Friday 19 May 2017

Votes for Women!

Over the weekend of 20th and 21st May, Chester will play host to their very own Women of the World (WOW) Festival. Based at Storyhouse, WOW will feature a line-up of talks, performances, panel discussions and workshops dedicated to celebrating women and girls worldwide. The festival hopes to bring women and men together to examine the obstacles still faced today and how they can be overcome.Thanks to WOW, I was intrigued to delve into Chester’s past to discover how women of Chester have strived to make the world a fairer, more equal place.

Little is known about Chester’s connection to the ‘Votes for Women’ movement, however the discovery of an article written in 1939 to celebrate the 21st anniversary of women’s enfranchisement, sheds considerable light on the activities and organisations in Chester dedicated to achieving votes for women.
‘Chester saw some of the activities of the suffragettes who worked for the cause with energy and enthusiasm, and were careful, as a rule, to keep within constitutional bounds.’
(Cheshire Observer, March 25th 1939, MF 225/74)

This sparked an idea! Given that newspapers were the principle means of communicating to a mass audience and the most widespread media form in the Edwardian age, I wondered whether it would be possible to piece together Chester’s suffrage past using old editions of local newspapers held on microfilm at the Record Office.I discovered a number of local newspaper reports detailing the peaceful activities of organisations that had set up branches in Chester, particularly the Chester Women’s Suffrage Society, the Women’s Freedom League and the National Union of Women’s Suffragist Societies (NUWSS). An article written by a ‘Lady Correspondent’ remarks that all branches of the NUWSS, including the Chester branch, stood for the ‘enfranchisement of women worked for on peaceful and law-abiding lines, and that the recourse to violence is destructive.’ (Chester Chronicle, 18th July 1914, MF 204/38).Unlike more militant organisations such as the Women’s Social and Political Union, evidence suggests that organisations in Chester concentrated on legal and peaceful means of drawing attention to their cause by arranging speeches, events and the sale of merchandise to raise funds. The Women’s Freedom League even opened a Suffrage shop at 45 St. Werburgh’s Street where they sold merchandise such as badges. 
Chester Chronicle, 13th January 1912, MF 204/36

Chester Chronicle, 16th February 1918, MF 204/268

Despite the preference for legal and peaceful means of protest in Chester, Emmeline Pankhurst, founder of the more militant WSPU, visited the city in January 1912. Despite the Hall not being filled, reports indicate that Mrs. Pankhurst received a ‘good reception’. Speaking with ‘great clearness and… putting her points with telling effect’, Mrs. Pankhurst declared that she wanted ‘every human being, if possible, to have some control over the spending of taxation and the making of laws’. Mrs. Pankhurst also spent time defending militancy commenting that ‘it was not the reasonable patient person who ever got anything’ and posing the question ‘Were the women of Chester prepared to help?’
Chester Chronicle, 13th January 1912, MF 204/36

The article I first found in the Cheshire Observer dated 1939 reveals that there was one particular incident that saw the events in Chester make widespread national news.
‘There was a notable incident however, when their zeal outran their discretion and they brought themselves in conflict with the law. It occurred in the summer of 1912, and the Prime Minister, Mr. Asquith, was the victim of their violence.’
(Cheshire Observer, March 25th 1939, MF 225/74)
On his return from Dublin, Prime Minister Herbert Asquith paid a visit to Chester. Arriving at Chester Station on Saturday 20th July 1912, the Prime Minister made his way to the Town Hall to meet the gathered crowds.
‘About twenty past two there was a commotion among the crowd… The Prime Minister had arrived… The fleet of cars sailed into the Square almost noiselessly, and the third car, decorated with blue ribbons, contained the Prime Minister.’(Chester Chronicle, 20th July 1912, MF 207/36)

‘There was a spasm of violent excitement among the crowd as it stopped. Something had happened which not everybody could see, but everybody could see a stalwart policeman pounce on a protesting young woman and forcibly haul her off to the lock-up. She was a suffragette, a bag of flour had been thrown (it was said) at the Prime Minister’s car, and she had been arrested for it’.
Chester Chronicle, 20th July 1912, MF 207/36
A report from the Cheshire Observer dated July 27th 1912 harked at the ‘Exciting and alarming incident’, describing how the ‘excited lady’ appeared to ‘rush out of the crowd and hurl something at the car’.
‘Instantly, P.C. Baker secured the lady, and at almost the same moment another lady was heard shouting and pushing through the crowd. P.C. Wakelin pushed her back… As the lady in custody was taken past his car on her way to the Police Office, she jeered at him, and the crowd returned the compliment to her.’ (Cheshire Observer, 27th July 1912 MF 225/35)

Reporting on the aftermath of ‘The Chester Incident’, the Cheshire Observer recounted events at the Police Court. Charged with the assault of Frank Clark who had been driving the car that was hit by flour, the assailant was identified as Mary Phillips, a journalist from Cornwall. Giving evidence, the Chief Constable asked ‘the Bench to make an example of the defendant.’ (Cheshire Observer, 27th July 1912 MF 225/35)
‘There was no doubt that the missile was intended for the Prime Minster. If Cabinet Ministers could not travel about the country without attempts being made to assault them, then the country must be coming to state of anarchy.’ (Cheshire Observer, 27th July 1912, MF 225/35). Despite denying the charge of assault and protesting that if she had intended to injure the Prime Minister or damage the car she would have used a more dangerous missile, Mary Phillips was found guilty. She had the choice to pay 5s. in fines and additional costs, or receive seven days imprisonment in the second division. She refused to pay the fine, but it was later paid by a ‘prominent Chester Liberal’ whose identity remains unknown still.

Cheshire Observer, 27th July 1912, MF 225/35

By piecing together the newspaper articles above, we can come to understand that the women of Chester were engaged with the political campaign to give women the vote and furthermore, that the streets of Chester did witness militant action to advance this aim. 2018 marks 100 years since the Representation of the People Act 1918 gave the vote to around 8.4 million  women over the age of 30 who met certain conditions, including owning a property. It took a further decade for women to receive the vote on the same terms as men with the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act 1928 extending the vote to all women over the age of 21.

1 comment:

  1. A fascinating and very interesting article. I've been doing some research of my own of a a prominent Chester lady - Phyliis Brown - who was President of the Chester Branch of the Women's federation League. She was also a "prominent Chester Liberal" as was her husband Harry Faulkner Brown of the Browns of Chester family. Could she have been the person who paid Mary Phillips' fine? I'd like to think so.