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

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