Tag Archives: suffragettes

Caroline Townsend – A Lewisham Suffragette Activist

During the centenary year of (some) women obtaining the vote, it is important to remember those who were active in the campaign for women’s suffrage in South East London.  Running Past has already covered the two of the more prominent women – May Billinghurst and Emily Wilding Davison who both had a national impact; however, it is important to celebrate the work and lives of some of the other women activists who were involved in the struggle locally.  A few weeks ago, the role of Eugenia Bouvier was covered, and now it is the turn to look contribution of Caroline Townsend.

Caroline was born in Cork in Ireland on 13 August 1870; she was the youngest of three sisters in a family that travelled a lot – her eldest sister, Annie, was born in Gibraltar in 1864; Hannah in 1868 in Woolwich.

Little is known of her upbringing, and she doesn’t obviously appear in any censuses until 1901 when the three sisters were living at 188 Malpass Road in Brockley, the two elder sisters who were both listed as teachers, Caroline listed as a ‘housekeeper’ in the census return.

Caroline was one of the joint secretaries of the Lewisham WSPU, which was set up in 1907 (1).

She was arrested as part of a deputation to see Herbert Asquith, the then Prime Minister, on February 24 1909.  The Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) had attempted to set up a meeting with Asquith – Emmeline Pethwick Lawrence informed him on February 23 1909 that a delegation would be visiting him at the House of Commons the following evening to ask for votes for women to be included in the legislative programme for that session.  A terse reply noted that Asquith had nothing to add to previous statements and that, in any case, he would not be at The Commons that evening (2).

There was a large meeting at Caxton Hall in Westminster on February 24 addressed by Emmeline Pankhurst to protest against the Liberal Government’s failure to include women’s suffrage in the King’s Speech.  A resolution was passed calling for votes for women on the same basis as men. It was agreed to send a deputation, led by Emmeline Pethwick Lawrence to convey the resolution to Asquith. The 40 women in the deputation seem to have included Caroline Townsend (3).

The police would allow anything resembling a march so the women walked in pairs to Parliament.  The women walked to the ‘strangers’ entrance to the House of Commons.  They were followed by a fairly hostile crowd, their way was barred by around 40 police – the women went through the ‘futile formality’ (4) of asking to see their MPs before attempting to break through the police lines ‘threw themselves at solid lines of constables which not thrice the number of fighting men could have hoped to dislodge from their vantage point.’  (5)

Pethwick Lawrence and ‘the leaders’ were arrested, a total of 27 women and one man, and charged with obstruction.  This included Caroline Townsend whose address was reported as 188 Malpass Road. All were bailed upon a surety from the wealthy Pethwick Lawrence (6)

The following day all 28 appeared at Bow Street Magistrates Court, in front of the same magistrate that had heard cases involving Eugenia Bouvier, Sir Albert de Rutzen.  Pethwick Lawrence addressed the magistrate at length, but there was little sympathy from him ‘it is regretted that educated ladies should disgrace themselves in this way by contravening law and order.’ (7)

All of the defendants refused to be bound over and most were required to find sureties of £10 or a month in prison.  All the women were sent to Holloway Prison (8).

Caroline received frequent mentions in ‘Suffragette’ newspaper in 1910s, mainly in role as secretary but there were mentions of speeches too (9). It was noted in an interview with her in a ‘Suffrage Annual’ that she “particularly enjoyed ‘out-door work’ – speaking, paper selling, poster parading.”  (10) Whilst these may not be the most glamourous roles they are the things that all political groups need at the local level – making the cause visible and raising its profile with local people.

The photo of the banner shows Caroline on the front row Olive Llewhellin, who lived at 114 Burnt Ash Hill, behind her is Clara Lambert (who briefly lived in Glenfarg Road in Catford) – Running Past will no doubt cover both of these women over the next few months.  The fourth woman in the photograph which is part of the collection of the Museum of London (on a creative commons) is a Miss Warwick.

