We must never forget Suffolk’s great heroines of suffrage - Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and her younger sister Millicent Fawcett
We’re not very good at blowing our own trumpet in this part of the world so, as the General Election looms, how many of us are actually aware that two of the most prominent women in the suffrage movement were from Suffolk?
Journalist Boni Sones urges the nation to never forget the two remarkable sisters who helped change our world forever.
East Anglian women were vocal in the suffragist campaign in the first half of the 20th Century. It was a controversially-violent campaign at times – they were imprisoned and force-fed. One died: Emily Wilding Davison. Half a century earlier, in one of our sleepy seaside towns, a radical movement had been formed. One prosperous industrial Suffolk family gave birth to feminist ideas that were to shape women’s rights.
It was at The Uplands, Aldeburgh, opposite the church, that two Suffolk women slept, ate, read, listened and mingled, and advanced the cause of women’s power-struggle for the vote.
A plaque now commemorates them. The names of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and her younger sister Millicent Fawcett, two of 12 children, are ingrained in our social histories. Elizabeth was the first female doctor, and the first female mayor in Britain, and Millicent was a leading feminist and campaigner.
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Their father, Newson Garrett, who was born in Suffolk, became a pawnbroker in London but went on to be a wealthy ship owner and businessman. He moved back to Suffolk, bought a corn and coal merchant’s concern, and built Snape Maltings (now the venue for the Aldeburgh Festival).
Newson’s brother Richard had inherited the family business in Leiston, the Richard Garrett and Sons engineering works, in the 1830s.
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The story of the Garrett family is well known in Suffolk. Wave power and water from the North Sea allowed the engineering works to flourish and by the mid 19th century it was a major producer of engines in the new age of steam and trolley buses. It had opened in 1778, manufacturing agricultural machinery and grew to employ 2,500 people.
With the coming of a new industrial age came new progressive thoughts. Famously, Richard visited and took his entire workforce and their families by sea in two schooners from Aldeburgh’s Slaughden Quay to visit the great Victorian Exhibition of 1851 in Hyde Park, London. He wanted them to learn more and bring that knowledge back to his factory.
Soon after, Richard Garrett III introduced flow-line production for the manufacture of portable steam engines – assembly line production. It was fully operational by early 1853. The Long Shop is now a museum.
A boiler would be brought up from the foundry to the start of the line. As it progressed through the building it would stop at various points, where new components would be added. Lighter parts would be lowered over a balcony and fixed onto the machine at ground level. When the machine reached the end of the Long Shop it was complete.
It is thought to be one of the earliest purpose-built production lines in the world, even predating Henry Ford’s! The whole family, it seems, were endowed with an entrepreneurial spirit that Elizabeth and Millicent inherited from their grandfather, uncle and father. Newson and wife Louisa lived opposite Aldeburgh’s St Peter and St Paul’s Church, and as their family grew they encouraged their children to be interested in the issues of the day, and to express their thoughts and opinions.
As they prospered, the family moved to Alde House, a mansion built on a hill behind Aldeburgh. Elizabeth was encouraged to take an interest in politics.
It was at Alde House in about 1860 that Elizabeth and new-found friend and feminist campaigner Emily Davies plotted their future careers.
Elizabeth had joined the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women, which organised lectures on “Medicine as a Profession for Ladies”. Elizabeth was going to be a doctor, while Davies would advance university careers for women. She later co-founded Girton College, Cambridge.
Millicent, then 13 years old, was tasked with advancing votes for women. Remarkably, they all fulfilled these early dreams. Elizabeth met Elizabeth Blackwell, the first American woman physician. Her aspirations to enter medicine were supported by her father, Newson – although he was initially opposed – but it was a long battle. Early attempts to get into medical school were rejected.
In 1865 she managed to get a licence from the Society of Apothecaries to practise medicine – the first woman qualified in Britain to do so.
She still wanted a degree, though – learning French and eventually qualifying in Paris, but her degree wasn’t recognised here. It wasn’t until 1876 that women were allowed to qualify as doctors in Britain.
In 1872 she founded the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital for Women in London, staffed entirely by women, and she appointed her mentor, Elizabeth Blackwell, as professor of gynaecology. There is a plaque on Garrett Anderson’s London house at 20 Upper Berkeley Street.
In 1902 Elizabeth retired to Aldeburgh and a year after husband James Anderson’s death in 1907 she became the first female mayor in England.
She died on December 17, 1917.
