The Suffrage Issue in Ealing, 1907-1914
The movement for women’s suffrage in early twentieth century Britain has received much coverage and no survey of the Edwardian period is complete without reference to suffragettes. There has also been a recent film, with the imaginative title Suffragette. Overwhelmingly they have been viewed, by posterity, in a very favourable light. The stereotype that history is written by the victors is in this case true. But what about those who did not share their views? There were both men and women who did not think that women should vote in Parliamentary elections.
It is worth noting that before 1918 many men could not vote in any capacity whatsoever and that female householders could vote in local elections. The Parliamentary franchise was limited to male householders and lodgers who paid a certain amount of rent. It is also worth recalling that many men supported the Suffragettes. Finally, a famous Suffragette lived with her mother in Ealing and these three issues will be explored in this brief article, which is largely based on the local press, which covered the suffrage issue in some detail, from 1907-1914, with a great deal of information appearing in the local newspapers especially in the early 1910s.
Above: Photo of Suffragette protest in Ealing
We’ll start with the anti-suffragists. In July 1909 there was an anti-suffrage garden fete at Kirkconnel, a house in Gunnersbury Avenue owned by Mrs Forbes. An opening rhetorical question was ‘Do you women object to us men objecting to petticoat government? Would you respect us any more if we, in a moment of weakness, pusillanimity, and cowardice, agreed to hand over the burden of Empire and the responsibility which belongs to our sex?’ The answer was given in no uncertain manner.
There were two speakers. The first was Mrs Colquhoun, honorary secretary of the south Kensington branch of the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League. She said that granting the vote for women would alter the relation between the sexes. She argued that women had spheres of usefulness but these should be exercised in the home. Woman was still the mistress of the man, even though the latter might be technically master. She did not believe that women had the judgement, the staying power or the foresight for political life and that the disabilities of sex were the work of God.
A male speaker stated that the instinct, long held, that men should do the governing and fighting, was a sound one. Representation did not go with taxation as many men paid taxes but could not vote. Men should do their work and women do theirs. It was important that, in the election of 1910, that women tell candidates that many opposed female suffrage.
There was also a letter in the Ealing press that if women could vote for MPs they would always choose men who were good looking. That was proved by the Ealing councillors all being handsome men (women could vote in council elections, of course). The writer said that he had not been blessed by nature with good looks and so female suffrage would do him no favours.
Reference was made to female participation in local elections by another critic of female suffrage. The foresaid letter writer claimed that the Suffragettes alleged that if women had the Parliamentary vote there would be a wonderful effect on politics. First of all, though, presumably in Ealing, thousands could vote in local elections, only hundreds actually did do. Women voters were mainly apathetic or ignorant of local government issues and often would not support an intelligent female candidate over an ignorant male one.
The quality of local government candidate had not increased but had rather decreased with the introduction of female suffrage. Male members of public bodies had adopted a more aggressive and impolite attitude towards female committee members, apparently blaming them for the violence of the Suffragettes, and this attitude had not been the case hitherto. The writer concluded, ‘the influence of women voters has failed to improve the tone of municipal legislators and legislation, it will also fail to have any effect in the larger sphere, and that as women ratepayers have failed to understand or take any interest in the simpler local politics they will also fail to understand the much more complicated Imperial politics. So why force on them, to please a small minority, the Parliamentary vote, when the majority have shown themselves unfit or unwilling to exercise the municipal and Poor Law vote, of which they are already possessed?’
On the eve of the 1910 election, both Parliamentary candidates in Ealing were asked their views on the question of female suffrage by Mrs Forbes of the Ealing branch of the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League. The sitting MP, the Conservative Herbert Nield, declared that he ‘was not in favour of adult suffrage or the admission of women to the franchise on the same basis as men’. He said that rate payers only should vote and did not want to see voting rights increased for lodgers. Overall he was not prepared to take the initiative on the subject and so did not support it.
His rival was Maurice Hulbert, the prospective Liberal candidate. He thought that extending the franchise would be difficult but that ‘it seems to me reasonable that women should have a direct vote in regard to legislation, much of which will have to be of a social character’. He promised to support ‘abolishing the sex disqualification to a Government scheme of electoral reform’.
