On 13 October 2008 I gave the following talk in King’s Norton, Birmingham. It was part of a series of lectures to commemorate the restoration of the Old Grammar School and the Saracen’s Head, which in 2004 had won the BBC’ ‘Restoration’ television series.
I chose the title ‘From Frederick Street to Winson Green’ because it is interesting to trace the growth of the women’s suffrage movement in Birmingham through the streets and buildings in which the men and women of the city conducted their campaign. We will see that this campaign moved slowly from a domestic environment, from the villas (particularly the drawing rooms) of its main protagonists – into the public buildings and then the streets of Birmingham. And it was in Winson Green, the city’s castellated jail, that in 1909 the campaign which had begun 43 years earlier, took on a completely different and very much more dangerous aspect, that for which it has become notorious, when it was in there that suffragettes were forcibly fed for the first time in Britain.
But to begin at the beginning – it is worth bearing in mind that the campaign for women’s enfranchisement was just one among many in which liberal-minded men and women of the mid-19th century were interested. The campaigns for, example, land reform, anti-vaccination, compulsory education, early closing, and the Sunday opening of museums and art galleries were ones to which equal attention was devoted by their adherents. In 1866 the country was aware that parliamentary reform was in the air. It was over 30 years since the last attempt at reform and those who had industrialised Britain were determined that their exclusion from the franchise should be remedied. John Bright, who from 1858 had been Birmingham’s Radical MP, was at the forefront of this agitation. It was not, however, around Bright, who, unlike the rest of his remarkable family, was never in favour of giving any women the vote, but around another Radical MP, John Stuart Mill, that the campaign to include women in this potentially enlarged electorate was to centre. When Mill was elected to the Westminster seat in 1865 it was on a manifesto that included women as a category in a proposed enlarged franchise
A year later, in June 1866, he presented to Parliament a petition, signed by 1499 women, asking that the vote should be given to women on the same terms as it was given to men. This did not, of course, mean that all women should have a vote – any more than it meant all men – the capacity to vote was still to be determined by a property qualification. This petition includes only three names definitely from the Birmingham area – one woman lived at King’s Heath and two in Hockley. None of these women played any significant part in the ensuing campaign and it is likely that they were each asked to give their signature by a friend or relation from outside the area. There was clearly not yet an existing ‘feminist network’ in Birmingham, although this situation was soon to be remedied by the arrival at 10 Chad Road,
Edgbaston in c. 1867 of William Taylor and his young family. He was a member of a family that was closely involved both by business and marriage with the Courtaulds, manufacturers in Essex of that most eminently Victorian material – crape. Courtauld and Taylor fortunes were built on the backs, literally, of mourning Britons. William’s brother, Peter Alfred Taylor, was the very wealthy and very radical MP for Leicester. P.A. Taylor’s wife, Clementia, had been very active in the campaign to abolish slavery – as well as in numerous other radical causes – and was a member of the committee that organised that first women’s suffrage petition. William Taylor’s wife, Caroline, had signed the petition while they were living in Bridgwater. The family was Unitarian (as were so many others of their fellow campaigners of this period) and William is described in the 1871 census as an iron merchant and manufacturer.
The 1867 Reform Bill, when passed, did not, of course, include women in the enlarged franchise and groups of men and women in London and Manchester slowly formed themselves into the nuclei of a continuing campaign to put further petitions before parliament. At the time this was seen as the correct way in which to exert pressure on parliament; methods were to change over the years.
A committee of this National Society for Women’s Suffrage was formed in Birmingham on 21 April 1868 ‘in accordance with the request of Mrs P. Taylor, the Secretary of the London Suffrage Society, who had urged Mrs William Taylor, of Birmingham, and Miss Johnson to take up the matter’. A month later the committee held its first public meeting at the Exchange Rooms in New Street. William and Caroline Taylor were from the first members of the Birmingham executive committee and in 1868 Caroline was its treasurer. The first secretary was Mary Johnson, who had already been subscribing to the main London suffrage society in 1867. She lived with her parents, George and Fanny Johnson, at 90 Wheeley’s Road in Edgbaston. George Johnson is described in the 1871 census as an Independent minister. Lydia Becker, who was secretary of the very influential women’s suffrage society in Manchester, acted as Mary Johnson’s mentor, giving her guidance in setting up and running the society.
However in 1870 after her marriage, Mary Johnsonmoved to West Bromwich and was succeeded as secretary by Eliza Mary Sturge who lived at 17 Frederick Street (long ago renamed ‘Frederick Road’). She was the 28-year-old daughter of Charles Sturge, alderman of the city, brother of Joseph Sturge. The latter was by then dead, but very much alive in the Birmingham municipal memory. In the 1820s he had been one of the most vociferous campaigners against slavery and had been secretary of the Birmingham Anti-Slavery Society – even going out to the West Indies to inspect conditions there for himself. In the 1840s Joseph Sturge had been a leading campaigner in favour of the repeal of the Corn Laws, had throughout his life been an ardent supporter of free trade, peace and temperance, an advocate of manhood suffrage, founder of the Complete Suffrage Union, but, like John Bright, was not prepared to include women in any proposed enlarged franchise.
After his death, in 1862 a fountain and statue had been dedicated to his memory at Five Ways, in Edgbaston and it is still there, despite all the road alterations. His brother, Charles, who worked in business with him as a corn merchant, was also involved in Joseph’s philanthropic endeavours but, unlike him gave practical, financial, support to the women’s suffrage movement. In 1871 he lived with his two daughters, Eliza and Maria, at 17 Frederick Street and it was from her home that Eliza conducted the business of the Birmingham Women’s Suffrage Society. The Sturges were Quakers and were related to the Clark family – the Quaker shoe makers – of Street in Somerset, who with other Sturge cousins were influential in the Bristol women’s suffrage society.
