"East Wolverhampton election will be remembered if only from the fact that a woman had the vote”:
The fight for women’s suffrage in Wolverhampton
Heidi McIntosh, Senior Archivist at Wolverhampton City Archives
The Wolverhampton Women’s Suffrage Society was founded in 1904, with the object of obtaining “the Parliamentary Vote for Women on the same terms as it is, or may be, granted to Men.” The group was affiliated with the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). They prided themselves on being non-partisan, law-abiding and non-militant, and distanced themselves from the more militant suffragettes, feeling that such actions damaged the cause.
In their Annual Report 1911 – 1912, they stated that:
“After the militant outbreak many M.P.’s seem to think they could break promises made to law abiding women…the public imagine that Suffrage and violence are one and the same thing; they are deliberately kept in ignorance of the real meaning of the movement.”
Their activities included petitioning voters at General Elections, talking to local headteachers and trade union leaders, and holding educational meetings on subjects such as “The Industrial Position of Women” and “Domestic Economics”. The group had several high-profile local men and women supporters, including Sir Geoffrey Mander and his wife (meetings were even hosted at Wightwick Manor) as well as Margaret Graham, the wife of the founder of the Express & Star newspaper.
In 1913, the group took part in the Women’s Suffrage Pilgrimage to London, carrying a banner for the local branch. By 1914, there were plans to start a Society in neighbouring Bilston, but the cessation of suffrage activities during the First World War meant that their members were temporarily included in the Wolverhampton branch.
Wolverhampton saw some clashes in the fight for women’s suffrage. On the 3rd of March 1908, Teresa Billington-Greig, one of the founders of the Women’s Freedom League (WFL) came to visit and to speak at the Co-operative Hall in Stafford Street, Wolverhampton. A group of young men at the rear of the room were laughing, jeering and shouting throughout. Mrs Billington-Greig, ignoring the commotion, carried on with her speech regardless, even highlighting the attitude of
“green and callow youths who failed to understand the liberties which they inherited, and for which their fathers fought and died”.
Following this statement, one of the young men threw a test-tube containing sulphurated hydrogen, hitting a woman called Charlotte Taylor, the secretary of the Wolverhampton Women’s Suffrage Society (NUWSS) and filling the air with a pungent sulphuric odour.
There was criticism of the handling of the event following the meeting. John W. Woodward, one of the stewards at the event, wrote to the Express & Star to complain about a lack of interference from the police, who did not assist in breaking up the hooligans. A woman signing herself “A Lady Well-wisher” also criticised the organisers of the event, saying it had not been held in a central location, and that Mrs Billington-Greig was a quarter of an hour late!
The 1908 Wolverhampton East By-Election, which arose following the elevation to the peerage of Liberal MP, Henry Fowler, was significant because a local woman was able to vote. A woman called Lois Dawson, living at 15 Red Hill Street, incorrectly appeared on the electoral register as Louis Dawson. Lois, originally from Longton in Staffordshire, was a widow in her 60s, was described in the Express & Star as “somewhat grey, with hands and face marked by the stress of time and toil.” She does not appear to have been active in any local women’s suffrage movement, but Mrs Bennett of the Women's Freedom League visited Lois and persuaded her to vote, without telling her who to vote for. So, Lois went to her local polling booth at Red Cross School on the day of the election with her polling card, as voter number 1218, and voted. Groups of suffragettes gathered outside the polling booth and hugged her and congratulated her when she emerged. This was a full ten years before significant numbers of women were granted the vote in 1918. To vote on the same terms as men, women had to wait another ten years until 1928. Unfortunately, Lois Dawson died on the 18th June 1911, and is buried at Merridale Cemetery in Wolverhampton, so she did not live to see this happen.
Some suffrage campaigners in Wolverhampton
Wolverhampton had a number of campaigners for women’s suffrage who can currently be viewed on the Mapping Women’s Suffrage map. The most famous of these was the woman who later became Wolverhampton’s first female councillor “Red’’ Emma Sproson (WFL) who served at least two spells in prison for storming the Houses of Parliament in 1907 when she was affiliated with the WSPU. Elizabeth Price (also likely with the WFL by 1911) was arrested with Emma and 74 other suffragettes with the WSPU in 1907, following a raid on the House of Commons. She described herself as a “Household Drudge” on the 1911 census form. Another, Caroline Callear lived at 114 Upper Villiers Street, with her husband and their six children. Caroline and two of her daughters, Florence and Emily, became members of the Wolverhampton Women’s Suffrage Society (NUWSS) and Caroline later made history becoming the first woman to be sworn in as a Magistrate for the Borough of Wolverhampton in 1920. The Carrier family, Thomas, Elizabeth and three of their children became members of the Wolverhampton Women’s Suffrage Society (NUWSS). Dominic and Mary Clara Dilger, and their three daughters Lucy, Clara and Maud, joined too. Lucy was listed as Superintendent of the Entertainment Department 1912 – 1914.
You can read more about all the campaigners above by looking for and clicking on their names under the suffrage society they supported on the side menu on the map, or simply by hovering over Wolverhampton and clicking on the icons that appear there.
About the Author
Heidi McIntosh is the Senior Archivist at Wolverhampton City Archives, where she has worked since 2010. She has worked in the archives sector since 2002 and has an MA in Archives & Records Management from University College London.
The research for this blog post is based on an exhibition hosted at Wolverhampton Archives in 2018.
To find out more visit: http://www.wolverhamptonart.org.uk/wolverhampton-city-archives/