Ramsey MacDonald, leader of the Labour Party, was accused of having gone back on his word over his support for suffrage, once claiming he would instruct his MPs to vote for it even if it meant the government falling. But now he decided that he was not certain whether this would be the right course to take because of the risk to the Liberal dominated coalition which Labour was part of.
Men often gave their support to female suffrage. At a meeting of the Ealing and Acton Suffrage Society in 1910, Mr J.Y. Kennedy was the chairman and he said that suffragettes and suffragists were not asking for universal suffrage but that women and men be equal. He said that the allegation that women were hysterical was a misnomer because similar behaviour was exhibited in the all-male House of Commons. Another male speaker was Mr Theodore Gugenheim, a member of the Men’[s League, who compared the lot of women in 1910 to that of the working man prior to the Reform Act of 1832. This was actually a false analogy as working men were not enfranchised until decades after 1832 and some still lacked the vote in 1910 and unlike female householders could not vote in local elections in 1832. Still, ignorance of political history has never been a handicap in politics.
At a meeting at West Lodge in 1912 a clergyman spoke to a women’s meeting in favour of suffrage. This was the Rev. Claude Hencliffe, who represented the Church League for Women’s Suffrage, whose president was the bishop of Lincoln. He said that the vote was the right of citizenship. He said that the rural dean was in favour of an Ealing branch.
Above: West Lodge House
One of the hardy myths of Ealing’s history is that Ellerslie Towers, later 16 Montpelier Road, was a haunted house, following myriad suicides and a murder there. There is no foundation for any of this nonsense, but perhaps more interesting, because more factual, is that it was home to Mrs Lucy Wallace-Dunlop, a doughty Suffragette. She lived there from 1892-1914 (so much for the myth that nobody stayed for long in this ghost ridden house) following her Scottish husband’s death (Robert Henry Wallace Dunlop, a gentleman). It is noteworthy that her name appears in the electoral registers at this time.
In July 1907 there was a large gathering at a garden meeting there of the newly formed West Middlesex Central Society for Women’s Suffrage. Mrs Millicent Fawcett, one of the leading women in the suffrage campaign, spoke about the fact that they did not demand women MPs, but called for rate payers to be enfranchised for Parliamentary elections, just as ratepayers voted in local elections. This would mean, of course, that adult children living with their parents could not vote, nor could wives living with their husbands and nor could servants. It would enfranchise spinsters and widows who were householders and who could currently vote in local elections. She added that women could vote for MPs in Australia, Finland and Norway and that legislation affected women but they could not vote for it. Another prominent activist there was Mrs O’Regan, the honorary secretary of the West Middlesex Branch in 1909. She lived at 15 Clovelly Road.
Two years later, Marion Wallace-Dunlop, daughter of the aforesaid Lucy Wallace-Dunlop, and an artist whose work had been displayed at the RA, was gaoled and was the first woman to go on a hunger strike; after 91 hours without food she was released. The only result of this action was that other Suffragettes copied her.
Many suffragettes refused to participate in the 1911 census and on the census page which should have recorded the Wallace-Dunlop household is the enumerator’s note, ‘Two female servants passed the night at 16 Montpelier Road, Ealing, but the head of the house being a suffragette refused to fill up the schedule or allow the two servants to give me any information’. Not very helpful to the historian, however.
Lucy Wallace-Dunlop was a wealthy woman and left just over £7,000 to her two daughters on her death on 23 February 1914, aged 76. It is interesting to note that though there was a note of her death in the Ealing newspaper, there was no obituary, which perhaps suggests that her local impact was limited. In view of her age this may not be a surprise.
Above: The 'haunted' Ellerslie Towers
Suffrage activity was virtually suspended during the First World War. In 1918 women aged 30 or more could vote in Parliamentary elections and all men could vote if aged 21 or more or had served in the armed forces. Whether this was the result of the suffrage campaign is another question.
Anyone who is interested in this subject should view the microfilmed copies of The Middlesex County Times in Ealing Library. There are indexes to suffrage activity, so that finding relevant information is straightforward. You will find information about meetings on Ealing Common and at the town hall, letters and views in the newspapers and other stories.