Blackheath’s vital suffrage role

Written By Amy Calvert

There’s not many places in the UK that have been the location of so many significant historical events as Blackheath has. Wat Tyler’s peasants’ revolt in 1381 came to Blackheath before it’s defeat in the capital, Henry VII’s men squashed the 1497 Cornish rebellion there and fun-loving Charles II greeted his new citizens upon the restoration of the Monarchy in 1660. Historically Blackheath seems to have a reputation of protest and triumph; the suffrage movement undoubtedly upheld its traditional reputation.

Blackheath the meeting place

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Modern day Blackheath. (Photo courtesy of Google images) click here

Perhaps suffrage leaders were drawn to meet in Blackheath due to its history of defiance and change because the location proved a popular place for suffrage meetings over the decades. Lucky for us, many newspapers across the period advertised and documented the content of these progressive meetings.

As early as 1877, publications such as the Man of Ross, and General Advertiser made its viewers aware of a Blackheath suffrage meeting, with the famous Helen Taylor in attendance. M.P Leonard Courtney (give him a google – what a forward thinking individual) supposedly said ‘interest in politics would have a beneficial effect on women(1)’ The meeting ended in Courtney signing a petition to Parliament, but as we all know, women would not be enfranchised until 1918, sadly. Another early bird to publicise Blackheath suffrage meetings was The Kentish Mercury; in 1879, the paper advertised that at Alexandra Hall, Blackheath there will be a meeting organised by the National Society of Women’s Suffrage on the topic ‘Political Disabilities of Women Householders(2)’

The suffragette magazine ‘Common Cause’ spoke positively of the Blackheath suffrage meetings, unsurprisingly as the publication was designed to support the suffragette movement. Still, these articles highlight that Blackheath was an fundamental location for the suffragette writers of the Common Cause. Below is an extract from a 1913 social evening:

A successful social evening was held in Blackheath Press Chambers on March 13th by the local Branch, when Mr. S. Lambert presided. The principal speakers were Mrs. Okey, who devoted her attention to the economic condition of women and Mr. Crawford, who gave a number of cogent reasons why the cause of Women’s Suffrage should be supported. The resolution was carried(3)”

Three Famous Female Blackheathians

Emily Wilding Davison

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Emily Wilding Davison was also known as ‘Pem’ as signed on this photo (Courtesy of the LSE library) click here

Emily Wilding Davison was born in Blackheath in 1872 and is famous for her tragic death at the Epsom racecourse in 1913, where she jumped in front of the King’s horse, which many believe to be an act of protest in support of female enfranchisement. The suffragettes martyred her death. ‘It is only men and women of superhuman generosity and courage who can die for those unseen, unheard, unknown. This is what Emily Wilding Davison has done(4)’ Non-suffragette papers paid their respects too, for example the Eastbourne Gazette poured its support for Davison and her cause ‘Emily Wilding Davison knew that thousand sof women in this country are the victims of sport, of the greed and passion of men(5)’ Davison’s funeral was written about in every paper and people lined the streets to mourn for her.

Millicent Garrett Fawcett

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Millicent Garrett Fawcett campaigning (courtesy of LSE library) click here

Born in Suffolk, Millicent Fawcett’s connection to the local area began with her education in Blackheath. On finishing her education, she went to see John Stuart Mill give a speech on the need for women’s suffrage and equal rights. She became quickly inspired by Stuart Mill and got involved in his suffrage campaign by collecting signatures at the age of 19. Stuart Mill would later praise Fawcett and her husband for championing women’s suffrage “The cause of women’s suffrage has no more active, judicious and useful friends than Mr and Mrs Henry Fawcett”. Fighting for women’s suffrage peacefully was a huge part of Millicent Fawcett’s life; she was president of the largest suffrage society of its time, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) from 1907-1919. Fawcett was also a major player in negotiating the all important Representation of the People Act in 1918, which gave some women the vote for the first time. Millicent Garrett Fawcett is the first woman commemorated as a statue in Parliament square.

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson

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Portrait of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, 1866 (Courtesy of the LSE library) click here

The first female doctor in England is the title hard earned by Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the sister of Millicent Garrett Fawcett, these sisters were both determined to strive for gender equality at all costs and Anderson was also educated in Blackheath.  Anderson was consistently rejected from medical schools purely because of her gender, despite her academic excellence. When the doors of the world of medicine were shut in her face constantly, she turned to nursing at the Middlesex Hospital and frustratingly she was barred due to complaints from her male colleagues, again because of her gender. Garrett Anderson’s even taught herself French, trained as a doctor in France (where it was legal for women) and was still denied a place on the British medical register when she returned. Finally in 1876, due to relentless campaigning by Garrett Anderson and her supporters, it became legal to be a female doctor at long last. The London School of Medicine for women appropriately appointed Anderson as its Dean in 1883 and she also became the first female Mayor in Adleburgh, Suffolk in 1908.

Blackheath’s suffrage history is fascinating; from the 1870s-1910s suffrage campaigners met to discuss progress and further ideas. The area educated the first female doctor, the force behind he suffragist movement and was birthplace to a suffrage martyr. Not bad for Greenwich, eh?

 

Bibliography:

  1. Thursday 22nd of March, Man of Ross, and General Advertiser, British Newspaper Archive  
  2.  Saturday 1st March 1879, Kentish Mercury, British Newspaper Archive
  3. Friday 28th March 1913,Common Cause, British Newspaper Archive
  4. Friday 13th June 1913, The Suffragette, British Newspaper Archive
  5. Wednesday 18th June 1913, Eastbourne Gazette, British Newspaper Archive