Victoria’s Bicentenary – A Review of Victoria series 3 (ITV) and Lucy Worsley’s Victoria: Daughter, Wife, Mother, Widow

2019 marks the bicentenary of Victoria and Albert’s births. There have already been books published, conferences as well as documentaries that attempts to shed new light or even (disappointingly) rehash the same old myths and out-dated information on the royal couple’s life and crucially that of Victoria’s life and reign.

After a hiatus in 2018, ITV’s popular drama Victoria made a return this year and this time is set between 1848 and 1851. By the time series 3 opens, Victoria and Albert already have five children (Victoria, Albert Edward, Alice, Alfred and Helena) and she will go on give birth to two more (Louise and Arthur). Also, Albert by this time has, not without some difficulty, also established himself as the power behind the throne. While I have not had the time to do my customary fortnightly recaps, here are some of the thoughts I assembled while watching the programme:

(For more detailed recaps, please visit the Armchair Anglophile)

THE GOOD:

  1. The royal children especially Vicky and Bertie – while the programme took care to show the (still growing) family, the main focal point was Vicky (Princess Royal) and Bertie (Prince of Wales) who would have been eight and seven in 1848. The characterisations of the two oldest children are spot on, with Vicky showing the precociousness that would mark her as Albert’s favourite child. Bertie on the other hand while aware of his destiny isn’t happy; he tells anyone who is listening that he doesn’t want to be king and that Vicky being the eldest should be the sovereign.Bertie’s tantrums about not wanting to be king are the least of his parents’ worries. While the bright Vicky doesn’t need pushing and cajoling with her lessons and her ability to absorb and retain knowledge, Bertie’s progress is slow and wanting compared to his sister. In desperation, Victoria and Albert consult a phrenologist George Coombe who studies Bertie’s head and the verdict isn’t good, as Coombe delivered his verdict: “The feeble quality of the brain will render the Prince highly excitable… intellectual organs are only moderately well developed. The result will be strong self-will, at times obstinacy.” While phrenology is now dismissed as a pseudo-science, Coombe’s verdict in some aspects would be eerily accurate.

 

  1. The Great Exhibition – series 3 concluded with the events leading to the Great Exhibition in 1851 and the final scene where Victoria, Albert and the rest of the family arrive at the Crystal Palace to officially open the exhibition was well done. It was obvious that the production designers did their research and studied contemporary accounts and illustrations in order to recreate that event.

 

THE BAD/INDIFFERENT:

  1. Mrs Skerrett – the way her character has been written was pure soap and series 3 was no different especially with the way she was written out. The real Mrs Skerrett actually never married and lived to a ripe old age; apart from being Victoria’s chief dresser she was also in charge of the junior ones and was the principal liaison between the Queen and milliners, dressmakers and jewellers. Crucially she also liaised with artists such as Edwin Landseer and William Powell Frith with regards to commissions for paintings. Still Nell Hudson’s portrayal of the kindly and competent dresser was for me well done and kudos to the writer for making the relationship between Skerrett and Victoria at least believable.

 

  1. Sophie Duchess of Monmouth – series 3 saw the introduction of a new Mistress of the Robes for Victoria in the person of Sophie Duchess of Monmouth (Lily Travers). I find the introduction of a fictional lady-in-waiting baffling considering that in real life, Victoria had several interesting women who attended to her: most notably Charlotte Countess Canning, who was married to George Earl Canning who was governor-general (and later first viceroy) of India. Charlotte kept up a correspondence with the Queen even after leaving royal service to join her husband in his Indian posting, and her letters provided Victoria with information about India from a woman’s perspective; which would have been absent in official documents sent by the government in India. The fictional Duchess of Monmouth’s background however is interesting as she’s revealed to be the daughter of a man who made his wealth in trade and that the Duke of Monmouth married her in order to save his crumbling estate and precarious finances, thus demonstrating an early example of the old landed aristocracy in alliance with the new industrial elite. The marriage is unsurprisingly unhappy and the duke always finds an excuse to belittle his wife for her inferior social background; something that the Queen is happy to overlook (again showing her lack of social as well as racial prejudice). Credit also to Daisy Goodwin for not writing Sophie as the stereotypical nouveau riche vulgarian and instead portray her as someone who is doing her best and is a devoted mother. In an interesting twist, part of the Monmouths’ storyline could be seen as a foreshadowing of the real life Mordaunts whose divorce would embroil the future Edward VII in scandal.

 

THE UGLY:

  1. The ropey timeline – while I acknowledge that certain events have to be condensed for dramatic purposes, the timeline leaves a lot to be desired. The cholera epidemic is one example, while this series is set between 1848 and 1851, the “Great Stink,” as the epidemic would be known, did not occur until 1858 and led to the pioneering work of Dr John Snow, who established the cholera was a water borne disease – not airborne as has been previously believed. Another is that of Sir Joseph Bazalgette whose design of a new sewage system for London would ensure that there would be no future repeats of the Great Stink of 1858.

 

  1. Princess Feodora – while the Duchess of Kent was MIA in series 3, her place was taken over by Victoria’s half-sister Princess Feodora of Hohenloe-Langenburg (Kate Fleetwood) who is depicted in the programme as arriving in Britain in the wake of the Revolution of 1848. While it’s nice to see more of Victoria’s family, my main objection is the way Feodora has been written and portrayed – the jealous sister who is a mainstay in fairy tales and soap operas. She causes mischief at court, attempts to drive a wedge between Victoria and Albert and is bitter about what she sees as Victoria’s good fortune. The Feodora we see in Victoria is the latest in a line of pantomime villains after Conroy and the Duke of Cumberland in the first two series. The real Princess Feodora (1807-1872) was no such person; despite the 11 year age gap between them she and Victoria were close all their lives and the fact that they were only half-siblings never occurred to them. Victoria was devastated when Feodora left in 1828 to marry an impoverished German prince Ernst of Hohenloe-Langenburg. The two sisters corresponded avidly and Feodora proved to be a source of advice and solace for Victoria especially after Albert’s death in 1861. Victoria meanwhile would help support Feodora’s children, the most notable being Prince Victor of Hohenloe-Langenburg (1833-1891) who settled in Britain as a naval officer and a noted sculptor.

