Lydia Becker versus Male Lawmakers in Greenwich

Written by Amy Calvert

Sexism. It runs deep within our society today, but ran even deeper when women were barred from voting in the UK and denied the same rights as men, purely because of their sex. I’ve been researching Greenwich’s role within the constant (and ongoing) struggle for gender equality. How did the staunch, sexist, male lawmakers of the past view Lydia Becker’s plight for women’s rights?

Lydia Becker. Courtesy of LSE Library. Click Here

Becker’s words for Greenwich, 1877

Long before suffrage was granted, women and men have campaigned, educated others and protested in an attempt to sway those in power and convince the population that women should be enfranchised and treated as equals to men. (What a radical idea!) Lydia Becker, a huge suffrage campaigner of the 19th century, (who interestingly sent Charles Darwin her research on botany regularly, contributing to his findings) spoke on behalf of the Women’s Suffrage Association in Greenwich to justify why women should rightfully be given a chance to vote for their government…

Becker argued that women being barred from voting in the general election was ‘a ridiculous and absurd anomaly[1]’ (I agree) because they were already performing vital roles within local councils and elective boards. Women were allowed to vote for and be elected to be on School Boards and were also able to be churchwardens and parish officers too, yet they were still discriminated against. The Kentish Mercury (a local paper in the borough) reported that one of the arguments put forward in the meeting, was that women were ‘politically unfit and dangerous‘[2]. But Becker slammed the claims to the floor as she insisted that ‘if women had votes they would be educated politically, and give their votes righteously‘[3] Some male attendees of the discussion led by Becker protested that women played no role in defending the country, with only one male speaker acknowledging the efforts of Florence Nightingale. 

1872, Hanover Square rooms. Lydia Becker alongside Millicent Garrett Fawcett, Mrs Mark Patison, Mrs Ernestine Rose and Rhoda Garrett. Courtesy of the LSE Library.Click Here

It seems that Lydia Becker’s meeting in 1877 emphasised the ignorance of most male lawmakers when it came to women. Women were trusted to hold positions when it came to aiding the poor and educating the youth, but not trusted with deciding the fate of the country. For me it seems as if the lawmakers were generalising half of the population by allowing them to have power in ‘care giving‘ positions, but little more. Sadly Lydia Becker would pass away in 1890, 28 years before any woman was allowed a general election ballot paper…

[1] Page 5, Saturday 19th May 1877, The Kentish Mercury, British Newspaper Archive

[2] Page 5, Saturday 19th May 1877, The Kentish Mercury, British Newspaper Archive

[3] Page 5, Saturday 19th May 1877, The Kentish Mercury, British Newspaper Archive


Three Midwives and an Archdeacon; The story of Lelia Parnell

Written by Lynne Dixon

It is puzzling to reflect on what might have lead a twenty seven year old, middle class widow in London in 1891 to move on to a career in nursing and a mission to promote the cause of training midwives.

On 5th April 1891 at 11, Chepstow Villas, Kensington, the census records a young widow, Lelia Parnell, sharing a house with two lodgers, both professional nurses.  She had been a widow for just two days following the death of her husband of some six years.  Lelia Cary (daughter of a Confederate veteran) had grown up in the north west, married her ‘brilliant young scientific chemist’ (described thus in Marland’s account) in Gloucestershire and presumably lived with him in Chester near where he had his business interests in alkali manufactory.   Was it the chance living arrangement with the nurses that helped to form the path of her future life?

Lelia trained on the month long course at the British Lying-in Hospital, St George, and then proved so successful at her general training at the new Hospital for Women that she was appointed Matron at a small hospital in Paulton, Somerset in or about 1893.

Here she was shortly joined by her friend, Alice Gregory, a daughter of the Dean of St Paul’s, who came as a probationer but eventually trained formally as a midwife at a maternity hospital in Clapham, an experience which influenced her views on training and practice in midwifery.  The two women shared their professional interests and a strong Christian faith.

18th June 1910, London. Perhaps Lelia, Alice and Maud would have stood with other women with careers in the medical sector to fight for their suffrage? Photo courtesy of LSE Library.

In 1900 Matron Parnell was approached by a local woman, Maud Cashmore, who had found herself too shy to train as a nurse in London but was able to train successfully as a midwife under Lelia’s tutelage.  The three women – Lelia, Alice and Maud – formed a lifelong friendship and working relationship

Alice Gregory made her living as a district midwife but along with Lelia and Maud began to develop her ideas for the training of midwives because their experiences of childbirth led them to believe that more and better trained midwives were required.  In 1903 Alice began a demanding nationwide search through letter writing and meetings for a suitable site.  It was the Bishop of Southwark who introduced her to the Archdeacon of Lewisham  – Charles Ernest Escreet, then in Woolwich, an area of poverty and limited hospital facilities.  Telling her ‘he knew the very spot’, he showed her the Wood Street (now Woodhill) properties on their first meeting and helped persuade the relevant authorities to agree to the scheme.

