Women’s battle for the vote!

GRACE Chappelow was a suffragette from Hatfield Peverel, near Chelmsford. In 1911 she was among 200 women arrested in London during rioting. Her crime was breaking windows. Her motivation was the struggle to win the vote for women. She was sent to prison and, like many suffragettes, starved herself to continue her protest. Jailed campaigners were sometimes forcibly fed, often through a tube, but she avoided this during her time behind bars. Grace’s actions are highlighted in a small but thought-provoking exhibition opening in Chelmsford Library today and moving to Colchester later in the summer. Objects belonging to the suffragette are part of the collection at Chelmsford museum: a brooch, for instance; a certificate commemorating her time in jail and signed by suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst; and a knife given to her by her brother during the spell in Holloway.

Grace wasn’t the only Essex woman to take direct action. Clacton-on-Sea was something of a hotbed of activity, says Dr Jane Pearson.

A teacher of history at the University of Essex, she’s been asked to conduct research on local activity for Colchester’s museum service, as a semi-independent venture. It’s likely many of her findings will be incorporated into the Breaking Barriers touring exhibition when it moves to Britain’s oldest record town in June.

Among the most interesting characters she’s come across are the Lilley sisters – daughters of a Clacton magistrate, no less, who lived at Holland House.

They found themselves on the wrong side of the law late in 1910 when they were among 115 ladies arrested for trying to raid the House of Commons, says Jane. Most of the group faced accusations of obstructing the police but the Secretary of State for Home Affairs – one Winston Churchill – decided the public had little to gain from prosecuting them.

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Then, in the spring of 1912, the Colchester Gazette reported on the latest batch of Essex women to come before the bench at Bow Street, charged with breaking windows.

The four – Kate and Louise Lilley, Catherine Richmond and Myra Brown – were said by their solicitor to be the daughters of well-known Essex gentlemen and members of a branch of the Women’s Social and Political Union at Clacton-on-Sea. It was said that they’d never before faced charges and that the damage done was small. Their solicitor argued the situation was different from similar cases and should be dealt with appropriately.

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That cut no ice with the magistrate, who felt the case was in some respects much worse than others, as the prisoners threw stones that could have killed anyone behind the windows. The quartet was sentenced to two months’ hard labour.

About a week later the newspaper ran a letter from Mary Sykes, who lived at Clacton. She wrote:

“Sir – will you allow me through your paper to contradict a wrong report issued in some of the daily papers that Mrs Kate Lilley and Miss Louise Lilley had broken windows because they had been over-influenced by speeches. This statement is incorrect. In both cases it was pleaded that they had broken a small pane of glass in a government building as a protest against the government and they did not wish to apologise.”

The sisters were clearly unrepentant. The Breaking Barriers exhibition, which looks at women’s suffrage in Essex, explains how things generally had come to such a pass.

Organised by Parliamentary Outreach – which aims to spread awareness of the work and relevance of Parliament – it points out that less than 200 years ago women did not have the right to vote in national elections.

Both men and women had lobbied Parliament since the mid 19th Century. In 1897, Millicent Fawcett founded the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies.

Born in Aldeburgh in 1847, she was a daughter of corn and coal merchant Newson Garrett, who owned and ran Snape Maltings. Her sister, Elizabeth Garrett, was the first woman in England to qualify as a doctor – after an arduous struggle with traditionalists.

Millicent believed in peaceful campaigning and feared violence would only convince men that women could not be trusted with a vote. But the softly, softly approach wasn’t enough for some. “By 1905,” explains the exhibition, “the media had largely lost interest in the struggle for women’s rights. To gain publicity, some suffragettes decided to use more violent methods, such as breaking windows, cutting telephone wires and burning empty buildings.”

Jane Pearson suggests the origins of discontent lay in the Contagious Diseases Acts passed in the 1860s in an attempt to reduce venereal disease in the military forces. Legislation initially applied to ports and garrison towns, such as Colchester.

Police could arrest women they suspected of being prostitutes and have them examined for VD. Sufferers would be shut away in what were known as “lock” hospitals.

Opponents such as the social reformer Josephine Butler fought against it because it was both inhuman and applied only to women.

Jane also points out that during the second half of the 19th Century, with rather less fanfare, women were chipping away at male-dominated bastions. Horticulturalist Miss Ellen Willmott, for instance, who lived near Brentwood, was the first female fellow of The Linnean Society, a long-established biological society. Women from the Courtauld textile family, in the Braintree/Halstead area, also made their mark. One ran her own farm; another got a medical degree.

In 1908, Lillian Roffe, of Colchester, was the first woman to achieve the distinction of Bachelor of Divinity of London University. Another Colchester woman, Margaret Round, did a huge amount of charitable work. A building at the bottom of East Hill was used as an orphanage, for instance. She also championed the training of poor young women as servants – odd to our modern politically-correct tastes, perhaps, but at the time it promised better lives than they might otherwise have enjoyed.

The Essex town also had the Colchester Women’s Help Society, which staged evening classes and entertainment for local girls, many of whom worked in factories and were lowly paid. One of the things it did was combat the risk of them falling into prostitution to earn more money.

“I’ve paraded half a dozen Essex and north-east Essex names to show that even though Mrs Pankhurst has a high profile, in fact it’s wrong to see suffrage as all the Pankhursts’ doing,” says Jane. “There was a solid bedrock of these wonderful Victorian ladies who were determined to break into these male enclaves, and found a way of doing it.”

One of the groups that broke away from the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, explains the exhibition, was the more radical Women’s Social and Political Union – founded in 1903 by Emmeline Pankhurst. “As their campaign progressed, some actions became violent and destructive, such as breaking windows.” (Emmeline’s daughter, Sylvia Pankhurst, lived in Woodford, Essex, from 1924 until 1956.)

Membership of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies grew to over 100,000 people, says Jane, whereas the Women’s Social and Political Union – dedicated to deeds, not words – never had more than 2,000.

She says it’s a shame some people have effectively airbrushed from history the influence of supportive men. “It’s just stupid to try to pretend women did it on their own, because they didn’t. There was this whole army of lovely men who absolutely agreed with women that it wasn’t fair.”

The exhibition agrees, explaining that men were active in the movement. John Stuart Mill, for instance, who became an MP in the 1860s, was a major supporter of female suffrage. “Women would not have gained the vote in 1918 without the support of men.”

It points out that in 1889 Camborne MP Charles Conybeare, who lived at Ingatestone, had presented a Bill to Parliament to extend the vote to all adults, regardless of gender.

Not all men were as enlightened, though. For instance, Colonel Amelius Lockwood, MP for Epping from 1892 to 1917, approved of educated, high-class women having the vote, but couldn’t countenance women being admitted to the Commons, which he thought should remain solely for males.

So could women have succeeded without the campaign becoming militant?

“Some people say they would have got the vote anyway in 1914 if the First World War hadn’t broken out,” says Jane Pearson, “and I think there’s probably a lot to be said for that.”

• Where to catch it

The Breaking Barriers exhibition is at Chelmsford Library, in Market Road, until May 30 and then at Colchester Library, in Trinity Square, from June 19 until September 5.

Staff from The Women’s Library will be running object-handling sessions at Chelmsford on April 9 and at Colchester on June 19. (Both days 11am-12.15 pm.)

Book a free place by contacting Celia O’Connor on 020 7219 1650 or email oconnorcc@parliament.uk

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