Tag Archives: Mount Pleasant Road

Suffragette City – Getting the Vote

During 2018 (and just before) Running Past has looked at the activities of the Lewisham Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) branch and many of its activists. In this last post on the Lewisham’s militant suffragettes, which coincides with the centenary of the first General Election that women were able to vote in on 14 December 1918,  we look at the first electoral registers that they appeared in and those early elections that women were able to vote in.

The Electoral Registers

Sadly, Lewisham’s electoral registers for 1918 and 1919 seem to not have been retained – annual electoral registers were introduced in the Representation of the People Act of 1918); the earliest post-women’s suffrage records that Lewisham’s Archives possess are an addendum to the 1919 Electoral Register and the full Register of 1920. The previous Lewisham Register had been collected in 1915.  As part of the research for this post, the Electoral Registers of the addresses of all the key activists were reviewed to see who was there, and who was entitled to vote in 1920.

In virtually all of the properties where the suffragette activists had lived before the war the WSPU member and their household have moved on.  It had been thirteen years since Eugenia ‘Jeannie’ Bouvier had set up the Lewisham WSPU branch, and at least 6 years since most of the women had been actively involved in the WSPU.   The exodus was not surprising, as around three quarters of housing nationally was privately rented in 1918, and it was a sector with relatively little security of tenure, so moving home was relatively common.

7 Oakfield Road (above) had been the home of May Billinghurst – it was the address given at her various arrests and that used when May was secretary of the Greenwich WSPU branch.  Her father had died in 1912 (the top Register in the group above was for that year) and the family had moved on by the end of World War 1.  The Marsdens were living there with Henrietta’s name appearing on the 1920 Electoral Register, in part, at least due to a previous occupant’s sacrifices.

At 62 Manor Park (above), the Leighs had been replaced by the Coates.  Even had the Leigh’s still be there the Miss Leigh in charge of selling ‘Votes for Women’ (it was never clear which of the sisters it was) would not have appeared in 1920 as Cornelia would have been 29 and Gladys 27 – both younger than the 30 year old qualifying age for women voting.    The differences in the two registers is clear though with the large number of women appearing in the 1920 variant.

Perhaps the most militant of Lewisham’s suffragettes, or at least the one with the most brushes with the law, was Clara Lambert.  The Lamberts had moved on from the family home at 174 Glenfarg Road by 1916 (they weren’t there in the 1916 Kelly’s Directory) where they have moved in around 1906.  The beneficiary of suffragette activities there in 1920 was Kathleen Tidy.

The Berlin Road that Christina Campbell had lived in was no more, it had been renamed Canadian Avenue after the War.  The occupants in 1920 were the Cowells; Alice Cowell was to appear on the Electoral Register there in 1920, along with several male household members.

114 Burnt Ash Hill (below) had been home to the Llewhellin’s, they had moved on although what was, perhaps, more interesting in terms of social history was that the extent to which houses had been subdivided since 1911 into flats.  In 1911 the Llewhellins had been the only house split, this seems to have happened after Arthur’s early death in 1906.  By 1920, virtually all the houses in that part of Burnt Ash Hill had been divided into flats.

32 Mount Pleasant Road, had been home to the founder and stalwart of the Lewisham branch, Eugenia (Jeannie) Bouvier.  Jeannie was still just at Mount Pleasant Road in 1920, there were adverts offering Russian tuition there in the Workers’ Dreadnought in early 1921.  However, the only name on the Electoral Register for 32 in 1920 was George Lapman; it is quite possible that despite her years devoted to the struggle she never became a British Citizen.  In any case, she returned to Russia late in 1921, and, as we will cover later, she would never have had the opportunity to vote in a Parliamentary election anyway.

The only active Lewisham WSPU member that remained in the home she was active from was Caroline Townsend.  Caroline and her sisters, Annie and Hannah, had been living at 188 Malpass Road, but had moved to 27 Murillo Road (pictured below) ahead of the 1911 census.  They had presumably bought the house as Annie and Hannah were on the elector register for County and Local Council elections in 1915 – the 1894 Local Government Act had given the small number of women who were homeowners non-Parliamentary voting rights. But the 1920 Register saw the former Branch Secretary on the Elector Register too.

The Elections

The first election under the new rules brought in by the Representation of the Peoples Act that meant women over 30 (and all men over the age of 21, plus all soldiers of 19 or over) could vote was held on Saturday 14 December 1918. The election had been due in 1916 but had been postponed due to the war. There was subsequent legislation, which received Royal Assent in November 1918, which allowed women to stand for election – the age limit was to make little sense in that women over 21 were able to stand for Parliament but couldn’t vote until they were 30.

While many women up and down the country exercised their right to vote – a few stood for election including Christabel Pankhurst standing for the short-lived Women’s Party in Smethwick and one, Constance Markievicz, of Sinn Fein won a Dublin seat although like other members of the party she didn’t take her seat.