Having taken over the role of secretary in Birmingham, Eliza quickly became an active speaker in the suffrage cause. It was the policy of the suffrage societies around the country to attempt to influence both the existing, male, electorate and the women of the country by holding public meetings, using both local and imported speakers to lay out the arguments for women’s right to a vote in pithy speeches. In December 1871 there had been such a meeting in Birmingham, held in the Masonic Hall and described as crowded and highly successful.
Millicent Garrett Fawcett came from London to speak at it. Eliza Sturge herself also took to the road as a suffrage speaker. In 1872, for instance, she was a speaker at suffrage meetings in both Bristol and Rochdale. A speech she gave on 6 December that year at BirminghamTown Hall was reprinted as a pamphlet. In the course of this speech she mentions that ‘I know that I can go and return from public meetings alone at night without experiencing the slightest difficulty or annoyance’, which says something about the streets of Birmingham at the time and gives us an idea of how Eliza Sturge occupied her evenings! Millicent Garrett Fawcett was again a speaker and her speech was also reprinted. In it she made the point that ‘I can scarcely imagine that the Birmingham politicians, who took so prominent part in the reform agitation for the extension of the suffrage to working men, can be blind to the patent fact that all the most convincing arguments used during that agitation in favour of admitting the working classes to representation apply with equal cogency to the case of women.’ In 1873, very soon after women became eligible to stand, Eliza Sturge was elected as a member of the Birmingham School Board, of which Joseph Chamberlain was then the chairman. She was a Liberal supporter but in the 1870s despaired at the Liberal Party’s lack of interest in the woman’s cause.
As well as holding public meetings, members of the Birmingham society also undertook personal canvassing and the distribution of pamphlets in some of the wards of the city. However they were always at this time hampered by a lack of funds. At the beginning of the 1870s the society had a subscribing membership of about 30 and had only slightly increased its numbers by the end of the decade. The society’s annual reports are notably brief in comparison with those of, for instance, the Manchester or Edinburgh societies, But in March 1873 the society did manage to move its affairs out of Frederick St and into an office in central Birmingham, at 4 Broad Street Corner and spent £3 13s on its furnishing.
In 1872, the executive committee of the society also included the Rev Henry Crosskey and his wife, who, like the Taylors, were also recent arrivals in Birmingham. He was a Unitarian minister and had previously been living in Glasgow.
In Birmingham he became minister of the congregation of the Church of the Messiah in Broad Street, a large Gothic building which reflected, as Pevsner put it, ‘the importance of Unitarians in Birmingham in the second half of the 19th century’. Under Crosskey the Church of the Messiah became an intellectual centre, a place where ideas about society were openly and critically discussed. Crosskey had long been associated with such radical causes as the Young Italy movement (Garibaldi and Mazzini were heroes to all the early supporters of women’s suffrage) and in Birmingham found a comrade in George Dawson, another independent nonconformist minister. Dawson had been a Baptist but in 1847 had opened his own church, the Church of the Saviour, in the middle of the city. His congregation included many people – Kenricks, Martineaus and Chamberlains -who were to become influential in the civic life of Birmingham. Dawson’s message was that the church should eschew fixed creeds and work towards the greater good, urging citizens to give all their talents for the service of the city. Dawson, thus, was a promoter of the ‘civic gospel’ that led Birmingham, in the 1870s and 1880s, to acquire the reputation for being the best-governed city in the world. Dawson had as early as the 1840s made clear that he was concerned about the position of women in society. It is unsurprising, therefore, to discover that his wife was also a member of the executive committee of the suffrage society at this time.
By 1878 Eliza Sturge had moved with her father and sister to Bewdley, from where, for a time she continued to act as secretary to the suffrage society. But by 1885 the honorary secretaryship had been taken over by Catherine Osler, who was finally to retire, as president of the society, 35 years later in 1920. As Catherine Courtauld Taylor, daughter of William and Caroline Taylor of 10 Chad Road, she had subscribed 1/- to the Birmingham Women’s Suffrage Society when it was founded in 1868; she was then 14. In 1873 she had married, in Crosskey’s Church of the Messiah, Alfred Clarkson Osler, a member of the wealthy Birmingham family of glass manufacturers. From both their families Catherine and Alfred Osler inherited a radical liberal tradition and from about 1884 Catherine was president of the Birmingham Women’s Liberal Association. All 4 of their children were to become active in the women’s suffrage movement. With increasing prosperity the Oslers moved to a large house in Edgbaston, ‘Fallowfields’, in Norfolk Road, the scene of a plethora of drawing-room meetings at which the question of women’s suffrage was discussed.
When Catherine Osler became secretary of the suffrage society her unmarried sister, Edith, became treasurer. It will have become clear that the 19th-century suffrage campaign in Birmingham, as in the rest of the country, was very much a middle-class affair – indeed very much an Edgbaston affair. With the vote firmly allied to a property qualification, it would only be householders and ratepayers who would benefit from any extension of the vote. There were, however, even within the middle-class pro-suffragists, degrees of liberalism. The 19th-century campaign split in 1888 along the lines of the split in the Liberal Party over Home Rule for Ireland. In Birmingham, as in the country at large, Joseph Chamberlain was one of the most prominent of the Liberal Unionists (those against Home Rule); the Oslers, unlike most of the Birmingham industrial families, who followed Chamberlain, were members of the more radical wing – followers of Gladstone in supporting Home Rule. This schism was reflected in a split in the national suffrage society so that for most of the 1890s the suffrage movement rather lost its focus, although individual members and societies were extremely active.
