Exhibition Review – Ocean Liners: Speed and Style (V&A)

Glamour is not something we associate with travelling nowadays, with shrinking legroom, tight security, baggage restrictions and the ingenious ways by which airlines (especially budget ones) routinely fleece their customers. However, that wasn’t the case as during the early decades of the twentieth century, long before air travel became a reality, travelling by sea was the only way to cross continents and travel lengthy distances. The great liners of the day with names such as Olympic, Mauretania, Normandie, Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth and the United States plied the world’s oceans and became a byword not just for technological prowess but also for glamour and beauty.

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Organised with co-operation from the Peabody Essex Museum, the V&A’s Ocean Liners: Speed and Style is the first exhibition to provide a comprehensive exploration of these “floating palaces” and operates on three levels: first it looks at the glitz and allure of travelling aboard a liner. As one enters the exhibition space, the visitor is treated to a recreation of that glamorous world where the interiors are as luxurious and lavish as any great palace or hotel as manifested by doors and panels from the SS France, the panel which adorned the grand staircase of the RMS Olympic as well as the furniture and panels from the RMS Queen Mary and the SS Normandie. Customer service was also paramount as the liners ensured that not only did their visitors travel in comfort and style, but every need and whim was anticipated;  for example. the Queen Mary having a room that could convert into a Roman Catholic chapel and a door that doubled as a menorah for use by Jewish passengers for Sabbath services.

Nowhere is the glamour of ocean travel shown more clearly than in the “life on board” section where the displays are meant to evoke the travelling experience for first class passengers. Ocean liners emulated grand hotels not only in terms of interiors but also in terms of food and service with top chefs acting as consultants. The entire on board experience was deliberately designed to replicate how the rich and powerful lived on dry land to make travelling as appealing and convenient as possible.  There were also activities on board such as sports and games for young and old alike but the main highlight is the fashion featured – a Christian Dior suit belonging to the actress Marlene Dietrich as well as a small selection of gowns worn by socialite Eleanor Grigsby as well the luggage in which their clothes were packed – dressing cases full of cosmetic bottles and Vuitton trunks that covert into chests of drawers – no slinging a soft bag into the overhead locker for these travellers. These clothes emphasised how much being on board was also to be seen and nowhere is this more apparent with the recreation of the “grande descente” where female passengers wearing their best gowns and jewels would descend the grand staircase of a liner on their way to dinner.

 

 

 

Secondly, the exhibition also takes a look at how technology has transformed how people travelled by sea. From its beginnings via Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Great Eastern, ocean liners were initially used to transport mail and cargo gradually extending to transporting people especially those who were emigrating for a better life. However it was not a pleasant experience and as the nineteenth century gradually grew to a close, advances in ship building and technology made it possible for travelling by liner to be glamorous and aspirational rather than dirty and dangerous. Models and illustrations from the period demonstrate how much attention was paid to the design of the ship and its engines not only to make the liner look aesthetically pleasing but to ensure that safety, comfort and speed were not compromised.

Speed also comes in to what I consider the most important aspect explored by the exhibition – how ocean liners were used as tools to promote nationalism, national identity and national pride. The Blue Riband which was awarded for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic became fiercely contested and it was understandable that Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany would be exulting over German liners wresting the Blue Riband from their British rivals in 1898 and holding on to it until 1903. In a way, the competition for the coveted Blue Riband reflected the growing Anglo-German naval rivalry during this period as well as Germany’s dream of possessing a powerful navy to ensure its “place in the sun.” Nowhere is this ambition more apparent in a painted panel that was part of the Kronpriz Wilhelm’s interior which depicted allegorical images of the sea and rather unsubtly pointed out that Germany’s future lay with its mastery of maritime power.

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Increasingly as well, the state was taking an active interest in the liners and what they could achieve for the nation. This was especially true as during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, liners were increasingly being built with government subsidies on the understanding that they would be requisitioned for public use in the event of war or any national calamity as was the case during the two World Wars where the likes of the Mauretania, Britannic and Queen Mary were used either as hospital ships or to transport troops and supplies to the front.

National identity and national pride were also heavily invoked especially during the 1930s. As demonstrated by two rival liners – the Queen Mary and the Normandie, which were seen by their respective governments as a way to promote Britain and France. Queen Mary, the first of the liners built by the merged Cunard-White Star Line drew heavily on a more restrained style in keeping up with the British national character to give prospective passengers a feel of being in a stately home at sea. Its interiors, fixtures and furniture made from materials sourced not only from all over Britain but also from its empire as a way of showing that the colonies were not a financial drain on the state but rather an important source for raw materials, and that the empire was of mutual benefit economically for the mother country and its dependents.

 

The Normandie on the other hand was unashamedly Art Deco in style and reflected continuing French influence in Western art and design by commissioning panels, sculptures and interior decoration from leading French artists. It was also a perfect showcase for the best of French industry as the likes of Lalique, Aubusson and other leading companies provided the liner’s furniture and fixtures. Both liners could be seen as floating representations of their respective countries at sea.

 

The Second World War put an end to the golden age of the ocean liner and the advent of airplanes such as the Boeing 747 and the Concorde rendered long distance travel by sea redundant. But the liners still provide inspiration for romance, dystopia and nostalgia as demonstrated by films such as The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and Titanic (1997). In addition, the liners themselves were a potent symbol for optimism in scientific and technological progress.

The exhibition is not without its weakness; more could have been said about those travelling in second and third class as well as the staff that saw to the needs of the passengers. But that’s a small quibble, the V&A has managed to give its visitors a slice of that glamorous life at sea that has passed into the annals of history and one that we will never see again.

 

Notes:

The bloggers visited the exhibition on 14 April 2018. Photos also taken by bloggers.

Ocean Liners: Speed & Style is on at the V&A London until 17 June 2018 after which it will transfer at the V&A Dundee from 15 September 2018 to 24 February 2019. For more information please visit: https://www.vam.ac.uk/exhibitions/ocean-liners-speed-style and: https://www.vandadundee.org/exhibitions/ocean-liners

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Downton Abbey – an unhistorical historical drama

In his review of the 2013 Downton Abbey Christmas special, the TV critic Jim Shelley wrote that “Downton Abbey was shamelessly, shamefully aimed at the Americans, rather than the British audience that had made it so popular in the first place.” He could have been writing about the whole programme though and it became more apparent from the third series onwards as the history began to disappear and the soap opera aspect took over. It wasn’t helped by the endless junkets to America, where the actors seemed to be subjected to a Groundhog Day of the same chat show appearances, same questions, and same events over and over again.

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As we have said several times in our critique of this programme, Downton Abbey’s main problem is its very ahistoricity: it doesn’t just trivialise and misrepresent history but also the attitudes and behaviours of people during the time frame it was set. All of this despite the insistence that the programme is accurate, well researched and that it’s realistic. It is nothing of the sort, many of the story lines are anachronistic, crowbarred in a way that looks and feels forced; not to mention lacking any logical sense.

One of the main complaints with Downton Abbey and other period dramas in general is what one blogger calls “today’s imposition of 21st-century ideas and concerns on characters placed rather than fully located in [the past].” These dramas make an effort with the costumes, settings and props but that’s where it all ends, the way the characters sometimes behave and with the storylines, they might as well have been set today than say in 1912 or 1925!

We see various examples of these anachronisms in Downton Abbey – such as Robert’s reaction to his middle daughter Edith’s pregnancy which was more in line with a father from the 2010s rather than the 1920s. There’s Rose having too much freedom as an unmarried woman when someone like her would have been strictly chaperoned until she was married; or servants being buddy-buddy with their employers when that would not have been the case. Apart from the anachronistic storylines, there are two major omissions – the first being religion and the second being the empire.

Losing one’s religion:

As another blogger complained, this series projected “secularism back onto a time and place and way of life where it did not yet exist.” In an interview, the programme’s historical adviser Alastair Bruce claimed that the absence of religion was due to “executives in charge of the series had ordered producers to ‘leave religion out of it’, for fear of alienating an increasingly atheistic public.” He added, “Everyone panics when you try to do anything religious on the telly.”

This I believe is nonsense. Another popular period drama, Call the Midwife (BBC) not only has religion as one of the main themes of the programme but also religious people as central characters. Yet this programme time and again has been a hit with both critics and viewers. Although it has its flaws it’s not shy about tacking difficult story lines and depicting attitudes during the time the narrative is set no matter how unpalatable it is to our modern day sensibilities. It also depicts how religion and religious people still played a big part in Britain in the late 1950s and 1960s, even when organised religion was in retreat from everyday life. If Call the Midwife can do all that, then Downton Abbey which is set in the 1910s and 1920s has no such excuse.

Even Victoria (ITV) has featured religion in many of its scenes and one episode in the recent second series had religion as one of its main themes. And while the programme has taken some liberties with Queen Victoria’s life, aspects of religion such as the churching ritual that Victoria had to undergo following the birth of her first child and religious divisions hampering famine relief in Ireland was used with good effect to depict attitudes and customs of British society high and low of the late 1830s and 1840s. (It was as recently as 1979 that the Church of England renamed the rite of the churching of women in the Prayer Book to one of “A Thanksgiving for the Birth or Adoption of a Child.”)

Whilst it’s true that in Downton Abbey there have been a few scenes set in the village church and the local vicar has made few appearances in series 2 and 3, there is a complete absence of religion with all the characters lacking any sense of religious belief and practice. Any literature of the period and contemporary accounts demonstrates the importance of religion in people’s lives. Although there were some who identified themselves as agnostic or even atheists, this was mostly confined to the middle class intelligentsia. For the majority, people identified themselves with a particular faith or sect, went to Church or the synagogue every week, and discussed religious issues with some even turning their hand to writing about theology and other aspects of their faith.

Especially in a rural area, religion was part and parcel of everyday life and the local lord and his family were obliged to set an example to their servants, tenants and the local community. It didn’t matter whether they were Church of England, Church of Scotland, Roman Catholic, Jewish or Nonconformist (a shorthand term used for Protestant sects other than the Established Churches) but religious observance either of the strict or nominal kind was scrupulously observed. The majority of the aristocracy belonged (at least nominally) to the Church of England and this was reinforced by the fact that bishops also sat in the House of Lords, that the local vicar was dependent on his living on the local lord and that the Church was an acceptable career for younger sons of the aristocracy and gentry. In effect all these ensured that the unity of Church and State, prominent in British institutions such as the Monarchy and Parliament, was also replicated on the local level; which also meant that the local vicar and his wife were an integral part of the local community’s social life and were often related to the local aristocracy and gentry. They would be regularly asked to dinner and other social events in the Big House, while the vicar’s wife and the chatelaine would regularly work together on a host of charitable endeavours and appeals. Historically there have even been some aristocrats who took an active role in religious life and education, most notably Millicent Duchess of Sutherland with her Bible study groups not just confined to her household but among her husband’s tenants and the local village. There was also Father the Honourable Ignatius Spencer, the younger son of the 4th Earl Spencer, who started out as an Anglican vicar but converted to Roman Catholicism and took holy orders in that church. In light of this, the near absence of religion and its practice in Downton Abbey renders meaningless its claim to accurately represent British life during the early decades of the twentieth century.