 

  1. Lord Palmerston – in series 3 is played by Laurence Fox who is too young to portray the wily Foreign Secretary, and I believe this was a failed attempt to recapture the buzz that surrounded Rufus Sewell’s portrayal of Lord Melbourne in the first two series. Lighting never strikes twice; while Sewell is a good actor who could convince viewers of Lord Melbourne as a younger, romantic figure, it doesn’t quite work with Fox whose portrayal of Palmerston sometimes descends into parody. Still Fox does make a passable effort of depicting the foreign secretary as an oily politician who happily styles himself as a man of the people and a champion of oppressed peoples abroad seeking freedom and liberalism while being an absentee landlord in Ireland and opposing further reforms at home. The real Palmerston has been described as a “Conservative at home and a Liberal abroad” but his tenure as Home Secretary and Prime Minister where he introduced further reforms to the Factory Act as well as changes to existing penal laws demonstrated that he could be radical as well by the standards of the time. However it is for his time as Foreign Secretary that he is best remembered, he famously declared that Britain had no permanent allies or enemies, only permanent interests, and his foreign policy was consistent with that maxim. His willingness to challenge even Queen Victoria and Prince Albert earned him their distrust but for his role in defending Britain’s interests abroad he received the affection and support of most of the press and public who called him “Pam”.

victoria_launch_07

Series 3 is pretty much consistent with what we’ve seen with Victoria – romance and soap opera mixed with history. Yet again there were also indifferent subplots that didn’t go anywhere and an upstairs-downstairs relationship which I think didn’t really add anything to the overall narrative. In the end, Victoria’s problem is that it’s not quite able to resolve what the drama wishes to focus on – history or romance. What we get is a muddled mix of both.

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Having written previously about life at court under the Georgians and Jane Austen, Lucy Worsley has now set her sights on Queen Victoria. Published last year with the paperback version released this year to coincide with the bicentenary, the question now is does Worsley have anything new to say about Britain’s second longest reigning monarch?

I’ve always admired Worsley more as a writer than as a TV presenter and having enjoyed her different take on Jane Austen’s life through the homes she lived in, and she employs almost the same tactic with her biography of Queen Victoria. Rather than to go through the whole gamut of Victoria’s life, Worsley takes twenty four significant events in Victoria’s life and there’s none of the predictable ones such as the birth of her children, the Great Exhibition, the years following Albert’s death or her relationship with her various prime ministers. Instead Victoria’s story starts with the double wedding of the Dukes of Clarence and Kent in 1818, then there are encounters with leading personalities of the era such as Florence Nightingale and the Maharajah Duleep Singh as well as her visit to Benjamin Disraeli at his home Hughenden Manor among others.

While Worsley had access to major archives especially the Royal Archives at Windsor where Queen Victoria’s diaries and letters are kept, she has also drawn heavily on recent works on Victoria with at least one or two of rather dubious nature. For instance Julia Baird is described as a historian but she’s not, a quick Google search would tell Worsley that Baird is a journalist whose biography Victoria the Queen is (in my opinion) not a very good one and doesn’t really add anything new to our knowledge or understanding of Victoria.

The book is a good read but I have a few concerns. First I found her chapters on Duleep Singh and the Munshi (Abdul Karim) to be highly simplistic; while I acknowledge that India and the raj might not be Worsley’s forte and beyond the scope of her tome, the section on Duleep Singh was truncated (or bitin, as I would muse in Filipino) while that on the Munshi was mostly a basic rehash of “white British racist, Indian victim” narrative when in reality it was far more complicated than that. Secondly, we don’t really have an explanation about Sir John Conroy, why was he so controlling? Did it ever cross his mind that perhaps being a benevolent father figure rather than a bully to the young Victoria might have brought him the recognition that he so desired? These are never answered much less raised and I seriously doubt we’ll ever know the answer.

On the positive side, Worsley brings out well parallelisms between Victoria and her mother the Duchess of Kent – both women lonely, in need of male company and frightfully insecure. Just as the Duchess had Conroy as her support, Victoria during her reign leaned heavily on a succession of men either as father figures (in the person of Lord Melbourne), as Gods who could do no wrong (Albert) or as confidants (Disraeli and John Brown). While this seems to make out Victoria as a weak person, Worsley argues that in many ways Victoria underestimated herself.

No more is this more apparent during her marriage to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. While this marriage has always been portrayed as one of domestic bliss and romance, in recent years, historians have attempted to reassess the couple’s relationship and unearth that it wasn’t all hearts and flowers. I’ve always long suspected and Worsley confirms that Victoria was always more in love with Albert than he with her. Despite their shared interests and Victoria’s obvious pride at Albert’s achievements, the marriage was also punctuated by blazing rows and a mass of seething resentments. All of these began early on when Albert chafed at not being allowed to share in Victoria’s duties and where he was not even allowed any say in the royal nursery. Victoria on the other hand resented the constant pregnancies and found motherhood especially when her children were babies distasteful.

One aspect of the marriage which Worsley brings up especially in the chapter on Osborne House was Albert’s desire for control and this Italianate house which he designed was his domain. If Victoria was ever aware of Albert’s controlling nature, she chose to overlook it and held him as the standard to which her children especially her sons should aspire. However, Albert was not always the superman his wife and history would look up to – during the Crimean War, Albert bombarded the government with numerous memorandums with suggestions as how to improve things which the government more or less ignored. Victoria roused herself to do what she can for the morale of the troops and encourage Florence Nightingale in her pioneering nursing work. She knitted comforts for the soldiers, wrote letters of condolence to the bereaved, inspected hospitals and gave her name to a medal that was to be awarded to all ranks for valour.

It was Victoria’s approach that worked and was much appreciated; her efforts during the Crimean War was one that her successors have continued to utilise ever since. It was a sign of Victoria’s “emotional intelligence” and to underscore that someone high up cared for the welfare of the ordinary soldier and person; not just as a matter of policy or popularity, but as a deep-felt and genuine emotional connection.

Victoria was a complex woman and while there are far more weightier tomes out there that delve into this monarch’s life in greater detail, even with these mere twenty-four events, Worsley has more or less succeeded in bringing this queen who gave her name to an era in all her contradictions in an accessible way.

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Period Piece: the memoir of Gwen Raverat

Subtitled A Cambridge Childhood, Period Piece is the memoir of Gwen Raverat (1885-1957), an art critic wood engraver and book illustrator as well as one of the founder members of the Society of Wood Engravers. Despite coming from a family of considerable intellectual distinction (an ancestor was Josiah Wedgwood , her grandfather was Charles Darwin, and cousins included the poet Frances Cornford and composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, while her father and Darwin uncles were Cambridge dons), Raverat never alludes to this distinction except in passing. Names are dropped unselfconsciously into the narrative with no further explanation apart from the fact that they are members of the cats’ cradle of relationships that made up the Darwin clan and their friends, such as the writer EM Forster and author and critic Sir Leslie Stephen. Papa might have been Sir George Darwin, Plumian Professor of Astronomy and Experimental Philosophy, astronomer and mathematician, but to Raverat he was the father she loved with his brown beard, short legs and cold feet. She portrays the many foibles of her family with the dispassionate yet loving eyes of a child but an adult’s knowledge and delight in their idiosyncrasies. They might be famous, distinguished and talented but they are above all her family, and she depicts them and their foibles with the formidable powers of observation that in adulthood made her an accomplished artist with a worldwide reputation.

George Darwin by Gwen Raverat

Raverat’s mother was Maud du Puy, from Philadelphia. American, but not one of the Buccaneers, Maud came to Britain in 1883 to spend the summer in Cambridge with relatives. Judging by the letters quoted in the prelude chapter, some of Gwen’s acute eye for detail must have come from her mother, who seems thoroughly to have enjoyed what Raverat calls an Utopia of tea-parties, dinner-parties, boat-races, lawn tennis, antique shops, new bonnets, charming young men, delicious food and perfect servants. Maud and George Darwin married in 1884 in Philadelphia, and in 1885 they bought Newnham Grange in Cambridge, which became the family home described in chapter 2. They had four children, and Gwen was the eldest.

