The Cotswold women fighting for their right to vote
- Credit: Archant
As the celebrations for the centenary of the granting of partial women’s suffrage sweep the country, it is important to know that women in the Cotswolds played their part. Sue Jones tells their story
Most people associate the fight for women’s vote with stories of Emily Davison throwing herself at the King’s horse at the 1913 Derby, of window-breaking in London’s West End or of women prisoners being force-fed when on hunger-strike. These were actions by the suffragettes, members of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), who believed in ‘Deeds not Words’. So was the Cotswolds home to this kind of extreme activity? The answer is NO, but local women were not doormats.
There was one case of arson in December 1913 when an empty manor house, Alstone Lawn in Cheltenham, was set ablaze by two WSPU women who toured the country attacking property. (Some might call them terrorists?) They were easily tracked by the paraffin on their clothes. Refusing to give their names, they were referred to in court as ‘Red’ and ‘Black’ and were imprisoned in Worcester. They immediately went on hunger/thirst strike and were quickly released under the ‘Cat and Mouse’ Act, nicknamed to show how the government was ‘playing’ with women, like a cat plays with a mouse – this had been passed by a jittery government so that the bad publicity of force-feeding (and possible deaths) could be avoided. Instead, women were released until they were well enough to be imprisoned again!
But these two were not local women. Cheltenham did produce two women who were imprisoned for much less serious crimes. There was a branch of the Women’s Freedom League (WFL) in the town, a breakaway group from the WSPU, who believed in militancy but not in damaging property. One of its national leaders was Cheltenham-born Edith How-Martyn, one of three campaigning sisters of the How family whose father’s very successful grocery business was on the corner of the High Street and Cambray. She was gaoled in 1906 for trying to see the Prime Minister and holding a meeting in the street outside Parliament. Two months in prison was the sentence but, after howls of protest, it was reduced to one month. But strictly Edith does not count as a Cheltenham prisoner – she was not actually living there.
However, the exotically named Madame Lilian Borovikovsky, also a WFL member, was! She had briefly attended the Ladies’ College and, at the age of 20, had married a Russian civil servant working in St. Petersburg – how she met him is a mystery! In 1909 she was charged with obstructing the police during a demonstration at the Commons, again trying to reach the Prime Minister –she was sentenced to a month but left Holloway Gaol after a fortnight because of ‘health reasons.’ On returning to Cheltenham, she was feted by her colleagues led by Florence How Earengey, the local WFL leader and Edith How-Martyn’s sister, and presented with two books. A strange reward for her hardship...
Then, in 1913, a second Cheltenham WFL woman was imprisoned. Agnes Bales, clerk to a Fine Art publisher, was charged with placarding pillar-boxes in Sandford Road and Imperial Square. A seemingly harmless bit of publicity, but the authorities were rattled by women campaigners and she and two others were found guilty. Agnes could not afford to pay a fine, she lived with her working-class parents so had no goods that the court could take instead – so she faced 14 days in prison.
Were these the only examples of harsh treatment of women? The hostility of local and national authorities to their campaigning was not the only obstacle they faced. The peaceful campaigners, members of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), the suffragists, are often forgotten in this story. Yet they also faced violence or sexual harassment from yobs or more organised opponents. This happened in both Cheltenham and Cirencester.
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In 1913 for example, branches of the NUWSS joined in a countrywide Pilgrimage to London. They walked, cycled and sometimes drove, speaking to enthusiastic open-air gatherings as they went. ‘Pilgrims’ from South Wales and Gloucester arrived in Cheltenham to meet supporters. At the Clarence Street Lamp, a wagonette carrying the local leaders, Mrs. Rosa Swiney and Miss Theodora Mills, was attacked: eggs and missiles were thrown and Miss Mills’ frail elderly mother had to be rescued by police. A mob followed the wagonette to Mrs. Swiney’s large house in Bath Road. The Echo condemned these disgraceful scenes.
