Sheffield and Women's Suffrage - The Making of a Movement
A journey through the streets of Sheffield - the street you live on or your walk to work - where the campaign for women's suffrage took place,
When you think of the Suffrage Movement, where does your mind take you? Does it take you to the rallies in Hyde Park? To the smashed shop windows of the West End? To the middle class wives and daughters of barristers and politicians? These manifestations of women’s fight for the franchise have been the focal point of the movement for decades. The purpose of this article, however, is to show that when looking into the making of a movement that would change the course of society, politics and history in Britain forever, you need not look further than to the streets of Sheffield.
From Queen Street to High Street, from 1851 to 1912, this article will take you on a journey through the early and essential development of the campaign that took place right here within the hills of Sheffield. Keep reading and you may just find that your everyday life – the street you live on, your local concert hall or your walk to work – is enriched with the history of the female population’s battle for the franchise.
We start the journey of women’s suffrage in Sheffield in 1851, where before Millicent Fawcet and the NUWSS and before Emmeline Pankhusrt and the WSPU, there was Anne Knight, the founder of the Sheffield Women’s Political Association, “the first women’s suffrage organisation in the United Kingdom.” (1)
On the 26th of February 1851 the association held its initial and foundational meeting at the Democratic Temperance Hotel at 33 Queen Street. An “Address to the women of England” encouraged the women of Sheffield to unite and claim their political rights. According to the Sheffield Free Press and Barnsley and Rotherham Advertiser, this constituted “the first manifesto dealing with the suffrage ever formulated by a meeting of women in England” (2).
As this clip from the BBC documentary Suffragettes Forever! The Story of Women and Power encapsulates, the foundation of this association was imperative to the whole campaign; not only was it a pioneering organisation, the first of its kind to ever arise in England, it also passed a resolution in support of the suffrage of adult women and submitted this as a petition to the House of Lords. “The SFPA also received support from all over England and France,” (2) an indication of the great potential and influence of the association, both locally, nationally and beyond.
The Jubilee Monolith, Fargate
While the birth of the suffrage campaign in Sheffield occurred in the 1850s, the movement really started to gain momentum in the 1900s and Sheffield played a huge part in this. From the 1880s through to the Great War, the Jubilee Monolith in Town Hall Square on Fargate had provided a prominent venue for orators to address the citizens of Sheffield and on the 8th July 1906, Emmeline Pankhurst spoke here to a crowd of over 100 people, both men and women. [See Image 2 below]. It is here that she attacked the Liberal Government’s reluctance to give working women the vote and condemned the brutal, oppressive procedures used against campaigning suffragettes.
The WSPU continued to seek the support of the women of Sheffield throughout the movement. In January 1907, they organised a suffrage meeting in Montgomery Hall on Surrey Street. Attended mainly by women, the meeting was addressed by speakers including Teresa Billington who argued that …
“The only people who can save the women are the women themselves. Nobody else on Earth can do the work.”
…And Mary Gawthorpe who claimed:
“You cannot have social reform of any kind unless you take into consideration the fact that women form half of the whole nation.”
During the early 20th century, Sheffield was experiencing a period of large scale unemployment. In October 1908, Adela Pankhurst (the daughter of Emmeline Pankhurst) led a demonstration of women attempting to storm the annual Cutler’s Feast. This was a yearly event attended by successful cutlers and other influential individuals including on this occasion the First Lord of Admiralty. After leading a group of about 800 of the unemployed through Sheffield, Adela Pankhurst attempted to enter Cutler’s Hall disguised as a kitchen maid, but was caught and stopped by the police from going any further. She tried again later on the same evening, but failed for a second time. As an alternative, she made a speech from the Town Hall speaking out about the injustice towards women in society.
Over the years, many meetings held by both suffragettes and the Anti-Suffrage League were held at Cutlers Hall, showing the suffrage campaign was one of great importance and highly impacted on the lives to the people of Sheffield. Both women and men committed to winning the vote for women were clearly willing to give their time and vitality, not only in the upper class areas of London, but all over the UK – especially Sheffield.
From 1912 onwards, Sheffield began to see the commencement of increasing militant activity. This was due to a failed attempt at the latest Women’s suffrage Bill through parliament, which began a nationwide campaign of outrage.
In December 1912, pillar boxes on High Street were blown up in the city centre – clearly the women of Sheffield wanted this to seen by many people, allowing for more publicity and hopefully more support for their cause. This directly shows that suffrage supporters in Sheffield were unsatisfied and infuriated that their peaceful methods had not been successful in gaining emancipation for the female population.
This is important as it shows the large extent of women who were affected by the rejection of their bill in Parliament. The effects of the choices made by the government stretched to all people, of all ages, and no matter what their position in society, whether they supported the campaign or not – because of the increased use of militancy, it was impossible for them to ignore the outcry if the suffrage community.
Again, these acts of vandalism, likely committed by working class Sheffield women, challenge the view that women lower down the social ladder were indifferent towards the alleged injustice proposed by the suffrage campaigners. Clearly, every day working women where so committed they would risk imprisonment and their livelihood to create publicity and make their voices heard.
If, after reading this article, you are still convinced that the franchise was won for the female population by “fussy middle-class damsels… going out with little hammers in their muffs” (4) then the places highlighted in this article should serve as modern-day reminders of the ways in which women fought for their rights, and that their struggles may have been closer to home than you may think.
1) E. H, Milligan. Knight, Anne (1786–1862). In: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).
2) E. Crawford,The Women’s Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide 1866-1928 (London: Routledge, 2003).
3) M. Howell. 2015. [online] Available at: http://members.clothworkers.co.uk [Accessed 3 Dec. 2015].
4) J. R. MacDonald. From a Speech made in London in 1910.
5) Sheffield Women’s History Group, Sheffield Women’s History Walk: A Guide to Local Women’s History (1984)
See also Jill Liddington, Rebel Girls: Their Fight for the Vote (London: Virago, 2006)