Exhibition Review: Royal Women: Public Life, Personal Style (Fashion Museum, Bath)

The strong interest in what female members of the British royal family wear continues with the latest addition in the person of the Duchess of Sussex. The coverage of her wedding gown and the ensemble she wore to her first official engagement demonstrates that this interest in royal fashion has not abated and is exacerbated by the presence of blogs, social media and the omnipresent 24/7/365 news culture.

This interest is not new however as demonstrated by an on-going exhibition at the Fashion Museum in Bath entitled Royal Women: Public Life, Personal Style, featuring clothes worn by Queen Alexandra, Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother) and Princess Margaret; each a wife or sister of a monarch. As public figures and being royal there are expectations to be met such as being above politics, so they should be seen and not heard. What royal women wear should be above fashion and be suitable for the occasion and the people they will meet: hence the bright colours in order to stand out, hats must never obscure the face, bags should never get in the way of shaking hands and accepting gifts from well-wishers. Even shoes are selected with comfort in mind.

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The exhibition is a small one with the clothes drawn from the museum’s own collection and loans from the Royal Collection. What was interesting is the information regarding how the museum was able to acquire dresses with royal provenance. Some like Princess Margaret’s were donated to the museum by the princess herself, while others such as a gown worn by Queen Mary were given by one of her ladies-in-waiting. Displayed chronologically, the clothes are a mini-history of royal fashion from the 1860s to the 1950s as well as highlighting how the four royal women featured used fashion and clothes to create their image and assist in their performance of their royal duties.

The women featured fall into two headings. Trendsetters like Queen Alexandra when as Princess of Wales she popularised tailored separates for day wear and jewelled chokers (to conceal a scar brought about by scrofula) for evening, and later Princess Margaret whose fashion choices generated headlines and epitomised glamour, especially after the austerity of the Second World War. Or in the case of Queens Mary and Elizabeth, their style was an integral part of their identity and as such instantly recognisable. Queen Mary remained wedded to the Edwardian styles that went out of fashion even during her lifetime, while Queen Elizabeth, with the help of designer Norman Hartnell, became known for her sparkling evening gowns which were heavily embroidered and beaded and in the distinct crinoline shape.

One of the interesting highlights of the exhibition was how clothes were not only re-worn but even recycled. Queen Alexandra’s wedding gown is virtually unrecognisable in the photographs of her on her wedding day but this is not unusual, as wedding dresses during this period were worn more than once – first on the wedding day and then reworked. As the wedding dress was the most expensive outfit in the entire bridal trousseau, it made sense for the gown to be designed in such a way that it could be worn again and again.

A second example of this clothes recycling was the dress worn by Queen Mary for Princess Elizabeth’s wedding in 1947. Designed by Norman Hartnell and described as “gold lame and turquoise cut velvet”, it originally had long sleeves and a high neck. The gown was later altered with the neckline adjusted and the sleeves cut to create the floaty panels around the upper arms. Both gowns demonstrated how clever alteration can result into a new dress created out of an old one.

Another interesting highlight was with regards to the change in Alexandra’s wardrobe after 1892 which marked a turning point. The death of her oldest son the Duke of Clarence hit her hard and after a period of deep mourning, she decided to wear half mourning for the rest of her life in his memory. This was in marked contrast to her mother-in-law Queen Victoria who wore black for forty years following the death of her husband Prince Albert in 1861. Her choice is reflected in two gowns in dusky blue and mauve – two popular colours associated with half mourning, and they give us a good idea of the colour palette in Alexandra’s wardrobe during the last three decades of her life.

While the clothes are well presented, it’s a shame that apart from a hat and two pairs of shoes that belonged to Queen Mary as well as a glove that belonged to Queen Alexandra accessories are absent, which prevents the viewer from getting a more rounded picture of each woman’s taste and look. However this is a minor quibble more than anything. What is disappointing was there is nothing on display from Queen Elizabeth’s famous “White Wardrobe” designed by Norman Hartnell for the state visit to France in 1938. More than anything, the “White Wardrobe” represented a crossroads in Elizabeth’s over all look that marked the beginnings of the popular and iconic images of her as queen consort and queen mother.

The exhibition closes with a surprise loan from the Countess of Wessex which brings the exhibition fully to the present and demonstrate that while fashion have moved on, the demands of royal dressing have not. There is also a film showing the four featured women out and about performing their public duties which gives us a glimpse of them and their clothes in movement.

Certainly this exhibition leaves me wanting more but while small it is packed full with interesting information and trivia and as the surprise loan demonstrates, the public’s fascination with what royal women wear continues.

 

Royal Women: Public Life, Personal Style is on at the Fashion Museum Bath until 28 April 2019. Admission included in the ticket price.

For more information please visit: https://www.fashionmuseum.co.uk/

The bloggers visited the exhibition on 23 May 2018 and photos were taken by the bloggers.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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Millicent_Fawcett_-_Women_Wanted

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.

Emmeline_Pankhurst,_seated_(1913)

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/

 

 

A Country House Christmas: Remembrance of Christmases Past

Originally titled Treasure on Earth and published in 1952, this small book was written by Phyllis Elinor Sanderman (born the Hon Phyllis Legh) and is a thinly disguised account of the Christmases that she experienced at Lyme Park, the Legh family residence in Cheshire. It’s a charming and affectionate look at Christmases past and would not look out of place as a Downton Abbey Christmas special with the big house being readied for Christmas, as well as the rituals and traditions that underpin Christmas at Lyme. The narrative is written in the third person, and while a few names have been changed Lyme is renamed Vyne Park while the author’s parents the 2nd Baron and Baroness Newton are Sir Thomas and Lady Vayne, but it’s easy to pick up that the author is describing her parents and home.