Today, Elizabeth’s remarkable achievements are remembered in the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Gallery in the Unison headquarters in London, built partly on the site of the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital. There are many artefacts from her early childhood in Aldeburgh, and it is easy to imagine how she lived with her family, and how she later set about her serious quest and studies on a wooden chair behind a wooden desk.
Elizabeth’s sister Millicent also has a memorial to her progressive thoughts and ideas to advance women politically. The Fawcett Society is still a campaigning force to be reckoned with, challenging the barriers and obstacles that women still face – equal pay, representation in the boardroom and Cabinet, and campaigning against pole-dancing clubs. Her Society acts as a major influencer of public policy for women and families today.
Millicent is acknowledged as the founder of the Fawcett Society, which says her skill “was to navigate the case for women’s suffrage through Parliament using her intimate knowledge of the democratic process, hard-headed rational thinking and constant good humour”.
The two sisters’ support for a famous petition to the House of Commons achieved one of the most remarkable outcomes.
It was on May 20, 1867, that John Stuart Mill stood in the House of Commons to move that clause four, five and six of the Great Reform Bill be amended to omit the word “man” and substitute the word “person”. He was apparently watched from the Ladies Gallery by Millicent, who had married Henry Fawcett, a blind MP, a month earlier.
A year earlier, Elizabeth and Emily Davies had met Henry Fawcett and John Stuart Mill at the House of Commons to hand over a petition of 1,499 names, saying they were prepared to take part in the political process. Not all had thought this a good idea. Elizabeth’s own daughter, Louisa, also a doctor, later served time in prison for suffragette activities. In 1912 she was imprisoned in Holloway, for a short spell, for breaking a window by throwing a brick.
Millicent had joined the first women’s suffrage society in 1867 and was apparently a compelling speaker. She later became president of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies when it was formed in 1897. She thought the vote could be won by peaceful constitutional means and became concerned when the movement became radicalised and violent.
By the 1860s Liberal thinkers understood that women were increasingly disadvantaged. More men were being given the vote, and in 1792 Mary Wollstonecraft had printed her treaty “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman”, suggesting women should not live their lives as the slaves of men.
Women over 30 won the right to vote in the 1918 General Election but it was not until the Equal Franchise Act of 1928 that women over 21 and men had the same voting rights.
The voices of these two campaigning, visionary Suffolk pioneers – Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Millicent Fawcett – echo down the centuries. They have a right not to be forgotten, and to be placed beside those other pioneers, such as Emily Wilding Davison, who died for the cause when knocked down by the king’s horse at Epsom racecourse, and Emmeline Pankhurst, the leader of the British suffragette movement.
In fact, the breadth of their vision for women – its roots in Suffolk’s industrial past, during another enterprising age – was arguably more profound. As Hollywood considers the lives of the campaigners – a film, Suffragette, is due in the autumn – Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Millicent Fawcett must not be forgotten.
As feminist historian Elizabeth Crawford writes in “Enterprising Women: The Garretts and their Circle”, “By taking a practical interest in each other’s causes, giving support both with money and time, the women, and some of the men of the Garrett circle, were able to build a network that for nearly half the 19th century and, in some instances, well into the 20th century, developed and managed a range of enterprises that transformed the lives of women in British society”.
And it started here in Suffolk at their two homes, Alde House and the Uplands. The plaques are well deserved. You can imagine them sitting by the fire, plotting.
In modern British politics women are still under-represented. Just 22% of the House, or 142 out of 650.
I have been part of a team of women journalists from the east that has over the past 10 years recorded many interviews and documentaries with female MPs from all parties. The Boni Sones and Associates Political Archive at the London School of Economics charts the story of the “Blair’s Babes” of 1997: those 101 Labour women who were selected and so changed the Commons after controversial all-women shortlists were introduced.
My www.parliamentaryradio.com also did interviews with many other women MPs, from both the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties, who spoke of the issues they were championing and the sexism they had encountered.
As Crawford tells us, the struggle for women and the vote, and women’s further representation, has a real home in the eastern region. It seems the east has radicalism in its roots. In the Victorian age, industrialisation fed new ideas into society; Richard Garrett, with his Leiston factory, and his descendants were radicals.
In our globalised, computerised society, where the internet links the lives of women across the world, we see and hear daily that women are being persecuted and that women’s rights are being hard fought for – often at the cost of their lives.
There has never been a more fitting time to remember the stories of our two feminist campaigners, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Millicent Fawcett, and their Suffolk industrial roots.
For more on Suffolk’s links to the suffragettes, see here