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

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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

Ellen Tooley and women’s rights in Eccles

On the November 1st 1933 Ellen Tooley made history by becoming the first woman councillor in Eccles. Although she wasn’t particularly fond of her new title as the first woman councillor in Eccles, she lived with it all her life and it no doubt it helped inspire many other women to play an active role in local politics.

Women in Eccles had been trying to get elected to the Eccles Town Hall without any success since 1919, yet in 1933 the town voted in two women councillors. Ellen Tooley was first to be announced as the winning candidate for the seat of Winton; literally minutes later, Mary Higgins was elected as the councillor for Barton. Veronica Trick, the granddaughter of Ellen Tooley, describes the night in an article titled The Power to get Things Changed! Ellen Tooley, Eccles’ First Woman Councillor:

“The teams counting their [Ellen Tooley and Mary Higgins] votes began to count as fast as they could, competing to be the first to count a woman councillor in. In spite of having 500 more votes to count than the other team, Ellen’s team finished first so that she became the first councillor for Winton just two or three minutes before Mary Higgins became the councillor for Barton. So it was purely because her team were faster one that my gran acquired her title.”

Veronica Trick, who published the journal on Ellen Tooley which forms the basis of this article, decided to find out more about her grandmother when she stumbled across newspaper cuttings and poll cards whilst sorting through her mother’s belongings. “When we were growing up my cousins and I were all very proud of our famous grandmother, Ellen Tooley, who was the first woman councillor for Eccles, although we had only the vaguest ideas about what that meant,” writes Trick. She decided to do some digging and what she discovered was that her grandmother had worked hard and overcome many obstacles to become Eccles’ first woman councillor.

Born into Poverty

Ellen Tooley was born in Plymouth in 1875/6 to a mother who was a laundress and an Irish father who was a private in the army. Her father was an Irish Republican sympathiser and his influence is credited with Ellen’s subsequent commitment to the Republican cause as well as her interest in politics. Despite a steady income, the family which consisted of five children must have been quite poor and this gave Ellen her first experience of poverty. At the age of 15 she was working as general domestic servant in Exeter, although an incident in which a small pile of money was left out by her employers – a common practice at the time to test the honesty of servants – angered her and she left in protest. At some point between 1891 and 1899, she ran away from home and came to the north.

Her father made several attempts to bring Ellen home but she resisted and finally settled down and married a widower named William Tooley who was a Protestant. As her father was a Catholic, this marriage was seen as the ultimate betrayal and he never spoke to Ellen again. Over the next ten years, Ellen had six children and they lived in various addresses in Ancoats and Greengate. Although her husband William was a skilled worker, the family struggled to make ends meet as William was fond of ‘The Demon Drink’ and would drink away his wages. Many of the houses they stayed in were appalling and the final house they lived in before moving to Eccles was a back-to-back house in Salford with a one upstairs room, one ground floor room and cellar. Twenty-six families had to share a row of six outdoor privy lavatories.

Influential Women in Eccles, Suffragettes and Co-op Guilds

The move to Eccles seemed to have marked a new period of stability and success in Ellen’s life. Their home was much bigger with its own garden and private lavatory and Ellen was inspired by other local women to get involved in local politics. Even so, Ellen never forgot her earlier experiences of poverty and she worked tirelessly to improve housing conditions and welfare provisions during her political career.

Although Eccles was, and remains, a small town there were many influential women who managed to make their mark on local politics and served as role models. Influential women from Eccles include Sofia Roe, who founded an orphanage on Green Lane in the 19th century and Kathleen Lyttleton, the wife of the Vicar of Eccles, who founded the Eccles Branch of the Co-operative Women’s Guild in 1895. Two women’s suffrage organisations- the non-militant North of England Society for Women’s Suffrage and the more militant Women’s Freedom League- also had local branches and their meetings were well attended by women in Eccles.

Ellen Tooley, who was five feet tall with red hair and a temperament to match, joined the Women’s Co-operative Guild and Independent Labour Party in 1916. The Independent Labour Party was strongly pacifist at the time and this suited Tooley’s anti-war stance. By 1918, her brother had been killed in the war and her husband and two sons were conscripted into the war effort. In fact Tooley’s first publically recorded speech was as one of the main speaker at an anti-war demonstration.