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However while what we see in Downton Abbey’s celebration of Christmas is pretty much a pastiche, A Country House Christmas while short delves into detail about how Christmas was celebrated in a house like Lyme Park before World War I. There are the family theatricals, the visiting relatives, the exchange and giving of presents: not just between the family but the annual distribution of beef to the tenants and presents for their children presided over by Sir Thomas and Lady Vayne. Phyllis’s anticipation of the big day jumps off the pages of the book as does her passion for the house and its history and contents. There are more than enough descriptions of the house which despite the absence of any photographs allow the reader to imagine Vyne Park and its inhabitants, upstairs and down.

Apart from the description of the house and the rituals associated with the festive season there are affectionate portraits and characters sketches of the servants: Truelove the butler, Fraulein Thur the governess, Perez the chef and Mrs Campbell the housekeeper. These sketches are woven into the descriptions of the preparations for Christmas and the acknowledgement that the servants are the engine that keep the house running. Prominent among the servants of course is Truelove – defined by Phyllis as “unquestionably the ‘Eminence Grise,’ the power behind the throne, holding the reins of government; with the ear of the queen, the confidence and (albeit reluctant) admiration of the reigning monarch, and with both titular rulers dependent on him and knowing it.” There is also a description of the wider community outside the confines of the house and the relationship between the Vaynes and the estate as demonstrated by Sanderman’s description of the present giving to the children of tenants presided over by Lady Vayne:

“When the children of the estate employees came up on Boxing Day to have tea and receive their presents, it was he [Truelove] who acted as master of ceremonies. After tea in the servants’ hall, it for the occasion with Chinese lanterns, they would troops upstairs in the Long Gallery, where the tree in all its glory for the second day in succession provided, except for the blazing fire, the only light in the room…..Then when everyone had walked around the tree and admired it thoroughly, Truelove would read out from a list, not the children’s names but their parents’ names and their respective ages – a nice distinction.

‘Jim Bowden’s little girl aged six years’ – and a small girl in her best frock and button boots would clatter across the shiny boards to where Lady Vayne stood beside the tree, received her gift with a bobbed curtsey and clatter back again……the same ceremony again, till from the youngest to the eldest they had all their presents. Then Truelove would make a speech.

It was the same every year – ‘I’m sure we’re all very grateful to Her Ladyship for providing this beautiful tree and presents. When I was a boy and Christmas came round I was pleased if I got a monkey on a stick. But of course times have changed. Now I want you all to give three hearty cheers,’ etc.

There was always the loyal response. Then the gallery would resound to the blowing of tin trumpets and whistles, the clicking of pistols and popping of crackers, and the broad North Country accents of excited young voices.”

The narrative is set in 1906, five years before the passage of the Parliament Act and eight years before the outbreak of the First World War; both of which would deal a death blow to the power and prestige of the aristocracy. Superficially, this account can be seen as a paean to aristocratic life with its unchanging routines, deferential servants and tenants, dressing up for dinner and the entertaining demanded of a house like Vyne but it goes deeper than that, as there is also the self-awareness that this aristocratic world and lifestyle could vanish.

And vanish it does. The narrative fast forwards to and ends in 1946, when as an adult Phyllis returns to Vyne again as the house has been given to the nation because the Vaynes, harassed as they are by rationing and rising taxes, can no longer afford to keep the house as it was during that Indian summer before 1914. One would have thought that Sanderman would be nostalgic for the “good old days” but clearly she isn’t as she writes in the introduction to the 1981 reprint of her book:

“The hard fact must be accepted that houses such as Lyme are now anachronisms, no longer able to fulfil their original function, namely that of dwelling-houses for the leisure class. They must either fall into decay or be turned into institutions – hospitals or schools – or become museum pieces, visited and enjoyed by the public at large.”

I would highly recommend this book, not just as a charming story of Christmases past but also a more thorough look at how the festive season was celebrated in a country house in a way that period drama such as Downton Abbey have never quite managed to capture.

 

 

 

Come Dance with Me: When Britain fell in love with Ballroom Dancing

Long before Strictly Come Dancing debuted on British television in 2004 and reignited an interest in ballroom dancing, Britain had a period between the two world wars when the nation fell in love with dancing and it was the main competition to the cinema in terms of popularity as a form of leisure activity.

Dancing’s popularity was aided and abetted by a growing consumer culture that grew exponentially after the war, as well as foreign influences, particularly from America, that made their presence felt. This popularity also reflected changes in music tastes, the status of women, technology and many others. However this was also the time when there was anxiety over the growing “Americanisation” of British society and culture and for a minority of people who saw dancing as a contributor to the decline in moral standards. In this blog, we shall see how Britain put on their dancing shoes and took to dancing with a great enthusiasm that has not been seen since.

 

Dancing as a national pastime:

Prior to the end of the First World War, ballroom dancing as we know it today had its roots in the ballrooms of royalty and the aristocracy: where dancing was an important social lubricant and part of entertaining among the royals and the upper classes. Then and until the eve of the outbreak of the Second World War, dancing was an integral part of the London Season and the ability to dance was seen as a useful social skill.

