Elizabeth Wolstenholme-Elmy: Manchester’s Free Love Advocate and Secular Feminist

As an advocate of ‘free love’, a pacifist and more controversially a secularist, the Victorian feminist Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy did not exactly lead a conventional life. Born in Eccles in 1833 and self-educated, she went on to become a significant pioneer of the British women’s emancipation movement. She was at the heart of almost every Victorian feminist campaign ranging from the demand for better education, the right to vote and the rights of prostitutes to the sensitive issue of marital rape.

Unfortunately, her rather forthright nature as well as the scandal surrounding her pregnancy out of wedlock meant that she was marginalised in official histories. In accounts by the Pankhurst family, she is unfairly portrayed as a bad mother, a scandalous ‘free love’ secularist; her partner Ben Elmy is painted as a cruel and unfaithful man. Maureen Wright, who teaches history at the University of Portsmouth, wanted to challenge that misrepresentation with a more balanced look at Wolstenholme-Elmy’s life.

In her book Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy and the Victorian Feminist Movement – The biography of an insurgent woman, Wright portrays the complex and also contradictory nature of her subject. The book is broken down into eight chapters which chart Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy’s life from her birth to her death at the age of 84 in March 1918 – just days after hearing the good news that women had been granted the right to vote. Arwa Aburawa interviewed Maureen Wright for Manchester Radical History.

Elizabeth Wolstenholme-Elmy was born in Eccles, Salford in December 1833. Can you tell a little about her early experiences and how they help shape her activism around education and universal suffrage?

Maureen Wright: Although born in Eccles, Elizabeth’s father Joseph Wolstenholme was an Independent Methodist Minister and his wife Elizabeth, the daughter of Richard and Mary Clarke of Roe Green, Salford. By the time Miss Wolstenholme was 12 she had lost both her parents. Her mother had died when she was little more than a week old and her father died in 1845. At that time Elizabeth and her brother, Joseph Jnr., became the wards of their maternal Uncle, George Clarke of Worsley. While Joseph Jnr, aged 17, became a student of mathematics at St John’s College, Cambridge, Elizabeth’s two years of secondary education drew to a close when she was just 16, her Uncle having declared that by then she had ‘learnt everything it was necessary for a woman to know’.

But Elizabeth defied her guardian and studied privately, preparing herself to be a governess and, latterly, headmistress of her own girls’ school. She had no desire to remain in the domestic realm. She placed her commitment to feminism from the moment when, acting as a bridesmaid aged 17, she fully realised what marriage meant for women – a “lifelong sentence of pauperism and dependence” with no control over their actions or autonomy over their own bodies.

Elizabeth’s political commitment was to liberal ideals. She was brought up in the environment of the ‘Manchester Radicals’ – namely the group of Quaker-inspired activists gathered around Richard Cobden and John Bright and others who had led the anti-Corn Law movement in the city. She believed wholeheartedly in the rights of the individual. For her, votes for women was a simple matter of women receiving the vote ‘on the same terms as it is, or shall be, granted to men’ – for it must be remembered that, at this time, it was property, not individuality, that enabled men to claim citizenship. When she placed her signature on the petition for women’s suffrage in 1866 Elizabeth was asking not for special treatment for women, but equal treatment or “justice”.

Although Elizabeth Wolstenholme-Elmy was part of a quite a small groups of women emancipators working in the nineteenth century, she never really got much recognition for her work. Why do you think that was?

Two of the earliest significant histories of British women’s suffragism were written by Ray Strachey and E. Sylvia Pankhurst. Strachey’s book, The Cause, (1928) told the story from the point of view of the ‘constitutional’ suffragists – those women who did not support the militancy of the suffragettes of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). Wolstenholme Elmy’s opinion of these activists was not always complimentary as she believed that their commitment to ‘the cause’ was not total. Many were content, she believed, “to give their name” to the movement without engaging sacrificially to its work. Elizabeth’s somewhat scandalous private life caused her to be criticised by many among this more conservative group, and thus she received only a couple of mentions in Strachey’s work.

The other significant book, The Suffragette Movement, (1931) was written by Emmeline Pankhurst’s daughter, Sylvia. While Pankhurst did acknowledge Elizabeth’s significant contribution to the early years of women’s suffragism from the 1860s, she clearly wanted to place her mother and her father (the “Red Doctor”, socialist lawyer Richard Marsden Pankhurst) in the premier roles. Elizabeth was, therefore, marginalised and damned with faint praise as an overworked woman and an ‘instrument in the grasp of progress’ – her small physical frame likened to that of a ‘Jenny Wren’. Subsequent scholars failed to realise her significance to the movement until the 1980s when revisionist scholars began to uncover the extent of her contribution. My biography is the first full-length narrative of Elizabeth’s life, some 30 years after the first call was made for it to be written!

Elizabeth’s early passion was education for women. Tell us a little about how that emerged and the role Manchester played in her development as a campaigner.

When Elizabeth returned to Worsley in 1854 from undertaking two years work as a governess in Bedfordshire it was to inherit a ‘small capital’ on her 21st birthday. Her guardian, who, remember, had advised her against undertaking higher education herself, now suggested that she invest her money in the establishment of a boarding school for middle-class girls. Elizabeth established precisely such a school, at The Grange in Boothstown Road, which catered for between 12-16 teenage pupils. In the spring of 1867 she moved her school to Moody Hall, a substantial Georgian residence in the town of Congleton where she continued in her role of Headmistress for another 4 years. Before her move to Cheshire Elizabeth founded the Manchester Schoolmistresses Association in 1865, and her pupils were among the first to sit the Cambridge Local Examination.

In 1866, Elizabeth had travelled to London to testify before the Royal Commission into Education – known as the Taunton Commission. She was one of the first women in the country to undertake such a role, but did not appear at all daunted at the prospect. If one reads the transcript of her evidence, it’s obvious that her answers were given in a clear and direct manner. As she tells of her work at The Grange, it’s clear too that the curriculum she taught was not one only of female “accomplishments” (such as singing, dancing and drawing) but included political economy, mathematics and other skills thought to be to ‘masculine’ in nature for a girls’ school. Elizabeth sought to fit her girls for not only the world of marriage and motherhood, but for the world of work, and many of them went on to become Headmistresses of schools.

It became increasingly difficult, however, at this time for Elizabeth to continue her career. This was because she was turning against the Christian faith – the teaching of which was, of course, a core element in the Victorian curriculum. The loss of her faith caused Elizabeth deep personal pain and unhappiness and ultimately she couldn’t force herself against her conscience to teach something in which she no longer believed. Thus she abandoned Moody Hall for a new life as the first professional employee of the women’s emancipation movement.

From around 1870, EWE’s role as a feminist took precedence over her vocation in education. What were the major campaigns she worked on and what long-term influence did she have?

Before her move to Congleton, Elizabeth had been active in many areas of female emancipation in Manchester. These included: The Manchester National Society for Women’s Suffrage, the Manchester Branch of the Society for the Employment of Women and the Northern Counties League for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts. She was a founder member of the Married Women’s Property Committee (MWPC), established in the winter of 1867/8 to campaign for the rights of women in marriage. She was to be its Secretary until the passage of the Married Women’s Property Act, 1882. In addition, she was an Executive Committee member of the Ladies’ National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts (LNA) from 1870.