In 1919, the first women ever to stand for election in Eccles were Mary O’Kane and Louisa Mathews, who were both members of the Co-operative Guild. As Veronica Trick explains, the Co-operative Guild gave many working women an opportunity at education and also the confidence and skills they would need to succeed in local politics. Although both women candidates had failed to get elected, this didn’t stop other women from trying to influence local politics through other routes – namely local committees. The number of women on these local committees in Eccles went up from 9 in 1920 to 17 in 1925.

Local Committees, Working Class Women and Birth Control

Although women were increasingly present in local politics, working class women were still struggling to make their mark in the same way that upper/middle-class women had. Ellen Tooley noted in the Eccles Journal in 1925: “There are women in Eccles amongst the workers who are capable of serving the community equally as well as those co-opted, with a knowledge of conditions gained by practical experience which is after all ‘the best teacher’” (cited in Trick, The Power to get Things Changed, p23). There was one committee, however, where the presence of a working class woman was mandatory and this was to be the first committee Ellen served on.

The 1918 Maternity and Child Welfare Act had set up the Maternity and Child Welfare Committees, influenced by campaigns by the Women’s Guilds, and Ellen was appointed in 1920 to serve on the Eccles committee. As such, Ellen Tooley played an important role in the mother and child clinics which improved contraceptive advice to women- particularly working class women who could not afford to pay a private doctor for contraceptive advice.

The orphanage originally built by Sofia Roe in 1880 was refurbished under the committee and set up as a Mother & Baby Clinic with significant success. “Six years later the Medical Office of Health was able to proudly report to the committee that infant deaths in Eccles were only 47.2 infant deaths per 1,000 births. The only urban district which had performed better was Nelson with 44.9, Manchester, in contrast, had 83.0 and Salford 103.2.” (cited in Trick, page 22)

TB, Death and Disease

The relative success of Ellen’s political career was, however, tainted by a string of personal tragedies during the same period. After Ellen’s husband returned from the war he had become more abusive and violent towards her, particularly whilst drunk, and during one incident in 1921 Ellen’s two older sons attacked their father and forced him out of the family home. One son joined the army to escape prosecution whilst the other, Edward, moved away for a year.

In 1922, Ellen’s daughter Eveline was diagnosed with TB and her other daughter Dora, who was Veronica Trick’s mother, developed a bone disease in one of her knees and was confined to a special bed-chair. Eveline did recover for a while in 1923 but died a year later in 1924. In May 1926, Ellen’s son James died of TB and in the same month her husband died of bronchitis and a cerebral oedema in Hope Hospital.

Election Success

In 1924, Ellen Tooley was nominated for the first time to run for election. However, it was widely acknowledged that she had been allocated a seat (Irwell) that would be very difficult for a Labour candidate to win and indeed she failed to secure the seat. In 1927, she was a delegate to the Labour Party’s annual conference in Blackpool and stood, again without success, for the Barton ward. In 1930 she stood as the Labour candidate for the Winton ward along with Mary O’Kane who was nominated at the Co-op candidate for Patricroft – they both failed to secure their seats. For the next two years there were no women candidates in Eccles. Finally in 1933, Ellen stood once more and managed to win her seat in Winton along with Mary Higgins who became councillor for Barton.

The two women formed a formidable alliance and became members on committees related to health, libraries and schools, as well as working to improve child welfare and provide work for the local unemployed. Although Ellen tried to get re-elected in 1938, local elections were suspended due to the outbreak of World War Two and by the time the war had ended, she was 71 and her health was beginning to deteriorate. Ellen died in April 1955 at the age of 79 and was buried on the 2nd of May. The title as the first woman councillor of Eccles, which Ellen shrugged off as pure chance, was chiselled on her gravestone.

By Arwa Aburawa

Manchester Irish in Britain Representation Group, part 2

This is the second section of a two-part history of the Manchester branch of the Irish in Britain Representation Group. For the first part, see here.

