Lydia Becker (1827-1890): the fight for votes for women

Lydia Becker was Secretary of the Manchester National Society for Womens’ Suffrage from 1867 until her death in 1890. She played a key role in the campaign for suffrage, encouraging women to openly campaign and speak publicly. She laid the basis for the early twentieth century suffrage campaign.

Lydia’s grandfather, Ernest Becker, had come to Manchester from Germany in the late 1790s and made his money from manufacturing acid which was used in the cotton industry. The family lived in Foxdenton Hall, Middleton for about 80 years. The hall survives and there is plaque there now in Lydia’s memory.

Lydia’s chief interest until her appointment had been science, particularly the study of plants, and she had written a book, Botany for Novices, and even corresponded with Charles Darwin. She was also interested in astronomy and wrote Stargazing for Novices, but this not accepted for publication. She was self-taught, as scientific societies in Manchester in this period refused admittance to women, excluding them from the discussion and debate on papers that there were the mainstay of these societies. Frustrated, Lydia founded the Manchester Ladies’ Literary Society, though this was short lived.

In October 1866 she attended the meeting of the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science which in that year was held in Manchester. This was a progressive organization which not only admitted women as members but also allowed them to read papers and attend dinners. Lydia heard Barbara Bodichon, one of the founders of Girton College, read a paper on Reasons for the Enfranchisement of Women. A new Reform Bill was in the offing and four months earlier John Stuart Mill, recently elected to parliament, had presented a petition to the Commons. He had asked the women organising the petition to obtain at least 100 signatures. They had gathered 1499, including Florence Nightingale, Harriet Martineau, Josephine Butler and Mary Somerville. It was a sign of a groundswell of opinion amongst women in favour of political rights.

The paper was revelation to Lydia, who immediately offered her services to the London committee, and having obtained petition forms, went about gathering signatures in Manchester. She joined a recently formed Manchester Committee, whose members included Louis Borchardt, Jacob Bright, Max Kyllman, Samuel Steinhall, Elizabeth Wolstenholme and Elizabeth Gloyne. She also put pen to paper and in March 1867 an article by Lydia on Female Suffrage was published in the Contemporary Review, which read:

“It surely will not be denied that woman have , and ought to have opinions of their own on subjects of public interest, and on the events which arise as the world wends on its way. But if it be granted that women may, without offence, hold political opinions, on what ground can the right be with held of giving the same expression or effect to their opinions as that enjoyed by their male neighbours.”

Two further petitions were presented to parliament in May 1867 and on 29 May John Stuart Mill made a long speech in favour of an amendment to the Suffrage Bill which would extend the suffrage to women on the same terms as men. The Bill gave the vote to all male adult householders living in a borough constituency and to male lodgers paying £10 for unfurnished rooms. This extended the vote to about another 1,500,000 men. The amendment was treated with levity and defeated by 123 votes.

Lydia realised that the cause was not going to be won easily . In June therefore she drew up a draft constitution for a Society whose aims would “to obtain for women the right of voting for Members of Parliament on the same conditions as it is, or may be granted to men.” In August the Manchester National Society for Women’s Suffrage was formally established.

The campaign gained wide publicity over the Lily Maxwell case. Lily’s name had mistakenly appeared on the register of voters in Manchester. She was supporter of the Liberal party, ran her own shop and needed little persuasion when Lydia visited her to talk about suffrage. The two women went to the polling station, accompanied by male supporters, on 26th November 1867, when the election official allowed her to vote. It was resolved to campaign to persuade other women to petition to add their names to the electoral roll.

To launch the campaign on this issue Lydia organized a public meeting in the assembly rooms of the Free Trade Hall on 14 April 1868, a meeting later celebrated by campaigners as marking the beginning of the suffrage campaign. Very unusually for that time women were on the platform and spoke. The meeting was chaired by the Mayor of Salford, HD Pochin, and three resolutions were proposed by women and seconded by men. The first motion was moved by Lydia:

“…that the exclusion of women from the exercise of the franchise in the election of Members of Parliament being unjust in principle and inexpedient in practice, this meeting is of the opinion that the right of voting should be granted to them on the same terms as it is or may be granted to men.”