Her paid work however (from 1871-74) was as Secretary of the Vigilance Association for the Defence of Personal Rights (VADPR). She was based in London and she termed her work as being as a ‘scrutinizer’ of parliamentary practice – for which her salary was the princely sum of £300 per annum. So effective a political lobbyist did she prove that MPs gave her a nickname – the ‘parliamentary watch-dog’ – and, upon seeing her tiny figure approaching them along the corridors of power, many of the country’s greatest would quake in fear. Elizabeth’s tenacity shines through here. She was a life-long advocate of “small government”, in which the individual’s personal right to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ should be as free from government intervention as possible.

The ‘New’ Liberalism of the late-nineteenth century, with its increased emphasis on regulating public behaviour through legislation, was anathema to her. Elizabeth worked tirelessly and travelled extensively to promote the organisation’s objective of an equal right to live in a just society. She published copious reports, minutes, pamphlets and articles and Elizabeth continued her labours in other areas. She was, for example, a Committee member of the Central Committee of the National Society of Women’s Suffrage and remained strongly committed to the work of both the LNA and the MWPC. In fact, one begins to wonder how she ever found enough hours in her day!

One radical aspect of Elizabeth WE is that she was secularist and an advocate of ‘free love’. This was quite hard for many of her colleagues to deal with and was particularly problematic when she got pregnant. Was she perceived as too radical in some ways?

It was when Elizabeth was headmistress of Moody Hall School in Congleton she met the man who would become her life-long companion. Benjamin Elmy was from a Suffolk family, he owned three silk-crepe mills in Congleton but his avowed secularism was always a matter of concern for the town’s civic leaders. One of the most divisive issues was the charge that secularists advocated ‘free love’ (living together un-wed), something which undermined the rigid moral structures of mid-Victorian society.

The couple undertook a ‘commitment’ ceremony in the spring of 1874, making solemn vows to one another before witnesses. But when this and Elizabeth’s subsequent pregnancy became known more widely, there was general outrage and condemnation within their circle of friends. Despite her expressed wish that her marriage (with took place under some duress in October 1874 in London) should have no effect upon her work for women, the opposite was true and the couple were forced to retire from public life for a short period. Elizabeth did however continue her Secretary’s role with the MWPC, working ‘underground’ and unacknowledged in the organisation’s reports for another six years – until her ‘rehabilitation’ in 1880.

Those of Elizabeth’s colleagues who knew of her secularism were prepared to turn a ‘blind eye’ to it before her pregnancy – one reason being that they knew her work was exemplary and her shoes would be difficult to fill. However, the immanent arrival of her son Frank proved to be the catalyst that changed attitudes towards her.

Lydia Becker (a close friend and confidante of Elizabeth’s since 1867) demanded at one meeting that the Registers at Kensington be searched to confirm that the October wedding had taken place. Another close friend since 1866, the physically frail Josephine Butler, recorded in a letter from her sickbed that she wished she had ‘never heard of such people as the Elmys’. Millicent Garrett Fawcett, never especially close to Elizabeth, chastised her with the fact that she had brought the women’s movement into disrepute. For Elizabeth the hurt of their rejection of friends was so great that she retired to Congleton for the birth ‘wishing never to be spoken of again’. Obviously, her resolve on this matter did not last long.

Although Elizabeth WE preferred to work outside party politics (apart from her support for the Independent Labour Party), there were political movements and figures which influenced her. Could you talk us through the main players which informed her political consciousness?

Elizabeth believed that party politics ‘ruined work’, as it caused divisions and factionalism where there should be a united desire to improve life for all. The bedrock of this belief, I believe, came from the Quaker influences of her early life. She was a lifelong pacifist, a cause to which she held true even throughout the jingoism of the 1899-1902 Anglo-Boer War. The family refused, in 1902, to join in the celebrations in Congleton Park after peace was restored and although there are no first-hand sources to confirm or deny this, I feel sure Elizabeth’s reaction to the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 would have been one of complete horror.

Though of radical-Liberal heritage, Elizabeth found William E. Gladstone, three times PM of the United Kingdom, a trial. She believed he was the biggest stumbling block to women’s freedom, as he was known to use his veto as Prime Minister to prevent the passage of women’s suffrage bills through parliament. Elizabeth herself became a member of the Manchester Central Branch of the ILP in 1905 but her commitment to socialism in its strictest sense was never total, unlike that of her husband, who she wrote of as being an ‘ardent socialist’ until his death in March 1906.

The truth about Elizabeth’s politics is that she was, first and last, a humanitarian and she was not above using any party-political machinery she could to promote her work. As secretary of the Women’s Emancipation Union from 1891-99 she had as much contact with the labour movement’s Women’s Co-operative Guild and Trades’ Unions as she did with the Conservative’s Primrose Dames, using these and many other organisations to promote feminist views and propaganda.

The decision in 1909 to force feed the militants of the WSPU was seen by Elizabeth as ‘state torture’ – even though she condemned the actions of the women themselves, which grew increasingly more violent after 1912. She berated them for their antics of window smashing, axe throwing and arson for, she wrote, “how could they be certain not to hurt the innocent?” From that moment on (and bear in mind she was almost 80 years old) she continued her campaigning as a ‘non-militant’ – even leading the NUWSS procession into her home town of Congleton in 1913. By now, as an octogenarian, she had earned the respect even of her former critics.

One of the controversial topics which Elizabeth WE spoke about was marital rape- indeed she was the first woman to speak on the issue in a public platform. Why did she feel so strongly about this issue?

Elizabeth’s abhorrence of marital rape became clear in 1880, when she stood on the platform of the London Dialectical Society to declare her desire to see the practice criminalised. Her opposition was in part built on personal reasons and a desire to see a legal inequality quashed.
Wives were often beaten or starved for non-compliance or, as evidence from one notable legal case of 1891 shows, imprisoned against their will. Elizabeth saw the crime of marital rape as one common to women of all classes, and thus a cause of unity. At a moment when even polite society was concerned with the ever-increasing rise in sexually transmitted diseases she found a receptive audience, in some quarters, for her views.

That is not to say her path in this regard was an easy one; far from it, for she found herself apologising to her 1880 audience for speaking, as a woman, on so ‘delicate’ an issue in public. Of all the disadvantages married women faced Elizabeth believed this ‘sex slavery’, as she termed, it to be the worst. For all her efforts, Elizabeth did not see a law passed against it in her lifetime – in fact this did not pass the Statute Book until 1991.

Reading through some of the exchanges and letters of Elizabeth WE it’s clear that whilst she was hard to work with at times, people respected her and her work for the feminist movement deeply. One example of this, is the financial support she received after the death of her husband.

Ben Elmy’s firm was a victim of the textile recession in north-west England in the late-1880s and was sold at a significant loss. After his death, Elizabeth and her son Frank had little more than their house and the £52 a year Frank earned as a local council rate collector. What saved them financially was the assistance of Elizabeth’s colleagues, led by Harriet McIlquham along with Frances Rowe and Louisa Martindale. These women could see beyond the sometimes acerbic exterior to the woman beneath and, to ease her material burdens, established the ‘Grateful Fund’ in the mid-1890s, which provided an income for the Elmys of £1.00 per week. The ‘Grateful Fund’ and, latterly, a Testimonial organised in 1910 by (among others) Lady Constance Lytton and Emmeline Pankhurst, provided for her care in the final years of her life.

Sometimes, as Elizabeth’s letters show, the money kept the family from real poverty – although she only accepted it on the grounds that it let her work continue. The reality is that as many as found Elizabeth difficult found her vulnerable, and they loved her with real devotion and commitment, understanding that she worked from pure, selfless motives. Elizabeth’s significant collections of letters and other documents, which form the documentary base for the biography, are wonderful resources and they tell many times of her gratefulness to her benefactors. Often written late at night, after she had completed a full day of domestic and political work, her letters to Harriet McIlquham are full of love and tender concern.