This all changed especially during the years of the Great War and after.  The horrors witnessed during the war and the changes that occurred as a result meant that people, especially the young, were keen to seize the moment and enjoy themselves. Popular entertainment became more widespread during this era and dancing particularly stepped out of the palaces and country homes to occupy “a pivotal place in the culture of the working- and lower-middle class communities in Britain.” Dancing’s popularity was only rivalled by the cinema and it’s easy to see why; it had universal appeal and something shared among generations as young people, their parents and grandparents danced. It was also social lubricant and an opportunity to meet other people. Crucially, it also provided an opportunity for social mobility and entrepreneurship as a whole new industry sprang up from dancing to provide employment for dance teachers, bands, singers, comperes, chefs, waiters and even builders, architects, interior decorators and engineers.

The “dance boom” was noticed as early as 1919 –  as The Sunday Sun observed: “There is a big boom in dancing. Ever since the silencing of the guns last November it has loomed large in the social life of the individual. Where it was once an art it has now become a craze…..if things go on as they are at present, it is safe to assume that dancing will shortly become an obsession with the majority of our younger citizens.” People danced at home, in dance halls and nightclubs and even between courses while dining in restaurants, and the popularity of dancing dominated the post-war scene. Loelia Ponsonby (later Duchess of Westminster), recalled “Supported by nothing more than tea or coffee (a glass of sherry would have turned it into an orgy) we fox-trotted tirelessly until it was time to dash home and change into evening dress for a real dance…dancing was more than a craze, it had become a sort of mystical religion.” If there was no formal afternoon dance available for Ponsonby and her friends they would meet at someone’s home and “we wound up the gramophone, put on a record and began practising new steps.”

dancing 1920s

And this boom was encouraged and fuelled by the rise of dance halls across the country. Many were converted from existing facilities such as theatres, bath halls, assembly halls and even clubs but the rise of the purpose built palais de danse brought dancing to the masses: the French name signifying elegance and adding a veneer of glamour to the venue. They were purpose built for dancing and could also accommodate several bands, a café and restaurant that no other existing assembly hall could provide. They also became noted for their programmes which featured the latest dances, music and bands. The first of these palaise de danse was the Hammersmith Palace opened in 1919 by Howard Booker and Frank Mitchell, a Canadian and American respectively. It quickly became a success owing to the fact that its music was provided by touring bands (mostly from America) on a residency for a few months thereby keeping the acts fresh and novel. Its status as a place to be was cemented by the fact that the Prince of Wales and his younger brother the Duke of York became regulars. The formula became successful and by the mid-1920s, other palais de danse were opened in cities such as in Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Edinburgh and Glasgow. Smaller towns followed suit and just like the cinemas, these dance halls with their imposing facades and plush interiors were monuments to the inter-war years as James Nott wrote:

“The growth of purpose built dance halls providing first rate facilities at affordable prices, with proper organisation and orderly conduct, shifted the focus of dancing by the mid-1920s away from its former upper class strongholds in the West End of London towards an urban lower-middle- and working class patronage. The palais de danse were providing facilities that would, by the mid-1930s, make dancing a truly mass leisure pursuit. Regular, cheap and modern, dances at a palais de danse were ideal for those with lower incomes who were interested in the new dance steps and new dance music.” (p. 22)

The late 1920s to the early 1930s (despite a short slump in dancing’s popularity during the mid-1920s) led to the development of a dance hall industry with the establishment of both local and national chains. The most famous was the Mecca Group which started out as a catering firm called Mecca Café, which provided catering for the likes of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden and other established venues. Mecca Café had its first forays into the dance hall business after acquiring a dance hall in Brighton which became a success. Its strategy was to buy halls that were faltering or losing money and turn them around. Mecca also pioneered business practices that were soon copied by other dance halls and chains due to the realisation that dancing alone did not attract customers – especially repeat ones. Infrastructure was deployed to ensure that facilities were comfortable, luxurious and state of the art; hence they were constantly updated and improved in order to keep up with trends and changes in technology such as lighting, acoustics and cooling systems.

Palais de danse

Dance halls also used marketing and promotions to attract customers both new and repeat and yet again Mecca proved to be the pioneer through the use of press agencies (forerunner of today’s PR agencies) to promote dancing as well as the use of “stunts” to liven up evenings. Examples of these stunts included talent nights, themed nights and special prizes given to, for instance, the fiftieth or hundredth customer to pass through the door.  Dance halls like the cinema were relatively unscathed during the Great Depression as despite record numbers of unemployment, more people went to dance halls as they offered escapism and value for money. For a single admission price, one person could enjoy an evening with music, dancing, a variety of entertainment, amenities and dining; not to mention the chance to meet large numbers of members of the opposite sex.

palais-de-danse

 

Dance styles and music – the emergence of a home grown style:

During the 19th century dances such as the quadrille and polka were very popular but the first dance style that shocked polite society was the waltz, mainly due to its hold and the use of the closed position (i.e couples dancing face to face rather than side by side). Because of that it was seen as shocking and immoral but it outlasted all other dances and its hold and closed position becoming the standard for other style of dances.

In the years before 1914, popular dances included the cakewalk, bunny hug, Turkey Trot, tango and the foxtrot: with the latter particularly proving to be more enduring as the new jazz sounds introduced after the war provided the perfect tempo for the dance. Just as in the past, dance fashions came and went only this time many of them proved to be a flash in the pan. Novelty, group and party dances such as the Black Bottom, the shimmy, jogtrot and the Lambeth Walk were introduced with varying degrees of success, the most successful being the Charleston which was introduced from America. Its frantic and high energy steps became popular especially with the young but not everyone was enamoured of this new style of dance. A newspaper likened the steps to “reminiscent only of negro orgies” and many of the old guard frowned upon this foreign import as “neurotic” and “rotten”.

