Why We Exist

To qualify as a ‘Centenary City’, Nottingham had to demonstrate a clear and unique history of women’s suffrage. Below, Val Wood from Nottingham Women’s History Group takes us back more than 100 years to explore what the campaign for suffrage looked like in Nottingham and how it related to the rest of the country. You can read the complete story of Nottingham’s Suffragettes and Suffragists in the book “No Surrender! Women’s Suffrage in Nottingham”…

The campaign for women’s suffrage grew out of early 19th century movements calling for improved welfare, education and employment for women.  As far back as 1866, 49 women had signed a suffrage petition, but it wasn’t until 1869 and 1870 that suffrage petitions from Nottingham were presented to the House of Commons. Nottingham saw frequent meetings addressed by male and female speakers and further petitions initiated. Indeed, the April 1872 petition carried the highest number of signatures of anywhere in the country. Local newspapers frequently mentioned the women’s suffrage cause during the 1870s, indicating that interested Nottingham women were aware of events pertaining to the cause and were possibly also in contact with activists from elsewhere. 

By 1880 Nottingham had again entered the fray with meetings on consecutive days in November of that year. There followed a series of meetings in locations as diverse as drawing rooms and school rooms, culminating in a ‘grand demonstration’ on 30 November. This determined activity led to the reconstitution a year later (in December 1881) of the Nottingham Branch of the National Women’s Suffrage Society (NUWSS). Over the next few years, this Annual General Meeting was the main rallying point for the suffrage cause in Nottingham, inviting various inspirational speakers from other societies. The campaign continued in this vein, with meetings and rallies, in keeping with the NUWSS principles of peaceful and constitutional means of protest. However, meetings were frequently disrupted or even prevented from happening at all by rowdy, threatening and intimidating behaviour from men. In addition, there was disappointment and frustration felt by the suffragists as the Liberal Government repeatedly ignored their demands, and it was perhaps inevitable that the campaign would eventually become more militant and violent.

In 1903, this frustration and disappointment led to the founding of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) by Emmeline Pankhurst and her supporters, including daughters, Adela, Christabel and Sylvia. The WSPU felt that women had waited long enough for the vote, and there now followed campaigns of violent protest, including window smashing, arson and even attacks on politicians, although these militant means only seem to be been experienced in Nottingham much later.  A branch of the WSPU was established in Nottingham in 1907 and attracted many women to the call for more direct action. The leaders of the local branch included Helen Watts who was arrested and imprisoned twice in London and Leicester for her suffragette activities. There were many visits to the city from the leaders of the WSPU, including the Pankhurst’s. There were also many demonstrations in Nottingham when large crowds gathered in the Market Place and on the Forest to hear suffragette and suffragist speakers.

In April 1911 there was a Census Boycott by suffragettes and suffragists, who reasoned that if the Government would not comply with, or even listen to, their demands, then they would not comply with the Government’s data gathering exercise.  Some of the women, who became known as evaders, absented themselves completely and did not fill in the census form, while others spoiled their forms by writing slogans such as ‘No vote, No census’ on them. A number of women in Nottingham were known to have evaded the census.

By mid-June 1911, however, the successful second reading of a new Conciliation Bill which would have given women the vote raised the hopes of the suffrage movement and a 40,000 strong ‘Women’s Coronation’ march took place in London, its ‘greatness, dignity and beauty’ being widely commended by the press. A contingent of Nottingham women went down to London to participate in this event. By November of that year however, the Asquith Government’s Reform Bill, which intended to extend suffrage to all men, dismayed and infuriated suffrage campaigners in equal measure, despite – or probably because of – Asquith’s casually patronising suggestion that ‘suffragists might, if they wished, attach an amendment for women’. Seen as a betrayal of the women’s suffrage cause, the Reform Bill motivated many new members to adopt more radical means of making their voices heard. Campaigns of window smashing, post box tampering and even arson were stepped up across the country, especially in the Northern industrial centres such as Leeds, Sheffield, Doncaster and York.

Nottingham, however, seems not to have experienced this more radical approach until 1913, when there was a spate of protest initiatives, starting in February when black fluid was poured into post boxes across the city, followed by a wave of window smashing from Goldsmith Street to Sherwood. ‘Votes for Women’ stickers were found at each incident and the press took every opportunity to condemn the protesters’ actions as reckless and liable to alienate the public’s sympathies.  Nonetheless, the campaign continued apace, resulting in the spectacular burning down of the Nottingham Boat Club on 12 May, watched by an eager crowd from the safety of Trent Bridge. Investigations soon made it clear that the fire had been the result of arson rather than accident and it can be speculated that the target had been selected as a bastion of male attitudes following the failure of yet another Parliamentary attempt to extend the right to vote to women. Following this, there was a renewed attack on post boxes using corrosive liquid, resulting in a fire in a post box on Station Street. Post boxes were again targeted in December 1913, perhaps to cause maximum disruption during the pre-Christmas period.  Some of the incendiary letters burst into flames when being sorted at the Queen Street General Post Office, but quick-thinking staff used sand to extinguish them so very little post was lost. Another historic event in 1913 was the introduction of the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill Health) Act 1913, also known as the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’, owing to the way the government seemed to play with prisoners as a cat may with a captured mouse. The Act allowed temporary release, on-license, for suffragettes on hunger strike until they were well enough to be rearrested and complete their sentence.

More peaceful, but equally disruptive, measures were used in churches. The Nottingham Post describes how, in November 1913, the congregation had assembled in St Mary’s in the Lace Market to listen to a guest speaker, when several women started to chant along with the curate during prayers, but using their own words to demand the vote.  Although the police were sent for, there were no further interruptions and the women were allowed to leave at the end of the service.  However, other local churches were alerted to this new tactic so when a similar incident occurred a few weeks later in St Mary’s Church in Bulwell, the authorities were prepared.  As soon as the women started, their chant of, ‘O God, save Annie Kenney, Sylvia Pankhurst and all women who are persecuted and suffer in prison for conscience sake. Amen’ the service was suspended and men in the audience set about ejecting the women, who, although avoiding violence, made it as difficult a task as possible.

However, potentially the most remarkable incident would have been the fruition of the suffragette Irene Casey’s plans – although we will never know what they were.  According to the local media she was arrested on 24 June 1914, the day of the visit by King George V and Queen Mary to the city.  Irene was found with bomb making equipment in her bag and was eventually sentenced to 15 months hard labour.  Although she had been observed examining the dais for the Royal visit, she had also been in contact with a Miss Wallis, the daughter of the curator at Nottingham Castle and a known WSPU sympathiser.  As an iconic building, and not unknown to violent civic protest (it had been burned down during the Great Reform Act riots in 1832), the castle could well have been Irene’s target, particularly given that it was against suffragette principles to take human life.  Many questions were left unanswered – indeed unasked – at Irene’s trial and her true target will now never be known as she seemingly vanished from history once imprisoned in Holloway.

Within weeks, however, the Great War had begun, and the suffrage campaign diverted its energies to support the war effort.  At the end of the war in 1918, the vote was indeed granted to certain categories of women, but it was to be another 10 years before suffrage was extended to all women in 1928.

Vote 100 Nottingham logo

Credit: Eleonora Persio – www.eleonorapersio.com

Nottingham Women’s History Group are co-ordinating events for Vote 100 Nottingham. Visit their Facebook page to find out more.