Maud Darwin

What Raverat calls her mother’s ‘sturdy American belief in independence’ seems to have allowed her children to have led a more freewheeling and existence than was generally employed by children of their class and era: although as she points out our liberty was only relative; we were only just a little more free than some of our contemporaries.

The figure of her Charles Darwin looms large over Raverat’s book. To her and her family he was obviously in the same category as God and Father Christmas… of course it was very much to our credit, really, to have owned such a grandfather, but one mustn’t be proud, or show off about it. Her five Darwin uncles and her father seem to have been, despite their intellectual eminence, a group of ineffectual hypochondriacs who never emerged from the shadow of their father, and despite her affection for them Raverat seems to have regarded them with tolerant scorn.

 

“My grandfather said once: ‘I have five sons, and I have never had to worry about any one of them.’ Well, that is not quite right. One ought to have to worry sometimes about young people, because they ought to be growing out in new ways and experimenting for themselves. But my grandfather was so tolerant of their separate individualities, so broad-minded, that there was no need for his sons to break away from him; and they lived all their lives in his shadow.”

 

A review of the memoir describes Period Piece as like gorging in a literary sweetshop. Every aspect of Raverat’s late Victorian childhood has a fondant, fairy-tale texture, dusted with a sheen of sugary nostalgia. Raverat remembers the Cambridge of her childhood as a lucent world of tea-parties, lawn-tennis, new bonnets and remarkable young men. Life skips along with little vexation, though Raverat admits it might seem too perfect to be true: “There must have been some difficulties, even in those days,” she reflects. “Indeed, all the right sleeves of my mother’s dresses would keep getting too tight, from the constant tennis.” It then goes on to say that Raverat’s discreet cynicism is the worm at the heart of her paradise. Her unerring humour brings an adult perspective to bear on her childhood experience; throughout the book she mocks the things she celebrates.

Gwen aged 12

I wouldn’t altogether agree about the sweetness and sugary nostalgia, but I’d certainly agree about the cynicism, and I wonder if that was there at the time or comes from hindsight. Raverat clearly recalled her childhood and her relatives (especially her mother), with a great deal of affection, but the clarity of her observation is unsparing – while she describes a privileged, enjoyable and in many ways indulged upper middle class existence, she is also aware of the attendant squalor – the River Cam flowed past her childhood home, clogged with the town’s sewage – and the stifling proprieties and expectations, even of children. In the chapter “Ghosts and Horrors” she describes the other side of Cambridge and her personal discomforts – nightmares, children being beaten, being frightened by the lame crossing sweeper with a mutilated face, and seeing a drunken woman being carried in the street by some undergraduates. That, and her description when she is a student at the Slade of hearing a man beat his wife are a much darker undercurrent to the book than some of the publicity comments would have readers believe, and there’s a slowly dawning awakening that the word she and her family inhabit is a much more complex and darker one than she had realised. On the very last page Raverat says oh dear, oh dear, how horrid it was being young. That, of course, is hindsight. She seems to have very much enjoyed her childhood, and reading her vividly drawn and in many ways charming account, you can’t blame her. Every page has a quotable and wonderfully described anecdote or story, whether she is describing her mother’s child-raising theories, Victorian courtship, women’s clothes, being a child chaperone, their dancing classes or childish escapades on the Cam, where they regularly fell in.

Raverat self portrait

Raverat wrote the memoir in her sixties after the death of her mother, when she cleared out the old family house and came across letters written by her parents during their courtship: and carried on reading until she came to her own birth. She had stumbled across the source material for the first chapter of Period Piece, which she described to her editor

 

I have long been playing with the idea of writing a sort of autobiography as a peg to hang illustrations on; and I am now taking the liberty of sending you a scrap out of it (not the beginning nor yet the end) to see if you would think it would do to publish some day, with lots of pictures. I simply hate writing, and I can’t be bothered to write it, unless it’s good enough to publish. I am afraid that what I have written may be too flippant and rather odious, and I would like to know what some outside Literary Person feels about it. The idea of the book is not a continuous autobiography, but a series of separate chapters called Sport, Religion, Art, Relations, etc. etc….

 

The book itself she describes as a circular one, it does not begin at the beginning nor go on to the end; it is all going on at the same time, sticking out like the spokes of a wheel from a hub, which is me. So it does not matter which chapter is read first or last. It is not a sentimental memoir, because Raverat was not a sentimental woman; the woman who drew a sketch of her husband while he was dying, euthanised him when his suffering with disseminated sclerosis became too much for him to endure, and committed suicide after being confined to a wheelchair by a stroke with the words “This seems the simplest plan for everyone,” could never be described as sentimental. It is however warm, humorous, affectionate and shrewd and well worth reading. It is also beautifully illustrated by the author.

Jacques Raverat

My thoughts on War Horse

Originally a novel by the writer Michael Morpugo, War Horse is a story set during the First World War and told through the eyes of a horse Joey. First published in 1982, it gained a wider audience thanks to a stage version which premiered at the National Theatre in 2007 and a film version directed by Steven Spielberg which was released in 2011.

All three versions follow a basic premise – the bond between Albert and Joey, how they are separated because of the war and an emotional reunion following the Armistice. Having finally watched both the film and stage versions, I can say that I enjoyed both and the narrative worked both on stage and on film.

War Horse of course has taken a much greater significance owing to the recent observation of the centenary of the First World War. Both the play and the film highlighted the roles played by animals during the war.  Not just horses but also pigeons, dogs, camels and even goats who served in a variety of roles: from being used for operations or to simply boost morale and adopted as pets. What we see in both versions are the important roles played by horses at the front. Despite the presence of motorised transport, horses were still seen as an important part of the war machine especially with transporting men, supplies and equipment.

Both film and stage versions also present a snapshot of what rural life was like before the First World War. As idyllic as the countryside might look, there’s poverty and hardship as exemplified by Albert’s father using the rent money to purchase Joey – much to the exasperation of the mother. Money issues again surface during the outbreak of war, when Joey is sold to the army as a cavalry horse. Another point that is raised by both the film and the play is how warfare changed irrevocably with the arrival of bigger and more efficient weapons that rendered horses and cavalry redundant, in a scene where Captain Nicholls leads a cavalry charge against the German infantry is a textbook case of the phrase “suicide troops.”

However, as much as I enjoyed the film version, for me I was more touched by the stage version. The horses were puppets but were executed so skilfully that towards the end, I stopped seeing the horses as puppets and began to think that I was seeing real horses instead. And while the narrative begins and ends with Albert and Joey, the middle part shows the war from the opposite side’s point of view through the eyes of Friedrich, a German officer who forms a bond with Joey and Topthorn. As the war progresses, we learn that he misses his wife and daughter, while he begins to question what they are fighting for and why. He also befriends a young French girl Emilie and her mother despite the language barrier but in the end Friedrich, Emilie and her mother all become casualties of war.