These new dances, like the novelty of jazz with its syncopated rhythm and flexibility, undermined older notions of respectability and propriety when it came to dancing and music. Just as the waltz nearly a century before had been considered shocking, so did critics baulk at the high jinks of the Charleston or the sharp staccato movements of the tango. Given the foreign origins of these dances and jazz music, it was inevitable that the dances and the music accompanying them would be denounced and thought of as offending British sensibilities.

charleston

There is nothing new about this. During the early 18th century, the introduction of opera onto the London stage was denounced as “foreign” as it was an alien concept, sung in a language no-one could understand by foreign singers and staged with over the top props and scenery. The plots of these Italian operas were also suspect as being “too Catholic”. Fast forward to the 20th century and it seemed that little had changed – only this time the target was America and not Italy. American music and dance were slowly trickling into the UK before the war but its proliferation and ubiquity began during the last two years of the First World War following the USA’s entry into the fray on the side of the Allied powers. After the war ended, this carried with the dance halls, nightclubs, hotels and restaurants providing a platform for American bands and their British imitators.

The influence of America on British popular culture proved to be a breeding ground for envy and resentment. Although Britain was on the winning side during the war, the initial optimism faded as soon as the reality of high unemployment, ailing heavy industry and manufacturing base and crushing national debt hit home. This was further compounded by the encroachment of American films and music into British popular culture, which fed into growing anxiety about foreign (read: American) influences diluting and debasing British culture and taste. As a result, in a response to a growing Americanisation an “English” style of dancing and “British” music were born by appropriating foreign styles and modifying or changing them to suit local tastes.

The birth of the “English” style of dance was seen as one way to tame and “clean” up dances considered to be too risqué and this was done through formalising the steps and technique by recognised professionals and dance organisations. The growth of the dance halls and popularisation of dancing had also led to the rise of dance teaching as a profession and the opening of schools. During this period, dance teaching became more formalised and codified by the establishment organisations such as the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing (ISTD) in 1904, with ballroom dancing included in 1924. There was also the National Association of Teachers of Dancing established in 1906, British Association of Teachers of Dancing (1892), the Allied Dancing Association (1921) and the International Dancing Masters Association (1930) as well as regional associations and those at the local level.

Underpinning these organisations and schools were the professional dance teachers with some becoming household names. One of the most notable was Victor Silvester (1900-1978) who started his dancing career as a paid “dancing partner” at the Empress Rooms after WW1. In 1922 he won the World Ballroom Championship with his partner Phyllis Clarke. Silvester soon opened his own dance school and became instrumental in helping codification of ballroom dancing with the ISTD. He published several books on ballroom dancing and his Modern Ballroom Dancing (1927) still remains in print to this day. In addition he was also a proponent of “strict tempo” when it came to dancing and set up an orchestra to provide just that. Other famous dance teachers included Santos Casani (1898-1983), who became known following a feature of him dancing the Charleston atop a taxi with his dance school, as well as instruction newsreels, articles and books.

Codifying dance steps took on different ways such as for instance taking steps from novelty dances like the Charleston and incorporating them into what became known as the Quickstep. Older dances such as the waltz were given fresh impetus, Silvester and Clarke simplified it by eliminating the more complicated variations and introduced the “natural turn” to make it “more graceful and easier to dance.” As a result of the efforts of the likes of Silvester and Casani the “English” style of dancing with its emphasis on restraint, elegance, style, deportment and equality became popular abroad and help set the standard for social dancing abroad.

DSC04757

dancing steps

Along with the development of an “English” style of dancing was the rise of the “British” style of dance music. British music as opposed to American was much more structured and less open to improvisation; it was also seen as “sweet” – more elegant and sentimental as opposed to the “hot” American beats with its syncopated notes. Also, British dance music also drew inspiration from the music hall with its emphasis on humour which was seen as an important ingredient in the British national character.

Radio and the nascent recording industry also helped popularised dance music. British radio was the monopoly of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) which under its first director general, John Reith took the view that the BBC’s output had to be impartial and that the BBC had the duty to educate, inform and entertain. With Reith’s high handed views however, entertaining would come a distant third to education and information. It would popularise jazz and dance music but only on its own terms and it did through the promotion of bands and performers they deemed acceptable and respectable while avoiding those that did not conform to the standards set by the Corporation. Among the latter was singing in the American style (called “crooning”) which the BBC banned in 1929 – “On no account will singing be allowed in the broadcast,” as the memo read, but eventually the BBC had to reconsider its ban owing to the popularity of singers such as Al Bowlly.

There were limits to Americanisation and it was not all encompassing; while British audiences patronised Hollywood films and looked to Hollywood stars for glamour and inspiration when it came to music, the public at large seemed to prefer home grown artists and music if record sales and public appearances were anything to go by. A prime example was the band leader Jack Hylton (1892-1965) and his Orchestra, as James Nott observed:

“[Hylton’s] popularity was enormous. In 1929, for example, Hylton played over 700 performances in365 days, travelled over 63,000 miles on tour, and his records – calculated on a twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week basis – sold at a rate of over seven a minute. Between 1921 and 1939 he recorded over 1,700 sides, and from 1923 to 1933 he sold nearly seven million records.”

 

The success of the likes of Victor Silvester and Jack Hylton demonstrate that as much as the British public did embrace foreign influences when it came to popular culture, home grown talent and music could hold their own against their foreign counterparts and even outsell them. The public had a way of showing their appreciation of certain dances and types of music and it was through voting with their feet and wallets.

