Monday, 12 March 2018 23:22

The Suffragettes in Tunbridge Wells

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With 2018 being the centenary of (some) women finally winning the right to vote, and this being the week of International Women's Day, our blog entry explores the unique story of how the women of Tunbridge Wells contributed to the struggle for universal suffrage

In the centre of the town is the old Opera House, now home to a Wetherspoons pub. In 1906, a meeting took place there to discuss 'Franchise for Women'. The Tunbridge Wells branch of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) was duly formed, and voted Amelia Scott their Vice-President. From 1906 onwards, this group of suffragists was particularly active, and the Opera House became a regular meeting place. It was used by established political parties of the time too, and on one occasion, campaigners hid inside in order to disrupt a meeting of the National Liberal Federation, as part of a wider campaign to make male politicians sit up and listen.

1913 saw a marked increase in effort and support of the 'Votes for Women' campaign. By then, the more militant Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) had been formed, and its founder, Emmeline Pankhurst, was once again on hunger strike and serving time in prison for her activities. Sports facilities – left unattended for long periods, and with 'boys' club' connotations – presented an inviting target for suffragettes wanting to do more than a little light window-breaking. And, after yet another Parliamentary rejection of their case in early 1913, the militants were increasingly keen to show their outrage, with arson becoming an increasingly popular weapon.

The Nevill cricket pavilion was one of the first casualties in this new stage in the long fight for ‘Votes for Women’, and was completely destroyed in a fire. The attack may have been provoked by a comment from an unknown Kent official who is reported to have said "It is not true that women are banned from the pavilion. Who do you think makes the teas?" A picture of Mrs Pankhurst and various suffragette leaflets were found at the scene, but no-one was ever held responsible, and some claimed that the evidence was planted.

The attack provoked much anger locally and throughout the country. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle spoke at a meeting of The National League for Opposing Woman Suffrage, that was held at the town's Great Hall on the 13th of April. He described the suffragettes as "female hooligans", and a "disgrace to their sex", and compared their tactics to "blowing up a blind man and his dog". Conan Doyle's remarks obviously inflamed his audience, and things became rather heated. The audience overflowed from the Great Hall onto the streets where three suffragettes were carrying literature and heckling in the surging crowds. Eggs were thrown, hats were knocked off and clothing torn. The women concerned were taken to the police station for their safety.

The following was reported in the local paper 'The Courier'
"There were three of us, Miss [Lydia] Le Lacheur, Miss Haynes and myself. We are all members of the Tunbridge Wells Branch of the W.S.P.U. We asked various questions of one of the speakers, because he misinterpreted our motives. We simply had to contradict his statements. He also said things rather offensive to the W.S.P.U., and so, of course, we did not stand that either. He then deliberately said, ‘If they are not quiet, put them out’, thus I took it, deliberately inciting the mob.
Then we felt the crowd hustling. They seemed to attack me more than the others for some unknown reason. I simply folded my arms and felt myself being pushed about. An egg hit me in the face, and its contents ran down all over my clothes. My two companions, who were being somewhat similarly treated, kept close to me. I felt my head being pulled back, and my hat was dragged off. Then the Chief Constable, Mr. Prior, came up and advised us that we had better allow the police to take us to the police station. In fact, they insisted upon doing so, and thither we went, followed by a booing and jeering crowd".

The 'Suffragist Pilgrimage', took place later the same year, organised and publicised via the NUWSS newsletter 'Common Cause'. It was made up of six routes, including the Kentish Pilgrim Way, along which marchers would converge on London for a rally in Hyde Park on 26 July 1913. Amelia Scott was a prominent participant, giving speeches along the way. Her leaflet bag has been preserved, and is kept with her papers in the Women's Library in London. She is quoted as saying: "The object of this pilgrimage is not pleasure, or excitement, but to demonstrate to those persons who still maintain that quiet, home-loving women are against this movement that this is not true; for here, before their very eyes, are such women on the road"

With the outbreak of war in 1914, local campaigners decided to pause their activities in order to support the war effort. They immediately placed a notice in the window of their shop on Crescent Road, which read ‘All Political and Propaganda Work is suspended’ Following a request from Mayor Charles Emson, they re-opened their doors shortly afterwards as a depot where a team of volunteers sorted, mended and pressed clothes, which were then issued to convalescent soldiers and local families in need. Contributions of any ‘fashion, shape or size’ were welcomed. As the war continued, the Crescent Road premises also began helping the increasing numbers of Belgian refugees arriving in the town.

Sharing a common cause seemed to bring together people who held differing views on women's suffrage. Members of the Mayor’s Belgian Refugees Committee included Amelia Scott, Lydia Le Lacheur and several other local suffragists. In contrast the Mayor, his wife Margaret and at least one other lady member (Louisa Lushington) had until recently been actively involved in the local anti-suffrage organisation and campaigned against women having the vote. The experience of working together seems to have influenced the outlook of at least one of them; in January 1916 Margaret Emson’s views had changed to such an extent that she took the chair at a local suffragist meeting. In 1929 and by way of gratitude from the Belgian people, Amelia Scott was awarded the prestigious Order of the Golden Palm by the King of Belgium for her work with Belgian refugees. She has also earned herself a commemorative plaque on the wall of her former house in Lansdowne Road.

But did World War I slow down or enable the drive towards universal suffrage?

As men left their jobs and went overseas to fight in the war, suffragist and suffragette leaders volunteered their members to take their place. At first, the government met their offer with patronising remarks. But by 1915, as the war forced Britain to recruit more and more soldiers, the women's willingness to volunteer could no longer be ignored. Hundreds of thousands of women were employed in industries key to the war effort, such as munitions factories. Many more women worked as conductors on the buses and trams, as labourers on farms, in hospitals as nurses and in offices as secretaries and assistants. With the majority of young men enlisted in the army, the role these women played was crucial not only to the war effort but also to the running of the country. Even during the worst of the war, the buses still ran and the mail was delivered.

Women became more visible and attitudes towards them changed thanks to the huge contribution they made to the war effort. There are contrasting arguments as to whether this ultimately helped women win the vote or if it would have happened anyway. The women who benefited in 1918 were mature, married, and owned property. Young women who had contributed so much in the munitions factories and elsewhere were given no recognition by the government, and had to wait another 10 years for their turn! In 1919 Amelia Scott became one of the first two women to be elected to the Tunbridge Wells Town Council, her long and patient campaign for political recognition finally delivering results.

International Women's Day 2018Today, Tunbridge Wells continues its march towards equality. There is a thriving local branch of the Women's Equality Party, a Women's Institute, and TW Women 100, all campaigning on similar issues of gender equality. The WEP even holds its committee meetings in the Opera House, as did those who first campaigned 100 years ago. On International Women's day (Thursday 8th March) women marched along the same route as the 1913 suffragettes, highlighting the fact that despite the passage of a century, we are not quite there yet.
Let's hope those first pioneers would be proud!

Read 2124 times Last modified on Tuesday, 13 March 2018 22:14
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