There are also flashes of humour in the stage version that I didn’t really see in the film – the interaction between Albert and another soldier was a case in point; while the latter reminisce about his girlfriend back home, Albert dreams about Joey and this leads to a classic banter between both men about the most important being in their lives.

Although it is a work of fiction, War Horse has shown the deep bond between man and beast as well as how everyone suffers during war – not just humans but also animals.

 

Exhibition Review – This vexed question: 500 years of women in medicine (Royal College of Physicians) and Night and Day: 1930s Fashion and Photographs (Fashion and Textile Museum, London)

During the 19th century, several middle class women, mindful of the second class status of their sex, began to demand the right to be seen as equal to men. These included campaigns for the right to vote, the right to employment and to handle their own money and property, the right to an education, in other words to be seen as citizens and their own person independent of men.

One of the rights that some women campaigned for was to study medicine and practise it as a profession: and the history behind this campaign is the main theme of the Royal College of Physicians’ on going exhibition. Entitled This vexed question: 500 years of women in medicine, it charts the history of the struggle of women to be able to study medicine and to be recognised as professionals.

RCP exhibition

Of course as the title suggests, women and medicine have gone hand in hand for millennia. As wives and mothers, a basic knowledge of medicine, DIY treatments and remedies was essential and for centuries midwifery was seen as the preserve of women. However there was always a double standard – while it was acceptable to practise medicine at home, it was unacceptable to do it outside. Women who practised medicine in the same way as men were treated with suspicion and often accused of witchcraft.

During the nineteenth century as women campaigned for the right to study and practise medicine on a professional level, the Royal College of Physicians was actually at the forefront of the general opposition. In the past, they had prosecuted women who were practising without a licence and refused to admit women as members on the grounds that they lacked the stamina and the ability to think logically enough to become professional doctors. Despite these objections, women such as Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Sophia Jex-Blake managed to train and qualify as doctors and in 1909, the RCP finally admitted Ivy Woodward Haslam as a member while the first women fellows were admitted in 1925.

The early women doctors experienced a lot of prejudice back home and many went abroad to other countries in the British Empire where they could use their expertise and have a career in a way that would be denied them had they remained in Britain. The First World War was another opportunity for women doctors to be able to use their medical skills for the war effort.

While the exhibition is small and packed with information it’s not overwhelming and the displays are carefully curated in order to highlight the story of women and their long struggle to be recognised as part of the medical profession. It is also fitting that the displays also highlight women doctors’ engagement with the world around them by landing their support for the suffrage movement and playing an important role during the two world wars. However this also brings me to one major issue I have with this exhibition, while the curators highlight women doctors’ involvement with the suffragettes, there was a major omission with those who joined the suffragists. Or what about those who opposed female suffrage, don’t they matter as well?

Despite that one oversight kudos to the RCP for this interesting and informative exhibition, this highlights another interesting facet of women’s struggle for equality in all aspects of life.

 

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Fashion during the twentieth century has not only reflected how science and technology has affected the production and design of clothes but crucially with women’s fashions how changes to the lives they led resulted into a radical break from the fashions of the Victorian and Edwardian eras. As women won the right to vote and entered the work force and professions in greater numbers, fashion reflected the more active lives that they were living. The style of the 1920s with its simpler cuts, looser shapes and shorter hemlines to complement the short hair that many women were sporting became an enduring image of the so-called “Roaring Twenties” where economic boom and a desire to move on from the horrors of war gave rise to the hedonism that we associate with this period.

The good times were not to last however and 1929 with the Wall Street Crash in America was the beginning of the end. The Great Depression would cast a shadow over the 1930s as the self-indulgence of the 1920s gave way to a more sober and restrained decade. This sobriety would be reflected in the clothes and as a follow on from 2016’s 1920s Jazz Age Fashion and Photographs exhibition, the Fashion and Textile Museum for 2018 has decided to put 1930s fashion in the spotlight.

Entitled Night and Day: 1930s Fashion and Photographs chronicles a decade of economic depression, the rise of totalitarianism and amidst the gathering storm of another war through clothes, accessories and photographs which demonstrated how 1930s fashion was very different from the 1920s – the clothes were much more ladylike and structured, a far cry from the androgyny and looser shapes of the previous decade. What they have in common with 1920s clothes though was the simplicity of the designs and the almost uniform silhouette of the clothes, which was an acknowledgement that women were dressing themselves and that even the upper classes could no longer afford to have maids to help them dress hence the more simple fastenings and the use of fabrics that could easily be pressed or steamed.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom as the 1930s were a period of greater leisure due to government legislation that provided for paid holidays and the popularity of the dance hall and cinema for all classes. Fashion during this period reflected this greater access to leisure and entertainment as well as demonstrating the power of Hollywood where its pantheon of screen stars such as Norma Shearer, Marlene Dietrich and Bette Davis influenced the look of the era; eclipsing royalty, the aristocracy and society figures as fashion role models for the masses.

What makes this exhibition interesting and compelling are the clothes – apart from a jacket and dress designed by Norman Hartnell the rest of the clothes on display were from the High Street, DIY dressmaking and obscure labels. Famous labels such as Chanel, Schiaparelli and Lanvin are conspicuous by their absence which gives us a much more rounded picture of what the ordinary woman during the 1930s were really wearing beyond the glamorous images propagated by the likes of Vogue. The downside however is that many of the clothes lack the sparkle and colour of the 1920s and many of them seem to merge into like a uniform – many of the dresses are noticeably the same basic sheath type that’s both easy to run up at home from a paper pattern and to care for without a maid’s help. However that is perhaps deliberate as 1930s fashions not only make a reference to the greater importance of mass production of clothes but also that styles during this time reflected a much more sober period and a growing anxiety that would manifest itself when another world war would finally break out in 1939.

 

Note:

The bloggers visited both exhibitions on 13 December 2018

Photos from exhibition taken by blogger

 

This vexed question’: 500 years of women in medicine is on at the Royal College of Physicians until 18 January 2019. Admission is free. For more information please go to: https://www.rcplondon.ac.uk/events/vexed-question-500-years-women-medicine

Night and Day: 1930s Fashion and Photographs is on at the Fashion and Textile Museum until 20 January 2019. Admission charge applies. For more information please go to: https://www.ftmlondon.org/ftm-exhibitions/night-and-day-1930s-fashion-and-photographs/

A Speaking Monarchy: The Origins of the Christmas Broadcast

Every Christmas the Sovereign delivers a speech to the nation – it usually lasts for ten to fifteen minutes and reflects on the year that is passing and hopes for the future. The speech has become so ingrained in how the British celebrate Christmas that it has been seen as a tradition and part of the routine of how people observe the festive season. But as like other things with the British monarchy, this “tradition” is not as old as we might think and from a historical point of view is seen as one of the many ways by which the royal family has utilised modern technology to reach out to its people as well as a means of adapting to the world around them.