In 1892 Birmingham was chosen as the venue for a national conference organized by one of the splinter societies, the Women’s Emancipation Union, perhaps the most radical of these societies, with an agenda that demanded equality with men in every aspect of life. Although it is doubtful that Catherine Osler was actually a member of this society she did chair one session of this conference and proposed a resolution supporting the inclusion of women in any reformed scheme of local government. One of the leading members of the Women’s Emancipation Union was an interesting Birmingham woman. She was Caroline Smith, the sister of George Jacob Holyoake, Chartist and secularist, the last man in England to be sentenced on a charge of atheism. They were the eldest children in a large family, living in the 1820s in comparative poverty at 1 Inge Street in central Birmingham. As a child George Holyoake worked as a whitesmith alongside his father in the Eagle Foundry. Their mother had a small home workshop making horn buttons, before being put out of work by the growth of larger manufacturers. The Holyoakes were obviously an able family. However nothing is known about Caroline’s early life except that at some point she married a William Benjamin Smith, who had been born in Kings Norton around 1822. When the 1871 census was taken they were living at 19 Carpenter Road, Edgbaston. Although the Smiths’ house has now disappeared, it was presumably not unlike those that do remain – that is to say a large stucco Regency villa – a far cry from the house cum workshop in Inge Street where Caroline grew up. She was a member of the executive committee of the Birmingham Women’s Suffrage Society in 1885 but had clearly been attracted to the more radical movement and by 1892 was the national treasurer of the Women’s Emancipation Union.
It was doubtless its central position in the country that made Birmingham a popular venue for national conferences because again it was here, in 1896, that the main suffrage societies made a concerted effort to regroup. It was proposed that past differences be put aside and that they should unite as the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, it being recognised that, after 30 years of campaigning – and the goal little nearer achievement – there was a need to present a common front from the centre. Although no parliamentary bill in favour of women’s suffrage was presented between 1897 and 1904 the suffrage movement did benefit from a more effective central organisation and this enthusiasm permeated down to the local societies. In October 1900 the minutes of the Birmingham society record that one of its best ever drawing-room meetings had been held in a private house at which 100 ladies were present and 26 new members enrolled. In 1902 the annual meeting of the Birmingham society – held in the Grand Hotel – was addressed by Sir Oliver Lodge, principal of Birmingham University. His speech was published as a pamphlet‘ so that today we can read that he thought, ‘The vote itself is a trivial affair, but its artificial withholding is a gratuitous insult: I am not surprised that the arbitrary withholding on that small function is one that galls out of all proportion to its importance. I recognize the desirability of doing away with artificial obstacles, and giving to everyone a clear field and an equal chance – a fair share in education, an open entrance to the professions, and a fair and reasonable opportunity of service in every direction.’
By this time Catherine Osler had become president of the Birmingham society and in 1903-4, with help from paid organizers (the movement was definitely moving away from involvement on a purely voluntary basis), she had supervised the opening of new branches in Coventry, Warwick, Redditch, and Leamington. At this time the Birmingham Women’s Suffrage Society thought it advisable to undertake work among working women, as was being done in Lancashire among the women textile workers. The Birmingham society began with the women chain makers of Cradley, paying for an organizer to go around from yard to yard, talking to the women about the suffrage issue.
In early 1904 they conducted another campaign amongst the Cradley nail makers. During 1907 the society held 30 meetings in Birmingham and the surrounding district and in 1908 drew in £8 6s 3d in subscriptions – making it the second largest society (after London) in England.
The increasing activity of the Birmingham Women’s Suffrage Society was not only due to better central organization but doubtless owed something to the impetus provided by the arrival on the suffrage scene of a new ginger group. This was the Women’s Social and Political Union, which had been founded in October 1903 in Manchester by Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst, but which had only really begun to make an impact with the arrest and imprisonment in October 1905 (in Manchester) of Mrs Pankhurst’s eldest daughter, Christabel, and of Annie Kenney on charges of obstructing the police.
The WSPU determined to win the vote by what they termed ‘militant methods’, that is, in order to bring pressure to bear on the Cabinet they were prepared to do more than hold orderly public meetings and present petitions to parliament through MPs. The political process itself had evolved since the 1860s; it was clear that individual members of parliament had little real power (that now resided in the Cabinet) and that no bill in favour of women’s suffrage would have a chance of passing into law unless it was presented as a government measure. What actually were ‘militant methods’ was never clearly defined by the WSPU – members more or less set their own limits, and that militancy escalated as the years passed. Initially WSPU strategy was to hold large meetings at the beginning of each session of parliament in a hall, such as Caxton Hall, close to the House of Commons, and for a deputation, often led by Mrs Pankhurst herself, to attempt to present a petition to the Prime Minister, who would invariably refuse to see them. The police would attempt to prevent them reaching Parliament and brawling would ensue.
This all attracted marvellous publicity, in a way in which drawing-room meetings in Edgbaston never had. The WSPU provided newspapers with ‘news’, that is, spectacle that was recorded in the photographs that had only lately superseded the engravings with which newspapers had been illustrated, and with the kind of behaviour that, because it was considered ‘extreme’, was, therefore, ‘news’.
Although the WSPU opened branches around the country it was increasingly autocratically controlled from Clement’s Inn, its London centre, by the Pankhursts and their fellow leaders, Emmeline and Frederick Pethick-Lawrence. The WSPU did not, like the NUWSS societies, foster local centres run by local women, Instead organizers were appointed by Clement’s Inn to the main cities and were expected to work to orders. These organizers were moved frequently around in order that they might not develop too close local attachments.
