Votes for Women – Suffragettes and the Devon connection with the movement.

The 6th February is the centenary of Parliament passing the Representation of the People Act that allowed women over 30, who owned property, to Vote. One of the arguments of the Suffrage movement was that women had to pay taxes on property but were not allowed to vote for how that money was used.

Before 1832, all those who paid Poor Law Rates were allowed to vote, but the Great Reform Act for 1832 excluded women by introducing the term “male person” for voting eligibility in Parliamentary Elections. In 1869 the Municipal Franchise Act enabled female Rate Payers to vote for Town and Borough Councils. An article headed “Municipal Elections” in the North Devon Journal [4th November 1869 page 5d] quotes that “A large number of ladies exercised the privilege conferred upon them for the first time of recording their votes”.

Women, during the War, undertaking work usually done by men demonstrated their ability in the workplace and in public office and had earned them Political respect not accredited to them before.

It took another 10 years for women over 21, to finally achieved the vote equal to men when the Equal Franchise Act became law in July 1928.

Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst, the militant Suffragette leader, died in June only weeks before. In ‘The Times’ in 1999, she was named one of the 100 Most Important People of the 20th Century. Stating “she shaped an idea of women for our time: she shook society into a new pattern.”

[Photo Emmeline Pankhurst The Ascent of Woman by Melanie Phillips]
From the late 19th, beginning of the 20th Century there was a move by women to extend the ‘franchise’, the right to vote, to women but over the years successive Governments made promises that they failed to fulfil.

In 1897 Millicent Fawsett set up the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies(NUWSS) which organised constitutional campaigning, leafletting, petitioning and holding meetings.

Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia were members of NUWSS but came to believe that peaceful campaigning had been ineffectual and advocated a more radical, militant and increasingly more violent approach. They set up, in 1903, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) with the motto ‘Deeds not words’. It was this group that were nicknamed “Suffragettes”, other advocates of Votes for Women were called “Suffragists”. Suffragette actions included attacks on Public buildings, disruption of Liberal Party meetings, chaining themselves to railings including Buckingham Palace, setting fire to Post boxes resulting in arrests and imprisonment. A House of Commons debate was disrupted on 28th October by two Suffragettes chaining themselves to the grille of the Ladies Gallery. The grille had to be cut out to remove them.  In 1913 Emily Davison died under the hooves of the King’s horse riding in the Derby.

[Suffragettes chained to the Grille Illustrated London News 7th November 1908]
Suffragettes had started to go on Hunger Strike in 1909 to protest their treatment in prison, to combat this the authorities introduced Force-feeding but this caused a public outcry. The Government passed the “Prisoners’ Temporary Discharge Act” in March 1913, nicknamed the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’. The act allowed Suffragettes on Hunger Strike to be released when they became weak then re-arrested shortly afterwards to avoid them dying in Prison and becoming a martyr to the cause.

In April 1913, after an explosion at Lloyd George’s villa, Mrs Pankhurst had been arrested for incitement and sentenced to 3 years in prison.

Mrs Pankhurst had been constantly released on licence and rearrested throughout the year under the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’ and in August she escaped closely guarded recuperation quarters to leave for America.

Mrs Pankhurst returned from America in December aboard the liner ‘Majestic’ which was due to dock at Plymouth. As it was known that the authorities intended to arrest her when she landed, a band of Suffragettes travelled down from London to protest at her arrest. The Chief Constable, with ingenuity to circumvent an outbreak of violence, took a tug to the liner in Plymouth Sound and arrested her at sea. She was then taken to Exeter Prison. [Exeter Flying Post 06/12/1913 and Reminiscences of the West Western Morning News 16/12/1929]

Here in North Devon the newspapers show local interest in the campaign for Votes for Women :- Miss Rosalie Chichester in January 1914 hosted a non-militant pro-suffrage rally at Arlington Court North Devon. [NDJ 1st January 1914], Barnstaple Women’s Suffrage Society advertise an event [NDJ 1st February 1912]

The head line of “Suffragette Outrage or Not” in the North Devon Journal of 7th August 1913 concerned Hollerday House at Lynton, described as one of North Devon’s finest modern mansions. Built for Sir George Newnes it had stood empty and for sale since his death in 1910. Two American women had been conducted around the house on Sunday morning with the view to purchase. The fire on Monday night was reported to have started in two parts of the house, with explosions and it was known that the Suffragettes targeted arson at empty properties but the investigation was inconclusive.

[NDJ 7th August 1913 p 8 with photo]

At the outbreak of War, the WSPU militant activities ceased, concentration moving to the support of the war effort and the encouragement for women to replace men in traditionally male employment.

Sylvia Pankhurst split from the WSPU because she disagreed with her mother’s and sister’s support of military conscription, she supported pacifism and wanted to concentrate on wider social issues such as the devastating effect the war was having on the poor families at home.

[Cover of The Home Front]
She lived in the East End of London and in her book ’The Home Front’, [940.441 PAN on the shelves of the NDA], she describes her work towards alleviating the appalling poverty caused by the war on the wives and children in that area.

After the slum clearance in Bethnal Green in the 1960’s Sylvia Pankhurst and Suffragist Mary MacArthur’s work in the East End was commemorated by naming the new blocks of housing after them.

For a brief period, the Pankhursts owned a house in North Devon although it appears that only Christabel lived there as her mother Emmeline was away in Canada.

In December 1919 a Testimonial Fund had been launched in “The Times” to ‘defray the cost of a country house for Mrs and Miss Pankhurst and to secure for them an annuity’. Unfortunately, the extreme nature of the Pankhurst’s fight against the Establishment led to a poor response, about £2800, much less than the money raised for Millicent Fawcett the leader of the NUWSS the non-militant Suffragists who had not condoned the use of arson and violence. [The Fighting Pankhursts by David Mitchell NDA shelves]

A house, “Manorville”, in Westward Ho! was bought at a cost of £1500 and furnished in June 1920 but was sold in July 1921 and in August Christabel joined her mother in America. [Abstract of Title B1299/5 North Devon Record Office]

The 1918 legislation granting the partial vote to women also enabled them to stand as candidates for Parliament. Devon has the accolade that the first woman MP, Lady Astor, to enter the House of Commons in the by-election of 1919, was voted in to represent Plymouth. [Nancy Astor Portrait of a Pioneer by John Grigg NDA shelves]

…Assistant Librarian, Sandi

Further Reading – items you can find on our shelves:


North Devon Journal and the North Devon Herald newspapers

Pamela Vass: Breaking the Mould; The Suffragette Story in North Devon [D324/VAS]

D. Mitchell: The Fighting Pankhursts [920MIT]

Phoebe Hesketh: My Aunt Edith [92/RIG]

E Sylvia Pankhurst: The Home Front [940.441/PAN]

Antonia Raeburn: The Militant Suffragettes [324/RAE]

Midge Mackenzie: Shoulder to Shoulder; A Documentary by Midge Mackenzie [324/MAC]

Illustrated London News


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