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KEVIN DIXON: ‘Votes for Women’: Torquay’s Suffragists & Suffragettes

By This is SouthDevon  |  Posted: November 16, 2012

Annie Kenney and Christabel Pankhurst

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During the campaign for voting rights for women, Torquay had two campaigning organisations with differing views and tactics, writes local historian Dr Kevin Dixon

These were the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies and the Women's Social and Political Union.

They were to become known as the Suffragists & the Suffragettes.

In 1897 the various suffragist societies united into one organisation, the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies, led by Millicent Fawcett. By 1914 the NUWSS had over 600 societies and an estimated 100,000 members.

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The NUWSS attempted to convert public opinion by reasoned argument and were committed to peaceful change. Accordingly, they met with politicians to argue their case, issued leaflets and collected petitions. In the 1906 elections they put forward male candidates to compete with Liberal politicians who were opposed to female suffrage.

Public gatherings were used to gather support from across society. For instance, in January 1914 a public meeting titled ‘Why not give women the vote?’ was held at St. Marychurch Town Hall. This was reported as being "well-attended" with speakers coming from all three political parties - Lady Selborne (Conservative), Mrs. Alderton (Liberal) and Mr. Organ (Labour).

The NUWSS welcomed male members in an effort to convince more men to their point of view. Hence, in July 1913 Admiral Sir William Acland of the NUWSS motored a contingent of Torquay members to Exeter where they joined a large procession in a ‘pilgrimage’ march.

These peaceful marches were a familiar tactic of the NUWSS with Torquay’s Society members also organising missionary-like ‘pilgrimages’ to Totnes, Newton Abbot, Teignmouth, Dawlish and Starcross.

The Torquay NUWSS was middle class and supported by a number of prominent members of local society - Lady Acland was their Torquay President just before the Great War. It was consequently well-funded and able to open offices at 19 Abbey Road in 1914.

As Herbert Asquith and his Liberal party government refused to support legislation giving the women the right to vote, the NUWSS were particularly critical of local Liberals.

Although it was continually reminding the public that it was “non-militant and non-party”, the Torquay NUWSS was then seen by some as a Conservative-front organisation. For example, at a meeting in St. Marychurch Town Hall in 1913, the Chair Mrs. Alderton stated that she had “heard it said that the Torquay branch of the Society was a Tory organisation. If that were so, it was the fault of the women Liberals of Torquay”.

However, despite marching and reasoned debate, the bills for female suffrage brought before Parliament were each defeated.

One of the Suffragists, Emmeline Pankhurst, was so frustrated by this lack of progress that she founded the Women's Social and Political Union in 1903. The motto of the WSPU was ‘Deeds not Words’, and they were dismissive of the missionary methods of the established societies.

The tactics of the WSPU became confrontational and involved public disorder and a policy of violence against property. In 1906 the Daily Mail coined the term ‘Suffragette’ to distinguish the militants from the constitutional Suffragists.

In March 1911 a meeting at the Torquay Theatre was organised by the WSPU. It was titled ‘Votes for Women’ and the main speaker was Annie Kenney.

Annie was a working class suffragette who had been involved in a number of militant acts and who had undergone force-feeding in prison many times. Nevertheless, she remained determined to confront the authorities. At the meeting, Annie thanked the electorate for keeping the Liberal candidate out of Parliament, and commended “the splendid fishermen of Brixham who were keen supporters of the women’s cause”. She continued:

“Some people are inclined to think that an MP is a wonderful man, and that they just bow down to him. Women are not afraid of MPs (laughter). I am here to tell you that we women are going to have the vote, and that quickly (applauded).”

In July 1912, Christabel Pankhurst began organising a secret arson campaign and attempts were made by Suffragettes to burn down the houses of two members of the government who opposed women having the vote. These attempts failed but soon afterwards a house being built for Lloyd George, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, was badly damaged by fire.

In 1913 the WSPU arson campaign escalated and railway stations, cricket pavilions, racecourse stands and golf clubhouses were set on fire. Torquay’s police warned that Suffragettes were planning to target coastal resorts and burn down holiday accommodation.

On Derby Day in 1913 Emily Davison threw herself in front of King George V's horse and was trampled to death.

In response, the Government banned the WSPU’s demonstrations. Imprisonment, force feeding and a hostile press damaged the WSPU which saw a rapid decline in membership.

In May 1913 another Torquay WSPU meeting was held at the Museum Hall. The hostile Torquay Directory were there to report that only “a score of women” were present to hear Miss Mary Phillips, the Devonshire organiser, who “does not mince words in her advocacy of militancy”.

Mary announced that, due to the WSPU’s open air meetings being banned, “there would have to be more secret work and they would be more in the position of outlaws than they were before”.

Also at the meeting was Mrs. Kineton Parkes, the Secretary of the Women’s Tax Resistance League, a direct action group that refused to pay tax until women received the vote. Across Britain, more than 220 women participated in tax resistance between 1906 and 1918. One of these was a Miss Baker of St. Marychurch who had her goods seized after a hearing at Torquay Town Hall.

The “secret work” proposed by Mary Phillips came about in June 1914 when local Suffragettes attacked Torquay pillar boxes.

‘Votes for women or ceaseless militancy’ was inscribed on envelopes which were dropped into pillar boxes at Upton, the Strand, Torwood Gardens, Castle Circus, Forest Road and elsewhere. The Suffragettes had put ink cartridges in the envelopes to damage other letters. In response, the Police were tasked with preventing a repeat of the vandalism and they kept watch on local activists.

Women were partly enfranchised on February 6, 1918. The Representation of the People Act gave the vote to women over 30 who "occupied premises of a yearly value of not less than £5". But it was not until 1928 that the voting age for women was lowered to 21 in line with men.

Both the Torquay NUWSS and the WSPU had - in their own ways - played their part in campaigning for change .

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