The Pankhursts’ autocratic system was not put in place without difficulty. In the autumn 1907 one group, which perhaps might be roughly characterized as a more left-wing element, broke away from the WSPU. When first founded in Manchester the WSPU had drawn support from the local Labour party and women had been drawn into it through their interest in furthering the cause of Labour as well as of women. When it became clear that, as well as forbidding any democracy within their own society, the Pankhursts were not interested in supporting the Labour party at parliamentary elections, a group, under the leadership of Charlotte Despard, withdrew and formed the Women’s Freedom League.
Thus in Edwardian Britain there were three main suffrage groupings, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, which sought the vote using constitutional methods, the Women’s Social and Political Union that employed militant methods, and the Women’s Freedom League that was prepared to use militant methods against the political process (such as attacking the ballot box and picketing parliament) but would not countenance harm to people or property. Interestingly, although by 1913 the WFL had 59 branches, it only had two in the West Midlands, in Wolverhampton and the Potteries, and never supported a branch in Birmingham, although on occasion, during general election campaigns, for instance, WFL speakers, such as its leader, Charlotte Despard, did come to speak in Birmingham.
The most active member of the WFL in the West Midlands was Emma Sproson, who had been a member of the WSPU in 1906, but joined the WFL after the 1907 split. She was a keen supporter of the Labour Party. Mrs Pankhurst had stayed with Emma Sproson when she visited Wolverhampton in 1906 to speak to local members of the Labour Party.
In keeping with their practice, by November 1907 the WSPU had appointed as their organizer in Birmingham Annie Kenney’s younger sister, Nell, who was based at 22 Belgrave Road, Edgbaston. She had worked from the age of 10 in an Oldham mill, until forced by ill health to leave and become a shop assistant. Now in her mid- twenties she set about organizing Birmingham. She calmly notes in her report for the WSPU newspaper, Votes for Women, in November 1907, ‘I am visiting most of the influential people in Birmingham and surrounding districts’. She was also holding a series of drawing-room, open-air and factory-gate meetings, besides addressing different religious societies and women’s co-operative guilds. She notes that ‘Our meetings are being run on strictly economical lines. The outdoor meetings are being advertised by chalking the pavements or ringing the bell, and the audiences so far have been orderly and sympathetic’. On 20 November 1907 a well-publicized WSPU meeting was held at Birmingham Town Hall, with both Mrs Pankhurst and Mrs Pethick-Lawrence as speakers, and Christabel Pankhurst taking the chair. Regular, women-only meetings were held at this time on Thursdays at the Bristol Street Schools. In February 1908 a contingent of women travelled from Birmingham to London to take part in what was called ‘The Women’s Parliament’, a meeting held in Caxton Hall on the occasion of the opening of a new session of the ‘the men’s parliament’. In the ensuing fracas four women from Birmingham were among the 50 or so arrested and subsequently sent to Holloway.
Another Birmingham woman was arrested the next day while taking part in the deputation led by Mrs Pankhurst that attempted to approach the House of Commons.
In June 1908 the WSPU organized an extravagant demonstration in Hyde Park to which women from all over the country came. Birmingham was on the line from Wolverhampton along which travelled on the day a Special Train bringing Birmingham supporters to take part in the rally. Tickets for the train cost seven shillings return and could be bought from Stanford and Mann, booksellers in New Street, from James Pass’s music warehouse at 48 Cherry Street, or from Combridge at 4 and 5 New Street. The train left Birmingham at quarter to eight in the morning. When they got off the train at Euston the women lined up with thousands of others to process to Hyde Park.
One of the main speakers in Hyde Park, with her own platform from which to address the vast crowds, was Gladice Keevil,
considered one of the prettiest and most effective of WSPU speakers. She was a Londoner and was then 24 years old – she had already spent six weeks that year in Holloway. The Daily News report of the Hyde Park rally singled her out : ‘Miss Keevil was a particularly striking figure. Robed in flowing white muslin, her lithe figure swaying to every changing expression, and the animated face that smiled and scolded beneath the black straw hat and waving white ostrich feather, was the centre of one of the densest crowds’, showing that then, as now, it is the messenger rather than the message that captures the attention of the reporter. It was around this time that Gladice Keevil came to Birmingham, appointed WSPU National Organizer in the Midlands. She had already played her part in the conducting of the WSPU campaign at a by-election in Wolverhampton in May. WSPU election policy was to oppose the government (that is the Liberal) candidate in order, as they hoped, to bring pressure to bear on the government. At this Wolverhampton election the Liberal retained his seat with a majority of only eight (reduced from over 2800); the WSPU of course claimed that it was their campaign that had produced this close call. By the end of October 1908 Gladice Keevil had opened a WSPU office in Birmingham at 14 Ethel Street, which was to act as the headquarters for the Midlands. Evening At Homes were held there at 7.30 on Tuesdays, presumably attracting women who were working during the day, while afternoon
meetings were held for the leisured at the Edgbaston Assembly Rooms. Working closely with Gladice Keevil at this time was Bertha Ryland, the daughter of Mrs Alice Ryland, of 19 Hermitage Road,
Edgbaston, who in the mid 1870s had been a member of the executive committee of the Birmingham Women’s Suffrage Society and who had, with her daughter, transferred allegiance The Birmingham WSPU took its campaign into the Bourneville works and reported that many of the girls there wore the WSPU ‘Votes for Women’ badges. In February 1909 Christabel Pankhurst was the speaker at a meeting at the Town Hall and, as Votes for Women reported, ‘received an ovation the like of which no woman has ever experienced in Birmingham’.