Woolwich on Charles Booth’s famous poverty map of London. This map was produced around the same time that Lelia and her colleagues were working in the borough. Photo courtesy of LSE Library.










The hospital with its beds for eight patients was opened on Thursday May 11th 1905 by Princess Christian.  As well as training midwives and admitting women to the hospital for delivery, the hospital was also a base for district midwives.

The training hospital grew from strength to strength and following an amalgamation with the British Lying-in Hospital, moved to new premises in Samuel Street. H.M. Queen Mary opened the building with its 40 beds and staff accommodation in 1922.

The three friends – Lelia Parnell, the first Matron (1864 – 1931); Alice Sophia Gregory, the honorary secretary (1867 – 1946), and Maud Mabel Cashmore, the second Matron (1875 – 1949), – were commemorated in the hospital chapel: ‘A threefold cord is not quickly broken’.  Lelia herself is buried in Charlton Cemetery with the inscription ‘Surge Illuminare’ – Arise! Shine!  They had certainly shone in their chosen profession supporting hundreds of women as they gave birth and making a significant contribution to the development of the training of midwives at a time of transition in the profession.


Based on:

Family records on Find My Past and

‘Alice and the Stork’ by Egbert Marland (written with the help of Maud Cashmore)



The Royal Borough of Suffrage; Greenwich and it’s suffrage groups

Written by Amy Calvert

So, as we should all be aware, it’s 100 years since some women were granted the vote for the very first time in the UK, after decades and decades of campaigning, protesting and in some cases violently demanding the right to have a say in who ran their government. Who were the masterminds behind the suffrage operation? The suffrage groups; they would organise marches and protests, recruit new members, write to parliament and spread the word about the importance and necessity of female enfranchisement.

The royal borough had its fair share of suffrage organisations and it’s important to recognise and honour their commitment to the cause, as well as reflect on why some groups were passionately anti-suffrage as we enter this centenary year of the 1918 Representation of the People Act.

If railings could tell a story… click here

The Church League for Women’s Suffrage

It’s interesting to note that Greenwich and Lewisham had it’s own branch of the Church League for Women’s Suffrage because it emphasizes just how wide ranging the borough’s support for suffrage was, even members of the clergy supported votes for women. The Kentish Mercury (a local paper at the time) reported on the support for suffrage from male members of the group, Reverand R. H. Rice believed that ‘suffrage would do women a vast amount of good‘. Another member, Mr Shipham expressed that ‘the granting of the vote was not a matter of generosity, but of bare justice[1]’.

The London Society for Women’s Suffrage

This society, established in 1867 was ultimately a discussion group for those who supported the cause for female enfranchisement, they held meetings frequently throughout each year and its members included pioneers such as: Helen Taylor, Elizabeth Garrett and Millicent Fawcett. Blackheath had its own branch of the group and The Kentish Mercury even reported on the content of their meetings. Just as we had words of support from a Reverend in the Church League, The London Society featured support from a doctorDr. Sidney Davies (Medical Officer of Health for Woolwich) who presided, declared that he had been for many years a warm supporter of women’s suffrage[2]’.

Different religious groups standing in solidarity for women’s suffrage. Courtesy of LSE Library. click here

Men’s League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage

Whilst the momentum in Greenwich for female enfranchisement was high in the early 1900s among some suffrage groups, there were groups operating in the borough that yearned for the opposite. The Men’s League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage met in Greenwich for a debate in 1909 and asked the question ‘is it ethical for women to be given the vote?’. Interestingly, barrister Howard D’Edgville argued that women seemed to be asking for too much as he accused them of being ‘the spoilt darlings of the law‘. Barrister D’Edgville also claimed that female enfranchisement would effect the British Empire, arguing that votes for women wouldendanger the good government of the Empire[3]’.

The Royal Borough of Suffrage? 

Most definitely. Greenwich’s involvement in the female suffrage conversation is important and emphasizes the area’s active role in campaigns and discussions; the borough became a firm meeting point for debates on the suffrage question, whether it be support for the progressive cause or a plea for the country to stay in the patriarchal past. Which group would you join? I know which one I wouldn’t be so eager to!