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Defenders will point out that showing religion wouldn’t fit the storyline or that there is the religion due to the weddings, christening – and the vicar does pop up in the programme. I find this a spurious excuse – religion was a part of everyday life in the era around the period in which Downton is set, in a way we can’t imagine in our largely secular world.  Faith, or at least lip service to religious observance, was all pervasive, and the Church, along with the Empire and the monarchy, had a deep significance and importance for very many people. Religion and religious teaching was deeply embedded in people’s psyche, church-going on a Sunday was still common, and many children of all social classes attended a local Sunday School.

Churches also undertook a considerable amount of charitable and welfare work and provided a venue for social and community activities as well as spiritual comfort in times of national crisis. National days of prayer were particularly well supported during the Great War, Sunday was generally regarded as a day of rest and all shops closed on Sundays.

In her diaries written during the First World War, Lillie Scales describes the role religion played for her and many other people:

August 1914 – Intercession services are being held in many places…one feels that only hope is in God and that He will defend the right.

  1. On Sunday January 6th we had the national day of intercession and it was a wonderful day. We had good congregations, but one heard everywhere of crowded churches, and even queues.

November 11th 1918 George (Lillie’s husband) had gone to St Giles’s at 11 o’clock, and found people pouring into the church for an impromptu thanksgiving service, and there were services there all morning. There had been an impromptu great thanksgiving service in St Paul’s at 12 noon.

November 17th 1918 – There was a great thanksgiving service in St Paul’s, and churches everywhere were crowded, queues in many places.

 

Church membership (according to faithsurvey.co.uk) peaked in 1900 at 33% of the population, and in 1920 was just under 10 million in a population of around 40 million – and there must have been many more people who attended church because of social, moral or familial pressure or expectation. This aspect of existence – weekly church attendance, the great annual rituals of Whitsun, Easter, Advent and Christmas, the importance in public life that the established church had and the comfort religion gave to many (especially during the war years) are simply ignored – because Bruce claimed that he was told to show it would upset viewers.

To a great number of people in the UK now, religion isn’t important and they don’t realise the extent to which it was in the Downton era. That’s why Alastair Bruce got away with his comment and no-one picked up the logical fail to the claim that this was supposed to be an accurate depiction of life 100 years ago but that a very significant chunk of social existence was omitted. Write a drama that panders to what as writer you perceive to be the susceptibilities and prejudices of your audience instead of depicting historical facts and you end up with Braveheart – or Downton Abbey.

I think a good writer would have found a way to have people going about their everyday life in the background and the storyline in the foreground. I am of the view that one of the whole points of a drama is to show facets of these characters and religion might not necessarily be a major story line but it could be something in the background to give the viewer a picture of what was life then. If religion was depicted as part of everyday life in Downton Abbey, it could have added more poignancy to Thomas’s struggles or Robert’s crises. We could have seen Thomas wresting with the conflict between religious dogma and society’s attitudes against his own sexuality and desires, or Robert with his personal issues having a crisis of faith due to feeling unwanted during the war, realising that his marriage is not what it seemed and the family’s subsequent precarious finances. This is real story telling and not the half-baked and flimsy ones that we’ve seen on screen.

 

Don’t Mention the Empire:

When the TV critic Jim Shelley groused that the programme was pandering shamelessly to the Americans, it was an astute observation. One can see this with the casting of veteran Hollywood actress Shirley MacLaine as Martha Levinson, Cora’s mother in series 3 then contriving her return in the series 4 Christmas special with her son Harold (Paul Giamatti) in tow. The aforementioned special was seemingly designed to pander to Americans’ fascination with British royalty, pomp and circumstance as well as the endless parade of evening gowns and spectacle that the viewing public had come to expect.

Perhaps surprisingly for the producers and TV executives, the episode was greeted with derision and hilarity with the plot described as “ludicrous” and lacking credibility. Even the much-vaunted research and accuracy was panned, as several viewers pointed out mistakes ranging from the way the presentation was done down to errors in dress and uniforms.

This pandering to the Americans is perhaps one reason why the British Empire is conspicuously absent in Downton Abbey. For sure there are a few fleeting references here and there but it’s very much like Basil Fawlty going on about not mentioning the war. Just like with religion, Fellowes must have decided that the empire didn’t fit into his plot so it’s not mentioned at all. The only obligatory references are with Robert’s cousin the Marquess of Flintshire going to India to become a provincial governor, a fleeting mention of the Amritsar Massacre and listening to a radio broadcast of George V opening the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley (a very convenient prompt to tell the audience that series 5 is set in 1924).

Apart from what I’ve mentioned above, the empire might not as well exist in Downton Abbey. This is despite the fact that historically it was an omnipresent presence in British life and we are still living with its legacy for good or ill to this very day. The popular celebrity genealogy programme Who Do You Think You Are? (BBC) through several episodes featuring the likes of actor Charles Dance, Olympic athlete Sebastian Coe, chef Ainsley Harriott, journalist Natasha Kaplinsky, actress Meera Syal and most recently choreographer Craig Revel Horwood have demonstrated how much the empire is very much interwoven into the very fabric of this country. We can see the empire’s influence in the food that we eat, in our decorative arts and architecture, not to mention that many place names up and down Britain have their origins in places that were part of the empire on which “the sun never sets.”  These influences have been cemented further following the end of the Second World War when immigration grew steadily from countries that comprised the former empire.

During the period in which Downton Abbey is set, the empire featured prominently in national life and everyday life (one example being the annual celebration of Empire Day). The positions of Colonial Secretary and Secretary of State for India were seen as prestigious, news concerning the empire was widely covered and the comings and goings of politicians and famous people from the colonies were headline news. There were also the various events that underlined the bonds between Britain and its colonies through industrial exhibitions held in major cities; the most famous being that held at Wembley in 1924-5. These exhibitions not only presented the best of home grown industry but also products from the empire such as timber from Canada, butter and lamb from New Zealand, cotton from India and others. In short, exhibitions such as those held at Wembley were, in the observation of Anne Clendinning, to “celebrate imperial unity and to increase mutual economic cooperation” as well as highlight the empire which was described by King George V as a “family of nations.”

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This idea of the empire as a “family of nations” isn’t a new one but it was used by Queen Victoria to cement the bonds between Britain and a growing empire during the second half of the 19th century with her sons and grandsons touring India and the white dominions (Canada, Australia, New Zealand) on her behalf. This was further underlined when Victoria’s son-in-law the future 9th duke of Argyll served as Governor-General of Canada. In 1911, George V went one step further by travelling to India to be present at a Durbar staged to mark his coronation as emperor of India; and following the end of the First World War, his sons all undertook tours of the empire on his behalf with the Duke of York (the future George VI) travelling to the Antipodes and Africa while the Duke of Gloucester undertook tours of Africa. However the most indefatigable was the oldest son, the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VIII) when during the 1920s and 1930s he became the first member of the royal family to visit nearly all parts of the empire during his world tours. These tours were so successful that in David Cannadine’s words, “the crown was made truly imperial and the empire authentically royal.”

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Royal tours followed a certain formula as described by Cannadine in his book Ornamentalism whereby “[t]hese were grand progresses by land and sea, lasting for many months and covering many miles, involving countless receptions, dinners, parades and speeches, and all carried on before vast, delighted and admiring crowds.” By the twentieth century, following Edward VII’s dictum that the more people see the royals the better it is for the country, the “arrangement for these tours became even more elaborate, and the tours even more novel, thrilling and spectacular, as the royal lineaments and sovereign symbols were brought vividly and vitally alive.”  There were also the reciprocal visits from African chiefs, Indian maharajahs, and royals from the various Pacific islands and sultans from Malaya where they were treated with the courtesy, deference, pomp and circumstance that their status demanded. All of these reinforced the idea that the empire was indeed a “family of nations.”

On a more personal level, the empire had an impact on huge swathes of the British population not just with what they consumed or bought but the personal and familial level. A huge percentage of the UK population had at least one family member or a friend living and working in the colonies. Thousands of people together with their families emigrated to Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa in search of a better life lured by the opportunity afforded by huge tracts of land for farming, herding and mining; a cheaper standard of living and the chance to start anew.

A cheaper standard of living and lack of career prospects at home also drove many young men to try their luck in the colonies. The empire provided career opportunities and prospects for advancement that were not readily available in Britain. This was attractive for younger sons of the aristocracy and gentry as well as those from the upper middle classes in straitened conditions – there was the army, the colonial civil service as well as being on the staff of a governor or viceroy which allowed them avenues for promotion, enabling them to marry and provide for a wife and family in a way that would not be possible in Britain. Being an officer in a prestigious colonial or Indian regiment or being an aide-de-camp or private secretary to the viceroy or a governor-general made a young man a very attractive marriage prospect indeed.

There were also opportunities in the private sector for engineers, surveyors, bankers, scientists and the like as British firms and banks also opened branches in the colonies. Others saw the colonies as a way where they could be their own masters whether it be setting up their own business or acquiring land for farming or mining, prospecting for gold or other valuable minerals. For those who were not inclined towards government service or farming, the empire also provided prospects in the fields of religion, education, medicine and the social sciences. In short, the British Empire showed that there were rewards for those who were willing to take risks and leave the comfort zone of Britain.

In light of this, Downton Abbey could have made much more use of the empire with its storylines. For instance it could be used to write out characters such as Sybil after Jessica Brown Findlay refused to renew her contract. It’s true that Sybil, Tom and their baby daughter could have moved to America given they have family in that country but if they really wanted a fresh start and a clear break from their pasts then immigrating to Canada, Australia, New Zealand or South Africa would have been much better as the Bransons could create a new life of their own unencumbered by their backgrounds.

The same could also be said of downstairs, where it would be likely that at least a few of the servants would have at least known someone who had gone to the colonies for better work prospects, and again this could be another way to write out someone like Daisy or any of the footmen. Or even Anna and Mr Bates, the money that they have saved would have allowed them not only to open the guesthouse that they want but also perhaps begin a new life in any of the Dominions or try their hand at running at a rubber plantation in Malaya or a tea farm in India.