 

Dancing and its discontents:

As mentioned earlier, the growing anxieties over the changes in British society after the war manifested themselves not only with grumblings over foreign influences on popular culture and taste but also with what was perceived as the decline in standards and morality. Dancing became a lightning rod for what was seen as what was wrong with post-war society. After the First World War there were debates about gender, the role of women, morality, and the growing influence of America. Negative opinions were held by a minority, however they were a vocal minority – usually members of the clergy, politicians and writers – and their expressed views became news used to sell papers and generate discussion.

The social side of dancing did not escape the notice of critics. It was an activity that could be enjoyed by everyone and seen as a way of meeting other people particularly those of the opposite gender. As such, it was seen as a way to mark key stages in a person’s life and to mark the transition from childhood to adulthood (the concept of “teenager” and “teen” did not emerge until the late 1950s) and as Nott observed “allowed young people their first taste of independence, where they could learn to socialise with their peer group and be introduced to the codes of behaviour expected of their sex. Dancing also gave young people familiarity with the opposite sex, offering a controlled environment in which to observe and interact with them. Indeed, it was at dances that most young people had their first experience of finding ‘dates’ and ‘dating’. In addition, dances often introduced young people to the ‘adult’ pleasures of drinking and smoking.”

Apart from the social side, there was also emphasis on the individual benefits of dancing. Victor Silvester in his book Modern Ballroom Dancing noted that dancing contributed to a person’s health but also gave them confidence through the acquisition of a skill as well as better posture and deportment.

Silvester could have been thinking about women especially, as dancing and dance halls played a significant role in the further emancipation of women. As a result of the war, women gained greater freedoms and entered the workplace in droves despite the move after 1918 to relegate them back to children, church and kitchen. Not only were they granted the vote but also had a freer and wider role in leisure activities. The new dance styles reflected a “thawing of relationships between the sexes and this was well represented in the new styles of dancing.”

If the men had their pubs, clubs and sports teams, the women had the department stores, cafes, restaurants, cinemas and the dance hall. Increasingly, dancing was also more of a female activity especially during the early evenings and weekends – while the men were at the pub or away at football matches, the dance hall became a female only space and a sort of a social club for women where they would practise dancing with each other (with one assuming the lead role of the ‘man’) as well as chat and gossip with each other. With greater disposable incomes, the post war woman was an attractive demographic to the dance hall industry. Dance halls were welcoming to women regardless of whether they came alone or in groups, with security and safety taken seriously by management. Much like the cinemas, the interiors of dance halls were female friendly with fresh flowers, crisp linen, state of the art lavatories and painted scenes giving the place an atmosphere of sophistication and luxury.

Dancing also provided a platform where women could establish careers as dancers, teachers, musicians, singers and even band leaders. One notable example was Josephine Bradley (1893-1985) who won the World Ballroom Dance championship in 1924 and later opened her own dance school. She also worked with Silvester in codifying ballroom dancing and from the 1930s onwards also had her own dance band whose records sold well.

With dancing providing an avenue for the young and women for self-expression, development of skill and self-confidence, it’s not surprising that dancing and dance hall became the favoured target of critics, who saw them as a byword for immorality, with the most strident criticism reserved for several types of dances deemed to be sinful and vulgar. Despite these criticisms however, dancing’s popularity continued on even into the Second World War then experiencing a sharp decline in the 1950s with changing tastes and demographic patterns: and while there has been a small resurgence due in part to the programme Strictly Come Dancing, dancing has never reached the dizzying heights of its popularity between the two world wars.

 

Further Reading and viewing:

James Walvin. Leisure and Society 1830-1950 (London, 1978)

James Nott. Going to the Palais: A Social and Cultural History of Dancing and Dance Halls in Britain, 1918-1960 (Oxford, 2015)

Stephen G. Jones. Workers at Play (London, 1986)

Victor Silvester. Modern Ballroom Dancing (London, 1927)

Martin Pugh. We Danced All Night: A Social History of Britain Between the Wars (London, 2009)

Andrew Marr. The Making of Modern Britain (London, 2009)

James Nott. ‘Contesting Popular Dancing and Dance Music in Britain during the 1920s’, Cultural and Social History, Vol. 10, No. 3 (2013), pp. 439-456

Len Goodman’s Dance Band Days (BBC4 documentary), first telecast 23 December 2013

Len Goodman’s Dancing Feet: The British Ballroom Story (BBC4 documentary), first telecast 27 December 2012

Dancing Cheek to Cheek: An Intimate History of Dance presented by Len Goodman and Lucy Worsley (BBC4 documentary), first telecast 17 November 2014

http://www.jackhylton.com/

http://tintrunk.blogspot.co.uk/2010/02/santos-casani-forgotten-dance-master.html

The History of the Mailrail

Deep under the streets of London and its snarl of urban traffic is a virtually unknown railway that for 75 years was an artery in Britain’s postal network. Seventy feet below ground, the Post Office railway (more commonly known as the Mail Rail), carried post from Paddington to London sorting offices from 1923 until it was finally abandoned in 2003 due to changing technology. In its heyday, the two-foot, narrow-gauge driverless railway called from Paddington to Mount Pleasant and eight stations along the way, in 26 minutes. The driverless, electric trains trains operated for 22 hours a day every weekday, with the other two hours used for maintenance work on 23 miles of lines, carried 30,000 items a day and ran every five minutes in peak times. The Post Office railway was a unique solution to the problem of transporting mail across an increasingly congested city and was designed solely to move letters and parcels.

Post Office Map

The idea of transporting mail in tubes began many years before the Post Office Railway was even thought of way back in 1853 the first ever mail tube went in to service. Although it was only 225 yards long and only 1.5 inches in diameter and used the equivalent of a giant vacuum cleaner to power the system it did prove very successful. Over the next few years various forms of this system were built and tested, even to the point of carrying passengers.

