Talk on Suffragettes
Women’s fight to get the vote
by Sandra Scholey
Some months ago the History group were struggling to find a local project that had not already been researched. As we left the library, our convenor said ‘Suffragettes’, and as the other organisation I belong to has its origins, not in the suffragettes but the peaceful organisation trying to get votes for women, I thought I would look at what the situation had been in Shropshire
Another factor which caught my attention was last summer when I heard about a sculpture being unveiled in Westminster Hall called ‘New Dawn’ to celebrate a landmark date in the struggle to get votes for women. In 1866 John Stuart Mill in league with the Fawcett Society presented a petition to Parliament to get the vote extended to women. The Fawcett Society since then has been the main force campaigning to improve women’s rights. The sculpture is the first piece of modern art to be on permanent display in the Houses of Parliament I found a short article in the Shropshire Star ‘Suffrage campaign is marked by MPs’. It read as follows:-
Telford MP Lucy Allan has joined other MPs to mark the 150th anniversary of John Stuart Mill’s petition to Parliament for women’s suffrage.
Ms Allan said ‘the campaign for women’s votes took decades to win but without a doubt all of us owe a debt to those who took part. It is hard to believe that women were previously unable to vote but a number of brave women had the determination to deliver this human right to their peers.
My ancestor, Janie Allan was active in the suffragette movement and spent time in Holloway prison. I am proud of her and her fellow campaigners’ actions and it is important that their efforts for us all are not forgotten’.
Before I look at suffrage activity in Shropshire and possibly in Wellington, I need to paint the picture at the time of the Great
Reform Act of 1832 when elections were neither representative nor balanced. Some large towns had no MPs whilst ancient communities which by 1832 had lost most of their population, were able to send a representative to Westminster. Old Sarum, probably the most rotten of the so-called rotten boroughs had 2 MPs for just 7 voters. Working men were clamouring for more representation. The 1832 Act increased the electorate from 366,000 to 650,000 = 18% of the total adult-male population of England and Wales so still most working class males and all women were excluded.
It was almost 30 years after the 1866 petition that there was another surge in activity with the formation iif 2 main groups. Firstly in 1889, the NUWSS which brought together all groups fighting peacefully for women’s suffrage, and in 1903 the formation of the WSPU, the militant group whose actions began in earnest in 1905 with hunger strikes, force feeding, the Cat and Mouse Act etc.
However the outbreak of war ceased these activities as over 2 million women began replacing men in the workforce including those who had been fighting for women’s suffrage. Conferences continued to discuss extending the electorate, and in 1918 the Representation of the People’s Act allowed women over 30 to get the vote if they or their husbands met a property qualification. Also in that year women could stand as MPs, and the first was Lady Astor – one of my ancestor’s’ husband was chauffeur to Lord Astor and his wife still lives in a grace and favour property in the Cotswolds. Eventually in 1928 all women over 21 got the vote.
What was happening in Shropshire? Generally being a rural agricultural area there was little activity but in Shrewsbury a larger population of educated, wealthy and influential people showed more interest in improving the status of all citizens, especially women. In 1866 there is a reference to 4 Salopian ladies who signed a petition to Parliament –Mrs Mckee, wife of a Unitarian minister, her daughter Ellen, Cath Bowman and Sarah Howarth.
P.A. Taylor, cousin of the Mckees presented the petition on their behalf illustrating the importance of using a man of influence – a sponsor. Petitions were submitted by small numbers of ladies in Newport, Ludlow and Shrewsbury in 1867 with support growing with Anne Kingsford joining the Mckees, Ellen now secretary. The Shrewsbury group became affiliated to the Central Council in 1872 presenting more petitions but held no meetings. Shortly after the Mckees moved to London and there was little activity until 1887 when there was a new resolution for women’s suffrage at a meeting of the Midland Union of Conservatives held at the Music Hall .
It wasn’t until 1908 that there was further activity when a branch of the NUWSS formed in Shrewsbury at 12 Butcher Row, and Shrewsbury gained greater prominence as KH became president of the branch and her photo appeared on the front cover of the Societies’ magazine which also advertised shops in Shrewsbury. KH, a very influential member, became president of the Midland Federation in 1909.
