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

Elizabeth Crooks, Herstory

Written By Lynne Dixon, June 2018

Will Crooks, the popular Labour MP for Woolwich in the early 1900s, notably has a high profile in history, but finding out about the wife of a well known man like Crooks presents difficulties. Why?

Wives manage to be hidden behind their husbands, not only in public life but also in the resources that reveal those hidden lives.  It seems especially true when trying to get around the algorithms giving access to electronically available material.  Some basic information about Elizabeth Crooks’ life can be found, and there are occasional glimpses of her linked to the public life of her husband, but beyond that, finding further information is not so easy.  Nothing daunted, I have eventually pieced together more about Elizabeth, which splashes some colour to her relatively shadowy figure.

Discovering Elizabeth Coulter

I first came across the name of Mrs Will Crooks on a committee membership list of the First World War period, but had no particular interest in ‘Mrs Will Crooks’ not being acquainted with the significance of the Crooks’ local legacy.  Much later the connection dawned on me and it was a small but significant ‘eureka’ moment.

Let me introduce you to the focus figure of this blog post; Elizabeth Coulter had been a lodger in the home of Will Crooks’ mother.  Already a widow, she is shown in the 1891 census as a ‘night lunatic attendant’.  Will’s first wife had died in 1892 leaving him with 6 children, and Elizabeth’s husband had died in 1890.  She and Will married in 1893.

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Mr and Mrs Will Crooks. Click here

Perhaps in those first years she was mainly occupied in caring for the children and looking after their home, experiences which gave her tremendous empathy for other wives in similar situations.  In 1901 she headed a deputation of the wives of the unemployed in the East End to Mr Balfour and then came a second march to the King in October 1905.  In talking about her involvement in this second march, her comments reveal how her own commitment to helping the poor started, and also her own reluctance to be involved in public life on her own account:

That is why I have tried to help the march of the women…..The stories that I am told at my door every night would break your heart.

“I have never intended to do anything in public life myself.  I have always felt my duty was at home; and I thought it would be enough for me to attend to the home and look after all Will’s little wants.

“But now they look to me to do more; and I feel I must do whatever I can, little as it may be.  Public life, though, is not for me. That is Will’s work.  If I studied my own inclinations I should be always in the midst of my home.  But the misery of the poor people stirs the heart; you feel you must do something; and I am thankful that, little as I have done, I have been encouraged by hundreds of kind letters urging me to continue in the good work.

“So there is it. I am going on. I shall march at the head of the women’s procession ….. ” (London Daily News 11th October 1905)

Elizabeth’s identification with the loneliness of the wives of the poor 

Women feel the hardships of unemployment more than men.  After all the man has his pals to see and talk with, and sometimes gets a bit of bread and cheese or a glass of beer. But there is no such comfort for the poor woman.  She has to stay at home day after day, with, perhaps, three or four hungry children, at her wits’-end to keep starvation from the door, while her husband searches vainly for work.” (Daily Telegraph and Courier, 4th November 1905)

By this time Elizabeth was well known locally for her involvement in the Poplar community including her time as the first Labour Mayoress in 1901, a tremendous achievement.

Mrs Crooks has done an immense amount of good by personal service – nursing the children, ministering to the sick, and cheering up the sad and sorrowful….. perhaps Mr Crooks was thinking of his wife when he declared that “the President of the Local Government Board ought to be a woman; then reforms would come more quickly.” (Framlingham Daily News, 16th October 1909.)

Putting together the puzzle

This was the time at which she and her husband undertook a much publicised tour of the Empire taking in Canada and Australia and which was widely covered in newspapers of those countries.

I have no doubt that Elizabeth was active in many ways during the First World War and amongst these wartime responsibilities she seems to have developed an interest in how to ease the daily chores of women.  There are innumerable adverts for the Commercial Gas Company in which Mrs Crooks’ is promoting the use of gas in cooking.  The earliest ones are in 1914:

The advert is headed ‘Letter received from Mrs Crooks wife of Mr W.M.CROOKS, M.P.’

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Elizabeth Crooks’ Commercial Gas Company advertisement

Dear Sir,

I should be glad if you will oblige me by putting my Gas Stove back.  I find the Electric Cooking Stove is not so good as the Gas Stove for Cooking. Please let me know so that I can have the present Electric Stove Removed.  Yours Faithfully, ELIZABETH CROOKS

Post War Elizabeth

Then in January 1918 a brief piece in The Vote refers to her joining the Consumers’ Council of the Ministry Food representing the ‘unorganised consumer’.  The Council was set up in 1918 to enlist the cooperation of the organised working classes and the Cooperative movement, functioning partly independently of the Ministry of Food.

Not long after in 1919, she was listed as a member of the Sub Committee of the Women’s Section of The Garden City and Town Planning Association.  The committee was investigating labour saving devices for women’s use in the home.  Although these are tiny glimpses into the window of Mrs Crooks’ life, perhaps we can surmise that now Elizabeth had entered public life on her own account. Her thoughts on the lives of women have also moved on and we can see the start of later feminist ideas about sharing responsibilities

“At present the average married woman’s working day is a flagrant contradiction of all trade-union ideals …….. If her husband’s hours are reduced to eight, well that gives her a chance, doesn’t it? The home and the children are, after all, as much his as hers.  I suggest they take it turn and turn about – one night he goes out and she looks after the house and the children; the next night she goes out and he takes charge of things at home.  She can sometimes go to the cinema, sometimes call on friends. (Daily Chronicle, 17th February 1919)

In 1921 Will Crooks died and I lose sight of her for a while before her second marriage to a family friend, William Adamson in 1927.

Elizabeth Crooks died in 1932 and is buried with Will in the City of London and Tower Hamlets Cemetery.  However, although there is a fine memorial stone to Will, there is not even a simple headstone for Elizabeth.  And much to my disappointment I have yet to find some traces of her public profile in our borough.  Even so, I feel she is worthy of our attention if only for the support she gave to her husband and perhaps one day evidence will emerge of activity in Woolwich.  

I feel there is so much more to find out about her, so why don’t you try and delve into Herstory yourself?

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