Historical heroines: meeting Croydon’s suffragettes and suffragists

By - Wednesday 31st January, 2018

Many forgotten names from the female suffrage movement resided in Croydon

Photo public domain.

It’s time to remember the brave women of Croydon who fought so tirelessly for universal suffrage. 6th February 2018 is the 100th anniversary of parliament finally acceding to giving women the vote in elections. This important event in the history of democracy in Britain is also important for the Townswomen’s Guilds across the country, which were started in 1929 as an offshoot from the former National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). The NUWSS was set up in 1897 as a campaign umbrella group, and the guilds adopted the NUWSS colours: red for courage, white for faith, green for hope. There are several guilds in Croydon, and their existence and activities are now well known.

The Representation of the People Act passed on 6th February 1918 gave the vote to 40% (circa 8.5 million) of women aged 30 and over, all men aged 21, and all men aged between 19 and 21 in the armed services. Due to the previous criteria, 40% of men had been excluded from voting too. The act required women to be included on, or married to someone on, the electoral register, to be a property owner, or a graduate voting in a university constituency. Many women already had the vote in elections for their local councils and for Poor Law guardians. Many had been elected to these bodies, like the socialist welfare worker Charlotte Despard, who was a guardian in Lambeth.

In November 1918, another act allowed women to stand for election to Parliament. The general election of 14th December 1918 resulted in the election of 523 MPs representing Liberals, Conservatives, the National Democratic Party and some Labour supporters in coalition with David Lloyd George as prime minister. The opposition was made up of mainly of 57 Labour, 36 non-coalition Liberals, and 2 Independent Labour Party MPs. Labour’s Harold Muggeridge stood unsuccessfully for Croydon South in the election that year. And many women stood, including Charlotte Despard, a regular speaker in Croydon before the First World War. Only one woman was elected – Constance Markievicz, who, with her 72 male Sinn Fein colleagues, did not take their seats.

The suffragists mostly used peaceful tactics to try to gain the vote

The decision to grant the vote was the culmination of the pre-First World War campaign by the suffragists and suffragettes (the differences between the two groups were mostly over tactics). The suffragists, represented by the NUWSS, used peaceful means of demonstrations, petitions and lobbying parliament. The Women’s Social & Political Union (WSPU), set up by Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst in 1903, used more militant tactics. Formed in 1906, the Croydon WSPU branch had a shop at 50 High Street. Its office at 2 Station Buildings, West Croydon, was raided by the police on 30th June 1914. The Women’s Freedom League, led by Charlotte Despard, was formed after a split in the WSPU.

Campaigning for women’s voting rights had been going on in Croydon for decades. Mrs Leeds and her husband of Tower House, Birdhurst Road, South Croydon, were members of the Central National Society for Women’s Suffrage committee, and she was Secretary of the Union of Practical Suffragists (1888-9). It was an issue that was debated in local organisations, such as by the Croydon Women’s Liberal Association in April 1899.

Local newspaper reports enable us to list the activists in the period between 1906 and 1914, when the campaign was at its height. Examples such as the Purley NUWSS’ Miss Brailsford of Highwood, Peaks Hill, and Miss Wallis of Birkdale, Foxley Lane; the WSPU’s Miss Arter, of Melrose, 38 Blenheim Park Road, near Haling Grove; Dorothy Simmons of 5 Heathfield Road, South Croydon; and Mrs Cameron Swan of 79 Mayfield Road, Sanderstead; the WFL’s Miss Fennings of 149 Croydon Road (Anerley branch); and Mrs Terry of 6 Morland Avenue, off Lower Addiscombe Road; Lottie Denham (South Norwood Suffrage Society); Miss Miller, who was dubbed ‘The Persuasive Suffragette’; and Miss Edith Moor (Conservative and Unionist Women’s Franchise Association) in South Northwood.

A local builder’s wife, Polly Smith, was arrested for smashing shop windows with her husband’s hammer

Mrs Dempsey, Mary Pearson, Helen and Margaret Smith and Norbury’s Miss Smith were imprisoned for demonstrating in central London. In March 1912, Polly Smith, wife of local builder J. A. Smith, was fined for involvement in smashing shop windows in the West End using one of her husband’s hammers. While these women give us just their names, we know much more about some of the activists. Dorinda Neligan (1833-1914) was Irish, educated at the Sorbonne and served with the British Red Cross in the Franco-Prussian War. She was headmistress of Croydon High School (1874-1901). She supported the Women’s Emancipation Union in 1894, the Central Society for Women’s Suffrage in 1900, the WSPU and then the WFL and the Church League for Women’s Suffrage. She was patroness of the Actresses’ Franchise League, which had a branch in Croydon. She was arrested on 29th June 1909 for being part of a suffrage deputation to Prime Minister Asquith. As a supporter of the Tax Resistance League, her goods were restrained and sold in April 1912. In 1913, she lived at Oakwood House, and her sister was active in the local NUWSS. One of her pupils, the musician Mrs Elsa Gye (1881-1943), devoted herself to the suffrage cause.

Born in Leeds, Marion Holmes (née Milner, 1867-1943) grew up near Barnsley and then in Nottinghamshire. After her marriage, she lived in Margate and then settled in Croydon. She was president of the Croydon WSPU. Christabel Pankhurst came to the meeting to celebrate her release from prison on 5th March 1907. After the split in the WSPU, she joined the WFL, became a member of its national executive, and co-edited The Vote newspaperAmong her many books was the ABC of Votes for Women (1910 and 1913).

There is a wide range of activities planned across the country to commemorate women winning the right to vote, including exhibitions at the Museum of London (on until January 2019), and in Westminster Hall from June 2018. Here in Croydon, the museum’s activities include making a reproduction of a 1907 ‘True Patriots All’ banner, and a banner depicting Dorinda Neligan as well, and plenty of research continues into this fascinating element of Croydon’s history.

Sean Creighton

Sean Creighton

A former employee of and freelance project worker with community and voluntary organisations, Sean is active with Croydon Assembly and with the Planning and Transport Committee of the Love Norbury group of residents associations. He is Chair of the Norbury Community Land Trust. He is a historian of Croydon and South-West London, British black society, social action and the labour movement. He coordinates the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Croydon Radical History networks. He runs blog sites covering Croydon, Norbury and history events, issues and news. He runs a small scale publishing imprint called History & Social Action Publications. He gives talks on a range of history topics and leads history walks.

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  • Anne Giles

    Very interesting.