While the national struggle for women’s suffrage has been well documented, the picture is much less clear at the local level. In the year of the centenary of (some) women getting the vote Running Past has been looking back at the work of the Lewisham Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) branch, putting it in the context of what was happening nationally.
The Lewisham branch seems to have been one of the most active – Running Past has looked at a number of the key members of the branch along with activities in Lee, Hither Green as well as the public meetings and repeated attacks on the Lewisham Post Office. This post continues this with looking at the branch itself, the people involved, where the branch was based and some of the activities not covered in other posts.
The newspapers ‘Votes for Women’ (see above (1)) and ‘The Suffragette’ in days when print media was vital in getting the message across to the public at a time when the local and national press wasn’t always that supportive. One woman was key in this, Miss Leigh from Manor Park, she organised the sellers around Blackheath, Catford and Lewisham. Regular sales pitches included several of the cinemas, the market and at the Obelisk (2). There is a bit more on her in the post on activity in Hither Green and Lee.
The Obelisk was the location of one of their shops – it was just around the corner from Sainsburys which we will return to below; but the major public presence in Lewisham was a shop front rented at 107 Lewisham High Street, between 1908 and 1911. This was just the second shop opened by the WSPU, after one in Kensington (3). It is pictured below, probably a few years later, as J H Fletcher.
The location was convenient for communications of the era as it was next door to the Lewisham Post Office, this was to be somewhat ironic given the level of suffragette attacks on the building in 1913. In the September 1913 attack, the former WSPU shop was used to try to put out the fire (4).
The shop in the middle of what was still then referred to as the Costers Market and was open daily from 2 to 8 and on Thursdays between 10:00 and 12:30 (5). The last reference to it was in June 1911 when a clearance sale was reported (6).
The next shop was at The Obelisk, pictured below, a few years later, almost next door to the Sainsbury’s shop was at 9a Loampit Vale; for those with only recent knowledge of the town centre – it was at the station end of the High Street more or less opposite the church of St Stephen. The area was lost the late 1980s to the major roundabout and it is now covered by the tower blocks of the current redevelopment. It may well have been on a short-term lease as it only referred to in copies of Votes for Women from February to August 1912 (7).
Their next base was very much an office rather than a shop, it was an upper floor office at 1a Lewis Grove (pictured below). They took up the lease at the end of August 1912 (8). It certainly wasn’t a visible presence from the street – when the Lewisham Borough News visited them in early March 1913, there was no mention of the WSPU on the street door, just on the door at the top of the stairs. As militancy grew the divisions in terms of their activities locally grew too and the paper described them as ‘troublesome women’ (9).
Pressure was brought on their landlord, variously described as Mr Dundas or Dubois, to move the Lewisham WSPU on and towards the end of March, the Lewisham Borough News announced that ‘Lewisham Suffragettes Vacate their Citadel.’ (10)
There were also short term shops in a couple of locations in Blackheath, which will be covered in a forthcoming post. In the gaps between the various Lewisham shops the branch was effectively run from Christina Campbell’s home at 28 Berlin Road (see ‘box’ below).
After the loss of Lewis Grove, branch and other meetings were held at The Priory Rooms, 410 Lewisham High Street – more or less opposite Mount Pleasant Road. One of the first reported meetings was in early May 1912, another period when they were ‘homeless’, where the ‘cycling suffragette’ Rose Lamartine Yates spoke – so many turned up that had to move halls (11).
The Branch Secretary was one of the key roles in the branch – Christina shared the role with Caroline Townsend from mid-way through 1911, after branch stalwart Jeannie Bouvier stood down – seemingly to spend more time speaking around London. May Billinghurst took over role of Lewisham branch secretary briefly whilst Jeannie Bouvier was recovering from her hunger strike in 1909 (13), before the Greenwich branch was set up in 1910. All of these women have specific posts on them.
Another woman who briefly acted as secretary was Lizzie McKenzie when Jeannie Bouvier stood down in mid-1910, for ‘private reasons’ (14). She lived with her railway employee husband Arthur, they were in Nelgard Road in Catford in the 1901 census. While they were living at La Quinta, on Baring Road by 1911 neither was registered in the 1911 census. Like most of the branch activists she was an occasional speaker, including one of the rarer meetings at Lee Green in June 1909 (15).