The axing of the “Irish Line” radio programme

“Irish Line” was a weekly programme started in 1983 and broadcast by BBC Radio Manchester in collaboration with IBRG. All the work done by IBRG presenters was unpaid. It was a mix of music, sport and “What’s On” which also covered some political issues. “Irish Line” was abruptly axed by the BBC in the summer of 1985 without consultation or discussion

Four of the presenters wrote to the Irish Post newspaper, outlining changes which had been imposed after the arrest of a number of IBRG members under the Prevention of Terrorism Act early in 1985. Those detained included Dr Maire O’Shea, a consultant psychiatrist who was acquitted of all charges at her trial in Manchester in 1986. The presenters said that a poster advertising “Irish Line as presented by BBC and IBRG” was scrapped before it was issued and replaced by one deleting all reference to IBRG. It had been usual to introduce each programme as “being presented by the IBRG from the Irish community in Greater Manchester” but the BBC cut out all mention of IBRG. They had recorded an interview with a member of Bolton IBRG who had been on the International Women’s Day delegation to Armagh prison in March 1985, but this had been excised by the BBC from the broadcast programme. The letter ended by stating that “Irish Line” had been given a “summer break” by the BBC and that none of them had been contacted by the BBC as to the future, and concluded with: “We do hope that Irish Line does not become yet another casualty of the British media’s reluctance to deal in any depth with any Irish issue.” This was an accurate prophecy. The BBC brought the programme back in the autumn, renaming it “Come Into The Parlour” and with new presenters. All political issues were dropped.

Relations with Manchester City Council

In October 1984 Manchester IBRG submitted a detailed report to Manchester City Council on the needs of the Irish, entitled “A New Deal for the Irish Community in Manchester”. They wrote that hoped that it would be the start of a “cordial and productive dialogue between the Irish community in Manchester and the City Council”. The report examined the causes and effects of anti-Irish racism, the lack of recognition of the Irish in the school system, the lack of Irish culture in libraries and other cultural spaces, discrimination in housing and welfare, the lack of recognition given to the experiences of Irish women and finally the effects of the Prevention of Terrorism Act. It made a series of recommendations aimed at raising the profile of the Irish and recognising some of the welfare, social and legal problems affecting the community.

In September 1990 IBRG wrote to Terry Day, head of the Equal Opportunities Unit, expressing their dismay at the lack of action by the council on the 1984 report or indeed any other issue concerning the Irish in Manchester. In her response, Ms Day pointed out that the numbers of Irish people employed by the City Council had risen from 3.1% to 3.8% and stated that “the fact that this increase has occurred proves, I think, that discrimination against Irish people had been occurring in the past, and that the measures we have adopted to eliminate discrimination have been at least partially successful in stopping discrimination against Irish people applying for Council jobs.”

Manchester Irish Week 1988

As part of its policy on Ireland, Manchester City Council had pledged itself to organise an Irish week in Manchester. Even from the start there were problems of democracy, accountability, and inclusion in the planning process, which prompted IBRG and other groups to contact the City Council asking that all Irish groups should be included. Eventually these issues resolved themselves (or so it was thought at the time) and meetings to plan a programme of events took place regularly at the Irish Centre in Cheetham with two delegates from each Irish organisation in Manchester (including IBRG).

The committee set up working parties to plan particular events such as history, games, community care and women’s events. The Irish Women’s Group decided on a programme of events including discussion of the issue of strip-searching in Northern Ireland using a video, employment, a play and a women-only social. When this programme was put before the main planning meeting it was treated with what the women involved considered was derision and condescension and voted down, at which point the IBRG delegates withdrew in protest. IBRG protested in the strongest possible terms to the Chair of the Race Sub Committee, Councillor Graham Balance, whilst women members of IBRG and a number of other Irish women attended a meeting with him to express their anger. The Council agreed that all events, no matter which Irish group had organised them, would be included in the official programme.

Tom McAndrew, a leading member of the Council of Irish Associations, then attacked IBRG in the Manchester Evening News, accusing the organisation of “tainting” the festival by including an event on the Birmingham 6. IBRG responded vigorously, arguing that in a week when the Birmigham Six case was being highlighted in St Patrick parades throughout the world, “we see no reason why it should not be raised during the Manchester Festival week, nor do we believe it would ‘taint’ the festival. The majority of Manchester Irish people support the campaign to have these innocent men released.”