A month later Mrs Pankhurst addressed a reception at the Midland Hotel, and a month after that Mrs Pethick-Lawrence led another Town Hall meeting. Birmingham was certainly not allowed to forget the women’s Familiar names appear in the list of WSPU activists; Miss Mathews and Miss Saxelby, for instance, have the same surnames as married women members of the 19th-century suffrage society, presumably attracted by the opportunity of more direct action offered by the WSPU. Catherine Osler’s daughters, Nellie and Dorothy, remained active members of the constitutional society and their brother, Julian was by this time a member of the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage, the male counterpart of the NUWSS. Their other brother, John, was running the London side of the glass business and his wife was secretary of the Hampstead NUWSS society.
Gladice Keevil had introduced plenty of amusement for the young women of Birmingham; they could join the Votes for Women Corps and take to the street, standing in the gutter and attempt to persuade passers by to buy the WSPU newspaper. Again this activity seems to have been aimed at the leisured because quarter to 12 on a Friday morning was the rendevous time for the Corps to meet. Those sufficiently active could join the Cycling Scouts who, covering a 10-mile radius around Birmingham, took the suffrage message to out of the way places. There was also a Midlands WSPU horse-drawn caravan which in the summer toured the surrounding countryside.
Throughout the spring of 1909 there was also rather more sedentary activity that could be dedicated to the cause; the WSPU held in London a vast fund-raising bazaar, to which each district was encouraged to contribute goods for sale. The Midland group supported two stalls, one presided over by Mrs Kerwood, who had been one of the WSPU prisoners in March 1908, and the other by Mrs Gertrude Howey of Malvern, who had donated the campaigning caravan and whose daughter, Elsie, was one of the most active of the younger WSPU members. Women were encouraged to come from all over the country to visit the Exhibition, which was beautifully decorated by Sylvia Pankhurst, another of that remarkable family. Parties came down from Birmingham for the occasion on special excursion tickets. Birmingham women jewellers, including a Miss Myers and Annie Steen (of Woodfield Cottage, Woodfield Road, King’s Heath) contributed jewellery for sale on the Midland stall. Annie Steen was a regular advertizer in the pages of Votes for Women. In the 1901 census she had been described as an Art Teacher living at Mayfield Road, Kings Norton. Some of this jewellery would have been rendered with enamelling or stones in the WSPU ‘colours’; Annie Steen advertised in October 1909 ‘Handwrought jewellery in gold and silver set with stones in the colours’. Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence had introduced the colours, purple, white, and green, as ‘favours’ to be worn at the Hyde Park rally the previous year and WSPU branding had taken off in Birmingham. In a May 1909 report Gladice Keevil reminded members that hats, ties etc in the colours could be obtained from Romney, a milliner at 150 Broad Street and noted that one member was having the colours introduced into her wedding in every possible way, including the bouquets and the cake. Besides supplying jewellery to the cause Annie Steen also volunteered her drawing room for WSPU At Homes. Such meetings were also held at this time in the Women’s Hospital and in Queen’s College.
Birmingham hit the headlines in September 1909 when suffragettes (as WSPU members had been nicknamed in order to be differentiated from members of the non-militant societies, the suffragists) dramatically interrupted a meeting that Asquith was attempting to hold in the Bingley Hall. Birmingham had tried to protect itself against any likely outrage; nine-foot high barricades had lined the station platform and the main streets along which the prime minister had travelled. However one intrepid suffragette had penetrated the defence and had reached the roof of the hall, from where she proceeded to hurl down slates to the ground. The five suffragettes, only one of whom (Evelyn Hilda Burkitt, a secretary who lived at 214 Wellington Road, Perry Barr) was native to Birmingham, were arrested. Four were sentenced to three months’ imprisonment and the fifth, Mary Leigh, who was regarded as a repeat offender, was sentenced to four months’ imprisonment with hard labour in Winson Green. There they went on hunger strike. Mary Leigh had used the tactic, both in Holloway and in Walton jail, Liverpool, and on both occasions had starved herself out of prison before the end of her sentence. However by late September the Home Office, whose officials had been giving advice to the prison medical officers, decided that enough was enough and Winson Green staff were instructed to institute a regime of forcible or, as the Home Office preferred to call it, ‘artificial’ feeding.
The minutes of the Prison Visiting Committee for this period make interesting reading. Unlike the issues of Votes for Women in which the suffragettes told their story, the Committee minutes give a dispassionate account of the procedure, recording that attempts were first made to feed Mary Leigh with a spoon, and when she resisted, resort was made to feeding by a nasal tube, but that by the end of the month she was taking food from a feeding cup. The WSPU brought a case on her behalf against the Home Office and the Governor of Winson Green, to the effect that a prisoner had a right to refuse such ‘treatment’ as feeding, However, the Lord Chief Justice eventually ruled that it was a medical officer’s duty to prevent prisoners committing suicide. A statement made by Mary Leigh, ‘Forcible Feeding in Prison’, based on her experiences in Winson Green, was published by the WSPU. The Birmingham WSPU did what they could to capitalise on the prison’s notoriety; parades were organised to march around outside, the women singing to offer encouragement to the inmates, I have seen a postcard sent at the time by a certain Arthur Lewis, who wrote to his correspondent ‘No doubt you have heard of the Birmingham suffragettes being forcibly fed in the prison.. It is occurring only about 3 minutes walk from our house and nearly every night the suffragettes who are at liberty ride to the prison in sometimes wagonettes and sometimes a fruitier’s cart and blow bugles. There are always some policemen there and do not let the conveyance stop. One suffragette Mrs Leigh was released yesterday, Saturday.’ Indeed Much had been made of the release of Mrs Leigh who was taken to the Ethel Street office in a cab and then straight to a nursing home.