Similar outrageous scenes occurred in Cirencester when the Cheltenham campaigners arrived there the next day. Miss Grace Hadow, the local NUWSS leader, had organised a meeting in the Market-Place. Again, the meeting couldn’t take place, being drowned out and the speakers showered with rotten fruit, vegetables and eggs. They tried to move further afield but at the canal bridge the crowd tried to tip them over the edge. Finally, they took refuge in a cottage in Siddington, protected by two policemen.
It seems that the chief culprits were Royal Agricultural College students – their Principal had, without success, warned them not to misbehave! There was also, however, a very strong branch of the Anti-Suffrage League in the town. The Bathursts were particularly active in setting it up two years earlier: the M.P., Hon. Ben Bathurst, was vehemently against women’s suffrage and the Countess was the President of the branch. Both suffragettes and suffragists in the town felt their power – opposing such a dominant local family wasn’t easy. Even Grace Hadow, an Oxford academic now living with her elderly mother in Sheep Street , worked alongside them in local Conservative activities – rather like Brexit and with similar vitriol, the issue cut across party lines!
Why was there this kind of reaction, even to peaceful campaigning? We often forget that women’s place was definitely in the home if middle or upper class – or in the factory or menial jobs if working-class. What men did NOT expect to see was women daring to speak in public – this was a male preserve. So, whether they spoke in Cheltenham Town Hall, Cirencester’s Bingham Hall or Stroud’s Holloway Institute – or on street corners or village greens – they were open to abuse, some verbal and some physical.
I haven’t yet mentioned the name Pankhurst! Mrs. Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia (together with the less famous Adela) stamped their ideas and personalities on the militant movement. And Pankhursts did visit the Cotswolds! In fact, one of the best photographs of Mrs. Pankhurst was taken in Cirencester by local photographer Dennis Moss. She visited in July 1911 on one of her tours of the country and may well have stayed with WSPU member Mrs. Evelyn Dives on Cecily Hill where this charming photograph was taken. Cirencester was impressed by her arrival and the Bingham Hall was full. She was heard with respect even though she suggested that the town was a bit ‘out of the current’ of the women’s suffrage movement! But she was right – no suffrage society had yet been set up, but that was to change.
Mrs. Pankhurst was brought to Cirencester by Miss Ada Flatman, a paid WSPU organiser, who had been working to set up a branch in Cheltenham since earlier in the year. And she was successful – the Cheltenham branch lasted until the outbreak of war. Both Christabel and Mrs. Pankhurst spoke in the Town Hall and, as in Cirencester, were heard by respectful crowds. Readers might be surprised to know that WSPU members included Ladies’ College teachers and those with a military and colonial background. But the WSPU nationally attracted a number of moneyed women and, in Cheltenham, the social elite in fact had a long tradition of supporting women’s suffrage.
What about Stroud? A place not to be forgotten – as early as 1866, 31 men and women from Stroud signed the first women’s suffrage petition. There was only one other signatory from the county, the vicar of Poulton! So it is rather surprising that, in the early 20th century, there was little activity in the town. However, Mrs. Pankhurst was booked to speak in early 1912 but was too ill to come: the hostile local press doubted this and suggested she was merely preparing for another bout of window-breaking! She was replaced by Lady Constance Lytton, who had been in gaol four times and endured horrific force-feeding. Stroud then formed a WSPU branch and later a NUWSS one but both seemed to struggle – and, unusually, the town’s women’s suffrage meetings seemed to be dominated by two men, Mr. Frank Gwynne Evans, a retired barrister from Woodchester, and Rev. Hawkins of Holy Trinity Church.
Stories of local women are many and varied, some mildly dramatic, others less so. But what they all demonstrate is the courage and determination to stand up publicly for a cause which was so controversial. What is sad is that, although many gained the vote in 1918, it was not until 1928 that all women were able to vote.
A timeline of the Suffragette movement...
To read more of these and other stories, Sue Jones’ book, ‘Votes for Women: Cheltenham and the Cotswolds’, is published by The History Press in February 2018, price £14.99, and is available in local bookshops.