Also, albeit infrequently, they show what one eminent historian has referred to as ‘bile and vitriol’, spiteful commentaries regarding colleagues who, Elizabeth believes, have fallen from the true, selfless, feminist path. Particular targets of criticism include Florence Fenwick Miller, Ursula Bright (sister-in-law of John Bright), Millicent Garrett Fawcett and the leadership of the NUWSS. It is true that some of these letters can be read as being excessively critical of some of her colleagues, but the context in which she wrote them is important – particularly when she was under severe strain following Ben Elmy’s business failure in 1888. The fact that she was herself working over 50 hours a week in the textile mill to try and save its fortunes, plus her ‘normal’ domestic duties and feminist campaigning, perhaps makes her somewhat harsh style a little more understandable.

What do you think is the key aspect of EWE’s legacy?

Simply, her tenacity. Without her single-mindedness and untiring focus, I wonder just how successful Victorian feminists would have been in changing so many of the laws that repressed women in all circumstances of life. Elizabeth was foremost in campaigns which made it possible, for example, for working women to have a right to their own income; for separated wives to have increased rights of access to their children; and for the campaign for the vote to be rooted not in the possession of property but simply on grounds of individual autonomy. She died having achieving much of what she had set out to do. The parliamentary vote had been granted to women over thirty year of age (and to women University graduates) a mere six days before her death.

As I have written in the conclusion to the book, it is satisfying that she died at a moment of triumph in feminist history but she still would not have been content because the issue of ‘sex slavery’ had still not been resolved. Her true legacy though is that she never stalled in her objectives, no matter how ill or tired, no matter what her age or personal circumstances, she put all thoughts of self aside. Her place in history should be, perhaps, as one of England’s greatest humanitarians.

Title: Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy and the Victorian Feminist Movement – The biography of an insurgent woman
Author: Maureen Wright
Price: £65.00 (hardback)
Published: 2011
Publisher: Manchester University Press
ISBN: 978-0-7190-8109-5

Article by Arwa Aburawa

The Suffragette Attack on Manchester Art Gallery, April 1913

On 3rd April 1913 three suffragettes – Annie Briggs, Evelyn Manesta and Lillian Forrester – attacked a number of pictures in the Manchester Art Gallery as part of the militant campaign for votes for women which by this period had escalated to the use of violent tactics, including mass window-smashing, attacks on politicians, damage to property and arson.

The Manchester Guardian reported the event as follows:

“Just before nine ‘clock last night, when the Manchester Art Gallery was about to close and few people were about, an attendant in a room leading to the big room of the permanent collection heard crackings of glass follow each other rapidly. He immediately rushed into to the big room followed by another attendant, who was nearby. They found three women making a rush around the room, cracking the glass of the biggest and most valuable paintings in the collection. They had already completed their work on the right side of the room going in, where pictures by such great artists as Watts, Leighton, Burne- Jones and Rossetti were hung , and were going around the top of the room. The outrage was quickly and neatly carried through, and when the attendants came running in the women were within reach of two more large pictures – one by Millais, the other by Watts. The attendants at one rushed to arrest them but as there were three to two of the women escaped from the room. The attendants, however, called to the door-keeper and immediately the big doors were closed and the retreat cut off.
The women were quietly kept within closed door while the Town Hall were informed. The Chief Constable and a superintendent at once went across and took the women to the Town Hall. There they questioned them and, after charging them, allowed them out on bail until this morning, when they will appear before the stipendiary magistrate.”

The pictures damaged were
— The Last Watch of Hero – Leighton
— Captive Andromache – Leighton
— The Prayer – Watts
— Paola and Francesca – Watts
— The Hon J L Motley – Watts
— Astarte Syriaca- Rossetti
— The Flood – Millais
— Sybilla Delphica – Burne-Jones
— The Flood- Millais
— Birnam Woods – Millais
— The Last of the Garrison – Briton-Miliere
— The Golden Apples of Spring – Strudwick
— The Syrinx – Arthur Hacker
— The Shadow of the Cross – Holman Hunt

The women appeared at the magistrates’ court charged under the Malicious Damage Act and were bailed to appear for trial later that month. Lillian Forrester made a statement stating that “we broke the glass of some pictures as a protest but we did not intend to damage the pictures”. They had supporters in the gallery who unfurled a “Votes for Women” banner.

The attack was part of a wave of protests across the country against the sentence passed on Mrs Pankhurst on 3rd April at the Old Bailey. She was sentenced to three years in prison for “inciting persons unknown” to burn down building. As well as the attack on the paintings some eleven post boxes in Manchester were attacked with black liquid which damaged 250 letters.

Other “outrages”, as the press called them, included:
– The blowing up of a carriage on an empty train at Adswood, Stockport
– An explosion at the railway station at Oxted, Surrey
– The destruction by fire of an unoccupied house in Hertfordshire.

The women’s trial took place on 22nd April at the Manchester Assizes. The accused were stated to be members of the WSPU and were charged with “unlawfully and maliciously damaging” thirteen pictures in the gallery. Annie Briggs was 48 and a housekeeper, Lillian Forrester was 33 and married (her occupation was not given) and Evelyn Manesta was 25 and a governess.

Evidence was given by the police and the art gallery staff. It was stated that the cost of repairing the glass was £85 and repairing two of the canvasses was £25.

The three women did not deny the charges and did not therefore enter the witness box but chose to make speeches to the jury.

Annie Briggs said that she was not guilty of the charges brought against her. “I gave my comrades my fullest support but in no way aided them. Our women take their course on their own deliberate responsibility. This is not a personal but a world question.” She added that women had to protest against things which were intolerable to them. If she were sentenced she would feel she was sentenced because she was a member of the WSPU.

Lillian Forrester made a long speech, beginning by saying she did not stand there as a malicious person but as patriot. She thought motive was taken into account in the actions of all lawbreakers. She was political offender and the fact of being a political offender had led to the imprisonment only in the First Division in such cases of the late Mr W T Stead and Mr Jameson, who was responsible for a raid that caused the loss of life. Motive in those cases had been taken into account. She would make a stirring appeal to the jury to bring in a verdict of not guilty. If it was desired to inflict punishment they had already been punished by appearing before the courts three times and going through the present ordeal. Such a decision would redound to the credit of Manchester where the present movement had begun. She praised Mrs Pankhurst and said that after the sentence on her she had thought that Manchester should make some protest and she had considered whether she and other should speak in Albert Square. She added that her husband approved of what she did . She had a degree in history and her knowledge of history had spurred to this fight for women’s freedom.

Evelyn Manesta referred to women in the streets and said that the laws applying to men and women were unequal, particularly the divorce laws. She said that she was a political offender.
In his summing up the judge said that the jury should be impartial and not decide because they agreed or disagreed with their views. They had to administer the law and the jury had to say that they were satisfied on the evidence that the prosecution had proved the guilt of these ladies.

After a brief retirement the jury acquitted Annie and convicted Lillian and Evelyn. Lillian was sentenced to three months imprisonment and Evelyn to one month. The judge stated that if the law would allow he would send them round the world in sailing ship as the best thing for them.

