her home was at No. 8 Bore Street. Eight years later she became the first Lady Mayor and in 1938 the first Lady Alderman. There is an inscription on the Friary Clock Tower showing her name as the Mayor when it was re-erected on the present site.

Following the talk our members asked how much support the suffragettes had received from men, the origin of electoral rolls and why had New Zealand taken such an enlightened attitude.

Lorna Bushell
April 2022