The first Christmas speech was broadcast over the radio by King George V on 25 December 1932. As he would write in his diary: “At 3:35, I broadcasted a short message of 251 words to the whole Empire from Francis’ (Knollys) room.” Actually the broadcast was at 3:50pm as the clocks at Sandringham (where the broadcast took place) were set thirty minutes faster than normal time to maximise daylight. The fact that the King had agreed to broadcast a speech over the festive period was a triumph for the nascent British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) under the leadership of its Director General John Reith and it was used to inaugurate the corporation’s World Service.

However, it had not been an easy road to that historic event in 1932. Although radio had been around since the 1920s and the BBC was established in 1926, the King resisted any attempts to engage with the new medium. This despite the fact that he allowed his speeches for important state and ceremonial occasions such as the opening of the British Empire exhibition at Wembley to be broadcast live over the radio.

George V was instinctively and naturally a conservative and had been a reluctant participant in the changes brought upon by political, social and demographic changes during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As the second son of the future King Edward VII, George V was originally not trained to become King;  rather it was his older brother Prince Albert Victor (known to the family as “Eddy”) Duke of Clarence who received the education deemed appropriate for a future monarch.

The Prince of Wales, mindful of the brutal hothouse education that was imposed on him by his own father Prince Albert, took great care to ensure that his children had at least the semblance of a normal (by the standards of the time) upbringing which would allow them to be children. He also enrolled Eddy and George in the navy with the understanding that while the former would eventually leave in order to further prepare himself for his role as a future King, George who was the spare and a relatively junior member of the royal family stayed; with an eye towards becoming a career naval officer in order to make his way in the world.

As Matthew Glencross noted, his time in the navy would have an eventual impact on George’s outlook, mentality and style of kingship. Unlike the army, the navy treated everyone the same regardless of social status. Every cadet had to undergo the same type of training and shared the same type of accommodation and rations. There was no special treatment for George just because he was a prince and whatever he felt about the separation from his parents and siblings (to whom he was very close), it was only shared through letters back home and repressed under the idea of duty which he imbibed and would later become a hallmark of his reign.

Another major impact of the navy on George and his eventual reign was how he saw himself. Because of his naval career, he was often absent from many family gatherings where he could get to know royals from the Continent, many of who were related to him. Unusually also for a prince at that time, George could barely speak French or German and this language barrier was a further factor in his lack of relationships with fellow royals. Glencross further observed that:

“[H]e grew up without a sense of being part of an extended and cosmopolitan royal family…..[t]his meant that, outside his immediate family, by the time he was an adult George felt little affinity with various other royals to whom he was related, whether based in Britain or on the continent……[he] therefore did not, unlike his father and grandmother have a real sense of claiming membership of a Europe-centred ‘Trade Union of Kings’, something so central to his thinking, had little real influence on George, whose thinking was so much more local.” (p. 37)

Since the King’s formative years had been spent with those in the middle class and gentry that were the bedrock of the Royal Navy, he was to see himself as British first and foremost and this would inform the decisions he would make during his reign.

George V’s view of himself as thoroughly British would stand him in good stead when he ascended the throne on the death of his father King Edward VII in 1910, and crucially during the First World War and its aftermath. From the beginning of his reign, George was eager to use ceremony to bind the royal family and its peoples-  not just in Britain but also across the empire as a “family of nations.” This meant not only following his father’s dictum that “the more the people see their Sovereign the better it is for the country” but going one step further by interacting with ordinary people. He and his wife Queen Mary immediately went on visits to various parts of the United Kingdom, a pattern that continued throughout his reign and which endures to the present day.

The growing mass media was also harnessed. During the war, the royal family’s activities were reported in the press, just as with their pre-war visits to various towns and cities across the country where they were seen talking to ordinary citizens; the king, queen and their older children were photographed out and about doing their duty and their bit for the war effort. These were not for show but to underline the King’s desire to share with his subjects and soldiers their sacrifices. After the war, the public engagements continued, but there was an increase in the work that the royals did in the field of charity and the voluntary sector;  family events such as weddings which were held privately in the past now became state and public occasions. All these were reported in the papers and increasingly were filmed to be shown in newsreels across the country and empire.

Philip Williamson wrote that as the royal family undertook more patronages and performed more engagements, they began to make more speeches and these were widely reported and commented upon. While speeches could be relied upon to be published in the newspapers, the novelty of hearing royalty speak live would be made possible with the development of radio or wireless technology. As early as 1923, it had already been proposed to broadcast live the wedding of Prince Albert Duke of York to Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, something which the couple agreed to but was vetoed by the Archbishop of Canterbury on the grounds that ‘men listening to the service in pubs would not bother to take their hats off.’ The following year, the opening ceremonies of the exhibition at Wembley were broadcast live and afforded the opportunity for the public to listen to the King speak even if they were not present at the venue itself.

As mentioned earlier in this blog, George V, while seeing the value of mass media as a way to cement that closer bond between crown and people, was disinclined to make a speech that would be broadcast outside an important occasion. It took years of persuasion not only from Reith but even courtiers: the most notable being Lord Stamfordham, the private secretary, and his assistant Sir Clive Wigram, to convince the King of the merits of making such a broadcast. Both men had long seen the potential of the new medium of broadcasting as a way for the royal family to reach out more to the people and thought that an address either during Christmas or New Year would achieve that objective.

It wasn’t until 1932 when together with the Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald, that Reith and Wigram (who by then had replaced Stamfordham as Private Secretary) were finally able to persuade the reluctant King to make such a broadcast. Reith offered the King the option of a Christmas Day or New Year’s Day broadcast: George chose the former as he reasoned that the vast majority of people would be with their families that day just as he would be and it would underscore the importance of Christmas as a family day.

Once the King had agreed to deliver a speech on Christmas Day, he was not a passive bystander content to leave the planning and logistics to his courtiers and the BBC. While Rudyard Kipling was drafted to write the speech, there was active input and feedback from the monarch, ensuring that his character would shine through the speech. A BBC crew travelled up to Sandringham for the broadcast and after selecting a room for the broadcast to be carried out, George participated in voice tests to determine where in the room the table and the microphones would be set up. The control room was set up in the room next door while the microphones and cue light that were to be used by the King were covered in cases made out of Australian walnut.

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It was understandable that the King would be nervous and so the table that was used for the broadcast was swathed in thick cloth to deaden the sound of rustling paper. As for the time that the speech would be broadcast, it was decided to schedule it at 3 o’clock in the afternoon as that time was seen as the most advantageous for reaching most of the countries of the Empire by shortwaves from British transmitters.

The speech itself was short, as the King observed in his diary, only 251 words, but they underlined George’s view of Britain and the Empire as one big family, and the possibilities of technology in enabling communication between this wide family scattered across the globe:

“Through one of the marvels of modern Science, I am enabled, this Christmas Day, to speak to all my peoples throughout the Empire. I take it as a good omen that Wireless should have reached its present perfection at a time when the Empire has been linked in closer union. For it offers us immense possibilities to make that union closer still.