In Lewisham though, there were no elections, and women had to wait to exercise their vote for the first time in Parliamentary terms at least.  In both Lewisham East and Lewisham West there were Conservative Coalition Candidates who were elected unopposed Assheton Pownall and Sir Edward Feetham Coates respectively.

The reason for the unopposed election lay within the Coalition of Conservatives and part of the Liberal Party that had emerged from World War One.  Most Conservatives, some Liberals and a couple of Labour candidates were given what were referred to as ‘Coalition Coupons’ which meant that they were not opposed by other parts of the coalition.  The Conservative candidates in both the Lewisham constituencies had Coalition Coupons.

The constituencies of Lewisham East and Lewisham West were not wildly different to their current counterparts; Lewisham East consisted the following wards – Blackheath (Blackheath north of the railway), Church (centred around St Margaret, Lee), Manor (much of the present Lee Green ward), South (Grove Park and south Lee), along with parts of Lewisham Park (Hither Green), and some of Catford (the largely rural area to the south of Brownhill Road).  Lewisham West consisted of Brockley, Forest Hill, Sydenham, and the remaining parts of the wards of Catford and Lewisham Village.

The first election then that Lewisham’s women and poorer men would have been able to vote in were the London County Council (LCC) elections on 6 March 1919.  The LCC was a forerunner of the current Great London Authority, albeit over a smaller area and having very different responsibilities. The Conservatives and Liberals didn’t stand in the LCC elections using what were effectively proxy parties, Municipal Reform and Progressive Party  as surrogates.  In Lewisham West the two Municipal Reform candidates narrowly defeated those put up by the Progressives.  In Lewisham East, as in several other constituencies, Municipal Reform candidates were elected unopposed.

So, for the women of Lewisham East, there was an even longer wait, until the Borough Elections in November 1919 to be able to put their marked voting slips into a ballot box.

In Parliamentary terms, the first time that Lewisham women had a vote was in a by election in Lewisham West in September 1921, following the death of Sir Edward Coates.  This was a slightly odd affair – with the Conservative, Phillip Dawson, then known as Unionist, candidate just holding off the Anti-Waste League, backed by the Daily Mail owner in protest against what it saw as high levels of Government spending; a Liberal candidate also stood.   The National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship, the successor of the non-militant National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, had held a public meeting during the campaign with all three candidates speaking.  In the end the NUSEC decided not to back any candidate.

In Lewisham East, the first Parliamentary vote in the constituency was not until the General Election of 1922,  but like buses, three came along quite quickly with further elections in 1923 and 1924. The Conservative/Unionist Sir Assheton Pownall was returned on each occasion, he was finally defeated by Labour’s Herbert Morrison in 1945.

Credits

  • The press cutting is  from The Times of Thursday, Sep 08, 1921
  • Access to the Electoral Registers was via the always helpful Lewisham Archives, the help was particularly beneficial on this occasion, as I had failed to notice the early registers in a separate cupboard.
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From Russia to Rushey Green and Back – Eugenia Bouvier, a Lewisham Suffragette

This week marks the centenary of the Royal Assent of the Representation of the People Act 1918 which gave some women the right to vote (it would be another decade before voting equality with men was to be achieved). It is worth reflecting on, and celebrating, the life of a woman who made Lewisham her home and was actively involved with the struggle – Eugenia Bouvier, usually known as Jeannie.

She was a Russian émigré who was born, Eugenia Anna Weber in 1865.  Little seems to be known about her early years but she married the Italian born Paul Emile Bouvier in St Petersburg in August 1888 

They settled in Catford, just off Stanstead Road, at 21 Ravensbourne Road – they were there when the census enumerators called in 1891 – he was a French teacher, initially at King’s College, London and then at the nearby St Dunstan’s College in Catford.  They were well enough off to be able to afford a servant – a 20 year old, Alice Whiffin.  They remained there for the rest of the decade as, somewhat ironically, given later events, Paul appeared on the electoral register there until 1899. They had a daughter, Irene Eugenie, in 1893 whilst living there.

There is no mention of them in the 1901 census, although given the struggles that officialdom seemed to have struggled with both her names they may just be hidden in spelling errors and poor handwriting.  It is known that at some point Jeannie was living at 32 Mount Pleasant Road (1).  She was widowed in 1904 when Paul died, aged just 46.

Her home in Mount Pleasant Road (immediately to the left of the house shown below) was badly damaged during the Blitz, along with several neighbouring properties which were largely destroyed. The site had been cleared by the time the Ordnance Survey surveyed the area in 1949 and had flats on it built soon after.

