Woolwich’s Suffrage Story

Written by Amy Calvert

Woolwich has more than earned its place on the suffrage map. The London district has a rich, interesting and entertaining history (in some instances!) when it comes to suffrage within the Royal Borough of Greenwich. Woolwich’s involvement in issues surrounding female enfranchisement was regularly documented in the London Newspapers.

Woolwich non-believer gets a chance to speak at Labour Party conference

One of the more comedic parts of Woolwich’s suffrage history was by someone who opposed the movement, in a very public way… It was 1907; the Labour Party’s conference in Belfast, A.K.A Mr H. S. Wishart’s (representing the Woolwich Trades and Labour Council) big moment to announce in front of the attendees of the conference, that Labour supported adult suffrage for all sexes. There was only one problem that threatened Wishart’s cause; he did not believe in female enfranchisement…

The Kentish Independent reported that:

“Mr Wishart’s speech was not very convincing . He admitted that his chief reason for proposing the resolution was the fact he had been instructed to do so. For himself, he thought that women would find votes were of very little use when they got them” [1]

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Anti Suffrage postcard, insinuating Wishart’s view that women are not politically aware… Image Courtesy of LSE Library click here

Let’s not generalise; Not everyone from Woolwich was anti-suffrage!

The same year, 1907, at a Derby Independent Labour Party conference, Mr. Brownlie, a Woolwich delegate spoke very much in favour of women’s suffrage, declaring that “This conference declares very much in favour of adult suffrage and political equality of the sexes” [2]. Woolwich’s Brownlie also shunned the sexist, harmful and offensive view of some other male delegates that ‘women should leave their homes only three times in their lives: when they were christened, when they married and when they were laid to rest‘ [3]

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Teresa Billington-Greig. Suffrage Campaigner. Image courtesy of LSE Library click here

Unlikely pairing? Suffrage campaigner talks equality to Woolwich Arsenal workers

Teresa Billington, a huge suffrage pioneer campaigned outside Woolwich Arsenal on the 13th July in 1906… but how did this campaign happen? The Woolwich Gazette reported that a Woolwich Arsenal employee’s wife was serving 6 weeks in prisonin an offence in connection with the agitation for the vote for women‘[4]. Not only does this champion Woolwich’s direct involvement in the suffrage movement, but also demonstrates working class women (and men’s) huge and understated contribution to the struggle for women’s enfranchisement.

Billington, in her address to the workers, spoke of the unfair sentences given to the female working class campaigners. Below is a brilliant segment of her speech as reported by the Woolwich Gazette, emphasising the suffering of working class women and why they were drawn to the controversial suffragette movement…

“We must have the vote at once. Our industrial position is so bad that we cannot wait. Our social conditions are so bad that we must do something to ameliorate them. All the questions that affect men so much, affect us too, but until we have the political power, we cannot tackle these questions” -Teresa Billington [5]

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Pro suffrage postcard aimed toward working class women. Courtesy of LSE Library click here

Woolwich during the time of the suffrage movement was considered a heavily working class district of London. Yet, their involvement in suffrage was so profound, which definitely does highlight the influence the suffrage movement had on the lives of even the poorest. Fighting for suffrage did not just concern the middle class Pankhursts, but also the working class Knights’ of Woolwich Arsenal. 

[1] Page 4, Friday 1 February 1907, Kentish Independent, British Library Newspaper Archive

[2] Page 7, Friday April 5 1907, Kentish Independent, British Library Newspaper Archive

[3] Page 7, Friday April 5 1907, Kentish Independent, British Library Newspaper Archive

[4] Page 5, Friday 13th July 1906, Woolwich Gazette, British Library Newspaper Archive

[5] Page 5, Friday 13th July 1906, Woolwich Gazette, British Library Newspaper Archive

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