The Post Office set up a team to look at the possibilities of building a larger system between two of their buildings that was abandoned as too expensive. In 1859 the Pneumatic Dispatch Company was formed and built a tube to carry mail but despite digging several lines they were unsuccessful in persuading the Post Office to use them and the company closed in 1874. In 1899 the London Dispatch Company was formed to rescue some of the abandoned lines but this also proved too costly and that company too was wound up.

However, in the early 1900s the Post Office soon realised the need of some type of system to transport mail between the major central London sorting offices that was not dependent on negotiating increasingly crowded city streets – this was a time when there were several mail deliveries a day and post needed to be moved speedily. In 1908 a team of Post Office engineers visited the Chicago Freight subway system and a similar system in Berlin, Germany. Eventually in 1911 a governmental committee found that as London traffic would never allow for speeds of greater than 6mph, and recommended the construction of an electric railway with driverless trains that could travel at 40mph under the city. After much debate in Parliament the Post Office (London) Railway Bill 1913 received Royal Assent and the contract to build the tunnels was won by John Mowlem and Company.

February 1915 was the start of the construction of the tunnels from a series of shafts dug at points along the route of the line. Most of the line was constructed through the London clay using the Greathead shield system for tunnelling, with a small amount of hand-mining for connecting the tunnels at the stations. Essentially an updated version of an earlier system devised by Marc Isambard Brunel and named after its inventor James Henry Greathead,  it consisted of a sturdy metal tube which allowed workers to burrow at a far deeper level, pushing through London’s clay at an average of 10ft a day and installing the tunnel lining behind them as they went. The shield served as a temporary support structure while the tunnels were being excavated. Before the shield was used the loss of life and the risk of collapse were much higher.

Thanks to the outbreak of World War 1, work on the railways electrical systems was suspended, but work on the tunnels was allowed to continue until completion. During 1917, due to the shortage of labour and materials, Mowlem had to suspend work on the stations. During the later years of the war the tunnels were used to house some of London’s art collections from the Tate Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, British Museum and the Wallace Collection.

Mail Rail Tunnels

It was not until June 1924 that track laying re-started. 1925 saw the installation of the electrical equipment, lifts, conveyors and mail chutes. Progress was slowed, this time by the General Strike, and the electrical installation took a lot longer than expected, leading to exchanges in Parliament in March 1925 and March 1926:

17 March 1925 – Mr S Broad asked the Postmaster-General what is the present position of the work in connection with the Post Office tube railway and when it may be expected to be in full working order; what was the original estimated cost; how much has been expended to date; how much more he estimates will be required for completion; and whether he will urge this work forward with all possible speed, in view of the relief it is hoped will be afforded to London road traffic problems by its operation?

Sir W Mitchell-Thomson – The permanent way is practically completed, and contracts have been placed for the electrical equipment and rolling stock. It is anticipated that the railway will be ready for operation in the latter part of 1926. The sum provided under the Post Office (London)Railway Act 1913 was £1,100,000. The sum expended to date is £1,266,450, and it is estimated that about £310,000 will be required to complete the undertaking. Everything possible will be done to ensure that the railway is brought into operation at the earliest possible date.

23 March 1926 Mr Broad asked the Postmaster-General the present position of the Post Office (London) Tube Railway, when it is expected that it will be available for full service, what was the original estimated cost, and what has been the total cost to date?

Viscount Wolmer – The permanent way has been completed; the bulk of the electrical plant has been manufactured, and its installation is proceeding rapidly. It is anticipated that the railway will be available for traffic in the autumn. The sum provided under the Post Office (London)Railway Act 1913 was £1,100,000; the sum expended to date is £1,411,000.

It was not until February 1927 that the first section, between Paddington and West Central District Office, was available for training. By June 1927 the cost of the railway had risen to £ 1,550,000** and Postmaster-General Sir W Michell Thomson was confidently predicting an opening in three months from that date. October 1927 saw the finishing touches put to the railway, and the line was available for use for the Christmas parcel post. February 1928 saw the first letter post on the system. At one point, there were around 220 workers on the Mail Rail, but by April 2003, when Royal Mail announced its closure, that staff was much reduced to cater for just three stations and the cost of keeping the train going had become more expensive than using road transport.

Train 1935

Mount Pleasant sorting office

Note:

Part of the original Mail Rail is due to re-open in July 2017. Visitors will have an immersive experience -the can take the train journey and explore the railway through 3D interpretation and audio-visual presentations. And there will also be an exhibition space in the former maintenance workshop in the railway.

 

Further Reading:

http://www.railtechnologymagazine.com/Rail-Industry-Focus-/mail-rail-past-present-and-future

 

http://www.mailrail.co.uk/construction.html

 

https://postalmuseum.org/discover/explore-online/postal-history/mail-rail/

 

http://www.londonreconnections.com/2013/reopening-londons-mail-rail/

 

http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/written_answers/1925/mar/17/tube-railway#S5CV0181P0_19250317_CWA_62

 

http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1926/mar/23/london-tube-railway#S5CV0193P0_19260323_HOC_230

 

http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/written_answers/1927/jun/24/post-office-london-railway#S5CV0207P0_19270624_CWA_10

 

** about £ 86,000,000 today

Film Review – Viceroy’s House: Photocopying Downton Abbey

Bloggers’ Note: Although this film falls beyond our time frame, we felt this warranted a review as the Mountbattens were regular fixtures in British newspapers from their wedding in 1922 until their deaths in 1960 and 1979 respectively.