Like the two other suffragettes that Running Past has covered, May Billinghurst and Emily Davison, Jeannie was actively involved in direct action and was arrested twice due in the struggle.  She was known to have interrupted a meeting in Reading in January 1908 being addressed by the Chief Secretary for Ireland, Augustine Birrell, she and others shouted ‘Votes for Women’ at regular intervals.

In February the same year she was arrested as part of the ‘pantechnicon incident’ when a hired lorry was used as a ‘Trojan Horse’ in an unsuccessful attempt to enter the House of Commons.  There were scuffles with the police, mainly in an attempt to resist arrest, and lots of arrests including Jeannie.

There were 50 suffragettes arrested and they appeared Westminster Police Court – the press noted that the ‘ wily leaders escap(ed) arrest.’

The defendants, including Jeannie, were described as mostly being ‘ladies of refinement and education’ and charged with ‘disorderly conduct.’ The sentence was to find a surety of £20 or 6 weeks in jail (2)

There were further incidents later in 1908 where Jeannie is reported as peacefully disrupting meetings and receptions attended by the Prime Minister and other Cabinet Ministers.

In July 1909 she was arrested again in a ‘raid’ on the House of Commons – Jeannie threw a stone through the window of the Privy Council Offices, she was one of the first militants to adopt the tactic of window-breaking and was arrested and charged with criminal damage.  Jeannie said that the action was to show “what we thought of the Prime Minister in refusing these ladies admission to the House of Commons.”

She appeared at Bow Street Magistrates Court in front of London’s Chief Stipendiary Magistrate – Albert de Rutzen.  He compared her to ‘hooligan boys in the street’; she compared her actions with men who had used similar methods protesting against the Reform Act.  She demanded to be considered as a political prisoner; he regarded her as a common criminal.  He was the magistrate; she was the prisoner and was fined £5 plus 2/6d damages or a sentence of a month at Holloway – she didn’t pay the fine (3).

Like many suffragettes sentenced to imprisonment she went on hunger strike and was released early, after just 10 days in Holloway (4).

She was secretary of the Lewisham Women’s Social and Political Union for several years – regularly chairing meetings – including  at a ‘rowdy meeting at Blackheath’ Concert Halls in October 1909 when medical students broke up seating and let of stink bombs and fireworks – leading to the police being called (5) as well as meetings in New Cross in May (6) and November 1908 (7).  She was a regular speaker for the Women’s Social and Political Union both locally – including street meetings like this in Catford (8).

She is known to have spoken at a meeting on Blackheath, presumably at Whitefield’s Mount, in September 1909 and in 1912 was present at the opening of new WSPU offices in Lewis Grove in Lewisham where a crowd of around three thousand became hostile throwing eggs (9).

She went well beyond her local area and was a regular speaker in favour of women’s suffrage elsewhere in the country – including a meeting with Annie Kenney where a firecracker was let off inside the meeting (10).   She gave a provocative speech in  Lewisham market in early 1913 (11)

the life of men will be made so miserable that they will rush to the Prime Minsiter and beseech him to give the vote to women…men would cry for mercy … militancy had brought the women’s question to the forefront of politics

She was ‘followed by 200’ mainly men and had to be escorted to the tram by police amidst a ‘good deal of jeering (12).’

The last definitive political involvement was work in the East End with Sylvia Pankhurst speaking at conferences opposing conscription in 1915 and 1916.  Pankhurst described her as a ‘brave, persistent Russian.’ In addition to be an asset to the work of Sylvia Pankhurst in her own right, she proved useful in being able to translate and interpret for the Russian emigres in the East End.

She returned to post-revolutionary Russia in 1921, proud that her family wealth had been seized after the Revolution, suggesting that the wealth ‘ought to have taken.. from me years ago, and from all of us who lived on the backs of the people’.

She remained there until her death in 1933 (13), working for at least some of this time at the Comintern in Moscow.

Notes

  1. Iris Dove (1988) Yours In The Cause – Suffragettes in Lewisham, Greenwich & Woolwich p5
  2. 13 February 1908 – Sheffield Independent
  3. The Times (London, England), Wednesday, Feb 17, 1909; pg. 10; Issue 38885
  4. 12 July 1909 – Yorkshire Evening Post
  5. Kentish Mercury 15 October 1909
  6. Kentish Mercury 08 May 1908
  7. Kentish Mercury 20 November 1908
  8. Woolwich Gazette 11 June 1909
  9. Dove op cit p7
  10. Wiltshire Times and Trowbridge Advertiser 06 November 1909
  11. Lewisham Borough News 7 February 1913
  12. ibid
  13. Dove op cit p7

WPSU Banner Photo Credit – 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.

For more detail on Eugenia’s life after Lewisham an excellent starting point is ‘From Russia to East London — and back again: Eugeníe Bouvier (1865-1933), suffragette and socialist.

Census and related data via Find My Past