IBRG worked in cooperation with the history group, the Irish Women’s group (Mna na hEireann) and other organisations to put together an imaginative programme, putting out their own independent leaflet for the Irish Week in March 1988.

On Saturday 12th March Mna na hEireann held a Irish Women’s Day at English Martyrs Parish Centre, Alexandra Road South in Whalley Range, which was advertised as “A day for Irish women to get together and discuss the issues that affect their lives eg emigration, class and education”. There were workshops on creative writing and discussion on issues of education and identity. The speakers were Moy McCrory, Oonagh ni Cleirig, Maude Casey and May Byrne.

On Tuesday 15th March the meeting on “The British Media and the Birmingham 6 Case” took place at the Green Room, organised by the North West Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom and co-ordinated by Granville Williams. The speakers were Charles Tremayne ( a researcher on the World in Action Birmingham 6 programmes) and Bob Woofinden (author of Miscarriage of Justice). The speakers explored the role of the media in both convicting innocent people and uncovering miscarriages of justice. There were also the events at the Green Room with Sean O’Neill & Company and The Jacket Potatoes.

The notion of an Irish Week was revived by the City Council in 1996 (although the 1988 events were accidentally or deliberately forgotten and the event was billed incorrectly as the first such week in Manchester). As their contribution to the Irish Festival in March 1996, Manchester IBRG organised the Irish Heartbeats conference. Thereafter IBRG decided to play no further part in the subsequent Irish Festivals, having concluded that the event was designed to annexe the Irish into the burgeoning heritage, leisure and entertainment industry in Manchester.

Prevention of Terrorism Act

Among the cases taken up by IBRG was that of Kate Magee, a young Irish woman charged under the Prevention of Terrorism Act with withholding information. In November 1993 IBRG leafleted a Christy Moore concert at the Manchester Opera House with a leaflet on Kate’s case and subsequently provided support and publicity for her during the long legal process leading up to her trial. IBRG Members attended her trial every day and were relieved when the jury found her Not Guilty.

On 25th October 1990 the branch organised a Repeal the PTA Meeting at St Brendan’s Centre in Old Trafford, one of three meetings held in the North West to support the campaign against the PTA. The speakers at the Manchester meeting were Father Bobby Gilmore from the Irish Chaplaincy in London and Kevin Hayes from the West Midlands PTA Research Association.

Prisoners

In September 1987 the branch wrote to Tony Lloyd MP raising the issue of the repatriation of Irish prisoners to the north and south of Ireland. In his reply he enclosed a response from the Earl of Caithness at the Home Office, adding that he had always supported the case of repatriation as a general principle “and tried to pursue this matter without any great success when the Home Affairs Select Committee looked at prisons in England and Wales.” He outlined some of the current problems on the issue and promised to “continue to support attempts to achieve a more acceptable solution in the circumstances both for the prisoners themselves and for their families”.

In May 1994 IBRG organised a meeting for Hugh Callaghan, one of the Birmingham Six, to talk about his book Cruel Fate at Frontline Books. Sally Mulready, who had been active in the London Campaign for the Six, accompanied Hugh and spoke about the effects of the imprisonment on the men’s wives and families and how very bravely they had taken the first steps in campaigning to get them out.

The War in Ireland

The continuing war in Ireland throughout the 1980s and most of the 1990s formed the backdrop against which Manchester IBRG operated and was something they consistently drew attention to in many of their activities. This distinguished them from other Irish community groups who were ready to promote culture, history and Irish Studies but extremely wary of any activities relating to the conflict. IBRG’s view was that it was impossible to talk about Irish history, Irish culture and Irish identity without at the same time talking about what was happening in the North of Ireland.

In October 1988 Tory Home Secretary Douglas Hurd introduced a broadcasting ban on Republican and Loyalist representatives being heard on TV and radio. The justification was that this denied “apologists for terrorism” a platform to propagate their views. In reality it was another in a long line of propaganda moves by British governments (Tory and Labour) to close down discussion on events in Northern Ireland and win acceptance for their analysis ie that it was all the fault of “the terrorists”. The government did not ban Republicans completely from the airwaves, just their voices, resulting in the surreal situation where their actual voices could not be broadcast but what they had said some hours earlier was voiced over instead by an actor. In time, and with practice by the actors, it become almost impossible to distinguish the “false” from the “real”.