With 2017 marking the 70th anniversary of Indian independence (and the creation of Pakistan as well), the release of Viceroy’s House is perfectly timed, a narration of the road to Indian independence and the birth of two nations. Directed by Gurinder Chadha( best known for Bend it like Beckham), she has partly drawn from her family history for this film. But most of the action is set in the magnificent Edwin Lutyens-designed viceregal palace (now the residence of the President of India) with its massive rooms and grounds which in the words of Edwina Mountbatten in the film, “makes Buckingham Palace look like a bungalow.”

There’s a mention of her grandmother’s experience of being displaced as the boundaries between the two new nations were drawn so it makes me wish that she had brought her grandmother’s story to the big screen as a representative of what happened to millions of families. Instead what we get is a potted history lesson mixed with an upstairs-downstairs narrative that’s pretty much lifted from Downton Abbey. I will go further by saying that Viceroy’s House is a direct photocopy of Downton Abbey.

Viceroy's House poster

The year is 1947 and Britain exhausted by the Second World War is preparing to transfer power in India for 1948. Overseeing this is the new viceroy; Louis (“Dickie”) Viscount Mountbatten of Burma (Hugh Bonneville) accompanied by his wife Edwina (Gillian Anderson) and their younger daughter Pamela (Lily Travers). At the same time, former policeman Jeet Kumar (Manish Dyal) arrives at the palatial viceregal palace to begin his new job as a valet to the new viceroy where he encounters a secretary, Aalia Noor, (Huma Qureshi), who he recognises as the daughter of one of the political prisoners he helped guard. Predictably the two fall in love but Aalia is already promised to another man and as her father reminds her, to marry him is honouring her dying mother’s wish.

Meanwhile Mountbatten is faced with a dilemma, should India remain as one nation or two with India as a Hindu majority (together with the Sikhs) state and Pakistan which would be a Muslim majority country? While he tries to reach a settlement between Jawaharlal Nehru (Tanveer Ghani) and Mohammed Ali Jinnah (Denzil Smith), violence flares across India and in the end, its accepted that partition and bringing the date forward for independence will help ease the violence. A senior judge, Sir Cyril Radcliffe (Simon Callow) is brought into India to determine the borders between the two countries. With a very limited timeframe to do his job, and with the added disadvantage of never having been to India before, Sir Cyril struggles, especially as there are areas where the split between the two faiths is even. He confides this to General Hastings Ismay (Michael Gambon), and he is shown a plan from 1945 that already showed the borders between India and Pakistan. When Mountbatten learns about this, he is shocked to learn that Churchill had authorised this to safeguard supplies of oil and to create a buffer against the Soviets.

Despite this, partition goes ahead and as a result, two nations are born while there is a massive movement of peoples between the two new countries. And what of Jeet and Aalia? Well, there is a sort of happy if slightly implausible ending in the manner of all soap operas. Actually, if I’m going to be honest, it was a jaw-dropping “wait, what? You are using THIS as a dramatic device??” moment, but possibly that’s just me.

As mentioned earlier, watching Viceroy’s House led to me to the conclusion it was a photocopy of Downton Abbey not only with the opening sequence and the upstairs downstairs drama but even with the casting of Hugh Bonneville as Mountbatten. This must have been the worst piece of casting since Dick van Dyke as Bert in Mary Poppins or Sean Connery as Captain Marko Ramius in The Hunt for Red October; Bonneville with his beefy frame is nothing like the lean Mountbatten. Neither does he have the real Mountbatten’s clipped tones, effortless charm and breezy self-assurance. Instead what we see is a man out of his depth, weak and hesitant – much like his Downton Abbey character Lord Grantham. The director doesn’t help this obvious miscasting by ending the film with newsreels of the real life Mountbatten as Viceroy – the contrast is glaring.

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Viceroy's House 3

If Bonneville reprises Robert then Gillian Anderson is Cora (and interestingly was reportedly offered the role before Elizabeth McGovern). She’s convincing as Edwina Mountbatten but her attempts at affecting a cut glass accent sometimes descend into parody. In addition she’s not really given much to do apart from constantly remind her husband of why they’re in India (hello, he’s the last Viceroy entrusted with the task of giving India its independence, I think he might know already), and act as a human United Nations statistics booklet (“Darling do you know that 92 per cent of the population are illiterate?”) in a script that very often recalls Downton Abbey at its expositional finest. And for a film that focuses a lot on real life characters, there is little done to flesh them out as people – who they really are and how their behaviours could have help affect the course of history. Nothing is made of the Mountbattens’ married life especially as they had been living virtually separate lives since the beginning of their marriage or the purported affair between Edwina and Nehru. Even Jinnah’s illness was not mentioned much less alluded to. There’s very little depth of character and sometimes it feels like the script is a taken from school textbook about independence – kept to the basics and shorn of the complexities. A feeling not helped by the almost insultingly brief running time – 106 minutes to explain a process that cost a couple of million lives. (Perhaps that should be “attempt to explain independence.”)