“It may be that our future may lay upon us more than one stern test. Our past will have taught us how to meet it unshaken. For the present, the work to which we are all equally bound is to arrive at a reasoned tranquillity within our borders; to regain prosperity without self-seeking; and to carry with us those whom the burden of past years has disheartened or overborne.”

“My life’s aim has been to serve as I might, towards those ends. Your loyalty, your confidence in me has been my abundant reward.”

“I speak now from my home and from my heart to you all. To men and women so cut off by the snows, the desert or the sea, that only voices out of the air can reach them; to those cut off from fuller life by blindness, sickness, or infirmity; and to those who are celebrating this day with their children and grand-children. To all—to each—I wish a Happy Christmas. God Bless You!”

 

It was perhaps just as well that the table had been covered with that thick cloth as George revealed later that his hands were shaking throughout the broadcast. If there was any trace of nerves, the listeners did not notice. In fact, the broadcast was well received; as the writer Donald Spoto in his study of the royal family observed, George V’s speeches were a natural expression of his character and the Christmas speech was no different. The broadcast also revealed that the King had a talent for and showed himself to be an effective communicator over the radio; it also made him more human and approachable. By hearing his voice over the wireless, it was as if the King was present in every home that had tuned in to hear him speak.

Although pleased that the speech went well, George V had no intention of making the Christmas address an annual event due to his nerves but upon seeing the letters of appreciation from ordinary members of the public not just in Britain but across the empire, he agreed to broadcast a speech every Christmas with the last in 1935. And while King George VI due to his stammer was not keen to carry on what his father had started, by December 1939 with the Second World War already in full swing, the Christmas broadcast was resurrected and since then it has been an annual fixture in British radio and later television.

What made that first broadcast a success and led to the development of a new tradition? The writer John Pearson mused that George V’s “resonant diction and nautical sincerity” played a part and which one of the King’s early biographers, John Gore observed:

“The homely simplicity and kindliness of his latest address to the Country and empire had been widely appreciated…..He knew himself now to be regarded as the Father of a great Family of Nations…..it was as a father of a family and a Father of the larger family of nations that he spoke each year those Christmas messages and he chose ideas, and words to clothe them, which suited the occasion, the conditions, and the character of the man who would speak them. The very simplicity of thought and the chosen words gave them the King’s authentic signature. He was a simple, natural, frank and friendly man and his favourite words were like himself.” (p. 423)

It wasn’t just George’s talent for broadcasting but also his wholesale commitment to his duty and another application of the lessons he learned in the navy as a young cadet. They stood him in good stead as the world changed and it enabled him and the royal family to adapt and move with the changing times. His grandmother and father had engaged with the innovations of their time – photography and moving images – and George V continued this engagement with technology through the medium of radio which as Pearson wrote “the broadcast marked in fact a further radical advance in the transformation of the monarchy by the mass media” and thanks to the wireless, “King George V could now seem even closer to his people as the nation heard its sovereign’s greeting live across the either……..[he] became something no monarch had ever been before in history, an intimately appreciated, widely known human being, a simple king in the age of the common man.”

Although many would point out that the Christmas speech was another in a series of “invented traditions” and a response a response to a host of specific domestic and international political forces during the late 19th and 20th centuries, it can also be viewed in Takashi Fujitani’s words as a way to “dramatize the cultural values that have been shared by rulers and ruled alike – since who knows when” and these rituals allow the rulers to “place themselves in the cultural frameworks that already unify a people.”

In the end however, for King George V and his successors the annual Christmas speech was a way for the monarch to emphasise their “duty to the Crown and all it stood for, rather than on the privileges of royalty” as well as to reaffirm that all important bond between the monarch and his people.

 

Further Reading:

John Gore. King George V: A Personal Memoir (London, 1941)

Kenneth Rose. King George V (London, 1983)

John Pearson. The Ultimate Family: The Making of the Royal House of Windsor (London, 1986)

Tom Fleming. Voices Out of the Air: The Royal Christmas Broadcasts (London, 1981)

Takashi Fujitani. Splendid Monarchy: Power and Pageantry in Modern Japan (Berkeley, 1986)

Louise Cooling. A Royal Christmas (London, 2018)

David Cannadine, ‘The Context, Performance and Meaning of Ritual: The British Monarchy and the “Invention of Tradition,” c. 1820-1977’ in Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (eds) The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge, 1983), pp. 101-164.

Matthew Glencross. ‘George V and the New Royal House’ in Matthew Glencross, Judith Rowbotham and Michael D. Kandiah (eds) The Windsor Dynasty 1910 to the Present. ‘Long to Reign Over Us’? (Basingstoke, 2016), pp. 33-56.

Philip Williamson. ‘The Monarchy and Public Values 1910-53’ in Andrzej Olechnowicz (ed) The Monarchy and the British Nation 1780 to the Present (Cambridge, 2007), pp. 223-257.

https://www.royal.uk/history-christmas-broadcast

 

Forgotten Women (Part 3) – The Road to Equal Suffrage

While there is much focus on the centenary of the Representation of the People Act 1918, what seems to have been almost forgotten is that 2018 is also the 90th anniversary of the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act, which gave women the right to vote on the same terms as men. If anything the latter is as important as the former, as it finally recognised women as equal to men when it came to the ballot box.

Although the campaign to secure women parity with men when it came to voting lacked the headlines and the colourful personalities, the women and men involved fought a 10 year campaign to redress the shortcomings of the earlier 1918 Act. In this blog, we shall see what difficulties the campaigners faced, how the tactics of the equalists were different to the suffragists and the suffragettes of the pre-war period and how changes in attitudes finally paved the way for equal suffrage to become a reality in 1928.

 

After 1918 – the war is far from over

When the Representation of the People Act was passed in 1918 giving women over 30 the right to vote, it was seen as flawed and many of the suffragists and suffragettes were not prepared to accept that women were not equal when it came to men at the ballot box. This omission, as Cheryl Law observed, “cast doubt on the claim that giving the vote to women had been in grateful recognition of their wartime service” given that the vast majority of munitionettes, nurses, police constables, bus conductors and Land Girls were excluded from the vote due to their age. There were also over 2 million women over 30 who could not vote due to the following categories – professional or business women with business premises or unfurnished rooms, shop workers and domestic servants who “lived in” and unmarried daughters still living at home with their parents.

Many campaigners realised that the war was far from over. The opposition to women gaining the vote had not gone away and the struggle for equality and recognition was still on going. In the aftermath of a cataclysmic global war, millions of demobilised men were returning home hoping to return to their old jobs or to quickly find a new one. The consequence of this was an easing out of the women who had entered the workforce in their millions during the war in order to return to a life revolving around “children, church and kitchen.” However, there was the general consensus that now that some women had the vote, it was only a matter of time before the voting age was lowered. As Margaret Viscountess Rhondda, herself a former suffragette observed, women by virtue of the 1918 Act “had passed the first great toll-bar on the road which leads to equality…..[but] it is a far cry yet to the end of the road.”

