Rugby's Part in the Fight for Women's Suffrage

Suffragette march passing through Stratford upon Avon, possibly en route for London. ? July 16th 1913
IMAGE LOCATION: (Warwickshire County Record Office)
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As part of a volunteer research project for Warwickshire County Record Office, I’ve been looking through back copies of the Rugby Advertiser to look for items, 100 years since women achieved the vote. I learned that there was a clear distinction between suffragists, who tried to achieve their ends through peaceful means, and suffragettes, who were prepared to take more militant action.

Rugby Women’s Suffrage Society

Rugby was active in the suffragist movement in the years 1909 -1913 and the editor of the Rugby Advertiser appears to have been supportive, because we find full reports of the activities of the Rugby Women’s Suffrage Society (RWSS). They had regular meetings – usually at the Co-Operative Hall in Queen Street, but on one occasion in the Coffee Tavern, Church Street.1 In the summer there would be garden parties and open-air meetings.

They had some interesting speakers over the years, such as an MP from Norway, where women already had the vote, and an expert on India. The latter emphasised that women were highly regarded, and therefore people in India would not object to votes for women, Lord Curzon having claimed that it would lead to the loss of India.2

The latter meeting was joint with the local Conservative and Unionist Women’s Franchise Association. The RWSS also developed close links with the Trade Union movement, presenting a report to the annual meeting of the Rugby Trades and Labour Council.3 Fourteen Rugby women joined a march in London cleverly organised just before the coronation of King George V, so that the 40,000 marchers passed the stands erected for this event.4

Local supporters of the suffrage cause

Many local men supported the suffragists, and they often chaired meetings, though it is good to see women also ‘presiding’ over events. These men included the headmaster of Rugby School, the Rev AA David.5 The suffragists signed petitions demanding votes for women and made regular deputations to MPs and parliamentary candidates, enquiring about their attitudes to women’s suffrage.

Lady Willoughby de Broke of Compton Verney was a passionate supporter of women’s suffrage. One of her activities proved memorable for all the wrong reasons when she organised a motor bus outing for suffragists from Kineton and Wellesbourne, to attend a meeting in Leamington Town Hall. The weather was dreadful, the bus was late (in both directions) got stuck in mud and the radiator twice needed topping up with water. On the return journey the passengers had to get out and walk up hills (and down one) so they arrived home cold, wet and very late indeed.6

Militant activities in Warwickshire

Early advertisements for RWSS meetings often included the words ‘Non Militant’ and ‘Non-party’.7 On occasion there would be news of militant suffragette activities elsewhere, often followed a week later by a letter to the editor from the RWSS emphasising that their members were non-violent and disapproved of illegal actions.

In 1913 there was a report of suffragette activity in Leamington Spa where flammable materials (phosphorus and petrol) were put into post boxes, but fortunately no-one was hurt.8 On another occasion a gate was removed from a field and placed at the top of Pitterne Hill (near Kineton) with a ‘Votes for Women’ sign on it.9 The latter was probably in support of the pro-suffrage pilgrims from Carlisle who marched down Watling Street, visiting Kineton on their way to London.10

The Great War, and the vote at last

The suffragettes called off militant activity after the outbreak of the Great War in 1914. Local women, like their sisters elsewhere, worked on farms and in munition factories and proved themselves at home and abroad by nursing and driving ambulances. Others served in more traditional roles knitting clothes, making jam, and collecting eggs for wounded soldiers.

The local newspaper cut down the number of pages and reported less local news. Thus there is little evidence of RWSS activity during the war period, although they did set up a successful War Savings Association.11 There were occasional letters to the editor pointing out the splendid achievements of women. The argument for women’s suffrage became unanswerable and suddenly the battle was won when the Representation of the People Act in February 1918 gave the vote to property-owning women over the age of 30.

It was a further ten years before all women over the age of 21 obtained the vote, but the momentum was unstoppable. Local people in Warwickshire had played their part, including the resolutely non-militant women of the Rugby WSS.

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