Ironically it’s the servants who are given the better storylines and scenes. They operate as a huge and well-organised team to serve the Mountbattens and while they are doing that they listen to the radio, read the papers and catch snippets of meetings. While they discuss and argue, the cracks between Muslim and Hindu start to show, especially when they have to decide what country they are going to go to after independence. A striking example was the two chefs and the look of anguish on the head chef’s face when he hears his deputy had chosen to become Pakistani is a microcosm of how politics has infiltrated a workplace where people have worked alongside together for years if not decades and have now been torn apart. Gradually we see the cracks widen between Hindu, Sikh and Moslem and degenerate into physical violence in an echo of what is happening outside the residence’s gates. There are also very poignant human touches that bring home the innumerable tiny human tragedies – Jeet’s colleague comes back from their village, where he has found their families dead or missing, but carrying a baby girl, the sole survivor of a massacre. A Hindu woman has picked up a Moslem girl who has escaped the killing of everyone on her train and wants to adopt her, and gets very angry with the official insistence that this is a queue for Hindus, the badly injured girl must go elsewhere. Little touches of humanity in the face of overwhelming disaster.

While Jeet and Aalia’s love story is pretty much standard soap opera fare, individually both characters have potential and yet are undeveloped. Jeet himself has an interesting background – a policeman who spent most of his career arresting and guarding pro-independence activists but whose father was killed by the British: but that’s never explored, and neither is the reason why he has given up his job as a policeman to be a viceregal servant in the dying weeks of the Raj. And what about Aalia? We don’t know much about what she thinks and feels as an individual: the tension between her clearly Westernised education and outlook as opposed to the traditional family demands being made on her is clear but ignored. What’s also omitted is the upper staff who are mainly British save for the major domo who is clearly Indian but is very Westernised, what’s going to happen to them? The major domo has a close working relationship with his immediate superior, the comptroller of the household (who is British) and yet what will happen to both men is a mystery, when actually that would have made a better storyline than what we’ve seen on screen.

Viceroy’s House major weakness however (and again this is where the similarity to Downton Abbey is in the distortion and trivialising of great events) is how the film glosses over Mountbatten’s incompetence and the intransigence of the Indian side. Instead blame is placed on Winston Churchill despite the fact that in 1947 he had been out of power for two years and was in no position to influence events (in fact he did vote in favour of the Indian Independence Bill and urged his party to do the same). This weakness is made worse by historical inaccuracies such as the view that Indians were not ready to govern themselves when in reality they were already native Indians serving as mayors and councillors as elected by their fellow Indians and by the 1930s the Indians were already outnumbering the British in the Indian Civil Service (ICS). The constant bleating about “divide and rule” was also grating and conveniently forgets that “divide and rule” tactics were already used in India long before the British came.

The dialogue is heavily expositional and the narrative is simplistic, it’s all “Oh Jinnah wants Pakistan, what shall we do?” “Look, here’s a plan all handily drawn up in 1945 by Churchill with the borders neatly drawn in but don’t tell Mountbatten. That’ll sort it.” Independence and partition is wrapped up in about 10 minutes with contemporary newreels of massacres, long trails of miserable refugees and the Mountbattens and Nehru looking anguished over what has been unleashed.

The plus side is the visuals. If there’s one thing that this film does really well, it’s capturing the vibrant real-life locations of both the Viceroy of India’s residence and the streets of India. Filmed entirely on location, the grandeur of the main stage is fantastic to look at, whilst the costume design ranges from Mountbatten’s decorated military attire to the colourful uniforms and dress of the Indian servants.

Unfortunately for the success of the film I left the cinema feeling manipulated and that an agenda was at play. The film ends with the information that the director’s family fled the partition, that on the way her grandmother’s baby died of starvation and it was after nearly two years in a refugee camp that her grandparents were re-united. I’m not in the slightest downplaying this dreadful human tragedy, but it was one of millions, and it’s being used to peddle an essentially very selective view of the history that comes from two books – Freedom at Midnight, whose authors had access to the Mountbatten archives and the man himself and veers close to hagiography at some points  and The Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India’s Partition by a former Indian diplomat, Narendra Singh Sarila, who was a junior member of Mountbatten’s staff and who maintains that Churchill was the culprit for the bloodshed of partition.

As Ian Jack points out in a scathing Guardian review, historians have given this short shrift, but the power of film is such that there are going to be millions who take away from this the message that Mountbatten and Nehru were guiltless and that Churchill and Jinnah were the evil geniuses of partition. As Jack points out

Chadha denied the charge of anti-Muslim prejudice – persuasively, I think – but to my mind she and her fellow writers on the film, her American husband, Paul Mayeda Berges, and the English screenwriter Moira Buffini, have committed just as great a sin, which is to take a breathtaking liberty with the historical record.

As he goes on to say The film is unlikely to do very well at the box office. Even so, it will attract a far larger audience than any book on partition, and for many people it will be their only understanding of the subject. As with “fake news”, so with “fake history”. Detecting it needs curiosity – critical rather than passive consumption – otherwise it never gets found out.

And that’s the danger of this film, because film is a much more powerful medium than the written word and misrepresentation can be taken away as gospel truth (as demonstrated by more than enough viewers who think that Downton Abbey accurately represents early 20th century Britain). If people want to learn more about independence and partition, Viceroy’s House isn’t the film I would recommend. Viewers are advised to purchase, rent or borrow DVDs of Richard Attenborough’s film Gandhi (1982) and The Jewel in the Crown (1984), a 14 part drama produced by ITV. Both explore the complexities of Indian society and politics in the dying days of the Raj and the road to independence in a sensitive and historically accurate way that Viceroy’s House has failed to do.

 

Further Reading:

http://www.forgotten-raj.org/doc/viceroy.htm

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4302730/Viceroy-s-House-whitewashes-Lord-Mountbatten.html

Andrew Roberts. Eminent Churchillians (London, 1994)

Alex von Tunzelmann. Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire (London, 2008)

Stanley Wolpert. Nehru: A Tryst with Destiny (Oxford, 1996)