Crucially however using the empire would have allowed Rose to exit the programme at the end of series 4. The series 4 Christmas special could have ended with Rose departing for India to re-join her parents following her season. Given her straitened financial circumstances and her less than impeccable moral credentials, she would have had problems finding a husband in Britain especially as after the First World War there were fewer men to go around. In fact India would have been a much better bet if she was looking for a husband. There was the army, the Indian Civil Service, the Viceroy’s office, the staff of the various provincial governors (among them her father Lord Flintshire) and of course those who were working for British companies based in India. Rose would be no different to the numbers of young upper and middle class young British women going to India in order to find an eligible young man to marry. For the women who went to India and who were known as the “Fishing Fleet”, it was an attractive choice – as Anne de Courcy wrote:

“By the nineteenth century, India was seen as a marriage market for girls neither pretty nor rich enough to make at home what was known as ‘a good match’, the aim of all young respectable young women – indeed, perhaps not to make one at all. In India, where European men greatly outnumbered European women, they would be besieged by suitors, many of whom be richer or have more prospects than anyone they could meet in England.” (p. 3)

And that was the motivation to go to India especially as for women, the main goal was to marry and raise a family. For upper and middle class women, the social life such as the London Season and country house visits were all geared towards young women to make a good match but in reality a great number of them didn’t (especially after the First World War when Britain had been denuded of eligible young men). As Mabell Countess of Airlie and countless other social commentators observed, ideally a young woman should have received at least a proposal by the end of her first season and should be married by the age of twenty. A woman who had reached the age of twenty five unmarried was already considered to be an old maid so it’s not surprising that many young women were dispatched by worried parents to try their luck in India – a last throw of the dice before settling into spinsterhood and a future of caring for aged parents and/or nephews and nieces.

But of course, Rose stays on (even when there is no real raison d’etre to her character) and eventually marries the Hon Atticus Aldridge, the son and heir to Viscount Sinderby. Much was made of him being Jewish and while someone like him would have at least five years’ worth of debutantes to choose from with some as rich or richer than he is (thereby cementing an alliance between wealth and wealth) but no, love has to triumph even when it’s crowbarred in as a way of giving a redundant character something to do, and any parental objection to the match is dismissed as bigotry – forgetting that the parents (especially the Sinderbys) would by the standards of the time have legitimate objections to the match and not just with regards to religious differences.

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Once Rose and Atticus are married she is written out of the programme, but they make a brief appearance during the finale and its revealed that they are living in America. As Atticus works in banking and finance it would be more plausible to have based him in the City of London, where a number of Jewish founded banks such as Samuel Montagu might have provided a congenial niche for a rich and personable young man. If they were going to be posted overseas, it would be more likely that it would be Shanghai in China, which despite not being part of the British Empire had a substantial presence in commerce and banking. Why Fellowes had to contrive to say that they’re in America is baffling unless this is him still pandering to the American market until the very end.

 

Conclusion:

In our previous posts on Downton Abbey, we have mentioned several issues with the programme with regards to its writing, plotting and characterisation. Dramatic weight and rhythm has always been a problem with this programme, with trivial and irrelevant story lines being given equal time and importance with vital ones. There is as well no sense of the appropriate time for a story line and the programme itself has been riddled by one delayed action plot after the other; the war memorial; the lavish post-war entertaining after the family has lost its money rather than before the war, when it could be justified by having three daughters to marry off; even the family doing their bit for the war effort but not until the war had been going on for two years – all of these meant that these story lines have been robbed of their historical context and as a result the characters do not behave in a way that is of their time.

The history and its use and abuse as a narrative driver are a major issue. As stated earlier in this entry, Downton Abbey is ahistory not history. It might pay lip service to a few historical events such as the sinking of the Titanic and real life historical figures such as Neville Chamberlain but in the end, the programme portrays a false and incomplete picture of the period, using historical events to forward the writer’s pet agendas when that suits and ignoring them when it doesn’t. It is false because while the drama might be set from 1912 to 1925, the attitudes displayed (at least the majority of them) are more attuned to today’s norms. In many ways Downton Abbey is a classic case of ideas that were commonplace and accepted in 1925 being suddenly being labelled “bizarre”,“bigoted” and plain wrong today to suit the sensibilities of the audience and reinforce a belief that somehow we are so much enlightened than some of the characters we are watching. From attitudes towards gay men and unmarried mothers to men shot for cowardice during the war, it seems that a writer like Julian Fellowes can simply erase history in his mind and convince himself that because he holds one opinion today, anyone who held a contrary opinion in the past (notably, of course, Robert and Carson) must have been some sort of knuckle-dragging, sexist, mouth breathing, ignorant bigot who can be held up to ridicule at every opportunity. No doubt of course there were people like that around in 1925 – the history of the decades that follow amply bears that out – but while people like Robert and Carson may well have held opinions that we regard as odious, they were not alone in that. Prejudice against homosexuality and babies born out of wedlock and men who deserted their posts in war (to name but three stories in Downton) was taken for granted – it is our attitudes that at the time would have been regarded as odd and out of the ordinary. A drama written with no appreciation or understanding that the past is a different country, and that fails to honour that past, good or bad, by imposing contemporary standards upon the standards of another era is one that does not deserve to be dignified with the name of a drama – it is mere pastiche. Fellowes’ historical blindness is amply demonstrated by the descriptions of Downton being set in a “gentler, kinder time” – a time when there was capital punishment for murder, corporal punishment in schools was commonplace, workhouses still operated and the horrors of the Great War were all too fresh in the memory.

Not only is Downton Abbey false, it is incomplete; and it is incomplete because of its omission of major aspects of British life and society during that period. What is worrying is that many people have taken what they have seen in Downton Abbey as gospel truth; as is the deeply damaging notion that people in the past are just like us only in funny clothes. As result it ends up being not only poor historical drama but poor drama full stop.

The programme’s omission of both religion and empire robbed Downton Abbey of any claim to be realistic or well researched. Crucially both could have given more depth to the narrative and added dimension to the characters and added a real understanding of an era. Unfortunately, it was never meant to be and yet again, we have to return to the question of why Fellowes set his narrative in the past when he is patently uninterested in exploring its real story.

Forgotten Women: The Suffragists and the Fight for Enfranchisement (Part 2)

In part one we explored the beginnings of the women’s suffrage movement and the divisions within it. By the 1910s the exploits of the suffragettes were overshadowing the efforts made by the suffragists and other non-militant groups. In addition, the government was grappling with various issues such as labour unrest, Ireland, the arms race with Germany and a in showdown with the House of Lords remained intransigent over the issue of women’s suffrage. Violence was met with violence as the suffragettes were met with police brutality and being force fed while in prison.

Despite the disproportionate attention given to the suffragettes, recent research has cast doubt over the centrality of militancy. In the second and last part we will see how the suffragists fought back, how the Great War put the campaign on hold and how the right to vote was finally secured.

PEOPLE’S FRONT OF JUDEA VS JUDEAN PEOPLE’S FRONT PART 2:

As mentioned earlier, many suffragists initially supported the WSPU, but by 1908 the growing militancy of the latter made many suffragists uncomfortable about any further association with the suffragettes. There were concerns that the work of the suffragists would be harmed by the suffragettes and could turn away those who had been converted to the cause of women’s suffrage, as well as law and order issues that could impact on the wider arguments for giving women the right to vote. In 1909, any moves to unite the NUWSS and the WSPU were doomed as even Millicent Garrett Fawcett rejected proposals that the two groups should be amalgamated. The NUWSS after a large majority passed a resolution that “strongly condemned the use of violence in political propaganda” but also condemned the Government’s response to the suffrage agitation. As Fawcett explained in her autobiography:

“In 1908 the NUWSS made a definite break with the WSPU on account of the latter having finally abandoned the policy which they had at first adopted of suffering violence but using none. Stone-throwing, window-breaking, and other forms of violence were organised by the WSPU, and we felt we had no choice but to publish protests against everything of this kind. We also had to take means to exclude the Militant Suffragists from membership in our societies……To put the whole matter in a sentence, we were convinced that our job was to win hearts and minds of our countrymen to the justice of our cause, and that this could never be done by force and violence.”  (p. 192)

Both the NUWSS and the WSPU did cooperate from time to time on a national level – such as through peaceful rallies held in the parks of London or large indoor spaces such as the Royal Albert Hall – however there were tensions between the two groups, and while Fawcett never openly criticised the suffragettes, many in the NUWSS leadership and members were not shy about voicing their criticisms. Equally many in the WSPU were disparaging of the NUWSS leadership and rank and file.

The failure of the Conciliation Bill to pass meant that the suffragettes stepped up their acts of militancy. By 1912, attacks by suffragettes on members of the public and property such as setting fire on crowded public spaces, breaking shop windows, damaging works of art, tampering with railway signals and injuries suffered by Post Office workers when handling parcels containing volatile chemicals sent to leading politicians either directly or indirectly hardened public opinion against them. As Jad Adams pointed out in a recent issue of BBC History magazine:

“Some things they did disgusted the public, such as the slashing of the Rokeby Venus in the National Gallery. The suffragette who did this thought it would aid the cause, but the logic escaped art lovers. Starting fires in theatres and planting bombs in churches endangered lives. By the end of the campaign, the authorities feared that a suffragette would be seriously injured by members of the public outraged at their vandalism.”

It’s also important to note that despite the headlines, women’s suffrage did not attract widespread popular support. Trying to extrapolate data about how much support there was for or against female enfranchisement was always tricky as polls were never wholly reliable and both pros and antis produced their own polls which would highlight how much their position attracted support: but on the whole they were often contradictory and never one hundred percent trustworthy.

Fawcett and other suffragists were worried about the suffragettes playing into the hands of the anti-suffrage side, who pointed out that militancy simply crystallised the view that women were irrational and emotional and not to be trusted with the vote. As Julia Bush said, this made “even those politicians who favoured enfranchisement reluctant to respond to pressure exerted by suffragette extremists.”

Militancy was not to last long however, as it and the WSPU declined, the suffragists and the NUWSS experienced a revival and grew in strength as they attracted support from a wider and more diverse section of society. Unlike the WSPU whose membership solely consisted of women, the NUWSS also had male members, many of them fathers, brothers, husbands and other male relatives and friends of existing members. They provided much needed support through fund raising, making speeches, distributing literature and carrying banners during rallies.

The most crucial development, however, was bringing working class women into the suffragist fold. During the 19th and the early years of the 20th century, the suffragists were more an upper and middle class movement but by the 1910s, the suffragists had reached out to the lower middle and working class groups. By this point, working class women had entered the work force in greater numbers and several sectors such as retail and service were female dominated. Although membership in several trade unions was barred to them, there was the Women’s Co-operative Guild which ironically many working women preferred to join instead of the unions.