Manchester suffragettes wrote to the Chief Constable, Mr Peacock, asking for permission to hold a demonstration in Stevenson Square on Sunday 4th May followed by a procession to Strangeways in protest at the raid on WSPU head-quarters in London and also at the sentences on Lillian and Evelyn. The Manchester Guardian reported that the WSPU had received a letter from the prison governor stating that as the two women were refusing to do any prison work, they would not be allowed to receive any letters or visitors and would not be receive any remission of sentence.

Mrs Pankhurst was released on special licence after 10 days and taken to a nursing home because she had refused to eat. She was not forcibly fed as had happened to many other suffragette prisoners. The government was perhaps fearful of the consequences.

Many years later there was a postscript to the Manchester story. In 2003 Home Office files revealed that in September 1913 the Home Office had ordered that photographs of all the suffragette prisoners be secretly taken without their knowledge. This was done because many of the women had refused to have their pictures taken. The files include a disturbing picture of Evelyn Manesta taken in prison. She has the arm of a prison warder around her to hold her still. The picture was used in a wanted poster of Manesta circulated by Scotland Yard but on publication the image had been doctored to hide the arm.

Article by Michael Herbert

Contraceptives, Clinics and Working Class Women: Salford & Manchester Mothers’ Clinic

In 1926, the second birth control clinic outside of London opened its doors to women seeking free family planning advice. Located in the impoverished Greengate area of Salford, the clinic provided birth control information to working class women who weren’t able to pay for private advice from a doctor. The controversial clinic faced opposition from the Catholic Church and the medical profession but fought on and continued to offer its services to women until birth control advice was widely and freely available in the 1970s.

Unlike the suffragettes’ attention-grabbing campaigns to secure women’s rights to vote, the local-level and grinding work of women who worked to improve women’s right to birth control in the 1920s and 30s has gone somewhat unnoticed. Whilst they never marched on parliament, they worked day-in, day-out, through blitz, blackouts and at personal risk, to provide women with the knowledge to exercise control over their own bodies. For many of the women, providing birth control was an important factor for the improvements in women’s health and also the emancipation of women who had previously relied on men to limit the size of their family.

At the turn of the 19th/20th century, birth control was a very controversial issue to discuss in public although in private, many middle/upper-class women had access to such family planning information through their doctors. As such, it was working class women who couldn’t afford to pay for a private doctor who were denied birth control information and who were at the centre of the campaigns for free birth control advice. As Dr Clare Debenham, who has written a thesis entitled ‘Grassroots feminism: a study of the campaign of the Society for the Provision of Birth Control Clinics, 1924-1938’ which forms the basis of this article, points out, many middle class women felt guilty about this inequality and went on to argue that all women should enjoy control over their own bodies no matter their place in society.

Contraception as Emancipation

The birth controller saw contraception as a form of emancipation for women and the clinics therefore focused on empowering the women by giving them the information, rather than men which was the normal practice at the time. “The clinics were really into female contraception and wanted to give the control to the women rather than having to rely on the men,” explains Clare Debenham. The shocking rate of maternal death also focused women’s minds on the more sinister aspects of withholding birth control information. Between 1911 and 1930, maternal death was second only to tuberculosis as a major cause of death amongst married women, and based on the death rate it was argued giving birth was more dangerous than working in the mines.

In 1924, the Society for the Provision of Birth Control Clinics (SPBCC) was established to campaign for municipal birth control clinics that were free and easily accessible to working class women. In the mean time, voluntary clinics were set up across the country to bridge the gap until their goals were realised. Although the SPBCC and many birth controllers have been overshadowed in the history books by the flamboyant Marie Stopes of Married Love fame, the society was able to set up clinics across the country and provide women with birth control advice.

The SPBCC was also more autonomous and a lot less autocratic and confrontational when compared with Marie Stopes’ clinics. “A lot of the women involved in the birth control clinics, unlike say Marie Stopes, just worked hard with little drama. There was no dramatics,” says Debenham. “If someone had got thrown into jail than maybe we’d know more about it but it was all very low key.”

Manchester & Salford Mothers’ Clinic Opens in 1926

In 1926, the Manchester & Salford Mother Clinic located in Greengate opened and was run by Mary Stocks, Charis Frankenburg and Flora Blumberg. Mary Stocks was a Fabian who saw birth control as strongly linked to a women’s right to self-determination and she also campaigned for the removal of the marriage bar for female teachers in Manchester. Charis Frankenburg, a former midwife, was a Jewish Conservative whose respectable family ran a factory in the area. Flora Blumberg was also a Conservative, which was unusual as most of the support for birth control came from Labour supporters. Even so, motherhood was an inevitable aspect of many women’s experiences at the time so it was an important issue which united many women across political and class divisions.

As Debenham points out, “It was quite odd that there was such Conservative support as most of the people at the clinics would have been Labour supporters but there was a lot of diverse people involved in the birth control issue. I mean Mary Stocks was a Liberal, Charis Frankenburg was a Conservative and the receptionist at the clinic was a Communist! Of course there were occasions when people disagreed but on the local level there really was a cross-section of people involved.”

The clinic was ideally located above a pie-shop which provided an ideal cover for women who wanted to be discreet about their visit to the centre. The clinic was part of the Society for the Promotion of Birth Control and was rather successful – Charis Frankenburg calculated that in their first eight years they had seen over three thousand two hundred patients. In fact, gynaecologist Sir John Peel calculated that by the end of 1927 nine SPBCC birth control clinics had collectively seen 23,000 patients.

Local feminist councillors such as Shena Simon (Liberal) and Cllr Annie Lee (Labour) supported the clinic and there was significant support from the Women’s Co-op Guild, which was made up of a lot of working class women. For example, Mrs Hescott who was the secretary of the Manchester branch of the Women’s Co-op Guild was also a founding member of the clinic. In fact, the WCG overwhelmingly passed a resolution during the 1923 Annual Congress supporting the dissemination of birth control information, making it the first women’s organisation and the first working class organisation to formally support birth control.

“Cursed, Distrusted and Despised”

The clinic in Salford did, however, attract some opposition. As Clare Debenham has written, according to Mary Stocks, the birth controllers were “cursed by the Roman Catholic Church, distrusted by the Church of England and ignored by the medical profession.” In Salford, the clinic faced opposition from the local Catholic church which saw the clinic as a direct challenge to its authority. Dr Henshaw who was enthroned as Bishop in 1925 was quick to denounce the clinic and its methods in the Catholic press: “Horrible things, strange filthy things… The powers of evil have refined their methods and unsavoury subjects are clothed with scientific names… one of these centres had been opened up not far from the Cathedral.” (Article reproduced in the Manchester Guardian (22.3.1926) from the Catholic Federalist cited in Debenham, 2010, p125).

The following month Henshaw was quoted using equally colourful language about the clinic’s methods: ‘Birth control, an abomination in Catholic eyes is infinitely worse than the unnatural vices of Sodom and Gomorrah. Filthy knowledge is not less filthy because it is imparted in a “clinic”, or “centre” (Evening Chronicle (10.4.1926) cited in Debenham, 2010, p125).’

Furthermore, despite the initial support of the Women’s Guild after 1923, “the Guild leadership took no significant initiative on family endowment, birth control, or any other issues of concern to working class women that did not have prior approval of the Labour Party.” (cited in Debenham, 2010, p170). Some feminists were also opposed the birth control campaigns which they saw as a distraction to their cause and felt that talk about such matter involving sexual relations was not respectable.

