Tuesday, 13 November 2018

Campaigning for Votes in Croydon

Dorinda Neligan
Courtesy of Croydon Museum

Talk at Croydon North Labour Party event Croydon Suffrage Movement and the role of women today, Saturday 10 November 2018

“Right is of no sex.” – Frederick Douglass, African American Emancipation and universal suffrage. 1848

I am going to start across the Atlantic. The first women’s rights convention in the United States in 1848 approved women's suffrage proposed by Elizabeth Cady Stanton after an impassioned argument from Frederick Douglass.

‘In respect to political rights, we hold woman to be justly entitled to all we claim for man. We go farther, and express our conviction that all political rights which it is expedient for man to exercise, it is equally so for women. All that distinguishes man as an intelligent and accountable being, is equally true of woman; and if that government is only just which governs by the free consent of the governed, there can be no reason in the world for denying to woman the exercise of the elective franchise, or a hand in making and administering the laws of the land. Our doctrine is, that “Right is of no sex.”’

I like to think that his view was shaped by his experience in Britain between 1845 and 1847 where he escaped from enslavement and had toured Britain With his freedom being paid for by women in Newcastle, he was able to  return back to the States, accompanied by one of them as his Secretary.

Although no evidence of him coming to Croydon has emerged as yet, he would have met Croydon abolition activists like the brewers the Crowleys and Richard Barrett the publisher. A successor campaigner for African American rights and supporter of women’s suffrage W. E. B. Du Bois, when in London came to Croydon to visit his friend the Afro-British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.

The First World War

This weekend is important because we mark the end of the First World War, the legislation that enabled women to stand as Parliamentary candidates and the beginning of the campaign for the General Election in December 1918 in which many women had the vote for the first time, and during which there were 13 women candidates including Emmeline Pankhurst, the former leader of the Women’s Social & Political Union as part of the Liberal, Conservative and pro-war Labour coalition, and Charlotte Despard, the leader of the Women’s Freedom League, for Battersea Labour Party against the Coalition. The number of men with the vote was also increased to those aged 21 and those aged 19 and 20 who have served in the forces. It is also the month of the formation of the Croydon Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, by women such as Barbara Duncan Harris, a suffrage activist.

We should remember that working class women in particular were heavily adversely effected by the War: the loss of fathers, husbands, brothers, uncles, cousins and boyfriends, struggling to survive on lowered incomes and rising prices. It is impossible to understand the traumatic impact the loss of so many men from tight-knit working class neighbourhoods We also need to remember the traumatic effect of the wounded and dying on the many women who were nurses behind the war fronts and in Britain. In 1918 and 1919 further loss occurred in the Spanish Flu pandemic. A quarter of the British population were affected with 228,000 dying.

Working women

Many women had been able to go to work in the munitions factories, and fill other jobs previously undertaken by men. Croydon’s WSPU member Grace Cameron-Swan organised a group from Woolwich to visit the munitions factories in France. However some of the move into the factories was by changing jobs as in 1913 5.41m women were in work and in 1918 5.56m. What was significant was the rise in membership of women in trade unions from 8% in 1913 to 21.7% in 1918, which must have assisted the beginnings of the Labour breakthrough in municipal elections across the country in 1919, and then with the collapse of the Liberal Party the road to the election of the first Labour Government in the 1923 General Election, led by Ramsay Macdonald, whose wife Margaret Ethel was an active in the Women’s Labour League and the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Organisations, and who was the main speaker at a public meeting in Croydon.

Glasgow Rent Strike

One of  the victories of women during the War was the November 1915 Rent Restrictions Act, the Government’s response to the rent strike in Glasgow, a key leading organiser of which was Mary Barbour, a working class  member of the Women’s Co-operative Guild.

Croydon was not an industrial area; it was predominantly white-collar working class and middle class. The vibrant labour and socialist movements struggled to get Councillors elected. The campaign for votes for women was able on occasion to see those of all political persuasions work together, whether Liberal, Tory, or Labour and Socialist, despite the major fault lines in the suffrage movement and their wider political differences.

Differences in Strategy and Tactics

In 1907 there were two main suffrage organisations in Croydon, the branches of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies led by Millicent Fawcett, and the Women’s Social & Political Union The difference between them was that the National Union campaigned through meetings, lobbying and petitioning.

The WSPU developed more militant tactics. Many of its members considered Emmeline Pankhurst to be very autocratic. As a result several branches including Croydon’s set up the Women’s Freedom League led by Charlotte Despard. While the League used militant tactics it did not approve of the increasingly violent methods used by the WSPU. As the Croydon WSPU branch became the League branch, so the WSPU had to set up a new branch.

Croydon was not the area covered by today’s London Borough. Much of the South was in Rural District Council areas. Initiatives were taken to set up branches in Purley and Kenley. There were branches of specialist suffrage organisations like the Actresses Franchise League, and the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage. There were also anti-women’s suffrage supporters including women, and organisations.

Croydon Suffrage Activities

I am not going into great detail about the movement’s activities as you can read about these in the pamphlet I have just published. It also contains background about women in Croydon and their wide range of activities in business and employment, as staff of public services, of work in charities, in the two main political parties, and participation  in the debating societies. In terms of the population the women were the majority, but without full recognition as citizens because they were denied the Parliamentary vote and most of the vote in the elections to the Borough Council and the Poor Law Board of Guardians.

Between 1907 and 1914 the suffrage campaigners in Croydon held public meetings, parades, had offices and shops, ran petitions, garden parties, fetes, a Suffrage Week which included plays, disrupted political meetings, boycotted the Census, refused to pay taxes,  and joined the London demonstrations and supported the Suffrage Pilgrimage. Because of the violent methods of the WSPU 16 CID officers and constables raided and ransacked the WSPU offices looking unsuccessfully for incriminating evidence. Katie Gliddon was not the only local activist who went to prison. There were many others including, Marion Holmes, Grace Cameron-Swan, Mary Pearson, and Mrs Dempsey.

