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.
- Elizabeth Crawford (1998) The Women’s Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide 1866-1928 p689
- The Times, Wednesday February 24 1909
- The Times, Thursday February 25, 1909
- The Times, Friday February 26, 1909
- The Suffragette (London) 21 November 1913
- Crawford, op cit p 689
- Britannia (Official Organ of the Women’s Party) 18 October 1918
Census & related information come via Find My Past