Initially working class women and organisations that represented them never had female enfranchisement on their agenda. Working class organisations either only nominally supported women’s suffrage or were indifferent or antagonistic. They preferred to focus their efforts and energies into improving the conditions of women workers and to secure that the rights given to male workers were also extended to women. The Women’s Co-operative Guild specifically focused more on the importance of the woman’s moral influence in the home but also encouraged them to develop their own interests beyond that of mother and homemaker. By the 20th century however, some working class women began to take an active interest in female enfranchisement with one of their unlikely allies being the Labour MP Keir Hardie. But Hardie was in the minority, as the vast majority of the Labour Party and the Trade Union movement were hostile not only to women’s suffrage but even to women – especially married ones – working.

Arguably the most prominent female trade unionist who joined the suffragists was Selina Cooper (1864-1946). Born in Lancashire, she went to work in the mills then later became active in the trade unions, the Women’s Co-operative Guild and the St John’s Ambulance Brigade. She was later elected as a Poor Law Guardian and by the 1890s was drawn to the suffrage movement after meeting a group of suffragists who were in her hometown (Burnley) to attract more members to their cause. Eventually she attracted the attention of Millicent Fawcett and the NUWSS due to her oratory and organisational abilities.  Her efforts ensured that her local Labour party became a supporter for women’s suffrage and the Women’s Co-operative Guild became allies with the NUWSS through finally adapting a stance supporting the enfranchisement of women through peaceful means.

Cooper and the Guild were prominent examples of working class members of the NUWSS and initially too some working class women did join the WSPU. However as militancy reached its peak, they began questioning their support as they recoiled from the militancy of the WSPU. Working class members felt that militancy for its own sake was counterproductive and objected to the WSPU’s martyrdom stance; increasingly too they began to feel out of place within an organisation which increasingly drew its membership and support from the upper and middle classes.

The gradual alienation of working class members from the WSPU was also mirrored by the Pankhurst family’s attitude towards the working class. Christabel particularly felt that the organisation was too reliant on working class support and moved to exclude them, which also echoed Emmeline’s quarrels and break with Hardie’s Independent Labour Party. As Liddington again pointed out, “working class women…..were useful to give substance to the WSPU’s claim to demand the vote for all women but were never admitted to the WSPU’s inner councils.” This is in direct contrast to the NUWSS where several of their working class members held positions of responsibility within the organisation. The increase in number of the NUWSS membership made it harder for the government to ignore them and while there is on-going debate about the effectively of militancy, it ensured that women’s suffrage remained on the agenda when it could have quickly faded under the weight of other domestic and foreign issues.

 

THE SUFFRAGISTS STRIKE BACK:

As a reaction against the charge that they were too complacent and lacking passion, as well as to counter the perception that all those who were calling for the enfranchisement of women were all like Emily Davison, the NUWSS and their allied organisations decided on a more radical approach. Not for them throwing stones or heckling politicians or chaining themselves to railings: but rather they would set out by road “not in a spirit of defiance,” in Jane Robinson’s words “but of evangelism.” It was decided that they would take to the road by caravans to help spread their message in various parts of the country.

The idea of using caravans wasn’t new as this was one of the WFL’s preferred strategies as they distributed suffrage literature and made speeches in various parts of the country. The first was organised by WFL member Muriel Matters and travelled through the south-east of England. Several NUWSS activists also did the same; such as Helen Fraser who did a caravan journey from Selkirk in Scotland to Tynemouth in the north east of England, making speeches in favour of women’s suffrage along the way. Another example was a trip undertaken by students from Newham College, which again began in Scotland and made its way south via West Yorkshire, the Lake District and finally ended at Oxford. These trips were characterised by a group of women travelling in a caravan filled with the necessities for the journey such as food and clothing, as well as facilities for eating, cooking and sleeping; stopping by places to make speeches, distribute literature and raise funds. Caravan trips also led into networking between and assistance from local NUWSS branches and allied organisations. They also resulted into some new recruits to the cause.

By 1912, the idea of using caravans to take the message of women’s enfranchisement was gaining ground and the NUWSS were persuaded of its merits. But they pointed out that they would be unable to support caravan tours on a massive scale so instead the idea of walking was mooted, taking inspiration from the medieval pilgrimages to Rome, Canterbury and Santiago de Compostela. Such pilgrimages were undertaken by foot or horseback (or atop a donkey) and in the spirit of self-sacrifice, which for many suffragists was appealing and would help counter the suffragettes’ accusation that the suffragists lacked passion and conviction for the cause.

The idea of the Great Pilgrimage was the brainchild of Katherine Harley (1855-1917), president of the Shropshire Women’s Suffrage Society and a NUWSS member since 1910. Her brother was Sir John French who would go on to command the British Expeditionary Force during the First World War, while her sister was Charlotte Despard former WSPU member turned founder of the WFL – the use of caravans to spread the message of women’s suffrage was a main fixture of the WFL’s activity. Harley was a devout Christian and saw the fight for women’s enfranchisement not just in political terms but in spiritual terms too.

In early 1913, the NUWSS leadership gave Harley the green light to roll out her idea of a Great Pilgrimage. A born organiser and an indefatigable one at that, she and other fellow NUWSS members worked out on the itinerary – the idea was to begin the Pilgrimage in Carlisle on June 18 stopping along major towns and cities such as Rhyl, Liverpool, Manchester, Wolverhampton, Oxford and culminating in a huge rally at London’s Hyde Park on July 26. Once the itinerary was set, Harley turned to the practicalities of organising the other details of the Pilgrimage – participants were required to wear sensible clothing consisting of jacket, skirts that were not too long, a white shirt and sturdy shoes. The clothing was to be accessorised with a white cockleshell (inspired by pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela) and ribbons or cockades in the suffragist colours of green, red and white. In addition they were only allowed one item of luggage together with a rucksack provided by the NUWSS; and they were also advised to bring with them umbrellas and mackintoshes in the event of rain.

pilgrimagenotice

Behind Harley and her organising committee was the full weight of the NUWSS machinery and their allied organisations. As mentioned above, the caravan tours were one way to network and get to know fellow activists in other parts of the country, and the Great Pilgrimage would provide an opportunity for the various local NUWSS groups and allied organisations to come together and help. Those who were taking part were given tips and lists of places to obtain board and lodging, food and drink, where to replenish supplies and contact details of the local NUWSS group and that of allied organisations. These local groups were crucial to the success of the Pilgrimage; not only did they provide practical and logistical support but also did their part through hosting rallies, fundraising and selling and distributing literature and assorted paraphernalia.

Two key aspects of the Great Pilgrimage are worth mentioning here. First, it was very much a collective effort, in the words of a famous supermarket advert that “every little helps”. Mindful that not everyone could and would want to undertake the full route, participants were encouraged to do varying distances dependent on their inclination and circumstances. Others participated by giving their time, skills and money to the cause – sewing banners, creating posters, offering the use of their cars for those unable to walk but who still wished to take part. The participants came from a wide stratum of society: from upper and middle class women such as Lady Rochdale, Maud Lady Parry (wife of the composer Sir Hubert Parry himself a noted supporter of women’s suffrage), Sara Lees and her daughter Marjory to working class women such as Selina Cooper. Secondly was the presence of men walking alongside women. As mentioned earlier, men who were sympathetic to women’s suffrage also had their own organisations but crucially they were also admitted as members of NUWSS. Just as in previous campaigns, men were also active participants in the Great Pilgrimage not only with providing practical but also moral support.

Great Pilgrimage 1913

Great Pilgrimage 1913 2

Great Pilgrimage 1913 3

The Great Pilgrimage attracted support and derision as well as indifference and apathy. In some places, they were greeted with applause, a receptive audience and new converts to the cause while in others they were subjected to attacks, jeers, abuse and heckling. An example was in High Wycombe as described by Jane Robinson where a group of suffragists had parked two of their caravans in the town centre and the day started with promise – more than enough money was raised through the selling of literature and there were people who seemed genuinely interested. Trouble began as soon as Lady Rochdale and Katherine Harley mounted the platform and began to speak when:

“As usual, the majority of the crowd consisted of young men, who immediately started shouting and singing at the tops of their voices…..then [they] devised a game of British bulldog, rushing en masse from one platform to the other until each wagon in turn was hit by a tsunami of people. This was extraordinarily dangerous. After some time the police managed to break up the meeting, extract the shocked platform speakers and order all the suffragists to their rooms around the town without delay but they couldn’t control the crowd, some of whom were now making for the caravans.”

Order was only restored with the help of the local doctor and more police reinforcements. There was some damage to the caravans but by some miracle, the funds they had raised during that day were intact and safe. They spent the rest of their time in High Wycombe under police protection and the pilgrims were informed of the cause of the violence, mostly due to the influence of the antis who warned the locals that the “approaching pilgrims…were completely deranged and a danger to life and limb.”

Another main factor for violence such as the one described above was the confusion between suffragist and suffragette as they were one and the same in the eyes of the public. Any nuance and difference was eliminated under newspaper headlines and photographs. The banners carried by the pilgrims didn’t exactly help either; it’s easy to forget that despite basic education becoming compulsory, large swathes of the population were still illiterate. People failed to note that the NUWSS slogan of “Law Abiding and Non-Militant” and either misread or did not understand. Photographs and illustrations in newspapers then were in black and white and it wasn’t easy to distinguish between the WSPU colours of white, purple and green and the NUWSS colours of green, red and white. The antics of the suffragettes were blamed on the pilgrims, and speakers devoted much time to pointing out that the suffragists and suffragettes were different and that while militancy was in the minority the vast majority wanted to obtain the right to vote through peaceful and legal means.

The Pilgrimage culminated in a rally at Hyde Park on July 26 which was attended by 50,000 people. They had come from various parts of the country and the rally provided an opportunity for several selected pilgrims to address the crowd about their experiences on the road, while Fawcett voiced the view that the Great Pilgrimage would mark the “turning of the tide” and the optimism that enfranchisement for women would become a reality.

Suffrage-page-banner-Millicent-Fawcet

Pilgrimage map

Jane Robinson in her latest book Hearts and Minds held that the Great Pilgrimage also went beyond women’s enfranchisement. As many of the pilgrims during the rally at Hyde Park mentioned, being on the road opened their eyes to the poverty, the “need for a ‘mother spirit’ to come into the community and the redemptive powers of political enfranchisement.” What they also achieved was to show their opponents that no way were they passive and meek, “[t]he Pilgrimage changed all that. They were fully engaged now, having made sacrifices, faced danger and learned at first hand the effects of inequality, not just on disenfranchised women, but on working people and their families across the country.” Women had showed that they could organise themselves politically to find a voice and demonstrate the depths of their sincerity and commitment to a cause – in this case their enfranchisement and that of the millions of men who also lacked voting rights.

