February is the 100th anniversary of the Representation of the People Act 1918, which enabled all men and some women over the age of 30 to vote for the first time. John H Grigg looks at the part suffragettes in West London played in the struggle.
In the early years of the twentieth century the thought of women voting in national elections was considered ludicrous. Herbert Nield, the Conservative MP for Ealing, a constituency that covered the Chiswick area, provoked roars of laughter at a public meeting when he said giving the vote to women could lead to a woman being the House of Commons speaker – and women might even be High Court judges!
In 1907 a Chiswick branch of the Women’s’ Social and Political Union (WSPU) was formed at 21 Brandenburg Road (renamed Burlington Road in 1917), the home of Mr and Mrs East. Mrs East was the treasurer and Miss Clarissa Coombs of 98 Sutton Court Road was the secretary.
Stink bombs and fighting in the Town Hall
Soon after the Chiswick WSPU branch was formed Clarissa organised a meeting at Chiswick Town Hall. Mrs Pankhurst’s daughter Christabel came to speak but her speech was rendered inaudible by a hundred young men in the gallery who created pandemonium and threw stink bombs into the hall below. Male supporters of the suffrage went into the gallery and a free fight broke out. Chairs were broken and the Council presented a bill for £1.2s.6d which Chiswick WSPU refused to pay until a summons was issued.
Six years later, in November 1913 Clarissa, the leading light of the Chiswick WSPU, debated women’s suffrage at Chiswick Town Hall with Mrs Harold Norris who was the wife of a Chiswick Councillor. Mrs Norris’s case was that men were mentally and physically superior to women, and were better able to cope with imperial, international and military matters. She said the custom of men providing shelter and protection for women was the natural order of things.
Clarissa demanded freedom for women. 50% of workers were underpaid women yet men made every law concerning women in the labour market. She mocked the so called protection that men gave women mentioning the White Slave Trade and assaults on women and children. Sections of the audience were shocked when she referred to venereal disease and prostitution. A ballot was held and the case for women’s suffrage was lost by 253 votes to 189.
Post boxes vandalised and Acton golf course dug up
Perhaps that vote reflected the suffragettes’ unpopularity. They were pouring black dye into pillar boxes in Chiswick and dug up a part of Acton golf course. There was no local window smashing, but two women from Acton were arrested for smashing windows at the National Insurance Commission Building in Buckingham Gate. In 1908 a WSPU house meeting at Grove Mount, Grove Park Road Chiswick was interrupted by tremendous bangs at the window. Upon inspection a hole the size of a ½ inch bullet was found in the glass but no bullet was found.
Rescued from the mob
Clarissa had a portable rostrum and held regular open air meetings at the corner of Chiswick High Road and Duke Road. At one meeting in 1913 she was set upon by a group of men and the Chiswick Times reported she was several times was ‘swept from the platform’. The meeting was taking place outside Dr Harris’s house and Mrs Harris came out, seized an exhausted Clarissa and her companion, and drew them indoors. Later Mrs Harris said what she did was not out of sympathy for the suffragette cause, a subject that did not interest her, but for another woman who had been set upon by a crowd of men. It was the most shameful scene she had ever witnessed.
Kew Gardens Tea House burnt down
The most serious acts were the burning of empty buildings. Mrs Catherine Strange of Dukes Avenue, Chiswick ran tea houses in four London Parks, and those in Kew Gardens and Regents Park were burnt down by WSPU suffragettes. Lilian Lenton and Olive Wharry, who were responsible for the Kew Gardens fire on 20th February 1913, were caught and imprisoned. Both were sentenced to 18 months imprisonment and were sent to Holloway where they immediately went on hunger strike. Lenton was quickly released after becoming seriously ill after a botched attempt at force feeding. Wharry was released after a 32 days hunger strike, which she kept secret from the prison authorities by passing her food to other prisoners.
The tea house business was registered in the name of a man, and the culprits said that they would not have burnt down the Kew Gardens Tea House had they known the business was owned by a woman.
Mrs Strange visited the WSPU headquarters in Clements Inn to ask that her other Tea Houses in Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens be spared. She pointed out that between 40 and 50 women had been thrown out of work by the destruction of the refreshment places in Kew and Regents Park. Miss Kerr, of the WSPU said that the women would be glad later that they had helped women get the vote. “If you could have seen their faces,” replied Mrs Strange, “when they came to work and found there was none, you would have a contrary opinion.”
The WSPU militants said they would cease their activities only if they were given the vote, but a letter to the Chiswick Times pointed out the government could not be seen to be giving away to violence, and the activities of these ‘odious ladies’ made the task of peaceful campaigners more difficult.
A Middle Class Movement
The movement in Chiswick, as elsewhere, was largely, but not exclusively, a campaign of middle and upper class women. In Lancashire women were organised into trade unions in the cotton mills and campaigned for the vote and there was an active working class movement in East London led by Sylvia Pankhurst. South Acton was a very working class area, with a lot of women employed as laundry workers. Some of them got organised into a trade union where their priorities were better pay and conditions, but there is little evidence of women from the working class areas of Brentford and South Acton being activists in the suffragette movement.
Peaceful Campaigners and the Anti-Suffrage League
The WSPU got all the publicity and are the most remembered today, but there were hundreds of other suffrage societies which campaigned peacefully. The London Society for Women’s Suffrage, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, the Church League for Women’s Suffrage and the Women’s Freedom League all campaigned or had local branches. All groups banded together in marches to huge meetings Hyde Park and several of these passed through Brentford and Chiswick.
The feeling against votes for women, and particularly the WSPU, gave rise to the formation of the Anti-Suffrage League and a Chiswick branch, led by Mrs Harold Norris, was formed in 1908 and held regular public meetings.
Rachel (Ray) Strachey 1887 – 1940
In 1918, at the end of the war, women over 30 with property qualifications, or who were wives of men with the property qualification, were given the vote, and were entitled to stand for parliament. For the first time 17 women stood for parliament including Ray Strachey, a prominent suffrage campaigner, who stood in Brentford & Chiswick. ‘Ray’ was the daughter of a barrister and married to Oliver Stratchey, the brother of Lytton Stratchey. Her mother-in-law was Lady Jane Stratchey, a well-known suffragist. In 1913 she was elected ‘chairman’ of the London Society for Women’s Suffrage. During and after the war she campaigned on women’s employment issues, equal pay, and for women to be accepted into careers that were closed to women – such as the legal professions.
‘Ray’ stood for parliament as an independent candidate campaigning for women’s rights at the General Elections in Brentford and Chiswick in 1918, 1922 and 1923. She did best in1922, when Labour did not stand, gaining 7,804 votes against 10,150 for Conservative winner. Later she was a writer and a broadcaster and became secretary to Britain’s first woman MP, Lady Astor. In 1935 she became head of the Women’s Employment Federation.
Women like Clarissa Coombs and Ray Stratchey continued campaigning for all women to be enfranchised and that was finally achieved in 1928.
John H Grigg is a local historian who is writing a Labour history of West London.