Lesson from History?

The pamphlet is an introduction which I hope will tantalise others to carry out further research.
I am not sure that history does teach lessons. What it can do is to inspire us, to remind us that the labour and progressive movements have a long history of organisation and campaigning forcing Government and Parliament to act. We can take hope and strength from those strong individuals whether men or women who provided inspirational leadership and organising skills, often at great personal sacrifice.

We can dare to be imaginative like Muriel Matters with her airship flight dropping leaflets over London and Croydon before landing in a field in Coulsdon, and her and Croydon Marion Holmes’s testing of whether women could nominate candidates which led to national press coverage because the supporter who was Mayor turned the matter into a national news opportunity.


We are used to the importance of banners as a long tradition in the labour movement, but also an important aspect of the suffrage campaign. Some women undertook sandwich board processions, and trained in suffragitsu as a way of trying to prevent being thrown out of public meetings for disruption. One suffragette in Croydon’s Parish Church refused to leave after interrupting the proceedings and standing her ground until common sense prevailed and she was allowed to stay.

And like today there was the use of culture, music and drama at meetings, fetes and special events like the Croydon National Union’s Suffrage Week in  and the Freedom League’s Garden Fete.

Male supporters

There was also a common front between the women activists and men who supported their demands, like Keir Hardie, the leader of the Independent Labour Party, the Battersea based LCC Alderman Stephen Sanders who was a prospective parliamentary candidate in Croydon and whose wife was the WSPU head office book keeper, MPs trying to get legislation enacted, or as members of men’s suffrage organisations, like the Croydon Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage and the Croydon Men’s Political Union.

Like the women the supporting men came from across the class divide marching on demonstrations, and speaking at and attending meetings, and the railwaymen who signed one of Croydon’s petitions. Some of those men insisted that the newly formed Croydon Council Education Committee should co-opt women as members, which the all-male Council approved, enabling suffrage activists Lucy Morland, Clara Musselwhite and others to help shape education services. Clara had previously been an elected member of the School Board and the Board of Guardians, and went on  to be the first woman to be elected to Croydon Council in 1919 standing for the non-Party Ratepayer’s Association.

Dorinda Neligan

Courtesy of Croydon Museum

One of the interesting aspects of the commemoration of votes for women in Croydon this year was the joint project between the Museum and the Croydon High School for Girls, The School was set up to provide secondary education for girls when the State did not.

Its first headmistress was Dorinda Neligan, a member of the Women’s National Liberal Association, and of the WSPU and then Freedom League, who was herself arrested as a member of a deputation trying to  see the Prime Minister.  She had her goods confiscated and auctioned because of her refusal to pay tax while she was deprived the vote. The Museum School project included the making of this banner in her memory.

MPs and extra-Parliamentary action

On Thursday night here at Ruskin House Tooting Labour Party member Simon Hannah, author of the book A Party with Socialists in it, argued that as well as getting Labour MPs elected, change had to be achieved by campaigning and organisation outside of Parliament putting pressure on it.

That dual nature of campaigning and getting people elected as MPs has been a normal part of British politics since the 18thC, through the petitions, public meetings and lobbying, and the flood of pamphlet after pamphlet against the slave trade and then slavery. In the 1820s it was the organised women campaigners who turned the strategic demand from gradual to immediate emancipation. Following the election of supporting MPs as a result of the reorganisation of the House of Commons by the Reform Act 1832, and the reform Government being led by anti-slavery activists, this abolition demand was responded to with the Act abolishing Britain’s involvement in slavery over a short time period.

Anti-Slavery and Suffrage

When the successful abolitionists met at the Anti-Slavery Convention in 1840 the men refused to allow the women to be full participating delegates. The American women attendees went back to the States and set up the women’s suffrage movement. That interlink between the two countries continued. Living in Britain for twenty years Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s daughter was involved with the Fabian Society and the Women's Franchise League. Back in the  States, she formed the Equality League of Self-Supporting Women uniting professional and industrial working women, and started suffrage parades. One of these involved women on roller skates outside the White House.

The approaches developed and refined by the anti-slavery movement in Britain were used by the radical Parliamentary reform movement campaigning for votes for men resulting in the Reform Act of 1832. Women had supported them, setting up their own organisations.

Peterloo and Chartism

In Mike Leigh’s film about the Peterloo Massacre which took place 200 years ago next year there are scenes involving meetings of a women’s reform organisation, and women taking part in the demonstration. The Massacre saw many large demonstrations across the country condemning the loss of life and the use of military force, like the one in Newcastle.

The Chartist movement used similar mass campaigning methods. Although the reform and Chartist demand was for votes for men, there were Female Chartist organisations. The suffrage movement continued in that campaigning tradition. They also backed Parliamentary candidates who support women’s suffrage, nut also were delighted when a supporter John Raphael was defeated as a Liberal in Croydon because of the refusal of the Party Leader and Prime Minister Asquith to legislate.

The strategy and the tactics however are not predetermined to have immediate effect, it takes decades. Perhaps that is the main lesson of history: do not expect instant success, it’s a long haul filled with doubt, a sense of failure, and many set-backs. But in the end the desired result can be achieved as happened 100 years ago and then completed for women 90 years ago. The Croydon Crossfield, Crowley, Mennell and Morland families must have understood this with their involvement over decades in anti-slavery, anti- war, and women’s suffrage, as must have Georgina King Lewis, who enabled the first Ruskin House building to be opened for the local labour movement.


Suffrage Campaigns & Campaigners in Croydon

Sean Creighton, with Iona Devito and Louise Szpera
£3.50 plus p&p

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