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?

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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. 

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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

 

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.

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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]’.

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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

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).

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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.

References

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