Tag Archives: Oakcroft 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At 62 Manor Park (above), the Leighs had been replaced by the Coates.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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A Suffragette Pillar Box Attack in Blackheath

Universal suffrage for those of 18 and over is something that is now taken for granted; it wasn’t always thus though.  A pillar box on the edge of Blackheath may not seem the most obvious place for a piece of political history, but on 17 December 1912 an earlier version of this pillar box, in roughly this location, was one piece of the jigsaw in getting Votes for Women.

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A postbox on Aberdeen Terrace, which included some of what is now Pagoda Gardens, was the target of local suffragettes and had a black dye poured into it by three women, including one in an early wheelchair. Two of them were followed by a witness into Blackheath and then arrested.

20140521-221838-80318379.jpgThe woman in the wheelchair was Rosa May Billinghurst, Rosa was her mother’s name but she was generally known as May.  She was born and grew up at 35 Granville Park (below) in Lewisham in 1875 – the road runs up from close to the station to the Heath.

The family, including May, moved just around the corner to 7 Oakcroft Road, below, although like many suffragettes she was not recorded when the census enumerators called in 1911.

As a child she suffered total paralysis from polio, that left her disabled throughout her adult life. However, this did not prevent her becoming politically active in the Women’s Liberal Association before becoming a member of the Women’s Social & Political Union (WSPU) in 1907.  May’s parents provide significant financial support to the WSPU around this time. She is pictured below (via Wikipedia on a Creative Commons)

In 1910 she founded and was the first secretary of the Greenwich branch of the WSPU and that same year she took part in the ‘Black Friday‘ demonstrations where she was thrown out of her adapted tricycle and arrested. She was arrested several more times, and jailed for a week in 1911 for ‘obstruction’ in Parliament Square and for a month in 1912 for window smashing. It has been argued that

her hand-propelled invalid tricycle gave her a special advantage in the propaganda battle they were waging. It made it difficult, if not impossible, for the media to portray May as a howling harridan with little care for the safety of others

After her arrest in Blackheath, May Billinghurst was apparently pleased about being caught, telling the arresting officer “With all the pillar boxes we’ve done, there has been nothing in the papers about it – perhaps now there has been an arrest there will be something.”  It has been suggested that as many as 5,000 letters were damaged by the WSPU attacks. The press referred to them as ‘outrages’ (see Times Thursday, Dec 19, 1912; pg. 12)

Billinghurst kept her correspondence which is now housed at the London Metropolitan Univeristy, Women’s Library, with summaries are available on-line. It is clear that was a lot of support for her with Emmeline Pankhurst, advising May to defend herself and that

‘Your defence of course is the need for the enfranchisement of women and the failure to get it by peaceful means’.

It seems that the Government was highly fearful of the case, and another similar one in Tanners Hill and according to a letter from Bilinghurst, the Court took the unprecedented step of banning women from the public gallery at The Old Bailey for the cases.

Her co-defendant, Grace Michell,  lived in St Stephens Road in Lewisham; she was in poor health, and ‘influenced’ by Billinghurst and was bound over to keep the peace, May Billinghurst was sentenced to 8 months imprisonment; and, as she had said that she would do in letters to friends and family, went on hunger strike and was force-fed with other suffragettes. Her letters say she never voluntarily took food.

On Jan.15 I felt too weak to resist their pouring food down my throat and from Jan. 16 at 12 noon until Jan 18 at 11 a.m. when I was released, no food whatever passed my lips.

May Billinghurst was released early due to ill health but had recovered enough able to speak at a public meeting in West Hampstead in March 1913 and took part in the funeral procession of the Blackheath born, Emily Wilding Davison in June – her early life, and the history of her home, was covered in Running Past in 2017.

Like many in the WPSU May Billinghurst took part in pro-war demonstrations early on in World War 1.  She ceased to be politically active once women’s suffrage was granted after the, although she did attend the funeral of Emmeline Pankhurst in 1928 and the unveiling of her statue in Victoria Tower Gardens in 1930.

She moved to what is now Surrey at some point.  For some of her time there, she lived with her brother, the artist Alfred John Billinghurst and an adopted child, Beth.  In the 1939 Register she was living in Sunbury on Thames on ‘private means’ with one other redacted person there.  She died in a nursing home in Weybridge on 4th July 1953.

Note

Census and related data come via Find My Past