On 25th January 1989 Bernadette Hyland from IBRG spoke at a meeting at which a video of a Channel 4 programme, Mother Ireland, was shown to a packed audience of over 150 at the Manchester Mechanics Institute. The film interlaced music, images and historical film with interviews with a number of women including Pat Murphy, Nell McCafferty, Bernadette McAliskey and Republican Mairead Farrell, who was shot dead by the SAS shortly afterwards in Gibraltar.

Mother Ireland was the first programme to fall foul of the Broadcasting Ban. In response the North West Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom organised a public meeting to allow an audience to make their own mind up. The meeting was chaired by the North West organiser of CPBF, Granville Williams. In her speech Bernadette outlined IBRG’s opposition to the ban: “It denies British people the right to the facts behind the conflict in the Six Counties, it denies Irish people the right to learn their own history”. IBRG joined a picket outside the BBC on Oxford Road on the 5th anniversary of the ban.

Throughout the course of the war in Ireland IBRG always defended the right of Sinn Fein elected representatives to visit Britain and put their case. In the autumn of 1986, during an official visit by two Sinn Fein local councilors to Manchester City Council, IBRG organized a meeting for Irish people to meet the councillors and listen to what they had to say.

In January 1995 the annual Bloody Sunday March was held in Manchester, the first time that the march had been held in the city . Local IBRG members joined the march, whilst IBRG National Chair Pat Reynolds addressed the rally in Albert Square alongside Martin McGuinness from Sinn Fein. The Daily Express attacked Manchester City Council for allowing the rally to take place in Albert Square. IBRG responded in the local Irish newspaper Irish Echo, defending the right to march.

Conclusion

Looking back, Bernadette Hyland, secretary of Manchester IBRG and also IBRG national chairperson for a number of years, reflected that “IBRG really was a community organisation. At its heart were people who had a strong sense of their own identity, a love of their own history and its people and a strong will to ensure that the inequality and marginalization of the community would not continue. For me personally, IBRG meant in the broadest terms a movement reflective of a socialist ideology, encompassing a better world not just for Irish people on these two islands but a better world for all people.”

Article by Michael Herbert

Manchester Irish in Britain Representation Group

The Irish in Britain Representation group was an Irish community group which campaigned nationally across the UK and had an active branch in Manchester in the 1980s and 1990s. The organisation campaigned on a wide range of issues including anti-Irish racism, education , culture, rights of women, history, language, civil rights, miscarriages of justice and the war in the North of Ireland. Membership included both those born in Ireland and those born in Britain.

This is the first of two articles collecting memories of those involved in the Manchester branch of the IBRG.

Anti-Irish “Humour”

The Manchester branch took up a number of examples of anti-Irish “humour”, believing that such “jokes” were racist and attacked the self-confidence of the community. In July 1985 the branch wrote a letter of protest to Granada TV about the programme The Comedians, which routinely featured Irish “jokes”. Writing in response to the complaint John Hamp, Head of Light Entertainment, said that no offence had been intended:

“The Comedians reflects the sort of humour to be heard currently in summer shows, theatres and clubs around the country. No joke is intended to be interpreted seriously, and none are delivered in a malicious manner by the comedians. In fact, it’s usually the impossible or unlikely aspect of a joke which gives it humour, whatever the subject. The series employs several Irish comedians as well as comics from other parts of Great Britain. and they tell gags about themselves, their environment and each other – in a friendly and good humoured atmosphere. We feel The Comedians keeps within the accepted limits of humour and know it is enjoyed by a large audience, but regret that you feel cause to complain, and have taken note of your comments”.

In August 1986 IBRG wrote a letter of protest to the Equal Opportunities Commission over an EOC booklet entitled Do Girls Give Themselves a Fair Chance? It included a cartoon in which a young woman bricklayer on a building site is shown as being smarter and more hardworking than two male operatives who are, of course, Irish and are shown speaking in “Oirish”. In reply, the EOC’s Ann Godwin said that she very much regretted it had caused offence and that it would be revised in a new edition.