Any self-respecting political group needed a banner; the first one seems to have some rather strange wording as a 1907 local press report noted that a meeting in Catford their ‘usual banner …..with the well-known cry of the unsexed female’ was not there, led to some odd interchanges and interruptions.
The final version was the work of Olive Llewhellin, also carried an unusual motto ‘Dare Never Count the Throe’ – it is suggested by the Museum of London who now own the banner, that this is a warning for people not to underestimate the suffragettes’ struggle.
In terms of the imagery on the banner of the figure of Justice is to emphasise the justice of the Votes for Women cause and the arrows in the corner are prison ones (several branch members ended up in Holloway and other prisons).
The branch attempted to organise in workplaces e It wasn’t just shops that sought support from – hospitals, nursing homes, offices and factories being visited (17), with May Billinghurst trying to organise amongst teachers.
There was support in the town centre from Chiesmans, who asked local woman Edith New to address their sports day in 1908 (18). Edith was one of the first suffragettes imprisoned and became a national organiser. There were suffragette themed displays at an unnamed drapery shop in 1910 (19) and in 1908 at Sainsbury’s (20) – who had a series of shops at the Obelisk next to the Roebuck (above).
While women did not have the vote, it didn’t stop them using the 1910 General Election as a means of campaigning and challenging the views of candidates. ‘Votes for Women’ noted that Liberal candidates were ‘triumphantly kept out’ although this seems to have been as much to do with views of the party nationally as the local candidate in Lewisham had expressed support in his manifesto, to a greater extent than the sitting Conservative candidate. One of the most ‘indefatigable workers’ locally was significantly noted as May Billinghurst (21) – pictured.
And finally, a branch photograph….
It was probably taken in the summer of 1913, because that’s when the banner at the back was finished, the photo was taken at ‘Yoroshi’, which appears to have been 3 Ravensbourne Park and was home to Caroline Selby. It is where her nieces, and branch activists, Violet Long and Frances Samson also lived, they both worked as nurses.
- Back row Left to right: Cornelia ‘Nellie’ Leigh, Sarah Jane Llewhellin, Miss Trill, Miss G. Trill (the 1911 census suggests that they lived at 45 Pepys Road)
- Second row: Clara Lambert, Caroline Townsend, Hannah Townsend, Miss Samson (see above)
- Front row: Florence May, Christina Campbell (later Kay – see box above), Ethel Llewhellin and niece Pinkie, Olive Llewhellin, Miss E. Warwick, Violet Long (see above).
- Votes for Women 13 June 1913
- Iris Dove (1988) Yours in the Cause, Suffragettes in Lewisham, Greenwich and Woolwich p4
- Votes for Women 24 September 1909
- Lewisham Borough News 12 September 1913
- Votes for Women 21 October 1910
- Votes for Women 16 June 1911
- Votes for Women August 16 1912.
- Votes for Women 6 September 1912
- Lewisham Borough News 7 March 1913
- Lewisham Borough News 21 March 1913
- Votes for Women 10 May 1912
- Elizabeth Crawford (2006) The Women’s Suffrage Movement in Britain and Ireland: A Regional Survey p202
- Votes for Women 30 July 1909
- Votes for Women 29 July 1910
- Votes for Women 18 June 1909
- Lewisham Borough News 6 September 1907
- Votes for Women 3 June 1910
- Dove, op cit p11
- Votes for Women 2 July 1908
- Votes for Women 21 January 1910
Thank you to the always helpful Julie Robinson at Lewisham Archives in terms of press cuttings held there from Lewisham Borough News
Census and related data comes from Find My Past
- The picture of the Post Office is courtesy of Luke Anthony Briscoe on the excellent Catford and Lewisham Way Back When Facebook Group.
- Postcards of The Obelisk are from eBay in August 2016
- Postcard of Sainsburys is from eBay in September 2017
- Photo of Rose Lamartine Yeats is via Wikimedia Commons
- Photo of May Billinghurst is via Wikimedia Commons
- WPSU Banner Photo – this is part of the collection of the Museum of London, as is the photograph who allow its use for non-commercial research such as this.
- The Branch Photo is also part of the collection of the Museum of London