Soon after the Great Pilgrimage, the NUWSS met with the government with another petition and a transcript of the resolution passed during the rally at Hyde Park. But in less than a year later, a major conflict would erupt and unwittingly aid the cause of not only female enfranchisement but also universal male suffrage.

 

THE WAR YEARS AND VICTORY AT LAST?

The outbreak of the First World War diverted the government and the country from prevailing domestic issues and the whole country swung behind the war machine that would consume everyone’s efforts for the next four years. While the fight for women’s enfranchisement did not exactly go away many of the activists drastically scaled back on their campaign, as they turned their attention to doing their share for the war effort.

The WSPU officially disbanded as Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst directed their energies and organisational skills to help men enlist and women to take on work that the men had left behind. Their most successful campaign came in 1916 when during the aftermath of the “shells scandal”, they led a deputation to petition David Lloyd George (by this time Minister for Munitions) to allow women to work in munitions factories thereby freeing up more men to be sent to the front. Cynics pointed out that the deputation was not a surprise as the Lloyd George already had prior knowledge of the march but it led to women entering the work force in greater numbers than ever before.

The NUWSS and the WFL on the other hand kept up with its fight to enfranchise women but quickly realised that the war would show that women had what it took to become a full citizen and provide a compelling reason to enfranchise them. Fawcett and the rest of the NUWSS leadership campaigned tirelessly to get women to do their bit and offer them assistance in order to do so. As Fawcett’s biographer David Rubinstein observed:

“The war had not lasted long before she realised that the unprecedented economic activity of women, particularly in heavy industry, provided excellent ammunition for the attempt to improve their political and industrial status. Women’s opportunities for industrial employment, previously hampered by the fourfold barrier of employers’ tyranny, trade union hostility, government indifference and their own weakness had been significantly improved by war time conditions. In January 1916, she wrote an article for The Englishwoman on themes she was to elaborate in other articles and speeches. After taking the opportunity to tilt the inclination of ‘the “intellectuals”’ to criticise support for the war she claimed that ‘the matchless spirit, the undaunted courage and confidence’ of men in the armed forces had been paralleled by the ‘magnificent adaptability, the industrial efficiency, and the patriotism of women.’ It had taken a European war to break down old prejudices about the capacities of women – not least on the part of the Prime Minister, she pointed out in an earlier article. Women were now ‘pouring in thousands into trades and occupations from which hitherto they have been excluded,’ including the transport industry and above all munitions. She added to her account of new opportunities and achievements a demand that ‘as far as possible’ women should be paid the same wages as men for the same work, both for their own sake and so that the achievements of trade unions to which, she added uncharacteristically, ‘the whole nation owes a deep debt of gratitude,’ should not be destroyed.” (p. 233)

Other suffragettes and suffragists threw themselves into war work – fundraising, knitting and sewing for the troops, taking on work in factories and other male dominated jobs as well as supporting women and families left behind by the men. The majority however went into nursing whether at home or abroad. Suffragettes such Sophia Duleep Singh served in military hospitals while suffragists such as Katherine Harley and Elsie Inglis opened hospitals at the front where they were exposed to constant bombardment and danger. Harley and Inglis’s exploits were all the more remarkable considering that the British government and army had turned down their offer of setting up a field hospital. Instead they offered their assistance to the Serbian government who promptly accepted their offer and the women set up their hospital close to where the fighting was taking place.

With the suffragettes disbanded, the suffragists diverted into war work and the antis insignificant, the government was, in Martin Pugh’s words “freed by this….to exercise their own judgement in settling the question by methods nowhere envisaged by the extra-parliamentary activists before 1914: through an age-restricted female franchise accompanied by further franchise extension to men.” This came about during 1915 to 1916 as more men enlisted and with the introduction of conscription, there was the question of the electoral register and the observation that these men in uniform would lose their eligibility to vote in the event of a General Election as they were not domiciled where they were registered as voters.

In addition there was a growing campaign in Parliament to reorganise the electoral register to include servicemen without the vote. Asquith’s resignation in 1916 and the arrival of a coalition government under David Lloyd George as Prime Minister helped set in motion a new reform bill that would supersede the 1886 Act. Many of those in the new government were much more sympathetic to the cause of women’s suffrage. The war years had strengthened the cause not just for women’s suffrage but for universal suffrage – that all citizens of a minimum age, regardless of property qualifications, could vote.

By 1917, a bill was introduced to extend the vote to all men (except for those in prisons or in mental institutions) from the age of 21 onwards and abolishing the property and educational qualifications set out in the earlier 1886 Act. As for the women, it was proposed to enfranchise all women from the age of 30 onwards. The MPs and peers who were in favour of enfranchising women thought it would be better to add the clause for women’s vote to the existing bill rather than proposing a separate one for women’s vote on the grounds that it stood a better chance of winning and its eventual passage in 1918 proved these politicians to be right.

What of the activists? Many of the suffragists were not prepared to accept that women would not be given the right to vote on equal terms with the men, especially as it would mean that majority of those munitionettes, nurses, bus conductors, police constables and many others would not benefit. But yet again, Fawcett proved to be the voice of reason – while she admitted that she was hoping for enfranchisement on equal terms this was the best they could expect for at this time. It was better; she said there is “an imperfect scheme that can pass to the most perfect scheme in the world that could not pass. We want the living child, and not the dead child.”

The Representation of the People Act was finally passed in February 1918 and a victory celebration was later held at the Queen’s Hall. For Fawcett and the suffragists, the new act was a hard fought victory and enfranchised millions more women than they had originally suggested. However, women still were not on equal terms with men and the suffragists were aware that the war was not yet over; it would take another decade before women would receive parity with men when it came to voting. There was also a new front – tackling barriers and discrimination that prevented women from seeking out opportunities for better work, better pay – in short to live a fully independent life as citizens.

 

DRAMATIS PERSONAE AND LEADING ORGANISATIONS:

Millicent Garrett Fawcett – https://janerobinsonauthor.wordpress.com/2017/04/02/millicent-fawcett-suffrage-heroine-consummate-politician/

Selina Cooper – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Selina_Cooper

Katherine Harley – https://sheroesofhistory.wordpress.com/2015/09/03/katherine-harley/

Elsie Inglis – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elsie_Inglis

H.H. Asquith – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/H._H._Asquith

David Lloyd George – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Lloyd_George

Emmeline Pankhurst – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emmeline_Pankhurst

Christabel Pankhurst – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christabel_Pankhurst

Charlotte Despard – http://spartacus-educational.com/Wdespard.htm

Muriel Matters – https://murielmatterssociety.com.au/

National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Union_of_Women%27s_Suffrage_Societies

Women’s Social and Political Union – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Union_of_Women%27s_Suffrage_Societies

Women’s Freedom League – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women%27s_Freedom_League

 

FURTHER READING:

Martin Pugh. March of the Women: A Revisionist Analysis of the Campaign for Women’s Suffrage (Oxford, 2002)

Sandra Stanley Holton. Feminism & Democracy: Women’s Suffrage and Reform Politics in Britain (Cambridge, 1986)

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

Millicent Garrett Fawcett. What I Remember (London, 1924)

Millicent Garrett Fawcett. Women’s Suffrage: A Short History of a Great Movement (London, 1912)

Jill Liddington & Jill Norris. One Hand Tied Behind Us: The Rise of the Women’s Suffrage Movement (London, 1978)

Jill Liddington. Selina Cooper, 1864-1946: The Life and Times of a Respectable Rebel (London, 1984)

Constance Rover. Women’s Suffrage and Party Politics in Britain 1866-1914 (London, 1967)

Jill Liddington. Vanishing for the Vote: Suffrage, Citizenship and the Battle for the Census (Manchester, 2014)

Lucinda Hawksley. March, Women, March (London, 2013)

Susie Steinbach. Women in England 1760-1914 (London, 2004)

Jane Robinson. Hearts and Minds: The Untold Story of the Great Pilgrimage and How Women won the Vote (London, 2018)

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.

Martin Pugh. ‘Politicians and the Women’s Vote 1914-1918’ History, vol 59, no. 197 (1974), pp. 358-374.

“How the Battle was Won”, BBC History magazine, February 2018, pp. 26-31.

http://spartacus-educational.com/Wpilgimage.htm

http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/britain1906to1918/g4/cs2/g4cs2s6b.htm

https://wuhstry.wordpress.com/2014/04/22/womens-suffrage-and-the-first-world-war/

https://wuhstry.wordpress.com/2011/05/14/why-did-british-women-fail-to-get-the-vote-by-1914/

https://wuhstry.wordpress.com/2017/09/15/suffragettes-and-the-census-the-1911-protest/

https://www.spectator.co.uk/2014/05/did-most-women-want-the-vote/

How the vote was won

Some thoughts on Iolanthe

On the 24th of February, my husband and I went to the London Coliseum to watch the English National Opera’s production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera Iolanthe, which the press release and programme notes mention is the first after 40 years. It was a packed matinee performance and it didn’t disappoint as the audience laughed along to the witty dialogue, physical comedy and catchy tunes with a bit of audience participation thrown in.

Iolanthe

Iolanthe or The Peer and Peri is one of many collaborations between composer Sir Arthur Sullivan and writer Sir W.S. Gilbert which included The Pirates of Penzance, HMS Pinafore, The Mikado and Patience. In Iolanthe, the title character is a fairy recalled from her exile after breaking the law that forbade a fairy from consorting with a mortal. The sentence was originally death but the Fairy Queen had this commuted to exile on condition that she never sees her husband again. Iolanthe and her husband part but not before they manage to have a son – Strephon – who becomes a shepherd and who has no idea who his father is.

Twenty five years later, Strephon has fallen in love with Phyllis, a shepherdess, and proposed marriage to her but she is ward of the Chancery under the Lord Chancellor  and he has forbidden the match: declaring that Strephon is not a suitable match for Phyllis. There is also the added complication that the Lord Chancellor wants to make Phyllis his wife and further complicating matters is that several members of the House of Lords are also smitten with the young shepherdess. Strephon asks his mother for help and due to mistaken identity, an angry Phyllis breaks off the engagement and declares that she will consider marrying either Lord Tolloller or Lord Mountararat.