The sight, as it were, of the Liberal government forcibly feeding suffrage prisoners was too much for Catherine Osler and at the end of the year she resigned as president of the Birmingham Women’s Liberal Association, a position she had held for most of her adult life. She did not, however, condone militancy, as she made clear in a pamphlet, ‘Why Women Need the Vote’.
By January 1910, when the general election that resulted from the House of Lord’s rejection of Lloyd George’s budget was held, Gladice Keevil had been moved on from Birmingham to Exeter, a very marginal Liberal seat, which went, with an equally small majority to the Conservatives; obviously Gladice’s winning ways were thought an essential tool in this aspect of the campaign. Liberalism was presumably too entrenched in Birmingham for it to be thought worth more than the usual measure of campaigning. The new organiser was Dorothy Evans and a new office, which stayed open until 8 in the evening, was opened at 33 Paradise Street. Throughout 1910, with the Liberal government dependent on a greatly reduced majority, the WSPU put militancy on hold, taking at face value Asquith’s assurance that if a reform bill were to be introduced the government would make the question of a women’s suffrage amendment open to a free vote. Activity therefore in the country concentrated on keeping the issue in front of the electorate. Bertha Ryland and Hilda Burkitt were still active WSPU workers, attracting a range of high- profile WSPU speakers to Birmingham. Through the pages of Votes for Women the minutiae of the campaign can be traced; it certainly involved an incredible amount of organisation. By the end of the year the WSPU activists were even able to employ electricity to advertize a meeting at which Mrs Pankhurst was speaking in the Town Hall; lanterns were ‘fitted with electric light which shone through’ throwing up the words ‘Mrs Pankhurst, Town Hall, November 15’ and were carried around the streets. The lanterns had been made by members of the local Men’s Political Union – the WSPU’s male counterpart. Women might agitate for the vote but they obviously didn’t mess with electricity.
The Birmingham NUWSS society had reopened an office c 1908 at 10 Easy Row – it was apparent that they had been without a central office for several years. Catherine Osler had by now an extremely competent secretary to run the society – Mrs Florence Carol Ring. I have been unable to find out anything about Mrs Ring – perhaps some local researcher can – but believe she was a most efficient organizer. A notebook in the Archives is labelled ‘Town Hall Meetings: Method of organizing and procedure’ and is full of the most detailed notes of how to organize and advertize the suffrage society’s meetings. All the items are costed and this notebook highlights the orderliness and forward planning that went into NUWSS meetings in this period.
In the summer of 1910 the country’s NUWSS and WSPU societies jointly staged in London a grand rally, wonderfully decorated with banners. There would have been trainloads of participants from Birmingham.
The Birmingham Women’s Suffrage Society was behind the production of one of the NUWSS’s most appealing fund-raising projects, the Women’s Suffrage Cookery Book, edited by Mrs Aubrey Dowson, whose husband was a nephew of Catherine Osler. The recipes were gathered from suffragists all over the country – the first in the book, for Egg Croquettes is from Mrs Julian Osler, Catherine’s daughter-in-law.
The suffrage peace came to an end in November 1910 when it was announced that parliament was to be dissolved without women being any closer to getting the vote. This was not the outcome for which the suffrage societies, both constitutional and militant, had been working; the WSPU put in place prepared plans for a deputation to the House of Commons. This met with firm police resistance in Parliament Square.
Women were assaulted and the occasion went down in suffrage history as ‘Black Friday’. Dorothy Evans was among the women arrested but, because the Home Office realised that the occasion would be used as a wonderful source of propaganda by the WSPU, no charges were brought against her or any of the many others. However women who, a couple of days later, protested about the Parliament Square debacle by throwing stones at government offices, were arrested and charged. One of these, who was sentenced to two weeks’ imprisonment, was a Mrs Pattie Hall, who although originally from Manchester, where she and her husband had been very close associates of the Pankhursts in their Labour Party days, now lived in Edgbaston, at 56 Hagley Road. Her young daughter, Nellie, had taken part the previous year in the parades outside Winson Green and was to remain a supporter of Mrs Pankhurst until the latter’s death. A wonderful collection of Nellie Hall’s suffrage papers and ephemera (including a suffragette tea service and her hunger strike medal) is on loan to the Birmingham Museum. By mid 1911 the WSPU office had moved again – to 97 John Bright Street.
In April 1911 some members of the Birmingham WSPU joined in the boycott called on the census. One of these was Mrs Ethel Adair Impey, a Quaker, of Cropthorne, Middletonhall Road, King’s Norton. She was described on the census form, filled in by the registrar, as a ‘Suffragette, Information Refused’. In fact information was refused not only by her, but also by her husband, her son, her servant and about 6 nameless females.
In November 1911 after yet another long period of truce, Asquith announced that the government planned to introduce a manhood suffrage bill, which might, if the House of Commons desired, be amended to include women. An unlikelihood. This was the signal for women to take to the streets in London with stones, breaking more windows of government offices. Amongst the many arrested was Bertha Brewster, a young Birmingham woman whose mother had also long been a suffrage supporter. She was sentenced to 21 days’ imprisonment and on her release, with other Birmingham prisoners, she was given a hero’s welcome, in a room in Queen’s College, by the local WSPU. Dorothy Evans was among the many women arrested in London in March 1912 after smashing windows in the West End; Mrs Pankhurst had told the WSPU that ‘the argument of the broken pane of glass is the most valuable argument in modern politics’. Dorothy Evans was sentenced to two month’s imprisonment and a Miss Grew took over as organizer in Birmingham. Because there were too many suffragette prisoners to be accommodated in Holloway many were farmed out to prisons around the country. Twenty-five ordinary prisoners were moved from Winson Green in order to make way for suffragettes, who then went on hunger strike and were forcibly fed. Miss Grew organized members to go each night to stand outside the prison and cheer them on.