[1] Kentish Mercury – Friday 21 October 1910, British Newspaper Archive 
[2] Kentish Mercury – Friday 08 July 1910, British Newspaper Archive
[3] Kentish Mercury – Friday 17 December 1909, British Newspaper Archive

Forgotten Greenwich Voices: Shining a light on Rhoda Baillie

Local woman and campaigner Rhoda Baillie (born Rhoda Gilder) features briefly in the Greenwich100 exhibition “Beyond the Suffragettes”. In this latest blog by Lynne Dixon, we learn more about Rhoda’s contributions to the local community following her move with her husband Roger Thorne Baillie (an explosives worker at the Arsenal) to the Well Hall Estate in 1915.

When Rhoda Baillie penned this letter to Dr Marion Phillips of the Consumers’ Council of the Ministry of Food on May 11th 1918 it is unlikely that she would ever have imagined that her letter would still be in existence and of interest a hundred years later.

R Baillie letter to Dr Marion Phillips

Reproduced with kind permission of The Labour History Archive & Study Centre (LHASC)

Rhoda Baillie wrote to Phillips (who later became a Labour MP) on behalf of the  Well Hall & Eltham Pioneer Circle to enquire about setting up a National Kitchen in Woolwich.  National Kitchens were a means of providing reasonably priced food in local areas as food shortages continued to bite during the war.  It was a scheme started by Lord Spencer of the Food Ministry and implemented by local authorities.  Woolwich would have seemed an ideal place for such a kitchen and the nearest one appeared to be across the Thames on North Woolwich Road, Silvertown.

This was just one of the ways in which Rhoda and other members of the Pioneer Circle engaged in social and political issues  back in 1918.  Although we do not know exactly how many women were members of this group, originally set up to support the Labour Party and its newspaper The Pioneer, it has been possible to find out about the inspirational activities of at least some of them. The letter above is held in the archives of the People’s History Museum, Manchester, but locally there are many references to the activities of the women and the names of key members in The Pioneer newspaper itself (The Pioneer is available to read at Greenwich Heritage Centre in Woolwich).

The Pioneer Circle, initially the Well Hall Pioneer Circle, was set up in 1916, only a few months after the Estate was completed.  Rhoda Baillie who lived at 34, Prince Rupert Road in Eltham played a key role in it as the secretary and as the host of many of its regular meetings.  Members tackled a diverse range of topics, with talks usually introduced by one of the women members followed by animated discussions.

They organised outings including one to the innovative Rachel MacMillan outdoor nursery in Deptford and held events in the grounds of Well Hall Manor. In the summer they often met outdoors in Avery Hill Park.  Many of the topics would have had immediate relevance to the lives of women: education was discussed, including the need for a local school so children did not have to walk to one of the two existing local ones; housing was discussed at several meetings; health issues were also covered, including the problems associated with Venereal Disease (something which caused much concern during the war); women and the vote was a topic on at least one occasion; and of course food – food shortages, food prices and communal kitchens.

In 1917 the Pioneer Circle sent two of its members to the Woolwich Labour Food Conference.  Ongoing discussions arising from this conference may have prompted Rhoda to write to Dr Marion Phillips.  In her reply, Phillips referred to literature that she would receive from the Department and suggested Rhoda and her colleagues organize a Deputation to Woolwich Borough Council.  There are no known records yet of any Deputation but we do know that no National Kitchen was established in Woolwich. Perhaps the moment had passed as the end of the war drew near.

So far it has only been possible to catch  glimpses of Rhoda in official documents after the end of the war: Along with many other women, she exercised her right to vote, and appeared on the Electoral Roll (in 1939) and there is a record of her death in 1965. There are no direct descendants – but how wonderful to have a record of Rhoda and the Well Hall & Eltham Pioneer Circle through the letter she wrote back in 1918.

Well Hall Estate today

The Progress Estate (where Rhoda Baillie and her husband moved in 1915)
as it looks today
[© Greenwich100 Project]

The ‘Women’s Suffrage Pilgrimage’ comes to Blackheath in July 1913

The inspiring story of the women’s suffrage pilgrimage across Blackheath in 1913

Greenwich100 researcher Lynne Dixon tells the inspiring story of the arrival of the women’s suffrage pilgrimage at Blackheath in 1913.

It is July 1913.  A dry cool morning on Blackheath.  Imagine a group of women on the heath near the tea hut dressed for walking, wearing sashes and carrying banners; an array of scarlet, white and green.

This is part of the Women’s Suffrage Pilgrimage, the Kentish contingent to be exact, formed of two branches which had started at Margate and Sandwich, joining at Tonbridge.  It is the morning of Friday 26th July, the day before the national rally in Hyde Park which will bring together women suffragists from across the country.  These women – all members of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies  (NUWSS)  – had been organised in six main marches, the ones from the north having started out in mid June.