Travellers

Just before Christmas 1987 eighty DHSS investigators, accompanied by police with dogs, swamped a travellers’ camp in Salford, demanding to see children’s birth certificates. The “visit” occurred in the wake of a local press campaign which alleged that “tinkers” were flooding into the area and defrauding the benefits system. When they read of the case in the press IBRG members visited the site and offered support and practical help to the travellers as well as writing to DHSS and issuing a press release. IBRG said that it was:

“diabolical that people can be treated in this way. Whole families can be left without money at a time when most people are spending too much and eating too much. It is indicative of the way that in which people who are Irish and travellers can be hounded without any criticism of the methods or motives of organisations such as DHSS”.

Conferences

The branch thought it important to bring together Irish people to consider and discuss the issues affecting their lives, believing that it broke down the isolation many Irish people often felt when it comes to talking about issues of identity, injustice, racism and much else.

The branch’s first major conference took place on Saturday 14th November 1987 at Manchester Town Hall and was entitled “Hearts and Minds – The Irish in Britain Today”. Over 140 delegates attended, both as individuals and also representing organisations such as local authorities and North West Arts. The conference was formally opened by the Chair of Manchester City Council, Councillor Eileen Kelly. She was followed by Desmond Greaves, the noted historian and leading member of the Connolly Association, who illuminated the role that emigration has played in the lives of the Irish. This theme came up constantly during the day in the seminars.

Mary Lennon, author of a book on Irish women in Britain, looked at the pattern of Irish women’s emigration to Britain, highlighting the fact that more women than men have emigrated from Ireland and contradicting the stereotype of the Irish emigrant to Britain as being a male building worker. Moy McCrory used her book of short stories The Water’s Edge to comment on the experience of growing up in an Irish working class background in Liverpool. In her seminar on Irish Dimensions in British Education, Mary Hickman underlined the importance of having Irish studies on the curriculum of all British schools and colleges. Micheal ORiabhaigh also focused on Liverpool and commented on some of the profound obstacles that it faced in realising and expressing an Irish identity.

Pat Reynolds took up the theme of identity and anti-Irish racism. He traced the roots of this racism back to the connected history of Britain and Ireland and in this colonial relationship found the basis of present day anti-Irish racism.

IBRG judged the conference to be a great success with many important discussions in the seminars – and outside in the corridors over cigarettes and tea. It gave the Irish from all over the North West an opportunity to meet and discuss common issues. IBRG ensured that half the speakers were women and provided a creche, which was well-used

IBRG’s next conference was held to coincide with twentieth anniversary of British troops going onto the streets of the six counties and was entitled “Justice for Irish People; 20 Years On” and rook place on Saturday 10th June 1989 at Manchester Town Hall.

Another conference entitled “We Are A River Flowing…..”. took place on Saturday 3rd July 1993 at St Brendan’s Irish Centre. It encompassed a day of discussion and debate on the history of the Irish community. The final speaker Mary Nellis (a Sinn Fein councillor from Derry) spoke on Women in the Six Counties: the Struggle Goes On and On, throwing away her prepared speech after a few minutes and speaking off the cuff about her experiences in Derry in a lengthy contribution that gripped and moved the audience.

The future development of the Irish community was the subject of the next conference which was called “Irish Heartbeats” and took place on 16th March 1996 at the Friends Meeting House.

Culture

IBRG members collaborated with Adrian Mealing at Green Room to put on The Hairy Marys on 13th November 1987. The Hairy Marys were a group of talented Irish dancers from London who had tired of some of the traditions that had encrusted Irish traditional dance and used comedy and cabaret in their performance. The programme described them thus: “The HMs are a madcap gang of Irish dancers. These four raucous women dance reels to ragtime and jigs to jazz. For the past five years they have been entertaining audiences up and down the country with their irreverent mixture of traditional Irish dance, music and comedy. They are Maire Clerkin, Hester Goodman, Carmel McAree and Susan Swanton”. On the evening they went down a storm.