More chaos ensures as the Fairy Queen causes the election of Strephon as a Member of Parliament with his proposed bills passing through Parliament. One bill particularly alarms the House of Lords – a bill that would open the upper house based on merit to those who pass a competitive examination. The peers plead with the fairies to lift the curse but love is in the air as the fairies fall in love with the peers. Meanwhile Strephon learns that his father is the Lord Chancellor and Iolanthe risks death by revealing herself to the Lord Chancellor who is surprised to learn to his wife is still alive and that he has a son. The Fairy Queen arrives to carry out the punishment on Iolanthe for having violated the terms of her exile and then realises that she will have to carry out the same punishment on all the fairies. Everyone is saved by the Lord Chancellor who makes a legal intervention by adding a single word to existing fairy law –  “every fairy shall die who doesn’t marry a mortal.” With this, the Fairy Queen agrees and the peers rush off to join the fairies in fairy land.

Gilbert and Sullivan used their operas to poke fun at anyone and everyone in British society and there were no sacred cows for this duo. Everyone was fair game – politicians, the army, the aristocracy, the royals, civil servants, the law, fads and ideologies. With Iolanthe, both men returned to two targets that they had previously lampooned; the aristocracy and the law. One main theme that recurs time and again in Iolanthe is the absurdity of the hereditary system as embodied in the House of Lords. As one of the main characters, Lord Mountararat sings:

When Britain really ruled the waves –

(In good Queen Bess’s time)

The House of Peers made no pretence

To intellectual eminence,

Or scholarship sublime;

Yet Britain won her proudest bays

In good Queen Bess’s glorious days!

When Wellington thrashed Bonaparte,

As every child can tell,

The House of Peers, throughout the war,

Did nothing in particular,

And did it very well:

Yet Britain set the world ablaze

In good King George’s glorious days!

And while the House of Peers withholds

Its legislative hand,

And noble statesmen do not itch

To interfere with matters which

They do not understand,

As bright will shine Great Britain’s rays

As in King George’s glorious days!

The song itself belies Lord Mountararat’s self-awareness that he has reached where he is due to accident of birth. Not through hard work or pluck but simply because of who his antecedents were. By this point in real life the House of Commons was slowly opening up to men who had reached Parliament due to hard work and merit but the House of Lords remained entrenched in their ways and were resistant to any attempts at reform. When Strephon proposes to open the House of Lords to competitive examination, the number between the peers and Strephon seems to read as a premonition of the showdown between the Lords and the Commons that resulted into the Parliament Act of 1911:

PEERS:

Young Strephon is the kind of lout

We do not care a fig about!

We cannot say

What evils may

Result in consequence

But lordly vengeance will pursue

All kinds of common people who

Oppose our views,

Or boldly choose

To offer us offence.

FAIRIES, PHYLLIS, and STREPHON:

With Strephon for your foe, no doubt,

A fearful prospect opens out,

And who shall say

What evils may

Result in consequence?

A hideous vengeance will pursue

All noblemen who venture to

Oppose his views,

Or boldly choose

To offer him offence.

Of course in the opera, love conquers all as a change in the law allows the fairies and the mortals to marry each other without any fear of death. In real life, the peerage itself – already under assault by financial crises – would be dealt with more blows that perhaps not even Gilbert and Sullivan could have ever foreseen. However if both men were alive during the first half of the twentieth century, they would have certainly have found more material to lampoon the aristocracy and perhaps even P.G. Wodehouse would struggle to compete with Gilbert’s dialogue and Sullivan’s music.

However back to the ENO’s production – the acting and singing were spot on and under the direction of Cal MacCrystal who recently directed last year’s film hit Paddington 2, the acting and singing were anchored by touches of physical comedy, just enough but not overdoing it. This production has also remained faithful to how Gilbert and Sullivan envisioned it and mercifully, we have been spared any references to current events. Instead what we have is simply over two hours of sublime music and comedy. I hope that we won’t have to wait another 40 years for another staging of this classic.

 

The English National Opera’s porduction of Iolanthe is on at the London Coliseum until 7 April. For more information, please click on this link: https://www.eno.org/operas/iolanthe/ and https://www.eno.org/whats-on/iolanthe/

 

 

Exhibition Review: Winnie the Pooh: Exploring a Classic (V&A)

Long before there was Paddington Bear, Shaun the Sheep and Peppa Pig, there was Winnie the Pooh. For over 90 years, the bear with very little brain and his friends Piglet, Rabbit, Owl, Tigger, Kanga, Roo and Christopher Robin have entertained and enchanted both children and adults alike.

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The exhibition is subtitled “Exploring a Classic” and it opens with the enduring legacy of Winnie the Pooh and his friends. There are merchandise dating from as early as the early 1930s with soft toys, puzzles and a child’s tea set that was presented to Princess Elizabeth of York, down to those based on the Walt Disney adaptation from the 1960s with toys, clothes, spin off films and TV specials. Pooh and his friends have also become iconic as demonstrated by editorial cartoons heavily based on the illustrations from the books. The stories themselves have become the inspiration for two self-help books that became bestsellers during the 1990s – The Tao of Pooh and The Te of Piglet. Crucially, the Pooh stories themselves have gone global with translations in various languages and they have never been out of print.

From the enduring legacy, the exhibition moves towards chronicling the history behind the books and the collaboration between A.A. Milne and E.H. Shepard, both of whom worked for Punch magazine; the former as an assistant editor while the latter was an illustrator. Milne wrote the Pooh stories based on his son Christopher Robin and his menagerie of soft toys. Already an established writer, Milne relished the challenge of writing a children’s story believing that “[a] writer should take his job seriously even though he’s taking it to the nursery.”

The use of simple words and dialogue belied a quick witted verbal humour which appealed not just to children. In addition Milne’s use and misuse of language, grammar and punctuation facilitated his storytelling as they were there for both dramatic and humorous effect. But Milne’s prose is only half the story – as the exhibition shows, the success behind a children’s book is a harmony between text and illustration and this is where E.H. Shepard comes in. His technique and pared down drawings draw attention to the narrative; in addition he also used subtle details to synchronise his illustrations to the text.

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All of these are presented through displays of letters, manuscripts and drawings that illustrate how the world of Winnie the Pooh and his friends came to life. One of the key highlights for me was the map of the 100 Acre Wood which was based Ashdown Forest, not far from the Milnes’ country home in Sussex, where Christopher Robin Milne used to play as a child. The drawings by Shepard, many of them works in progress, illustrate the creative process by which both men worked together to synthesise drawings and text.

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The exhibition has something for everyone – the drawings, books, merchandise and soft toys will appeal to those who grew up reading the Pooh stories or who discovered them after watching the Disney adaptation, while the large scale recreation of several key scenes from the books not to mention the multi-media displays would appeal to children who are just beginning to discover the world of Winnie the Pooh and his friends. If there’s any exhibition that would appeal to anyone between the ages of “two and one hundred and two” then this certainly is it.

 

Winnie the Pooh: Exploring a Classic is on at the V&A until 8 April 2018. For more information please visit the exhibition website: https://www.vam.ac.uk/exhibitions/winnie-the-pooh-exploring-a-classic

The blogger visited the exhibition on 7 February 2018

Photos from the exhibition taken by blogger

Forgotten Women: The Suffragists and the Fight for Enfranchisement (Part 1)

“Of the two sexes of which the species is composed, how comes it that all natural right to political benefits is confined to one?”

Jeremy Bentham, 1789

“The elderly women of my childhood grew up believing that they would never be allowed to vote. Women within living memory. In the UK.”

Quote from internet site, January 2018

 

The legislation that governs women’s rights in society is astonishingly recent. The Married Women’s Property acts made it legal for wives to hold money and property in their own name. Until 1970 it was perfectly legal to pay a woman less than a man for doing the same job, and rape in marriage was not made a crime until 1991 in the UK. Inequality was seen as inevitable, natural and right – that married women (and most women were married) were property, with no rights at all or legal existence. That a woman who had murdered her husband was executed for treason as if she had committed a crime against the state. That women who spoke up and defied convention and what was regarded as the natural order of women subordinate to men were classified as mentally disturbed and shut away, sometimes for years. For centuries rape was prosecuted not as a sexual crime against a woman, but as a theft from her family – their good name and honour smirched and their property so devalued that no-one would want it in marriage. In the words of Amanda Vickery, “male mastery and female servitude were written into the DNA of society.”

Votes for women is the most visible face of a wave of female emancipation and struggle for civil liberties and political rights that began in the 19th century to take on an unstoppable momentum. Like the women in the quote above, my grandmother and great aunts didn’t get the vote until they were in their 20s. Even in her late 60s my grandmother (born in 1905) didn’t vote until the general election of 1972, when my mother and I almost literally dragged her into the polling station and when she asked what she should do said “Make a cross! Anywhere, against any name, but make it!” – so determined were we that she should use the vote that women seventy years before had suffered and fought to acquire for her.

Experiences such as above are perhaps now distant memory as it’s now easy to take for granted that women now have the vote. With this year being the 100th anniversary of the granting of suffrage for some women and the 90th anniversary of giving women this right on equal terms with men, it’s not surprising that there is a rush of books, exhibitions, talks, documentaries and discussions about the struggle of women to obtain the right to vote.

However the problem that I have noticed with the aforesaid rush of books, exhibitions, talks and documentaries is that they focus disproportionately on Emmeline Pankhurst and the suffragettes. While there is no denying that Pankhurst and the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) grabbed the headlines then and capture the public imagination now, the irony is that the granting of suffrage to women in 1918 and 1928 was the result of long years of hard work and struggle by thousands of women who preferred to make their point through peaceful, legal and quasi-legal means; and it can be argued the suffragettes’ campaign of violence and intimidation of public figures alienated many who might have otherwise supported them and gave weight to their opponents’ argument that women were not fit, mentally, morally or intellectually, to be granted the vote. While the suffragettes have dominated the discourse over the history of women’s suffrage this blog hopefully will attempt to redress the balance by focusing on the suffragists, women who preferred peaceful means and reasoned debate to make their voice heard.

 

THE BEGINNINGS OF THE SUFFRAGE CAMPAIGN:

We can trace the beginnings of the women’s suffrage campaign in 1866, when a group of women’s rights activists petitioned John Stuart Mill to sponsor a bill granting women the right to vote, as during this time Parliament was locked in a series of debates whether or not to extend the terms of the 1832 Reform Act and enfranchise urban working men and those in the country with small landholdings.

Concurrent to this was the myriad of campaigns aimed to secure women such rights as keeping their own property and money even after marriage, the right to an education and to enter a profession as well as calling for reforms in marriage and family law. It was also at this time where women such as Josephine Butler became active in causes such as the temperance or anti-slavery movements and prison reform as well as working with the poor and sick. Many of these causes and those who espoused them overlapped each other; it was through these campaigns that many like-minded women were led into coming together to effect change.