As with the pre-war suffrage movement, the post war equalist movement was divided as there was some reluctance on the part of the likes of Millicent Garrett Fawcett to launch an immediate campaign to lower the voting age. Part of her lack of enthusiasm was a desire not to burden with additional issues a government coping with demobilisation and the winding down of the wartime economy. She and other leading women’s rights activists were also more concerned with moves to push women out of the workforce, any attempted restrictions on those who were about to enter the workforce and continuing discrimination. As Fawcett told a crowd at a meeting, the struggle was far from over, “we cannot be half free and half serf.”

Another source of division was due to the fact that there were many former suffragists and suffragettes who were actually opposed to lowering the voting age for women as they believed that the so-called “flappers” were too young and frivolous to understand current issues and seemed to be more concerned with having a good time than devoting their time to self-improvement, education and preparing themselves to become good citizens.

These concerns were shared by those who opposed giving women the vote at all. Realising that they had lost the argument, they shifted towards opposition to giving women the vote on equal terms with men. This is not surprising as in the aftermath of the First World War, there was a backlash against women and women’s rights; there were many factors for this but two reasons stood out – first was the demographic factor where the war had precipitated a population change, as millions of men met their end on the trenches of the Western Front or the deserts of Mesopotamia, so there was a dearth of men especially among the economically active.

Secondly, the backlash was compounded by this gender imbalance in Britain’s post war population. This was made worse by those who returned home from the war: far from coming back to a land “fit for heroes,” they were left disappointed by a lack of jobs as well as burdened by physical and psychological injuries. As a result, there was the general feeling of being threatened by a “surplus generation” of women who were greater in number and had gained much freedom during the war and after, which led to fears of the country being swamped with women.

Post-war Britain was obsessed with the “women problem” and with the reality of Britain’s economic weaknesses becoming apparent as the 1920s and 30s rolled on, the backlash against women became very apparent, with the attacks on women workers which were most acute during periods of high unemployment. One of the ways by which the so-called “women problem” was tackled was through the 1918 Act which gave women over the age of 30 the vote with a host of other restrictive clauses as mentioned above. The restrictions were a way for Parliament to ensure that the electorate was not swamped with female voters as by the 1920s, demographically women outnumbered men. Those who opposed giving women the vote or lowering the voting age set by the 1918 act used the demographic imbalance as grounds to avoid upsetting the status quo. Another main justification was that “girls” of twenty one were still much too young and immature and not responsible enough for the duties of citizenship. The use of marriage as one qualification for the right to vote was also seen as a form of control of a woman’s decision being more tempered by marriage.  Linking marriage and the right to vote was also seen as an inducement for women to leave the work force for marriage and motherhood. It was also believed that since by the standards of the time, 30 was already considered to be middle aged, women would be put off by registering to vote as this would give away how old they were.

The perpetuation of bias against women and the change in arguments this time in denying women parity with men when it came to the franchise led to new challenges in the campaign for women’s rights and equal suffrage.  Campaigners used varying platforms to make their voice heard and to ensure that equal suffrage would be achieved in less time than the previous campaign to secure the franchise for women.

 

Making their voice heard

After the passage of the 1918 Act, the National Union for Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) became the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship (NUSEC). Its main goal was to work for the enfranchisement of women between the ages of 21 and 29 to be able to vote on equal terms with men as well as to remove the current restrictions around women’s right to vote. In addition, the NUSEC was also committed to furthering the cause of women’s rights as their main objective was to “obtain all other reforms, economic, legislative and social as are necessary to secure a real equality of liberties, status and opportunities between men and women.” On the women’s rights front, they sought to encourage and educate women on their new found rights and how to make the most out of their new influence. They were also committed to advocate the opening of professions and the civil service as mandated by the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act and defend the rights of married women to employment.

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The NUSEC did all these by publishing several pamphlets guiding women through the registration process and how to vote. They also lent their support to women’s groups campaigning for a host of issues ranging from family to education and employment. During the 1920s, more women entered the workforce which led to the rise of organisations for working women.  Crucially, due to the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919 professions and sectors formerly barred to women were opened up and despite the barriers that existed in defiance of the law, there was no stopping women entering the workforce and professions: hence the establishment of organisations and groups that catered to the latter. Among them were the Women’s Engineering Society (WES), the Electrical Association for Women (EAW), National Union of Women Teachers (NUWT) and Women’s Local Government Society (WLGS) which provided a platform for professional women to campaign on issues affecting their sector and a woman’s place in it. Other organisations provided more practical support with the most notable example being the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) which ran hostels and leisure facilities for the benefit of working women, many of them living far away from home and needing a place to live.

Another way by which women were making their voices heard was through the power of mass media. Following the end of the war, the press developed a schizophrenic attitude towards women, women’s issues and women’s rights. While they (especially the popular and tabloid press) made much of the panic regarding “surplus women” and some took a conservative stance on a woman’s place in society; the same papers however began to integrate more women into its political discourse, highlighting the strides made by women in the political process and praised the election of women to Parliament. Newspapers such as the Daily Mail employed prominent women like the former suffragist Ray Strachey to become one of its columnists writing on a wide variety of political and social issues.

Even with the continued idealisation of women as wives and mothers, this idealism took on a new dimension of seeing housewives both as citizens and consumers whose day to day living could be impacted by government policy and in turn could help affect change. Side by side with this conservative message was the celebration of female “pioneers” with the likes of Nancy Astor, the first woman to take her seat as a Member of Parliament; Margaret Bondfield, the first woman Privy Counsellor; Amy Johnson, celebrated for her exploits as an aviator as well as a host of firsts in medicine, law, sports among others. As Cheryl Law wrote, the press gave a considerable amount of attention and coverage to “women who had achieved prominence in any sphere previously confined to men (who) were assisting in the emancipation process by virtue of the visibility of their success.”

The most visible voice came from the women who were elected to the House of Commons from 1919 onwards. Nancy Astor was elected to the seat vacated by her husband who had to leave the Commons following his elevation to the House of Lords. Although she was on the fence with regards to the women’s suffrage question before the war, following her election to Parliament, Astor took the issue of equal suffrage with dedication while her husband led the campaign from the Lords. She was also dedicated to issues affecting women and children as well as lending her support for women’s groups such as the EAW and YWCA.

Nancy Astor

Astor was followed into Parliament by other women such as the former suffragist Ellen Wilkinson, ex-Women’s Freedom League member Margaret Wintringham and former trade unionist Margaret Bondfield as well as aristocratic women like the Duchess of Atholl and Lady Cynthia Mosley (nee Curzon). While women MPs struggled to be taken seriously and were generally expected to confine their advocacy on women’s issues, they were instrumental in introducing and seeing through legislation that would have an impact on everyone, not just women.

Apart from their support of women MPs regardless of party affiliation, the NUSEC continued their non-party stance by cultivating allies within the political establishment especially sympathetic MPs and peers in their efforts to guide legislation through Parliament. In February 1920, Thomas Grundy a Labour MP introduced a bill that would lower the voting age of women to 21. Although it passed on its second reading, the bill failed as the government cited constitutional procedure which meant that if the bill became law, it would be forced to call for another General Election. Two years later Lord Robert Cecil, one of the prime supporters of women’s suffrage before the First World War, carried on the fight for equal suffrage. After Grundy’s bill failed, Cecil introduced another one in 1922 and although it was voted by a majority of 208 to 60, it suffered the same fate as Grundy’s attempt; but women’s groups saw that this was a positive step towards realising the goal for equal suffrage.

 

How the vote was finally won

The fight for equal suffrage did not have the same drama and personalities as the pre-war suffrage campaign. There was no heckling, no terrorism campaign, no publicity stunts and no great pilgrimages. As Brian Harrison observed, “[n]ow that the franchise attached to persons rather than to property, equalising it presented fewer tactical and strategic differences, and prudent suffragist leadership ensured that between 1916 and 1928, feminist self-sabotage no longer materialised.”

The suffragettes were conspicuously absent in the equal suffrage campaign which is not surprising as the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) disbanded during the First World War and both Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst lost interest in the suffrage campaign. Other suffragettes “retired” from the suffrage movement with some resurfacing in the 1930s by joining the British Union of Fascists (BUF) and becoming Fascist and Nazi sympathisers: such as Norah Dacre Fox (later Elam) and  Mary Richardson (who slashed the Rokeby Venus at the National Gallery). On the surface, as Simon Webb mused, it was a paradox that these women were attracted to a movement that was fairly hostile to female equality and rights, however on closer inspection, it wasn’t. As Lady Pethick-Lawrence (a former suffragette who was ousted from the WSPU after questioning the validity of militancy) observed, the WSPU was no different to the fascist movements and parties that gained power in Italy, Spain, Germany and other countries in central and Eastern Europe.

A few suffragettes carried on the fight by standing for political office or joining the organisations mentioned above as well as joining forces with the NUESC and the WFL. Although there were protest marches calling for the government to lower the voting age, they were few and far in between. Nancy Astor managed to persuade Lady Rhondda to reconsider her plans to fund and organise demonstrations as she wrote reassuringly, “the Government are certain to give equal suffrage without this.” To fellow MP, Eleanor Rathbone, Astor wrote of her fears that demonstrations would do more harm than good to the fight for equal suffrage by implying that politicians who supported the measure would not keep their word: “I am sure this is the wrong line to take, and it is for this reason that I am myself keeping very quiet on this question.”

The campaigners resorted to peaceful means such as speeches, petitions and meetings in order to keep the issue at the forefront of political discourse and persuade ordinary people and the establishment of the merits of equal suffrage. They pointed out several legal inconsistencies: for instance with the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918 with gave women over the age of 21 the right to stand for Parliament and become MPs but then women under the age of 30 could not vote. In 1926, the NUESC organised a demonstration in London where several women’s groups together with a contingent of women parliamentary candidates, mayors, councillors and magistrates joined in together with those representing working women and professionals. It was a remarkable event as it was one of the rare occasions when Millicent Garrett Fawcett, Emmeline Pankhurst and Charlotte Despard were together lending their support for the equal suffrage campaign. In speeches, women leaders also decried more legal inconsistencies such as for instance setting the age of consent for women at 16 who were still unable to vote at the age of 21 when that was set as the legal age for adulthood. Fawcett echoed this in a speech by also pointing out that Britain was the only country that discriminated against young women, there was already equal suffrage in the white Dominions and the United States in 1918 already gave its women the right to vote on equal terms with its men. She also pointed out that the young had something to contribute and had a stake in how the country was being governed as she added: “[t]hey will grow old quickly enough; but let us benefit from their youth as long as it lasts for helping on the right solution of the great problems that lie before us.”

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The 1926 march had the desired effect: although Labour was the only political party that explicitly had equal suffrage in its manifesto, its leader Ramsay Macdonald was in reality lukewarm to the issue of women’s suffrage while some of its members and the trade unions had always been hostile to women’s suffrage and women’s rights. Stanley Baldwin on the other hand together with Conservatives had many members who were sympathetic and were active campaigners for the extension of the franchise. When Baldwin won a majority in 1924, one of his pledges was to lower the voting age for women and the campaigners wanted to ensure that he kept his promise.

In 1927, Baldwin agreed to introduce a bill lowering the voting age for women to 21 and on equal terms with men. Although there was no mention of equal suffrage in the King’s Speech on 7 February 1928, the Prime Minister sprang a surprise by reaffirming that evening that a Franchise Bill would be introduced and true to his word, the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Bill was introduced less than a month later. The bill finally passed on its second reading on 29 March with a vote of 377 ayes and 10 noes with 218 abstaining. The act finally received royal assent on 2 July 1928 which finally meant that women had achieved electoral parity with the men.

It had taken Britain ten years to achieve what other countries had done following the end of the Great War. Which then begs the question, why did it take so long (although not as long as the pre-war suffrage campaign)? Apart from the stubborn institutional bias against women there were also big issues that dominated post-war Britain. From the national debt, chronic unemployment and industrial decline the country had a lot on its plate and equal suffrage was never high on the government’s priorities. It is only with the patience and perseverance of the campaigners and their supporters in both houses of Parliament that it was finally realised.

Secondly, why was there no resumption of militancy? As mentioned earlier, the WSPU had disbanded during the war and never really recovered. Recent research has also cast doubt on how effective militancy was. As shown by the pre-war suffragists and the greater role played by women during the war, patient campaigning and doing their part for the war effort had demonstrated women’s capabilities far more than militancy ever did. Crucially, women had come a long way since before 1914; women were now MPs while others occupied government posts such as councillors, justices of the peace and magistrates. There were also a greater number of women in the workforce and in professions as well as those blazing the trail in other aspects of public life. Cheryl Law called the equalists “prudent revolutionaries” – women who worked for change by playing the rules of the club (i.e. parliament) and it is through this that women finally had the vote on equal terms with the men at last.

 

Further Reading:

Pat Thane. ‘The Impact of Mass Democracy on British Political Culture, 1918-1939’ in Julie V. Gottlieb and Richard Toye (eds) The Aftermath of Suffrage: Women, Gender and Politics in Britain 1918-1945 (Basingstoke, 2013), pp. 54-69.

Adrian Bingham. ‘Enfranchisement, Feminism and the Modern Woman: Debates in the British Popular press, 1918-1939’ in Julie V. Gottlieb and Richard Toye (eds) The Aftermath of Suffrage: Women, Gender and Politics in Britain 1918-1945 (Basingstoke, 2013), pp. 87-104

David Rubinstein. A Different World for Women: The Life of Millicent Garrett Fawcett (London, 1991)

Brian Harrison. ‘Women’s Suffrage at Westmister 1866-1928’ in Michael Bentley and John Stevenson (eds) High and Low Politics in Modern Britain (Oxford, 1983), pp. 80-122.

Cheryl Law. Suffrage and Power (London: I.B. Tauris, 1997)

Martin Pugh. Women and the Women’s Movement in Britain 1914-1959 (London, 1992)

Simon Webb. Suffragette Bombers: Britain’s Forgotten Terrorists (Barnsley, 2014)