IBRG worked with the Green Room again to present Sean O’Neill and Company in a performance entitled Kavanagh of Inniskeen as part of the Irish week on Friday 18th March 1988. The following evening there was live music from The Jacket Potatoes, an Irish trio from London, who played both traditional tunes and a number of political songs about the situation in the North of Ireland.

The next co-promotion with the Green Room was on 16th June 1988 when Trouble & Strife Theatre Company from London performed “Now And At The Hour Of Our Death”, a play written by Sonja Lyndon. The programme notes read as follows: “It is the year 2000 and life has changed dramatically for the people of Northern Ireland. Four Irish women look back twenty years to a time when they each had a dream. Between them there is an unshakeable bond forged from the shared horror of the No Wash protest in Armagh prison in 1980. The vivid performances explore the complex relationship between women and violence and produce a magnificent piece of theatre which will shock, amuse and move.” The play lived up to the pre-publicity, according to those who saw it. Incidentally, the young women performers in the theatre company arrived a day early due to a mix-up and were all accommodated at an IBRG member’s house.

On 16th September 1988 IBRG put on Toss the Feathers at St Brendan’s Irish Centre This was at the height of the TTF mania and hundreds of people turned up. Members recall that the beerstained proceeds from the evening were carried home stuffed into pockets and helped to fund branch activities for many months afterwards.

The Hairy Marys returned to the Green Room on Sunday 19th March 1989 as part of a St Patrick’s Day Celebration, one of the “Family Fundays” being run by the Green Room at this period, running a dance workshop for children who then performed later in the afternoon.

Manchester IBRG initiated the first Irish Film Festival in Manchester in collaboration with the Cornerhouse in 1988. In all there were six seasons at the Cornerhouse between 1988 and 1993. The aim was to celebrate and showcase past and present Irish efforts in this art-form, but also to use it as a way of exploring contemporary social and political issues through the use of associated day-schools and speakers.

IBRG also organised events during the Manchester Festival in 1991 and 1992 under the title Mise Eire. These included history walks, evenings with writers Moy McCrory, Moya Roddy, Clairr O’Connor and Berlie Doherty, music from Banshee, Rattle and Reel, Red Ciel and The Jacket Potatoes, dance by The Hairy Marys, and storytelling.

History

The branch organised a number of events in April 1991 to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising, an anniversary which was virtually ignored by the Irish government, part of the so-called “revisionist” attack on celebrations of past Irish struggle which were supposedly giving aid and sustenance to the armed struggle in the north.

The first event was on Thursday 18th April, an evening entitled Poetry and Songs of the Rising held at St Brendan’s Irish centre. Actor Sean O’Neill, a good friend of Manchester IBRG, read poems by WB Yeats, Patrick Pearse, Thomas McDonough and others, followed by music from local musicians.

On that Friday evening there was a chance to Rock To The Rising at Chorlton Irish Centre. Music was provided by Tradition, one of West Yorkshire’s most popular Irish groups, who brought a coachload of young and enthusiastic supporters over with them and a good time was apparently had by all. Those who had not indulged too heavily the night before joined a history walk at lunchtime around Manchester City Centre.

The final event was on Sunday 21st April at St Brendan’s Irish Centre at which there were videos, music, bookstall, an Irish history quiz and a talk from Kevin Collins, author of The Cultural Conquest of Ireland. To accompany these events Ruth and Edmund Frow of the Working Class Movement Library in Salford put on an Easter Rising exhibition at the library.

There were many celebrations and conferences in 1998 to commemorate the bicentenary of the 1798 Rising. Manchester IBRG organised its own conference which put the Rising squarely in the context of community history and development. This took place on Saturday 20th June 1998 at the Friends Meeting House

Gaelic Language

On Wednesday 5th June 1991 the branch organised a meeting at St Brendan’s Irish Centre to discuss the attack by the Northern Ireland office on Glor na nGael. The meeting was part of a speaking tour of Manchester and London set up by IBRG to highlight the discrimination being exercised by the Northern Ireland Office against the Irish language. Glor na nGael was started in 1982 in response to the growing demand for Irish language nursery schools in the Belfast area to co-ordinate the schools and train their teachers. Patricia Campbell from Glor na nGael spoke at the Manchester meeting, which was followed by a discussion with a number of Irish speakers.

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