In spite of the fact that they were marching as suffragists – the law-abiding and non-militant part of the women’s suffrage movement  – some had faced verbal and even physical abuse on the way (Robinson, 2018). Fortunately, the Kent marchers had been relatively unaffected as they marched from Sevenoaks.

Twenty two Kent pilgrims had arrived at Burnt Ash Road, Lee, on the previous day and had formed into a procession with the Blackheath branch of the NUWSS.  With their banners unfurled –  ‘“Home makers demand vote”, “Law abiding women”, “Joan of Arc”, and the like’ (The Mercury) – the forty or so women were accompanied by the Stepney Borough Band. They marched towards Whitfield Mount on Blackheath – a popular place for local suffragist meetings – where two platforms had been set up, and held an open-air meeting.  After the meeting the pilgrims would have stayed overnight in cheap lodging houses or with local society members.

The pilgrims and their supporters set off the following day down Blackheath Hill, through Deptford Broadway and on to New Cross Gate, which they reached by noon.  At the foot of Pepys Road they gathered for another meeting and this time we know the name of the two speakers.  One was Muriel Matters who had been involved in the movement since her arrival in England from Australia in 1905. By 1913 Matters had already engaged in high profile activities for the cause, including chaining herself to the grille in the women’s gallery above the House of Commons; distributing leaflets from an airship across London, and travelling through Kent and Sussex in a caravan on a Women’s Freedom League speaking tour (Crawford, 2001).

Matters large
Muriel Matters in Guilford, Surrey in 1908 during a Women’s Freedom League caravan tour
(The Women’s Library Collection, LSE Library).  The use of caravans was also a feature of the
1913 Pilgrimage although apparently not in Kent.

As the pilgrims continued on their way for the next even larger gathering at the King’s Hall, Elephant and Castle, they were joined by band of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Workers.  They must have garnered much attention.

The final destination was a wonderful gathering of about fifty thousand people – at Hyde Park on the afternoon of the Saturday.  There were nineteen platforms arrayed in the park with rousing speeches, including one by the NUWSS President Millicent Garrett Fawcett.

The Kent pilgrims and their supporters contributed to making the 1913 Women’s Suffrage Pilgrimage a great success for the NUWSS and it strengthened the hands of the suffragists in their ongoing negotiations with Asquith’s government.


Crawford, E (2001) The Women’s Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide 1866 – 1928 (Routledge, London)
Robinson, J (2018) Hearts and Minds: The Untold Story of the Great Pilgrimage and How Women Won the Vote (Doubleday, London)

Information about the local march obtained from local newspapers at Greenwich Heritage Centre:

Kentish Mercury July 25th 1913
The Pioneer (Woolwich) 25th July 1913
Kentish Independent 1st August 1913


100 years ago today……

…..the 1918 Representation of the People Act became law. All men and some women gained the right to vote.

Greenwich100 is pleased to announce the venues and dates for the “Beyond the Suffragettes” exhibition, which has been put together to celebrate Greenwich’s contributions to gender equality from the 1860s to the present

(unless otherwise stated)
Woolwich Centre Library
35 Wellington Street, SE18 6HQ
15 February – 15 March

On 8 March there will be an evening event focussing on the centenary of votes for women as part of the International Women’s Day
Eltham Centre Library
2 Archery Road, SE9 1HA
16 – 29 March
Blackheath Library
Old Dover Road, SE3 7BT
30 March – 12 April
Greenwich Centre Library
12 Lambarde Square, SE10 9GB
13 April – 3 May
West Greenwich Library
Greenwich High Road, SE10 8NN
4 May – 17 May


Charlton House
Charlton Road, London SE7 8RE
18 – 31 May
University of Greenwich 1 – 14 June
Severndroog Castle
Castle Wood, SE18 3RT SE18 3RT
15 – 30 June


Marking 100 years of women’s suffrage in Greenwich

Mabel Crout2

Thanks for joining us.

Royal Greenwich has a long and illustrious history in connection with women’s rights and gender equality.

To  mark the centenary of the 1918 Act that gave all men and some women the right to vote in Parliamentary elections, we want to share information and stories about Greenwich women and men who contributed to  gender equality and rights.

Women like Mabel Crout, pictured above. In 1906, Mabel got involved in local politics and went on to become one of the first women to serve on Woolwich Council (in 1919). She later served as Mayor of Woolwich and on the London County Council. In 1965, Mabel was made a Dame Commander in recognition of her long years of political and public service to South East London. Not bad for a Plumstead girl who first got involved in politics at the age of just 16!

 * * * *

If you have information you’d like to share about a local event, campaign or an individual who positively contributed to gender equality in the past, please get in touch by emailing Claire Eustance at the University of Greenwich at Or send a comment via this blog or tweet @greenwich100y

Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton