Hannah Mitchell was a self-educated Socialist and suffragette, originally from Derbyshire. In her later years she served on Manchester City Council. Her autobiography, The Hard Way Up, is now seen as a classic account of life by a working class woman.
Hannah Mitchell was born Hannah Webster in 1871, one of six children raised on a remote farm in Alport Dale, Derbyshire. She had just two weeks of formal schooling in her whole life. Her father taught to her to read and she became passionately fond of books, even doing her brothers’ chores in return for being allowed to read the books they brought home from school. Her love of books lasted a lifetime. Hannah was often brutally treated by her mother and finally left home aged just 14, unable to bear it any longer. Many years later she recalled this event in her autobiography The Hard Way Up:
“I tramped over the hill, hardly conscious of the distance, blinded by tears and full of grief at leaving my father and uncle, and the two younger children who were both vey fond of me. I knew now that I must rely on myself. I knew also that I was ill-equipped for the battle of life, uneducated, untrained, what should I find myself capable of doing among more fortunate youth? These were bitter reflections and did not tend to soften my feelings towards my mother, although I felt a faint sense of relief in the knowledge that I was free from her scolding tongue and violent temper. But somewhere on the moorland road I left my childhood behind.”
Hannah was taken in by her brother Will and his wife, finding employment as a maid in a schoolmaster’s house and later as a dressmaker’s assistant, first locally and then in Bolton, where she made evening frocks. All the time she worked hard to improve her handwriting and her reading, making full use of the local library.
Along with her co-workers she attended a public address by the novelist Menie Muriel Dowie as part of a campaign for shorter working hours for shopworkers. It was common then for the women to work six days a week.
Hannah also began reading The Clarion, the Socialist newspaper launched by Robert Blatchford in Manchester in December 1891, and attending Socialist meetings in Bolton where one night she heard a woman speaker.
She was Katherine St John Conway, a:
“slight girlish figure in a black frock with a Medici collar, and her hair swept back from her forehead; she looked as if she belonged to some religious order. Though not much older in years than myself, this girl was already a highly educated, well-trained personality. Perhaps at first I paid more attention to the speaker than her speech, but heard enough to send me away with an inspiration which later sent me out to the street corners with the same message.”
Hannah’s Socialist convictions remained with her the rest of her life. She began courting a fellow Socialist, Gibbon Mitchell, attending meetings of the Labour Church with him, and they married two years later. She wrote:
“Married life as lived by my brothers, sisters and friends, held no great attraction for me, but I wanted a home of my own. Perhaps If I had really understood my own nature, as I came to do later, I should not have married, for I soon realised that married life as men understand it, calls for a degree of self-abnegation which was impossible for me. Probably I should have hesitated, even then, but for the newer ideas which were being propunded by the Socialists. Men and women were talking of marriage as a comradeship, rather than a state where the women was subservent to, and dependent on, the man.”
The couple had just one child at Hannah’s insistence, after a difficult birth. “I soon came to realise that although birth control may not be a perfect solution to social problems, it is the first and the simplest way at present for women to obtain some measure of freedom” she later wrote.
Hannah and her husband spent three years living in a village near Burton-on-Trent where they were active in the Independent Labour Party, attending meetings and putting up speakers, and also in the Clarion movement, helping out the Clarion newspaper’s delivery van when it toured their area.
In 1900 the couple moved to Ashton-under-Lyne where Hannah and Gibbon were active in the ILP and in the Labour Church where Hannah became the lecture Secretary, organising the weekly lectures and putting up the speakers:
“…the Labour Church attracted a type of Socialist who was not satisfied with the stark materialism of the Marxist school, desiring wamth and colour in human lives; not just bread, but bread and roses, too….We had enough imagination to visualize the greater possibility for beauty and culture in a more justly ordered state.”
Hannnah herself gave her first public speech when the Clarion Van came to Bolton and then began to speak at outdoor public meetings and at the Labour Church. To her surprise she was soon in demand as a speaker.
In May 1904 she was elected as a Poor Law Guardian to the board in Ashton-under-Lyne. At the same time she became increasingly involved in the campaign for votes for women that had been started by fellow ILP members Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst in October 1903. Hannah visited their home in Nelson Street and spoke at many meetings around Lancashire. In October 1905 she was amongst the crowd that greeted Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney on their release from Strangeways prison after their arrest during a meeting in the Free Trade Hall. Hannah now committed herself body and soul to the cause of women’s suffrage:
“It seems to me now, looking back, that all my previous life had been a preparation for this geat experience. While indirectly it caused me much sorrow, it brought me many contacts which have immeasurably enriched my life. Through the suffrage movement I have come to know many notable women who honoured me by their friendship and encouragment. Chief amongst these was that fine and gracious woman, Charlotte Despard, who, I am proud to remember, to the end of her long life, always called me her dear friend…”
During the campaign for the 1906 General Election she interrupted a January 9th meeting addressed by Winston Churchill in St John’s School, Deansgate (Churchill was then a Liberal). She wrote of the incident:
“I rose and and displayed my little banner, calling out; “Will the Liberal government give the vote to women?” At once the meeting broke into uproar, shouting “throw her out!” along with less decent suggestions. My banner was snatched from me, and clutching hands tried to pull me over the seat, but I was young then, and strong, and pushing my assailants away. I mounted the seat, held up my second banner, and repeated the question. The chairman seemed unable to do anything, except to make wild gestures of rage… so Mr Churchill himself took a hand. Appealing for order he said “Let the lady come to the platform and tell us what what she wants”. My immediate attackers gave way at once, but I was subjected to so much rough handling on the way, that I must have looked a sorry sight when I reached the platform. The chairman, who seemed entirely to have lost his self-control, seized me roughly by the arm and lierally shook me, until Mr Churchill interposed, saying he would deal with me myself. With his usual forcefulness he induced the meeting to give order and invited to state my case. In spite of my agitation I did so, saying briefly that we wanted the promise of a government measure granting the vote to women, “as it is” or “may be” granted to men.”
A recording of Hannah Mitchell an account of her interruption of Churchill’s meeting can be listened to on the Working Class Movement Library website, here.
Hannah Mitchell and Alice Milne also interrupted a meeting addressed by Lloyd George at Hale. They were kept in the hall until the meeting was over and had to walk seven miles home as the last train had gone.
In the summer of 1906 Hannah was arrested and sent to prison after interrupting a Liberal Party rally at Belle Vue at which John Burns and Winston Churchill were the speakers. However she was released early, much to her annoyance, after her husband paid her fine. The agitation continued and the outdoor meetings became rougher and more dangererous as men tried to attack the women speakers.
In the autumn of 1906 Hannah paid her first visit to London, speaking in a number of parks and taking part in a raid on the lobby of the House of Commons. She went up to Huddersfield to campaign during a by-election and thereafter went on to Oldham, around the North East and elsewhere. During the campaign to elect the independent Socialist Victor Grayson as an MP for Colne Valley, Hannah collapsed with exhaustion and suffered a nervous breakdown. It took her a long time to recover. She was deeply hurt by the fact that the Pankhursts did not show any interest in her illness, not even a letter of sympathy. By contrast Mrs Despard came to visit her, saw Hannah’s doctor and sent money to help with extra food.
There was a split in the WSPU in the autumn of 1907 after Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst abolished its democratic structures. A group of about seventy women, including Teresa Billington-Greig, Charlotte Despard and Elizabeth How-Martyn, left the WSPU and established the Women’s Freedom League. Hannah joined as soon as she was well enough and worked for a short time for the WFL in Scotland in Prime Minister Herbert Asquith’s constituency.
The Mitchells now moved from Ashton to Manchester and joined the local ILP branch. Hannah was soon in demand again as a speaker. In 1914 she attended the Coming of Age conference in Bradford, marking 25 years of the ILP’s existence. Within months Europe was engulfed in a savage war with lasted four years and killed millions.
Despite the popular pro-war jingoism Hannah remained true to her Socialist beliefs and opposed the conflict. She became active in the No Conscription Fellowship and Women’s International League. Her son decided that he could not fight, applied to the Conscientious Objectors Tribunal, and to Hannah’s great relief, was granted exemption.
In 1924 Hannah was elected for Labour to Manchester City Council and remained a member until 1935. She was an active member and particularly enjoyed being on the Libraries Committee because of her love of reading. She was also on the Baths Committee which established public wash houses in working class areas “…a real public service greatly appreciated by women.” After leaving the Council she became a magistrate. She had been working on her autobiography for many years but it was not accepted for publication during her lifetime. After Hannah’s death it was found amongst her papers and finally published in 1968 under the title The Hard Way Up by Faber & Faber, with an introduction by her grandson Geoffrey Mitchell, who had edited the manuscript. It is now considered a classic account of a working class woman’s personal and political emancipation.
Article by Michael Herbert