By the time that the 1911 census enumerators called the sisters were living at 27 Murillo Road in Lee.  The house had been built in the last few years of the 19th century after the demolition of a large house, The Firs, in 1893 following the death of its last owner John Wingfield Larking.  Many suffragettes used the census to protest against the lack of women’s suffrage; this included Caroline and her sister, Hannah, who was also an active suffragette – only Annie was listed in the census at 27 in 1911.

Hannah was a teacher and a founder and member of the Women Teachers Franchise Union (11) who campaigned for equal pay as well as suffrage. Both sisters were members of the Women’s Suffrage Club which was based at 1 Lewis Grove in Lewisham and served as the headquarters for the local WSPU branch (12)

The Pankhursts set up the Women’s Party in October 1917 and Caroline Townsend  became the ‘Election Organiser’ in Lewisham (13). The party advocated numerous policies that promoted equality for women including equal pay for equal work, equal marriage and divorce laws, equality of parental rights and raising the age of consent. The Party also campaigned for maternity and infant care, which would be subsidised by parents according to their income, beyond this their views were relatively conservative – pro Empire, pro-Union and anti-Bolshevik.

They held regular public meetings in the market – with Caroline speaking at several (14). There was no active input into the December 1918 election though as effectively there wasn’t a contest in either of the Lewisham constituencies, with both seats seeing Conservative & Unionist candidates elected unopposed with ‘Coalition Coupons’.

It seems that the sisters moved to Surrey Hannah and Caroline were living at  Gravel Pits Farm, in Gomshall, near Guildford by the time the 1939 Register was compiled.  Caroline died in the same district two years later.

Notes

  1. Elizabeth Crawford (1998) The Women’s Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide 1866-1928 p689
  2. The Times, Wednesday February 24 1909
  3. The Times, Thursday February 25, 1909
  4. ibid
  5. ibid
  6. ibid
  7. The Times, Friday February 26, 1909
  8. ibid
  9. The Suffragette (London) 21 November 1913
  10. Crawford, op cit p 689
  11. ibid
  12. ibid
  13. Britannia (Official Organ of the Women’s Party) 18 October 1918
  14. ibid

Census & related information come via Find My Past

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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

Whitefield’s Mount – a Rallying Point for Protest and Preaching

In the middle of Blackheath, close to Goffers Road, is a small protuberance covered with what looks like broom and a few gorse bushes. It may not necessarily look that impressive but it has an interesting history. It is known as Whitefield’s Mount, or variants such as Whitfield’s Mount or Mound, or just The Mount, and has been a gathering point for centuries. Whitefield was an18th century preacher but as the Mount has much older associations and a previous name, we will return to him later.

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Whether the Mount is natural or a barrow or other man made construct is unclear, certainly there are pre-historic barrows and evidence of early activity in the area, but an archaeological report on a site within a few metres of it makes no such claim for the Whitefield’s Mount. It is likely that it the Mount was a little bigger than it currently is as it was used as a 17th century butt for artillery practice – in March 1687 John Evelyn noted in his diary

I saw a trial of those develish, murdering, mischief-doing engines called bombs, shot out of a mortar-piece on Blackheath. The distance that they are cast, the destruction [which] they make where they fall, is prodigious.

Prior to the development of the route of the current A2 across the heath it would have been at the main cross roads, which is shown in John Roque’s map of the 1740s – one of the roads headed of for the delightfully named ‘Dowager’s Bottom’ (roughly where Tranquil Vale is now).

The mound was formerly referred to as ‘Wat Tyler’s Mound’ as there were apparently speeches to the rebels in the Peasant’s Revolt there on 12 June 1381 before they marched on to London. The speakers included John Ball, whose name lives on through a school in Blackheath, whose sermon stirred the rebels

When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men. For if God would have had any bondmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who should be bond, and who free. And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty.

Just over a hundred years later, it seems that the Mound was used for the same purpose by Michael An Gof, and Thomas Flamank, the leaders of the revolting Cornishmen prior to the Battle of Deptford Bridge (the first post on this blog covered this). It has been suggested that the Mound was the place of burial for many of the fallen Cornishmen that day.

