Women who shaped history
- Credit: Archant
His fascination with a century-old photograph showing two leading women’s rights campaigners of the day led teacher Michael Newman on a voyage of historical discovery. Sheena Grant reports
AT first glance it looks like nothing more than a grainy old photograph of a large gathering of Edwardian women enjoying a summer tea party.
But this snapshot in time - taken exactly 100 years ago this week - in fact represents an important piece of social history during a summer of frenetic activity in the campaign for women’s suffrage.
The two women dressed in black at the front of the picture are among the leading women’s rights campaigners of the day - suffragists’ leader Millicent Garrett Fawcett and her sister Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the first woman to qualify as a doctor in Britain.
Next to them is another family member, Evelyn Garrett, who hosted the event at her home, Newhaven (now Summerhill School), in Leiston.
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The gathering was the annual tea and garden fete of the Leiston Women’s Unionist Association, on June 25, 1913, and while members were entertained with various games and competitions both before and after tea, there was also a harder, political edge to the day.
Would-be Unionist MP Mr F.W. French addressed the women about “equal opportunites for all” and uppermost in many members’ minds would surely have been events of just two weeks before, when suffragette Emily Davison had stepped in front of King George V’s horse at the Epsom Derby, sustaining injuries from which she later died.
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Some would also, perhaps, have been preparing to take part in a huge suffragist pilgrimage the following month, in which women from all over the country walked to London’s Hyde Park to demand the right to vote. The pilgrimage was organised by the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), of which Millicent was president.
And as the Unionist ladies sipped their tea, 25 miles away in Ipswich another meeting was taking place, to discuss arrangements for the local pilgrimage, which was to start in Yarmouth on July 9, arriving in Ipswich eight days later en route to the July 26 Hyde Park rally, where Mrs Fawcett was to address the crowds in what was to be one of the last great campaign events for women’s suffrage before the First World War.
Yet the detail of this chain of local events was pieced together only relatively recently.
The crucial photograph was only ‘discovered’ in an online auction by local collector Frank Huxley about six years ago.
He thinks the person selling it believed it to be nothing more than an early meeting of the Women’s Institute but he recognised the two Garrett sisters and the location instantly. Even so, it was to be another few years until more pieces of the jigsaw fell into place.
Michael Newman, a teacher at Summerhill School, noticed the photograph on display at the Long Shop Museum in Leiston among other old pictures of the town. He resolved to find out more and tracked down an EADT report from 1913 of the tea at Newhaven, along with a series of reports about the pilgrimage.
A plan for a celebration of both events began to take shape in his mind, for which he enlisted the support of the Long Shop Museum and its trustees, one of whom happened to be Margaret Young, grand-daughter of Newhaven residents Frank and Evelyn Garrett and a distant cousin to Millicent and Elizabeth.
And this week, on Tuesday, June 25, 100 years exactly after the photograph was taken, children from several local schools joined the centenary celebration at Summerhill, with workshops on democracy and participation, a sing-along of (more militant) suffragette and (law-abiding) suffragist songs, a speech from ‘Millicent Fawcett’, a mini-conference in the world’s oldest school council meeting room and, of course, a re-creation of that historic picnic tea photograph.
For Michael Newman the day had huge significance.
“I’ve always loved the industrial history of Leiston and the sense of how the Garretts (who ran the town’s engineering works) affected the whole area and I was fascinated by the fact that these two members of the family - Millicent and Elizabeth - were so incredibly important in terms of women’s history,” he says.
“I often go to the Long Shop and have a look at the old pictures and when I noticed the date on this particular one was 100 years ago this year I thought it would be fantastic to celebrate. When we first started to talk about a celebration we were not quite sure what the event in the photograph was all about and thought that perhaps it had been organised for Millicent or Elizabeth to speak at. I went to the record office in Ipswich to see if I could find out more and discovered a report in the EADT from June 28, 1913.”
That report concentrates on Mr French’s speech and, somewhat surprisingly, makes no mention of the fact that two such distinguished guests were present.
“They were incredibly famous,” says Mr Newman, “and I can’t help thinking they were put at the front of that picture deliberately. Other women had big hats on yet there they were, two older women dressed more like Victorians. They were important guests but interestingly the newspaper article doesn’t even mention them. It’s impossible to know why.
“The photograph represents women from Leiston who did not have the vote at the time and there they were, listening to the parliamentary candidate for the Unionists speaking on equality. These are women who want power.
“On the same day, in Ipswich, a meeting was being held to promote, discuss and organise the Suffolk pilgrims who would be walking to London. They didn’t know it at the time but this was to be the last pilgrimage before the First World War and one of the reasons they did it was to show how much support women got without breaking the law.”
Unlike Emmeline Pankhurst and her more militant suffragette movement, Millicent and her suffragist followers believed only in peaceful, lawful protest. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, however, was both a suffragette and a suffragist and her daughter, Louisa, was among those suffragettes arrested and imprisoned.
“What the suffragettes suffered was incredible,” says Mr Newman. “And it makes you think, if something needs changing and you have no power, how do you do it? These were two different approaches. As well as getting people to reflect on that, part of the idea of the celebration was to get schools to think about what they are doing now in terms of current issues relating to girls, such as self-image and violence against women around the world.
“It’s interesting to think that just 15 years after the Women’s Unionist Association picture was taken, Summerhill was here, treating boys and girls as equals and making decisions as equals.”
Margaret Young, who played the part of her grandmother, Evelyn Garrett, at the centenary celebration, says her grandparents lived at Newhaven from 1899 until 1922, when they moved to Aldeburgh and the house was put up for sale.
“Their five daughters, including my mother, all lived there. My mother was actually born at Newhaven so it was lovely for me to be part of this event.
“In 1913 Elizabeth, who would have been almost 80, was living in Aldeburgh and Millicent, who was about 66, was living in London, although I think they would both have been backwards and forwards between Suffolk and London quite a bit.
“This meeting in 1913 was not strictly a suffrage meeting. I suppose there were a lot of influential women there and Mr French, the parliamentary candidate, was trying to jolly them up to persuade their husbands to support him.”
Millicent was married to a Liberal politician, Henry Fawcett, but she herself claimed to be without political allegiance.
“As the leader of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies she did not approve of law breaking. Her organisation was non-militant,” says Mrs Young.
“Elizabeth, however, was persuaded by Mrs Pankhurst and went on one of the militant marches. The story is that the police were told by the Home Office to make sure she was protected and not arrested, because of her background. There is a picture of her with Mrs Pankhurst outside the House of Commons. She was much more sympathetic to militancy and her daughter Louisa, who was a doctor as well, was certainly more militant.”
Viewing the picture at Newhaven with the benefit of hindsight, we know it was taken on the eve of huge change brought about by the First World War.
“The pilgrimage of 1913 was the last great push before the war, when campaigning for women’s suffrage was largely suspended,” says Mrs Young.
“Ironically, the war did a great deal for women’s suffrage because women had to take over while the men were away fighting. By 1918 and the end of the war women got limited suffrage.
“The Unionist party candidate at the tea in 1913 spoke about equality and obviously that was what the women wanted to hear. As the mother of five daughters Evelyn would have been eager that women take their place in the world. My grandparents must have supported the meeting otherwise they wouldn’t have hosted it.
“We take for granted the things these women fought for but we would do well to remember there are many places in the world that still do not enjoy the rights we have and questions about women’s equality are still important now.”