The backing from the Labour party which the movement had expected or thought it would get also didn’t materialise. “Because it was a controversial topic, many regarded it as a vote loser and so didn’t they didn’t really give it any public support,” explains Debenham. “A lot of the Labour MPs relied on Catholic voters and so they were worried that showing support for birth control would lose them the Catholic vote.”

Legislation and the Future of Birth Control

Legislation was passed in 1930 in the form of a memorandum 153/MCW which allowed birth control advice to be transmitted to women via municipal clinics on the grounds of health. However, the birth controllers quickly realised that this memorandum was quite restrictive (and wasn’t mandatory) and so many continued to keep open their practices to serve women who were not accounted for under the new legislation.

Very few local authorities were willing to take on board the new legislation and by 1931, only 36 authorities had taken advantage of the provisions of the Memorandum. As Debenham states: “If the municipal clinics in 1930 were made compulsory than it would haven been job done for the birth controllers but the fact was that there were only voluntary and a lot of councils didn’t do a single thing to improve birth control after the bill was passed.”

By 1939, only 84 local authorities had taken any action to establish municipal birth control clinics – in other words, two thirds of all local authorities had taken no action at all. In contrast by 1939, the number of voluntary clinics had grown to 66 and so to some extent they were making up for the lack of progress by the local authorities. For example, the success of the Salford clinic meant that in 1933 it had to move to larger premises in Manchester. “I initially thought that after the legislation was passed that it would be the end of the birth control clinic but in fact many carried on and it wasn’t really until 1972 that the work of the clinics was taken on by the department. So until that time it was up to the voluntary sector to provide the service to the women…” remarked Debenham.

It took a long time for attitudes towards contraception and birth control to move on from connotations of being associated with dirty magazines to something which all couples had to deal with and it wasn’t until 1972 that birth control provision became part of the NHS. The early birth control clinics of 1920s and 1930 no doubt played an important role in making birth control more respectable and also bringing the debate into the public sphere. As Debenham declares, “It was local action empowering local people – what the women working in those early birth control clinics did really does deserve a lot more recognition.”

Article by Arwa Aburawa

The Clarion Movement

The Clarion newspaper was the most influential Socialist newspaper ever published in Britain, creating thousands of Socialists and inspiring a whole social movement. The movement was divided by the First World War and never recovered.

The first issue of The Clarion was published on 12 December 1891. The offices were in City Buildings, Corporation Street, Manchester, although the paper moved to Fleet Street in 1895. (The building still stands unoccupied and derelict opposite the Co-operative Bank). The Clarion was founded by Robert Blatchford.

Blatchford was born in Maidstone in 1851. He came from a theatrical family, his father John being a comedian and his mother Georgina an actress. He had little schooling and was largely self-educated, spending his time reading during regular bouts of childhood illness. The family eventually settled in Halifax where Robert was apprenticed as a brushmaker. He did not go into the trade, leaving the town in 1871 and joining the army where he rose to the rank of Sergeant Major.

After leaving the army he got a job as a storeman with the Weaver Navigation Company in Northwich and began writing short stories in his spare time. This led to him writing a column for a newspaper in Leeds and then into full-time journalism, first in London and then in Manchester where he worked for Edward Hulton, writing for the Sunday Chronicle under the pen-name Nunquam (Nunquam Dormio – I do not sleep.) His salary was now an astonishing £1,000 a year.

Increasingly he wrote about slum conditions in Manchester and was taken around some of the worst cellars in Hulme and Ancoats by a local Socialist, Joe Waddington. Blatchford finally became a Socialist after reading What is Socialism, written by Henry Hyndman and William Morris. Blatchford was not a theoretician but came to Socialism because he saw it as a practical solution to the poverty and misery he had personally witnessed. He later wrote:

“I have never read a page of Marx. I got the idea of collective ownership from H.M. Hyndman; the rest of my Socialism I thought out myself. English Socialism is not German: it is English. English Socialism is not Marxian; It is humanitarian. It does not depend upon any theory of “economic justice” but upon humanity and common sense.”

Hulton would not let him write about Socialism in the Morning Chronicle so Blatchford walked out of his job and set up The Clarion, along with his brother Montague, Alex Thompson, Edward Fay and Robert Suthers. It was a huge gamble but fortunately for them many of Blatchford’s readers followed him to the new venture and The Clarion soon became a welcome weekly visitor to thousands of households and attracted a fierce loyalty from its readers. The Clarion was never a dry-as-dust theoretical journal, but a jovial mix of news, comment, short stories, songs and poetry.

Blatchford and The Clarion made Socialists. As George R Taylor put it in his book Leaders Of Socialism, Past and Present, published in 1910,

“…..Robert Blatchford…..can manufacture Socialist more quickly then anyone else. Tipton Limited sells more tea than any other firm, Lever sells more soap; one factory makes more boots; another most chairs. Mr Blatchford and The Clarion make more Socialists than any rival establishment.”

Blatchford’s pamphlet Merrie England: a Series of Letters on the Labour Problem, based on articles originally published in The Clarion, appeared in 1893, priced at a shilling. The first run of 25,000 sold out and it was then reprinted, the price lowered at penny and sold by the hundreds of thousands. It was addressed to “John Smith of Oldham, a hard-headed workman fond of facts” and set out practical reasons why Socialism was necessary, ending by presenting readers with a stark choice:

“This question of Socialism is the most important and imperative question of the age. It will divide, is now dividing, society into two camps. In which camp will you elect to stand? On the one side there are individualism and competition –leading to a “great trade” and great miseries. On the other side is justice, without which can come no good, from which can come no evil. On the one hand are ranged all the sages, all the saints, all the martyrs, all the noble manhood and pure womanhood of the world; on the other hand are the tyrant, the robber, the manslayer, the libertine, the usurer, the slave-driver, the drunkard, and the sweater. Choose your party, then, my friend, and let us get to the fighting.”

The Clarion supported the three year strike in the slate mines at Bethesda in Wales by raising money for the strikers. Its readers now set up a social network of societies, including the Clarion Cycling Club (which is still going), Vocal Unions, Clarion Fellowship, Clarion Handicraft Clubs, Clarion Scouts, Rambling Clubs and Cinderella Clubs (which arranged events for children). In 1908 the Clarion Café was opened at 50a Market Street; this lasted until the 1930s.

The Clarion Cycling Club began one evening in February 1894 when Tom Groom and five others men held a meeting in the Labour Church in Birmingham and decided to set up a Socialist Cycling Club. Their first tour was at the Easter weekend and was later written up for The Clarion, in which Tom Groom described how they left Wolverhampton on a damp morning and cycled around Worcestershire, enjoying the pleasure of the countryside – and its pubs!

“Suddenly the first man rang his bell, and discounted, the others following suit. The first man spake not, but pointed with trembling delight to where they sold the Clarion…..We all marched in, in order, purchased our Clarions and then, as solemnly walked out, mounted our machines, and then proceeded on our way as men who had had glimpses of higher things.”

Tom concluded his report, “We had spent as grand a holiday as possible. Ah-h! It was glorious! Say no man lives until he has been on tour with the Clarion CC. Till then he but exists.”