Early gains such as the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, the Married Women’s Property Act of 1870 and the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act in 1886 together with advances in technology gave women some legal protection, opportunities to work outside the home and pursue leisure on a greater scale. Beginning in the 1860s, there were already calls to extend the suffrage to women, and this call became even louder as the decades went on. Many women’s rights activists believed that suffrage was one of the rights that women ought to have, this right being seen as a means to an end which was social reform on a much wider scale.

Primarily the campaign to secure women the right to vote on the same terms as men as set out in the existing Reform Acts (1867 and 1886) was a movement dominated and organised by middle class women. In time they would be joined by both upper and working class women but the bulk of the activists came from the middle class.

Why was this so? Just as with campaigns for the right to education, seeking paid employment and reforms in family and property law, nineteenth century feminism was a response to the desire by middle class women to take advantage of the educational and vocational opportunities open to middle class men but that were denied to them. Society itself was changing – industrialisation and technological advances were giving women better opportunities: not just with regards to work but also leisure. Social sciences were also questioning conventional assumptions about men and women especially about the alleged weakness of the latter. As Constance Rover observed:

“There was a general feeling amongst middle class-women that their status was in some ways inferior to that of women of other classes. The upper class woman had her social position to give her some influence; also the upper classes were prone to arrange marriage settlements and bestow dowries upon their women. The former gave a wife a measure of economic independence and the latter, although humiliating in some respects, at least had the effect of letting the wife feel she had brought with her a positive contribution to the new household. In the eyes of the middle class woman, the woman factory worker, although underpaid and exploited, had a measure of independence as a result of her work and wages which she herself lacked.” (pp. 36-7)

Although J.S. Mill’s attempts to introduce a women’s suffrage bill ended in failure, another attempt was made, this time in 1884, when another round of debates was on going to further extend the franchise – this time to those who paid an annual rent of £10 or who owned land of the same value. Yet again women were excluded after another Reform Act was passed in 1886 and this despite the fact that more women especially married ones would have met the property qualifications set by Parliament.

Despite this setback, the late 19th and early 20th century saw greater female participation in public life. Apart from being involved in campaigns for social reform and canvassing for votes and campaigning for local and national politicians there were also baby steps towards granting women the right to vote and to stand for local elections. Initially women could stand and vote for positions on local education and Poor Law boards. By 1910, women could stand as town and county councillors and even become mayors. New legislation also ensured female participation – for instance the Education Act of 1902 abolished the school boards and required county councils to include at least one woman in their education committees. There was also the Unemployed Worker’s Act (1905) which mandated that women should be included in local distress committees.

Whether serving as Poor Law guardians or county councillors or heading up local Conservative or Liberal Party organisations, women were getting a taste of political participation and exercising the duties of citizenship. Many believed that by demonstrating their capabilities on the local level they could prove that they were fit to exercise the right to vote on a national level.

 

A HOUSE DIVIDED:

Despite feminist rhetoric about sisterhood and solidarity the reality was that women’s suffrage just like any other campaign or cause was always going to be divided. Inevitably there would be differences with regards to defining about the terms and conditions about their struggle – would they want the right to vote based on the existing qualifications? Or do they want the vote regardless women owned property or not? There was also the inconvenient point that even after 1886, not all men had the vote and they ranged from those whose annual rent or land holdings were valued at less than £10 or those who were in jobs (such as domestic service) that provided board and lodging as part of their employment package.

There was also the question of methodology. While late Victorian women’s suffrage activists furthered their cause through meetings, public speaking, debating, petitioning leading politicians and cultivating support from influential people; others felt this didn’t go far enough and by the beginning of the twentieth century, others were getting impatient and felt the need to restore to drastic measures in order to make the government and the public sit up and take notice.

And while opponents of those who were calling for extending women the right to vote were mostly men, perhaps unsurprisingly the most vocal of those who opposed women’s suffrage were women as well, including prominent ones such as the author and social campaigner Mary Augusta Ward (Mrs Humphrey Ward) and the archaeologist and Near East expert Gertrude Bell. Male opponents focused on the common belief that men and women were characterised by different moral and intellectual qualities endowed by God to enable them to perform their respective duties. There was too the general consensus that women were more emotional, easily swayed by sentiment, less reasoned and logical as well as being more sensitive. Biology was also used as an argument against women’s fitness to participate in public life (which included voting) as women’s conditions such as menstruation and pregnancy would make it hard for them to exercise their mental faculties and judgement in a clear and rational way – or as Anne De Courcy succinctly puts it in her biography of Margot Asquith (another opponent of female suffrage) – the belief that “once a month, women go mad.”  There was also the question whether women would be able to understand and comprehend issues of national and imperial importance such as the economy, defence and foreign policy.

Female opponents of women’s suffrage on the other hand argued that women had their proper sphere and giving them the vote would undermine the home and family, and that women should be content to exert their influence in that sphere. They were horrified that women they regarded as less educated and intelligent as themselves should be enfranchised, or that the lower classes should be afforded power and entitlement, because who knew how that power would be used?

This is not to say however that these female antis were totally opposed to women’s suffrage; on the contrary, they were vocal supporters for female participation at the local level and worked hard to increase participation in county politics. There was also general cynicism about national politics and the fear that women would be used as a tool for manipulation by politicians. Just as with the other great issues of the day, women’s suffrage had its multitude of voices and two of the loudest camps differed over strategy and how to win hearts and minds.

 

PEOPLE’S FRONT OF JUDEA VS JUDEAN PEOPLE’S FRONT AND ALL THE OTHERS AS WELL…..

Martin Pugh in his March of the Women mused that despite the coverage and studies that the suffrage campaign has generated, on a whole, several aspects remain neglected and studies as a whole remain unbalanced. The Pankhurst family and the suffragettes especially the WSPU have long dominated the narrative with regards to the campaign to secure women the right to vote.

During the late 1880s, the women’s suffrage movement was very divided and de-centralised. There were many small groups, often small local or workplace societies. In 1907 the Artists’ Suffrage League was formed, and the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage: over the next few years they were followed by such societies as the Actresses Franchise League, the Women Writers Suffrage League, the Barmaids Political Defence League, the Church League for Women’s Suffrage, the Tax Resistance League, the Men’s Political Union for Women’s Enfranchisement, the Catholic Women’s Suffrage Society and the United Suffragists. The latter was created for both men and women, and was said to be disapproved of by Christabel Pankhurst.

The formation of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) in 1897 was one way to make the movement much more coherent and unified as well as in David Rubenstein’s words calling for a “closer union and cooperation between the various societies.” They elected as their president Millicent Garrett Fawcett (1847-1929), sister of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson who was the first woman to qualify and practise as a doctor as well as be elected town mayor. Millicent Fawcett was the widow of Liberal MP and politician Henry Fawcett. She was also in known in her own right as an author and for her crusades for women’s and children’s rights.

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While the NUWSS was predominantly a middle-class organisation, they also had support from the upper classes; among them Lord and Lady Selborne and Lord Robert Cecil (son of the 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, three times Prime Minister of the UK). In addition, the organisation did not ally themselves with any political party and were dedicated to winning hearts and minds through peaceful rallies, speeches, articles, pamphlets, deputations and cultivating important allies within the Establishment in order to secure support for their cause. They also sought to bring their message far and wide through local NUWSS branches and allied organisations, as well as supporting women candidates and men sympathetic to the cause standing for elected posts.

In addition the NUWSS also engaged in debates with their opponents and did so using careful arguments and logic. Recognising that the weight of scientific opinion was against them, the likes of Fawcett refrained from wading into any physiological or psychological argument. As Pugh pointed out: “the aim, for them, was to develop whatever natural capacity men and women had to start with.” They also contested views that women were weak and that they lacked the stomach to cope with political life by arguing that women especially those from the working class were already exposed to dangers and struggles that took no notice of notions of femininity and questioned the claim that femininity was fragile – if it was, they argued, then the human race would have long ago have died out.

By the 20th century it seemed that there was no progress being made: especially as the Liberals were returned to power in 1905. Unlike the Conservative Party whose leadership was sympathetic to the cause of women’s suffrage, the Liberal leadership was hostile to it. In 1908, Herbert Henry Asquith became Prime Minister and with his hostility to the cause, the struggle entered a much more dangerous phase.

Several women’s suffrage activists felt that the NUWSS didn’t go far enough and direct action was the solution to shake the government and the political establishment out of its torpor and sometimes open hostility to the cause. In 1903, the Women’s Social and Political Union was founded under Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928) with the slogan “deeds not words” and they quickly gained attention for acts of organised militancy and violence. Not only were they content to heckle politicians especially those who were seen as hostile to women’s suffrage but eventually their acts also included throwing stones and even later setting fire or planting bombs at their homes.

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These women became known as “suffragettes,” a pejorative term coined by a journalist named Charles E. Hinds, and in time the WSPU took this word as a badge of honour. Those who refused to follow the militant route and stuck to peaceful means and logic to obtain the vote became known as the “suffragists.” In an echo of the Life of Brian’s People’s Front of Judea versus Judean People’s Front, the movement was never coherent and although the goal was the same, the methods to secure it were different. Suffragists were seen as too passive and patient, but Fawcett perceptively argued that women’s suffrage would come not as an isolated incident, but as a necessary corollary to the changes already taking place. The suffragists were also accused of being too complacent and too reliant on reason as well as lacking in passion and urgency – this was what was used by the Pankhursts and the suffragettes to rally women to their cause.

The Suffragette WSPU

The suffragists did support the WSPU in the early years due to the view that the suffragettes were helping the cause through their “pluck and determination” (in the words of Lady Knightley, a suffragist). Many in the NUWSS believed that the actions of the suffragettes were making people sit up and take notice in a way that more peaceful campaigns had failed to do, and many suffragists lent their support to the demand by the suffragettes to be treated like political prisoners.

Even the rank and file would often disagree with the leadership over politics as much as tactics and within the suffragette movement, there were varying methods of participation. Many of the suffragettes attended meetings, marched peacefully, sold and distributed literature or raised funds. Pugh observed that “[a]s a result militancy tended to be concentrated in London and a few regional capitals; it was not necessarily a central part of WSPU activity and the dramatic events that captured the headlines were largely the work of itinerant activists who travelled out to the provinces when a visit by a leading politician offered a suitable target.” In the regions as well, there was greater cooperation between the suffragettes and suffragists for the reasons above.