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It was a regular gathering point for the Chartists – meetings there had become a regular feature by May 1839 and were of a size to cause concern to the authorities. The Blackheath stop of a speaking tour by Peter McDouall in July 1842 brought around 4,000 to the Mount.

The Mount wasn’t the only place on the Heath used by the Chartists – Feargus O’Connell spoke from a ‘van’ outside Princess Sophia’s estate in 1844, presumably this was the Rangers House as she was the Greenwich Ranger until she died later that year.

However, the Mount seems to have been the main location used as Chartist meetings there continued throughout their existence, there was notably a meeting of Woolwich, Deptford, and Greenwich Chartists on 9 April1848 to rally support for a massive demonstration the following day in Kennington. The Blackheath rally was described in the not entirely sympathetic London Universe, a Catholic penny paper

Meeting in Blackheath.—On Sunday morning an open-air meeting of the Woolwich, Deptford, and Greenwich Chartists, took place, in spite of the rain, at Whitfield’s Mount, Blackheath. A Mr. Robinson was selected to preside. A determined intention was expressed to attend the demonstration next day, and an attempt was made to get up the Marseillaise hymn, which signally failed. The speeches were extremely inflammatory.

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A poster for Kennington from Wikipedia

Robinson’s ‘inflammatory’ speech included the rallying call

We are determined to conquer tomorrow; nothing shall put us down. We shall not be terrified by bullets or bayonets; they have no terrors for oppressed starving men.

Political meetings and rallies there continued into the early years of the 20th century. It was the location for protests against the London County Council taking over the responsibilities of the former School Boards in 1903.

More importantly it was the location for regular suffragette meetings. The Lewisham, Blackheath and Greenwich area seems to have been an area of strength for the movement and a hundred metres or so away May Billinghurst attacked a post box (there was a post on this here a few months ago). It was reported in April 1909 that

On Sunday afternoon the meetings were resumed at Whitfield’s Mount, Blackheath, when Mrs. McKenzie took the chair and Miss Hewitt, of Manchester, and Mrs. Bouvier, of Lewisham, were the speakers. There was an exceptionally large crowd. Whilst the last-named lady was speaking, a man commented that she was telling “the same old story.” Mrs. Bouvier acknowledged that that was true, and said that if the male voters were tired of “the old story” the best thing they could do was to write the Cabinet members urging the enfranchisement of women. Until they secured the vote they would continue to tell “the old story” at Blackheath and elsewhere (laughter and hear, hear).

In August 1913, The Blackheath Local Guide and District Advertiser reported that Blackheath Suffragists met with the Kent group of the non-violent National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies at Lee Green on 24 July before marching to Whitefield’s Mount. The Suffragists wore scarlet, white and green sashes and carried banners inscribed “Home-makers demand votes” and “Law-abiding women”. The newspaper report noted that there was no hostility and all appeared to pass quietly. This was the Kent leg of the Women’s Suffrage Pilgrimage which saw marches bringing 50,000 women from all over the country converge on Hyde Park on 26 July.

As was noted earlier, the current name “Whitefield’s Mount” is named after George Whitefield an 18th century evangelical Anglican preacher who was one of the founding fathers of Methodism. He used The Mount to preach to large crowds, estimated as being up to 20,000, singing from the meetings could be heard 2 miles off, and his voice 1 mile away (Nosier than the recent onblackheath festival!). It was at one of Whitefield’s meetings that the young John Wesley’s first field-preached London in June 1739

It was used in the 19th century by Baptist Minister George Charles “Bo’sun” Smith as an open air pulpit to preach in particular to soldiers from Woolwich barracks and sailors from naval hospital in Greenwich.

There is still a tradition of open air ecumenical religious meeting there on Good Friday each year – it isn’t clear whether this goes back to Whitefield’s time but certainly there were certainly open air religious meetings there in 1905. The meetings though are now to the west of the Mount, the density of the broom would make it hard to do anything other than play hide and seek there.

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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