His report inspired others to set up their own Clarion Cycling Clubs and in 1895 over one hundred cyclists met up at Easter in Ashbourne for the first annual meet, a tradition that still continues. There were rides out, songs and drinking in the George & Dragon. As the cycling clubs grew Clarion clubhouses were set up to allow the cyclists to get away for a cheap weekend in the country. The first was a caravan set up over the summer of 1895 at Tabley Brook, near Knutsford, by two Manchester CCC members Charlie Reekie and J S Sutcliffe. A permanent Clubhouse in an old house was opened in June 1897 at Bucklow Hill, leased from a farmer for 5 years. This was followed an old farmhouse in Handforth which ran from 1903 to 1936. Collin Coates later wrote:

“To be able to wheel out on a Saturday or Sunday after the week’s toil and moil in the dingy office, the stuffy warehouse, the reeking slum, the enervating mill, workshop or mine – to one’s own house…..which was the rendezvous of kindred soul bubbling over with the spirit of the newly–found fellowship, was indeed taste of the joys to be had in the ‘days-a-coming’.”

Other Clubhouses were set up in Wharfedale, Halewood, the Ribble Valley, the Midlands and Essex. One Clarion House survives near Nelson-on-Colne, opened in 1912 by Nelson ILP. It welcomes visitors, walkers and cyclists still.

The Clarion had a women’s column almost from the start, written firstly by Eleanor Keeling and then from October 1895 by Julia Dawson. In February 1896 Julia told her readers that she wanted to organise a Clarion Van tour over the summer. A horse-drawn van had already been offered and would be sent out on the road with two or three women on board, stopping in towns and villages to hold meetings and distribute Socialist literature. She appealed for women to come forward as speakers and for donations to fund the venture. These appeals were successful and in June the Van set off from Liverpool. The speakers on the first tour included Caroline Martyn, Ada Nield and Sarah Reddish. The Van toured Cheshire and Staffordshire and then went north, finishing up on Tyneside after fifteen weeks’ hard campaigning. On the way the women had addressed thousands of people. It was judged a great success and repeated in following years. By 1907 the number of Vans had risen to six.

The Clarion movement was fractured in 1914 when Robert Blatchford supported the war. He had already incensed many of readers in 1899 when he supported the Boer war. He had also supported calls for a stronger navy and army and had written articles in the Daily Mail about the “German Menace.” Now with war a reality he turned on his former comrades, some of whom were imprisoned for their conscientious objection to the slaughter.

Collin Coates later reflected that:

“We could not equate Socialism, as we had understood it, with the organised killing of others of our own class. This attitude aroused Blatchford to a pitch of patriotic fervour which caused him to abuse and vilify such of us as had failed to drop our Socialism for a narrow nationalism.”

The paper struggled on after the war but it was never the same. The Labour Party was now a growing force electorally, prepared to enter government on a pragmatic basis, whilst on its left the newly formed Communist party was attracting young idealists. The paper became monthly in 1927 and finally disappeared in 1934, its heyday long past. Blatchford himself died in 1943 and now slept.

Article by Michael Herbert.

Resources and further reading

Clarion House
Clarion Cycling Club

Clarion archives, pamphlets and books, Working Class Movement Library

Roger Brown and Stan Iveson, Clarion House, a monument to a Movement

Chris Clegg, “Nelson ILP Clarion House: a remarkable survivor”, North West Labour History Journal, No 30

Michael Nally, “The Dear Old Perisher: the Clarion Newspaper 1891-1935”, North West Labour History Journal, No 17

Richard Povall, “Pedal Power” text of his play about the National Clarion Cycling Club), North West Labour History Journal, No 29

Denis Pye , “Fellowship Is Life: the Bolton Clarion Cycling Club and the Clarion Movement 1896-1914”, North West Labour History Journal, No 10

Denis Pye, “Charlie Reekie’s Dream, the story of the Manchester Clarion Clubhouses 1897-1951”, North West Labour History Journal, No 17

Denis Pye, Socialism, Fellowship and Food, the Manchester Clarion Café 1908-1936, North West Labour History Journal, No 21

Denis Pye, Fellowship is Life: the story of the Clarion Cycling Club (1995) (still available from the author, 34 Temple Road, Halliwell, Bolton BL1 3LT. £4.95 p&p. Cheques payable to Clarion Publishing)

Nikki Salmon, “Bold Memories of ’84. Bolton Clarion’s ride round the Lancashire Pits, December 8th 1984”, North West Labour History Journal, No 11

Leonard Tilsley – Stalybridge’s noted socialist councillor and World War One Mutineer and Gertie Tilsley – feminist and community activist

In this article, Leonard and Gertie Tilsley are recollected by their grand-daughter Lesley Wade, interviewed by Aidan Jolly:

Leonard & Gertrude Tilsley, 1921


“My name is Lesley Wade, I’m a Lecturer in the School of Nursing at Manchester University. My grandparents were Mr and Mrs Tilsley: they lived at 99 Ridge Hill Lane and had lived there since approximately 1923. They lived with my granddad’s father Ellis Tilsley and Ellis and Leonard were notable Aldermen of Stalybridge and ultimately my grandfather became Mayor of Stalybridge in 1956. I spent many evenings and many holidays with these two charming people and of course in doing so they did reflect about the house they lived in, the nice new Hague estate and the people they’d met and the sort of conditions of Ridge Hill and they looked at it with optimism.

He was a noted Socialist Councillor and that was part of his philosophy as a very young man. My grandmother was a Manx woman, she came from quite a big farm had a very tragic life because her mother died when she was 13: she brought up 5 children. Leonard went to Coneyman’s Camp on the island, on holiday, and they were introduced by her cousin as they walked along the prom in Douglas. He went to the First World War and they wrote beautiful letters to each other for at least 6 or 7 years, and the first thing he did when he came out away from Cyprus was to get a new pair of clothes, go with Ellis Tilsley’s father and go and marry Gertie Kennaugh.

My grandparents were very much average working class people who were Socialists and they insisted about education, education, education: so that my grandmother had insisted, unusually for that time, that her daughter would also get, if she wished, to go to the grammar school. If she was able, they would make sure she went, so they sacrificed a great deal for both of them. There was nothing in the house of real value except books, I remember that even in 1962, 63, but everything was valued regarding education so of course my mother had done very well at what was called the Nursing School then, and she’d said she was determined she wasn’t going to give up her profession. She became the Assistant Director of Nurse Education at Ashton-under-Lyne Hospital.

I remember I was even then able to distinguish that my parents’ house in Denton was quite a modern house with all relatively modern amenities but my grandparents’ house had stayed as though the Second World War had just not even finished. There was little money in the house because my grandfather was a committed Socialist, he was a grocer and he had quite a few shops in Stalybridge. Castle Hall was one of his first shops and ultimately he had the grocers shop in Hanover Street and then in Melbourne Street as well, so he was well known in Stalybridge and he was the manager of the Co-op in that part of Stalybridge. Everybody in Stalybridge knew them that was quite amazing. Just one reflection is that if we had to go in to town, which we did every Thursday and Friday, you had to dress up. I used to polish my granddad’s boots and I loved it because I loved them but Rosie and I (that’s my sister) used to raise our eyebrows because they wouldn’t have got outside the door without people coming to talk to us and ask Leonard about problems, what could we do, could we help them and it was like a procession into Stalybridge. He’d be very nice and directing people, and he’d retired by then, but we’d always end up in the Stalybridge Reporter office. I don’t know why, we always did that and with one of the chief reporters and I think he’d sometimes ask Leonard what he thought about different things. It was great for me because I’d be sitting there as a young girl about 6 or 7 or 8 but it was quite a learning experience I suppose.