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However, it was militancy that was gaining the headlines and increasingly even within the WSPU there were those who recoiled from the actions of their fellow members such as Emily Davison (whose fanaticism even the WSPU leadership found hard to swallow). Many of these suffragettes questioned the autocratic views of the Pankhursts and believed that militancy had lost its way and was damaging to the cause. Jill Liddington in her book One Hand Tied Behind Us noted that:

“The WSPU operation became more and more military in character, with Christabel issuing orders for her troops to carry out. No dissent could be tolerated…..[m]ilitancy coupled with the attendant newspaper publicity, had begun as an inspired idea in Christabel’s head in 1905. But it seemed to carry with it the seeds of its own destruction: each act had to be more violent than the previous one in order to hold public attention; and violence only attracted public interest, never mass support. In the end the WSPU resorted to arson……as the WSPU membership was reduced down to an elite corps, so its politics correspondingly narrowed.” (p. 210)

A group of suffragettes led by Charlotte Despard (1844-1939) became so disillusioned with the WSPU’s lack of democracy and increasing militancy that they broke away and formed the Women’s Freedom League (WFL). The WFL could be described as a halfway house between the NUWSS and the WSPU; they did engage in stunts such as chaining themselves to railings as they attempted to present petitions and through caravan trips to spread the message of Votes for Women, but their militancy was channeled into much more peaceful means through civil disobedience and passive resistance.

The WFL did this through means such as refusal to pay tax. A woman called Dora Montefiore refused to pay her tax in 1906 on the grounds that if she didn’t have the right to vote then she shouldn’t be subjected to taxation. Bailiffs were sent to her home to confiscate her property, so Montefiore barricaded her home for a few days and survived with the help of sympathetic neighbours and tradesmen who smuggled in supplies until the bailiffs broke through and carted off objects that could be sold to meet her unpaid tax bill. Being wealthy, she managed to buy them back but the “Siege of Montefiore” as it became known became useful as a propaganda tool. It demonstrated the contradiction that women were expected to submit to taxation of their income without having any say through the vote on how that tax money should be spent.

Montefiore’s act of defiance generated publicity and the WFL saw another opportunity with the upcoming census which was to take place in 1911. Due to the government’s programme of social welfare, they were pinning their hopes on the census delivering the information that would assist in crafting legislation that would see through reforms such as in housing, health, education and economy. After the issue of women’s suffrage had been yet again omitted at the King’s Speech in 1910, the WFL decided to call for a boycott of the census. Their aim was in Liddington’s words “not a violent confrontation…..but a peaceful civil disobedience to challenge the very meaning of citizenship. What did it mean in an otherwise supposedly mature democracy like Edwardian Britain, to be a grown woman, yet to be treated politically like a child, a criminal or a lunatic?”

Failure to participate in the census resulted in a fine and many of those who took part in the boycott either spent the day in shelters organised by the WFL and those who supported the boycott. Others defaced their forms, for instance an Ethel Smyth from Woking wrote in her form “no vote, no census” while a Mary Hare from Hove scrawled “women don’t count therefore will not be counted.” However it is difficult to gauge if the boycott was successful or not; the NUWSS and other women’s groups such as the Women’s Co-operative Guild objected to the boycott as they believed that the data collected from the census could be used to assist reforms that could benefit the public and especially women. The census takers did manage to collect the data of some of the women who participated in the boycott through enquiries to neighbours and well- meaning family and friends. Crucially, the government declined to prosecute those who refused to take part in the census or defaced their forms. Already facing criticisms over the force feeding of suffragettes in prison, the authorities did not want to make martyrs out of the refuseniks.

As mentioned earlier, not all men had the vote and several women’s suffrage activists had been campaigning since the late 1860s to remove the male gender bar. By 1900, 61% of men were disenfranchised and they were barred due to not owning or occupying property of a certain minimum amount. The rise of the Labour movement resulted into greater calls for full adult suffrage but many of them stopped short of calling for the same right to be extended to women. Equally many suffragists and suffragettes also opposed full adult suffrage, preferring to keep the status quo of property ownership or occupation as the qualification.

The question was what was more important – adult suffrage or women’s suffrage? Many suffragists argued that women’s suffrage was much more important; a woman can never be a man so for as long as the vote excluded women, they could not change their circumstances in order to obtain the vote under the present system. However men could in theory reach the minimum qualification in order to obtain the right to vote. Those who were in favour of universal suffrage were called “adultists” and in the early 1900s, the People’s Suffrage Federation was established with the aim of obtaining “full adult suffrage regardless of sex on a three month resident qualification.” It sought to unite women’s suffragists and adultists by ensuring the enfranchisement of women was included in any calls for further amendments to the existing Reform Acts. They also believed that full adult universal suffrage was integral towards a fully representative and democratic government.

But the adultists were a small group compared to those calling for women’s suffrage. As the suffragettes stepped up their campaign of militancy, the suffragists knew that they had to find a way to show that the militants were a minority and to reassert reason and logic in the bid to enfranchise women.

 

Further Reading:

Martin Pugh. March of the Women: A Revisionist Analysis of the Campaign for Women’s Suffrage (Oxford, 2002)

Sandra Stanley Holton. Feminism & Democracy: Women’s Suffrage and Reform Politics in Britain (Cambridge, 1986)

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

Millicent Garrett Fawcett. What I Remember (London, 1924)

Millicent Garrett Fawcett. Women’s Suffrage: A Short History of a Great Movement (London, 1912)

Jill Liddington & Jill Norris. One Hand Tied Behind Us: The Rise of the Women’s Suffrage Movement (London, 1978)

Jill Liddington. Selina Cooper, 1864-1946: The Life and Times of a Respectable Rebel (London, 1984)

Constance Rover. Women’s Suffrage and Party Politics in Britain 1866-1914 (London, 1967)

Jill Liddington. Vanishing for the Vote: Suffrage, Citizenship and the Battle for the Census (Manchester, 2014)

Lucinda Hawksley. March, Women, March (London, 2013)

Susie Steinbach. Women in England 1760-1914 (London, 2004)

Jane Robinson. Hearts and Minds: The Untold Story of the Great Pilgrimage and How Women won the Vote (London, 2018)

http://www.jliddington.org.uk/

 

 

TV Review: The Coronation with Her Majesty the Queen (BBC1)

The last time Britain saw a coronation was in 1953 and to this day this country remains one of two in Europe (the other being the Vatican) where the head of state is enthroned in a centuries-old ritual steeped in religion and tradition. The build-up leading to and what happened on 2 June 1953 has been told and re-told several times and this documentary could have been like previous ones but this has a unique twist.

Two in fact. For arguably the first time, the Crown Jewels and regalia were filmed in close range and using high definition cameras which meant that viewers could see the detail and workmanship of each crown and regalia featured. Secondly and more importantly, the viewers have Her Majesty the Queen as their guide. Watching both official and home footage, the Queen shared her memories of the event and whilst she has not seen the footage from her own coronation for 65 years, she recalled that it was “a very long day. When you’re taking part in something you don’t see it.”

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This was a far cry from the coronation of her father George VI in 1937 where despite it being held over 70 years ago, she can still remember how it all unfolded:  as she cheerfully admits that she didn’t have a role in the ceremony, she was only present to sit and watch. George VI wanted his daughter to be prepared when her time came and insisted that she write down her memories of the big day and the result now resides in the Royal Archives – an impression of a sacred ceremony through the eyes of an 11 year old.

The Queen’s coronation is significant as it was the first to be televised and aware that more people would be watching the ceremony than in any previous coronations, the stakes were high – no mistakes on the same scale as those that plagued Victoria or George VI’s coronation were to be allowed. Sixteen months were given in order to prepare and rehearse for the ceremony itself, and Lady Anne Coke (now Lady Glenconner) who served as one of the six maids of honour and James Wilkinson, one of the 400 choir singers who took part, were on hand to share their memories of the build up to and during the big day.

Juxtaposed too with the footage of the actual event was the Queen talking through two of the most important pieces of the regalia – the two crowns she wore for the ceremony. For the first time in 65 years Her Majesty was reunited with the St Edward’s Crown which weighs five pounds and was made in 1661 for the coronation of Charles II. “Is it still as heavy?” she wondered as the crown was placed in front of her. “Yes, it is,” she nods picking up the crown. “It weighs a ton!” The documentary mentioned a little-known fact about this crown – only the sovereign, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Crown Jeweller are permitted to touch it.

More manageable was the Imperial State Crown which weighs around three pounds but as the Queen herself observed she has to be careful while wearing it especially during the State Opening of Parliament while she’s reading her speech: “You can’t look down in it, though, or your neck would break. And it would fall off.” While the Imperial State Crown might be the newer of the two crowns, it is studded with historic gems from the Black Prince’s Ruby (actually a spinel) reportedly worn by Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt to the sapphire from the ring of Edward the Confessor and the pearls that belonged to Mary Queen of Scots and which were purchased by her cousin Elizabeth I. The latter’s namesake mused as she held the dangling gems in the palm of her hand: “Pearls are sort of living things. They need warming up and these have just been hanging here. Quite sad, really.”

The coronation

Discomfort was also the order of the day. Not only did Her Majesty have to contend with two heavy crowns and sit through a five hour ceremony, even her mode of transport was uncomfortable as well. The Gold State Coach made in 1760 for George III had been used for every coronation since 1821 and despite its magnificent appearance never endeared itself to the monarchs who have had to ride in it. Victoria was not a great fan of its “distressing oscillations” and William IV himself despite having spent much of his life in the Navy described riding the carriage as like being tossed about a rough sea. Count the present Queen then as also not a fan as she told Alastair Bruce: “Horrible! It’s not designed for travelling in at all. It’s only sprung on leather, you know.”

While the focus of the programme was the Queen, the regalia took centre stage as well. In the capable hands of narrator Keeley Hawes and former Historic Royal Palaces curator Anna Keay, the commentary was informative and concise as they took the viewer through the history and significance of the regalia and the ceremony itself, with a few significant anecdotes along the way – such as how the Cullinan diamond was sent to Britain (via ordinary mail) to the Crown Jewels being hidden during the Second World War. The Queen mused about how lucky it was that the one person who knew where they were hidden didn’t die before the war was over and the jewels could be retrieved.

However the weak link in the documentary was Alastair Bruce, he’s described as an expert on royal ceremony but he added nothing new or insightful about the ceremony or the regalia and his conversation with the Queen sometimes bordered on the fawning. But that’s one quibble; the real star of this documentary was the Queen herself – smiling, giggling, looking in awe at her younger self and as sharp as ever. For Her Majesty alone, watching this was a privilege and worth it!

 

The Coronation with Her Majesty the Queen was telecast on BBC1 on 14 January 2018