There was sporadic activity, not only in the NUWSS. By 1913 Miss Marwick, WSPU member operated from 37 High Street in Shrewsbury, a branch of the Church League for Women’s Suffrage started in Baschurch at the vicarage by the wife of the vicar, Mrs Stanmer, and Oswestry had a branch of the NUWSS.
Wellington did not attract much activity. In 1872 there was a petition signed by 2 ladies but not much activity until 1909 when a meeting was held but only 7 members attended. By 1913 there were 43 members in the newly formed NUWSS. I have found a reference to a Mrs Clemson who was secretary of the NUWSS in Wellington which in itself was a member of the Midlands Federation. She lived at Leahurst in Constitution Hill, and a Mrs Van-Homrigh who lived in Vine Cottage.
However the person who stood out for me is Katherine Harley who I have referred to previously. She was the widow of the late Col.
Ernest Harley whose family home was Condover Hall, and her brother was a well-known military figure, Field Marshall John French. In 1910 KH was an active member of both the National Union of Suffrage Societies and the Church League for Women’s Suffrage, the peaceful groups fighting to improve women’s rights. Her sister, Charlotte Despard, on the other hand was a militant member of the WSPU and the Women’s Freedom League. The sisters did not get on with each other.
In 1913 there were over 100,000 members in the NUWSS over the country organised into federations or associations. KH suggested holding a pilgrimage to London, and members from these federations set off on 18th June, all taking their own routes to reach London. They wore a distinctive uniform with a sash of red, white and green over white, black or navy coats and skirts/dresses with simple hats carrying the traditional symbol of pilgrimage –a raffia badge, 3d and a cockleshell. They had red haversacks edged with green and white lettering depicting where they came from. Most
travelled by foot or on bikes, the wealthier ladies on horses, carriages. It must have been an impressive sight, and probably spread the message as they marched through the towns and country side. By the time they reached Hyde Park on the 26th July 50,000 had joined the pilgrimage, aiming to secure the vote for women by peaceful means.
However these activities were curtailed by the start of the 1WW, and instead of campaigning for votes for women, as men went off to fight, the women took over jobs previously done by men, and were especially important in the ammunition industries and others related to the war effort. However the Women’s Emergency Corps was established and women were permitted to work on the war fronts providing doctors, nurses and motor cycle messengers.
What part did KH play in this? We know she had connections with the Royal Salop Infirmary (now the Parade Shopping Centre in Shrewsbury), and this is most likely where she got her nursing
training. Financed by the Scottish Women’s Hospital Committee and the NUWSS, KH was among the first women to join a unit sent to France 3 months after war began. By August 1915 a 100 bed hospital had been established but KH was sent to the Balkan Front in Serbia to lead the unit setting up medical facilities for injured soldiers and for women and children. She was adored by the military. What was a well bred lady, over 60 years old doing working in terrible conditions? However her work here came to a sudden end when she was killed by a shell splinter in Monistar whilst enjoying a cup of tea.
KH was not an easy person to work with but she had good leadership qualities, possibly a reflection of coming from a military family and her training at Girton College and the Newhaven unit. She was much appreciated by all those she helped both in France and on the Balkan Front, and was buried with military honours in the Lembet Rd CWGC Cemetery in Salonika alongside military commanders, something most unusual and reserved only for those
who had given great service. She was only one of two non military personnel to be buried on the Officer’s Row. She was a great benefactor of the Serbian people according to the inscription on the huge memorial to her in the Lembet Rd cemetery. There are also memorials to her in the Parade Shopping Centre (site of RSI) as well as St. Mary’s Church in Shrewsbury. In Condover Church there is a stained glass window reminding us that she was the widow of Col Ernest Harley and sister to Field Marshall John French. A lasting memory of KH is the silver efficiency medal, hallmarked Birmingham, given to nurses at the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital. What about the village of Harley and Harley St.?