Leonard was quite left wing and had said after the First World War he had contemplated going into the Communist Party and then he thought he’d go into the Salvation Army, he was very annoyed and disturbed by things he’d seen. He wasn’t in France he was in Palestine and Basra but he was very annoyed at the class differences. I’ve just read his war record and amusingly it says something like ‘memory very intelligent, writing very intelligent’ and at the bottom it says ‘very intelligent for a working class man’. It was signed by this Lieutenant; whoever was his Officer – he said he actually got on very well with his Officer. The reason was because the troops that were sent to Palestine obviously thought, at the Armistice, that they were going to go home in 1918. As they got on the boat, the boat went left not right. Leonard, who was probably a spokesperson politely asked his Officer excuse me sir why we’ve turned the wrong way, he said ‘because you my boy are going to Cyprus’. He said ‘the new treaty has changed and we’re occupying Cyprus for 2 years’. They got to Cyprus and there’s two things about Cyprus, Grandfather said it was absolutely beautiful and for a boy from Stalybridge in the north of England to be taken to a Greek island like that, if you had some imagination, it was great. But after 2 years they got a bit annoyed and one day they rebelled and they threw their arms down: I only realised that you could do this after I watched ‘The Monocled Mutineer’. They went out on parade and they just put their arms down and said ‘we’re not continuing’. Leonard thought ‘God we’ve really done it now’, I think there were 3 men, Leonard was one of them, and the Officer in charge took them into the office and he listened to them, and he said ‘why did you do that’. Leonard said ‘well we’ve been here 2 years we want to go home and we want to marry our sweethearts’ and the Officer said ‘indeed and so do I so we’ll say nothing of this matter’. So he was lucky.

If you asked me was my grandmother Socialist, I’d say no she was Liberal, but I also suspect that my grandmother was very keenly an early feminist. She was a Manx woman and as you know the Isle of Man had given the vote to females in 1867. She was an educated woman: my grandmother was the real educator, tremendous reader, very quiet lady and she didn’t socialise outside the house except as the Mayoress. She really kept herself to herself, but she used to make some key points to me. ‘Never forget, never forget Churchill wouldn’t give us the vote, he promised he’d give us the vote and he didn’t and it was only until 1928 that people of England could vote’ she says and that was the most shocking thing when she came to Lancashire, was the fact that she felt really annoyed that she couldn’t vote.

They were very much within a working class culture: the free libraries, Stalybridge Library, was the big boon to them – they used to use the library an awful lot. They were stalwarts of the community: to some extent it was a hard act to follow, and I suppose as my mother said, particularly Gertie was quite Victorian in a way but now reflecting on it I’d say Victorian in a good sense. Of course she was very strict but in the sense that there was an expectation of what you did and you just did not misbehave in any way your voice was never raised, there was never any swearing ever in the house and it was a very genteel atmosphere to be brought up in.

I felt I was growing up in a household where you could ask questions. Every evening in 99 in the parlour, Leonard would have these grey envelopes and they were always from Stalybridge Town Hall and Chester, because he used to go to Chester a lot (that was the centre of administration for Stalybridge) and he’d be working till 11 at night on the papers, never paid for anything but worked till eleven at night, until he was about 70.

My nan said that the new houses on Ridgehill were much better than the terraced houses lower down in Stalybridge and the Brushes estate. They were very optimistic about what socialism could do, but I’m not too sure that at the end of his life granddad was actually as optimistic, because he once sat down with me, bought me a book on the TUC, and said ‘we’ve gone all wrong Lesley, all gone wrong’.

I think both my grandparents and my parents maybe, but particularly my grandparents, they actually lived for the future and they were optimists. The old days were not halcyon days, they were difficult days for people to operate as in a humane way. My granddad died in the early 70’s, Nan lived till she was 94, very articulate still, and she said ‘my God’, when I was doing my A-Levels, she came and collected me, and we walked down into Stalybridge, she said ‘this town has been ripped apart, it used to be so wonderful, the Library, the shops were nice, the streets were lovely’, she said ‘there’s nothing, nothing here’, and that was again the late 70s, early 70s, and that was one thing, the actual decay, the loss of civic pride, very very important to them.”

Aidan Jolly adds:

This story inspired me to write this song, which focusses on Leonard’s WW1 experiences. It’s sung to an adapted version of a Cheshire tune called ‘The Rambling Royal’. This tune also tells the story of a man who deserts (several times) rather than fight other people’s wars – notably, he refuses to go and fight in Ireland. Its roots are in an 18th Century Ballad called ‘The Bold Belfast Shoemaker’. It’s unusual in that it takes the side of a deserter rather than a recruited man, and also in that the soldier’s girlfriend encourages him to desert and shelters him, rather than encouraging him to join up. I’m grateful to my friend Roy Clinging (www.royclinging.com) for the use of his research.

The allusion to Tipperary is there because the song ‘It’s A Long Way To Tipperary’, which became a soldiers’ song of WW1, was written by Stalybridge Music Hall Artist Jack Judge in 1912.

Leonard Tilsley
My name is Leonard Tilsley
I’ve a shop in Melbourne Street
My sweetheart’s Gertie Kennaugh
Who in Douglas I did meet
Now I’m called to do my duty
Not for me the Wipers mud
I’m to stand upon the Holy Land
And baptise it with my blood

We fought the Turk in Basra
Advanced the British Line
Left Mr Lawrence and the League
To settle Palestine
I wrote a letter to my sweetheart
Said “We’re on a steamer back”
But Aphrodite’s Isle was calling us
The ship began to tack

Chorus:
And it’s a way to Tipperary
And it’s even further home
And a man gets tired of putting up
When he’s weary to the bone
So I asked too many questions
And refused to let things stand
And they marked my card as
“Intelligent, for a working class man”

So I put it to my officer
As on deck he took the air
And he told me of a change of course
In Government affairs
“My boy, we’re bound for Cyprus
Its beauties to behold
It’s our duty to the Empire
To do as we are told”

Well 1919 came and went
While Russia it turned red
And by Christmas 1920
I was longing to be wed
We came out one day on parade
And said “we can’t go on”
The Armistice is two years old
We laid our rifles down

Repeat first Chorus

Well they could have called it mutiny
And we’d have all been shot
But the C.O. he was tired too
And let the matter drop
I came back home to Stalybridge
Picked up where I’d left off
Married my sweet Douglas lass
In a suit of Sunday Cloth

Chorus:
And it’s a way to Tipperary
And I was seven years from home
And the land that’s fit for heroes
Is yet distant and unknown
So we’ve kept on asking questions
We’ve refused to let things stand
I’ve kept the card they marked for me
To remind me who I am

So come on all you working folk
When slaughter is your school
When next they ask for cannon food
Don’t heed the butcher’s call
You serve your fellow workers best
With ploughshares not with swords
We’ll bring down the ruling class
Not with rifles but with words

Hannah Mitchell, Socialist and Suffragette

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

Mary Stott, journalist and editor of the Guardian’s women’s page 1957-71

Mary Stott was a journalist for a number of Manchester newspapers before becoming editor of The Guardian’s women’s page from 1957-197. After retiring she was active in an organization called Women and the Media and wrote two volumes of autobiography as well as editing an anthology of writings from the Guardian women’s page.

Mary Stott was born in Leicestershire in 1907. The smell of newsprint was in her nostrils from birth as both her parents and her uncle were journalists. She later recalled in her autobiography Forgetting’s No Excuse:

When as small child I told my dolls “I have some copy to write now , I was only imitating my journalist parents, not indicating my destined future. That future was to be working in newspaper uninterruptedly for almost half a century, but it was also to be a human being with affections, passions and pursuits, and a child of my times. The strands of my life cannot be separated out; it is their interlocking, heredity and environment, work and home, that makes a pattern. Being a journalists’ child made me a journalist; having a working mother made me expect to go on working myself; being born female hindered me from becoming a the kind of newspaper journalist I would have liked to be; being a wife and mother probably made me a more effective women’s page editor.