The prisoners appear to have made the most of their incarceration. They produced a hand-written, illustrated magazine, entitled The Hammerer’s Magazine – ‘for private circulation only’, its cover showing a hammer striking a pane of glass. One of the sketches, drawn on toilet paper, shows the 25 suffragettes in two rows seated on chairs, backs to the artist, with the prison gallery above, one warder at the front and another on the first-floor gallery. This is quite an important sketch, giving a rare view of life inside Winson Green..
The best poem in the magazine is probably one entitled ‘Winson Green in April & May 1912’ which appears to be written on the back of a Robertson’s Golden Shred marmalade wrapper! It begins:
Cling, clang of prison keys,
Slam bang of doors,
Wash slosh – Monday morn,
Water on the floors –
Tramp, tramp of prison feet,
Ring, rang of bells,
Clash smash of prison bars,
Suffragettes in cells.
Among the women imprisoned at this time was Maude Kate Smith from Birmingham, with whom Professor Brian Harrison recorded an excellent interview now held in the Women’s Library. Besides giving very graphic detail of her experience of forcible feeding, during the course of the interview Miss Smith reveals that there were plans afoot to blow up a Birmingham canal – for during 1912 and 1913 WSPU militancy escalated as the government’s intractability became more apparent.
Pillar boxes were fired – here is one comical comments on this method of militancy. More seriously, property (always at least intended to be empty) was also targeted. The actions of the government contributed towards what might now be seen as ‘terrorism’. In April 1913 parliament passed ‘The Cat and Mouse Act’, by which women prisoners who were being forcibly fed were to be released for a few days to recover their health and were required to return to prison to resume their sentence. Most of those released – the mice – did not bother to return to prison and in many instances the police did not bother to look for them. This ‘underground’ life did, however, have a momentum of its own. Mice, already branded as criminals, thought nothing of repeating their acts of arson (or, as they called it, ‘work’) and much of the damage, which was really quite extensive, was carried out by a dedicated few, travelling around the country, given shelter by well wishers.
For instance, on Christmas Day 1913 one young suffragette, Lilian Lenton, who had been arrested on a charge of setting fire to a house in Cheltenham, was released from prison after going on a hunger-and-thirst-strike – into the care of Mrs Edith Impey of King’s Norton. In April 1913 suffragettes were suspected of setting fire to a boathouse in Handsworth Park. In the same month the Morning Post reported that the suffragettes had planned to set fire to the Old Grammar School at Kings Norton, but had changed their minds when they saw its beauty. In June 1913 a house in Solihull was destroyed and in July one in Perry Bar and another in Selly Park was set on fire. Nellie Hall was charged on suspicion of having been involved with this last arson attack; she had been caught on 13 July after throwing a brick at Asquith’s car when he visited Birmingham and was sentenced to three weeks’ imprisonment. In October 1913 two local railway stations -Northfield (not far from here) and
Hagley Road were fired and in February 1914 Northfield Library was destroyed – the damage was estimated at £1000 – and on the same day a bomb exploded at Moor Hall Green. Soon after there were several other serious arson attempts in Birmingham; two houses and two cricket pavilions were set alight – at Smethick and Harborne. The slogan left at Harborne was ‘Down with sport, up with fair play for women’ – and there was a fire on the Midland railway at Kings Norton. .In March 1914 the Cathedral was defaced by suffrage slogans – including ‘Stop Forcible Feeding’ –which were daubed on much of its interior in white enamel paint. ‘Votes for Women’ was painted across the middle of the Burne- Jones window. On the vestry door was painted ‘The clergy must rise on our behalf’ Edgbaston Parish Church and St Stephen’s Selly Hill were also attacked.
On 17 May a grandstand at Bromford Bridge racecourse was destroyed and on 8 June Bertha Ryland, cleaver in hand, slashed a picture, ‘Master Thornhill’ by Romney, in Birmingham Art Gallery . She carried a letter giving an explanation of her conduct, saying ‘I attack this work of art deliberately as a protest against the government’s criminal injustice in denying women the vote, and also against the government’s brutal injustice in imprisoning, forcibly feeding, and drugging suffragist militants, while allowing Ulster militants to go free..’ The gallery was immediately closed for six weeks. After that it was not open after 5 in the afternoon and was closed all day Sunday; presumably the level of security had to be increased and the gallery could not afford to open for so many hours. A rule of ‘No muffs, wrist-bags or sticks’ was subsequently enforced.. Bertha Ryland, the presumably gently-nurtured daughter of Edgbaston (whose mother had 30 years earlier been intent on bringing art to the working-classes), had already spent a week in Holloway in November 1911 and, after taking part in the March 1912 window-smashing campaign in London, had been sentenced to six months’ imprisonment. She had spent four months in Winson Green prison, had gone on hunger strike and been forcibly fed.
After her arrest in the Art Gallery she went on hunger strike while held on remand. She then accepted bail, was too ill to stand trial at the July assizes, and still had not been sentenced when war broke out. She suffered permanent kidney damage as a result of her treatment in prison.
With Mrs Pankhurst in and out of prison under the Cat and Mouse Act and Christabel based in Paris, to where she had fled to escape the police, the WSPU leadership was
increasingly out of touch with day-to-day reality and the campaign was ricocheting out of control. It is my contention that the WSPU was only saved from real disaster by the outbreak of war. The Pankhursts then dropped all suffrage activity and rallied to the flag leaving many, but by no means all, of their supporters dumbfounded. Some of the latter group founded the United Suffragists, to carry on campaigning. In 1915 Bertha Brewster founded a Birmingham branch of the United Suffragists, with an office at 15 New Street.