Her parents were active Liberals and one of her earliest memories was of riding around in car wearing a green ribbon during the 1911 general election.

Aged just 17 she started work on the Leicester Mail as a temporary copyholder in April 1925, though the union would not let her join because she was a woman. She progressed to the reporters room and was then at the tender of 19 given the women’s page. She also learned the craft of sub-editing and layout.

In 1931 Mary was sacked from the paper as the economic slump deepened, but she got a new job just a few weeks later at the Bolton Evening News, reporting on meetings and writing a weekly “women’s diary”. After two years she moved to the Co-operative News in Manchester where she edited the Women’s Co-operative Guild pages as well as Women’s Outlook, the monthly children’s magazine Our Circle, the monthly Co-operative Youth and finally Sunshine Stories for very small children:

…I loved and venerated the women of the co-operative movement, whose courage persistence and loyalty seemed to me often heroic, for though most of them were under-educated and many were scarcely above the poverty line, they learned to speak in public, go on deputations, organize and preside at great conferences. To me the most remarkable thing about the Women’s Co-operative Guild was the training it gave in the art of government, its completely democratic structure.

There was no money for contributions, so Mary and her colleague Nora Crossley wrote practically everything themselves, including some of the fiction. They copied recipes from cook books and borrowed illustrations from other magazines. They also made-up the pages themselves, becoming experts in fitting in text and pictures. Mary was the obvious candidate to get the editor’s job when it became vacant, but her gender counted against her even in the progressive Co-operative movement.

In 1945 Mary went to work for the Manchester Evening News as a news sub-editor, She loved the job, writing later that: “I got to rather good at this swift cutting and piecing, this remorseless battle with the clock”. However, she was sacked in 1950 to allow a man to take the job. She devoted herself to looking after her daughter Catherine before going back to work for the Co-operative Press again as editor of Woman’s Outlook.

In 1957 the new editor of the Manchester Guardian, Alastair Hetherington, asked her to edit the newspaper’s women’s page, at the time called Mainly for Women.

The page had started in 1922 when it was edited by Madeline Linford. As Linford later recalled in a piece written for Mary in 1963, she had been the only woman on the staff of the newspaper and had been instructed by the editor C P Scott to start a women’s feature on six days a week. “…My briefing was lucid and firm,” she recalled. “The page must be readable, varied and aimed always at the intelligent woman… I saw her as an aloof, rigid and highly critical figure, a kind of Big Sister, vigilant for lapses of taste, dignity and literary English.” Madeline had recruited a talented set of contributors which included Vera Brittain, Leonora Eyles, Winifred Holtby and Evelyn Sharp.

During her stewardship of the page Mary also relied on contributions from readers, receiving upwards of fifty unsolicited manuscripts each week: “I reckoned myself a Guardian woman through and through so that my range of interests was likely to be shared by a fair proportion of women readers.”

The page led directly to creation of women’s organizations. In February 1960, for instance, Mary published a letter from Maureen Nicol living in Eastham, Cheshire, who wrote that “perhaps housebound housewives with liberal interests and desire to remain individuals could form a national register, so that whenever a one moves one contacts like-minded friends.” She received 400 letters in one week in response and led to her set up the National Housewives Register. Other organizations that the page acted as a midwife to included the Pre-school Playgroups Association, Invalids at Home and National Council for the Single Woman and Her Dependents.

Fiona McCarthy arrived in Manchester in 1964 to work as Mary’s assistant. She later wrote:

Mary set out to create a page which “depended mainly on warmth, sincerity and personal involvement”. With extraordinary speed, it established its identity, reflecting, to an uncanny degree, the attitudes and personality of Mary herself. I can think of no other editor who built up such direct rapport with her readers, or who saw such possibilities in them as contributors. At a time when feminism in Britain was just dawning, Mary was acute in her judgment that what women cried out for was the sharing of experience, the sense of real people writing on her page…… Mary established her own power base, an influential and idiosyncratic female sub-state. She knew from her own experience the struggle women had in balancing love, family and their professional lives, and she ran her page with a dogged sense of purpose in opening out the possibilities for women, forming supportive networks, creating solidarities.

In the late 1960s and early 70s the women’s page reflected the emerging women’s movement. Jill Tweedie, who started working for the paper in 1969, later wrote that to be “young, female and a hackette when the Women’s Movement was getting into high gear was very heaven, the icing on the Sixties cake, which for all its excitements , hadn’t done much more for women than shove us into bed with a lot of stoned hippies playing rotten guitar.”

In March 1971 Jill reported for The Guardian on the International Women’s Day march in London, which was a key event in the emergence of the new movement:

“All demonstrations are fleshed-out polemics, happenings that have more to do with reinforcing solidarity within the ranks than luring spectators from pavement or box – conversion will come later, as fall-out comes. And so it was with the Women’s Lib demo on Saturday. I went, unreasoningly fearful that me and my friend Ivy would be alone stomping down Regent Street, running the sneering gauntlet of Saturday shoppers. But there they were at Hyde Park Corner, all the lovely sisters, giggling and shivering, and bawdy and prim and I turned and turned again, gloating at the numbers before and behind, my motley, frost-defying sex.”

As well as her journalism Jill also wrote the fictional Letters from a Fainthearted Feminist which, with a nod to the nineteenth century epistolary novel, took the form of a series of letters between Martha and her younger and more liberated sister, Mary. This was later adapted for TV by Jill and Christopher Bond and broadcast by Channel 4 in 1984 with Lynn Redgrave as Martha and Sarah Neville as Mary.
Jill worked for The Guardian until 1988. She died from motor neurone disease in 1993. She is commemorated in a group portrait at the National Portrait Gallery with fellow Guardian Women’s Page contributors Mary Stott, Polly Toynbee, Posy Simmonds and Liz Forgan.

Mary Stott retired in 1971 and was given an honorary fellowship by Manchester Polytechnic, now Manchester Metropolitan University. She remained active after retirement, helping to found Women in the Media, for instance. In February 1973 Mary led a march by the organisation to 10 Downing Street. They were not received but the duty policeman, Sergeant Garnham of Cannon Row, said that two of them could deliver a written message. The women had pens but not a sheet of paper between them. The sergeant tore a page from his notebook and they left a note for Ted Heath.

Mary wrote two volumes of autobiography, Forgetting’s No Excuse (1973) and Before I Go (1985). She also edited an anthology from the women’s page covering the period 1922-35 and 1957-71 called Women Talking, which was published in 1987.

Mary Stott died in 2002 aged 95. Lena Jager in her obituary of Mary in The Guardian in September 2002 wrote:

“Part of her strength – and perhaps why so many men read her page – was her belief that discrimination, in any form, was a total sin. She cared about poverty, unemployment and disability, wherever lives were diminished. She tried hard to win equality for women, but not as an isolated problem. She could be combative in all her campaigns, but never a bigot.”

In July 2007 the Guardian introduced the Mary Stott prize to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the women’s pages, and the centenary of Mary Stott’s birth, the Guardian women’s page. Anyone aged 18 or above can enter – the only requirement is that entrants have plenty of editorial ideas for Guardian women. The prize is a week spent editing the women’s pages in the Guardian’s London office commissioning and editing features, choosing the pictures and writing the headlines.

Article by Michael Herbert