The NUWSS had, of course, eschewed all the pre-war violence and concentrated on spectacle and politicking. The constitutional or ‘law-abiding’, as they termed themselves, societies had organised themselves into Federations to concentrate their efforts. Birmingham played a leading part in the Midlands (West) Federation and in June 1913 joined with the other societies in The Pilgrimage, a grand attempt to bring a dignified campaign to the country and the prime minister. The Birmingham society travelled along the route that brought pilgrims, with cockleshell badges pinned to their hats, from Carlisle to London. On 14 July 1913 the Birmingham Daily Mail carried a report of the arrival of the pilgrims in Birmingham. ‘At 5 o’clock a strong contingent of the Birmingham Women’s Suffrage Society marched from Easy Row to meet the pilgrims who had started early in the afternoon from Wolverhampton. At Great King St, Hockley, the visitors were joined by the local suffragists, and a procession was formed, headed by the Baskerville Band. Banners bearing the legends ‘Law Abiding’ and ‘By Reason, Not Force’ were prominently displayed’. The pilgrims that passed through Birmingham would have been among those who continued on to Oxford.
As far as politics was concerned, the NUWSS entered into an electoral alliance with the Labour party in order to support Labour candidates at by-elections and thereby subject Liberal candidates to rather more opposition that the usual lone Conservative – that is, they were prepared to turn by-elections into three-cornered fights. Catherine Osler supported the national executive in this, although by no means all local societies did. Birmingham was still radical. By 1913 the society had enrolled 1600 ‘Friends of Women’s Suffrage’, mainly working-class women who could not afford to pay the annual membership fee but were prepared to sign pledges of support. The society at this time suggested founding ‘Women’s Study Circles’ at which working women could meet in each others homes to discuss the suffrage issue; Mrs Osler’s pamphlet ‘Why Women need the Vote’ was one of the suggested texts, as was John Stuart Mill’s Subjection of Women. At this time the Society had over 700 full members.
Unlike the WSPU, the NUWSS societies carried on campaigning during the First World War, as well as supporting the war effort. There was a split in the NUWSS; a majority of its committee wished to withdraw this support and to join in a Women’s Peace Conference to be held at The Hague and it was in Birmingham in June 1915 that at a national conference this move was defeated.
Whether it was because of women’s contribution to the war effort, matters were at last reaching a resolution. In March 1917 Catherine Osler presided over a meeting held in the Midland Institute in support of the move to include women in the proposed Electoral Bill. When the first installment of enfranchisement (that is, to women over the age of 30) was granted in 1918 the NUWSS’s work was ostensibly finished. Catherine Osler was in the chair at the meeting in which the proposed amalgamation of the Birmingham Women’s Suffrage Society and the local branch of the National Union of Women Workers (‘workers’ in this usage were not working-class women but women workers in a cause – in a 19th-century sense – philanthropists). The amalgamated society became the Birmingham Society for Equal Citizenship. Catherine Osler, radical to the end, was keen that the lack of representatives of women’s labour organizations on the new body should be rectified, suggesting that the Women’s Co-operative Guild should be given three representatives. She finally resigned as president in 1920; a portrait of her was commissioned and was presented to the ArtGallery (see above). The surplus of the money raised to pay for the portrait was used to fund a scholarship in her name at Birmingham University, to allow women graduates to read for a postgraduate degree in the Faculty of Arts. It is still awarded from time until very recently.
As well as all this activity from the two main suffrage societies, Birmingham also had other smaller but active suffrage groups. In 1913 the Birmingham branch of the Church League for Women’s Suffrage operated from the home of Miss Griffiths at 34 Harborne Road, Edgbaston; that of the Conservative and Unionist Women’s Franchise Association from the home of Miss Adams at 56 Carlyle Road, Edgbaston, the Birmingham branch of the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage was run by Mr Evans from 382 Moseley Road, and that of the Friends League for Women’s Suffrage from the home of Miss Joyce at 12 Frederick Road, Edgbaston (a few doors from where Eliza Sturge, also a Quaker, had campaigned nearly 45 years previously).
At the 1918 general election, the first at which women (albeit only those over 30 years of age) could both vote and stand as candidates, the main attention was focused on Smethwick where Christabel Pankhurst stood as a coalition candidate; she was defeated. At that election Birmingham’s first woman candidate (at Ladywood) was Mrs Margery Corbett Ashby, who stood as a Liberal, again unsuccessfully. The Women’s Library archive includes a 1975 interview with Dame Margery, as she had then become, in which she says that the idea of her standing against a Chamberlain in Birmingham was greeted by her family with hoots of laughter. She goes on to say that she didn’t have ‘the faintest idea of getting in – which would have been very inconvenient – but did so in order to get people used to the idea of a woman standing. That she did as well as other Liberal candidates around. And her candidature was greeted with surprise but with no ridicule.
The first woman to stand as a candidate for King’s Norton’s at a general election – in 1923 – was Elizabeth Cadbury, widow, by then, of George Cadbury, the chocolate manufacturer. She was a Liberal and was also unsuccessful. She lived at Manor House, Northfield, and was a city councillor for Kings Norton from 1919 to 1924. In 1928, 60 years after Birmingham’s campaign had been launched at the meeting in the Exchange Rooms, New Street, all women were given the vote on the same terms as men. However Birmingham did not have a woman MP until after the Second World War – with Mrs Edith Wills elected as Labour member for Duddeston in 1945 and Mrs Edith Pitt (Conservative) elected for Edgbaston in 1953 – the culmination of the campaign that had begun in 1866 with a mere three Birmingham names on that very first ‘women’s suffrage’ petition.
Birmingham Stories: Votes for Women
Suffragette Acts in Birmingham: Parliament UK