The other motions were moved by Agnes Pochin and Anne Robertson. Agnes Pochin said that women found themselves “in a state of chronic effervescence, soured by injustice, fretted by the possession of energies which they are required to repress.” It was generally acknowledged in the press that the meeting had been a success and the women had spoken well.

Lydia worked tirelessly in the autumn on the electoral petitions, travelling to meet women and attend hearings across Lancashire. On 30 October 1868 the Manchester Society held its first annual meeting in the Town Hall, chaired by Phillipinne Kyllman, It was packed and even attracted a reporter from The Times.

The report in The Times said:

“…if one supposes it was ever the intention of legislature to give women a vote, and if they do get it, it will be by a sort of accident, in itself objectionable, though in its practical consequences, perhaps harmless enough. On the other hand, if they are refused it, the nation will , no doubt, be formally and in the light of day committing itself, through its judicial tribunal, to the dangerous doctrine that representation need not go along with taxation.”

In November the claims of 5,346 women householders came before the High Court in the case of Chorlton v Lings. The women were represented by Sir John Coleridge and Richard Pankhurst. They argued that women had an ancient constitutional right to vote and cited documents in support of this. This was dismissed out of hand by the judges.

Undaunted, the Society immediately wrote to all 800 parliamentary candidates asking then to support a suffrage bill. When the results of the general election were announced in early December, John Stuart Mill, their firmest supporter in the House of Commons, had been defeated, an undeniable setback for the movement.

In the spring of 1869 Lydia undertook a series of lectures in the north of England. She gained more confidence in public speaking and in dealing with male hecklers, who were invariably present. Never physically strong, she was often exhausted by these trips. Her closest friends were Jacob and Ursula Bright and Richard Pankhurst.

Despite the dogged rejection by the House of Commons of women’s right to vote for MPs, in 1869 women were granted the right to vote in municipal elections with surprisingly little controversy after an amendment was moved by Jacob Bright at Committee stage. The Society sent circulars to women voters explaining their right to vote and how to vote, as at this time it was still done in public and could be daunting.

The following year women also gained the right to vote for, and to stand for election to, the new School Boards, established by W E Forster to run elementary education. Lydia stood successfully for the Manchester School Board as an independent member, receiving 15,000 votes, and she remained a member until her death. Like her suffrage work, her education work gave her a high public profile as she gave speeches and attended the opening of new Board Schools. Laying the foundation stone of a new school in Burgess Street, Harpurhey she said “it was a great mistake to suppose that domestic duties were limited to girls and women, every boy in Manchester should be taught to darn his own socks and cook his own chops.” She regularly visited schools in Manchester to see the progress being made.

In 1870 she and other women founded the monthly Women’s Suffrage Journal which chronicled the progress and frustrations of the national campaign for women’s suffrage with reports on meetings and events organised by local societies and parliamentary debates as well other subjects of interest to progressive women. It also covered events abroad. In her first editorial Lydia wrote that the object was “to extend to every isolated well-wisher the firm grasp of an outstretched hand.” The journal cost 1d.

Lydia travelled the country speaking at public meetings. Despite great hopes, by the end of the 1870s the campaign had not succeeded in getting a Bill passed and the likelihood faded. A National Demonstration of Women was held in the Free Trade Hall in March 1880 during the general election campaign, with the hall was packed with women.

In the summer of 1880 the Society, to its surprise, achieved a notable and unexpected success after Lydia and other women went over to the Isle of Man and campaigned in support of amendment which would grant women the right to vote for the House of Keys. The amendment was carried and when women voted for the first time in March 1881 every woman who did so received a letter of congratulation from Lydia. Surely the House of Commons would follow suit now that a Liberal government had been elected?

In 1881 Lydia moved to London to work for the National Society. Great hopes were placed in a Bill that came before the Commons in 1884 but it was overwhelmingly defeated after Gladstone made public his opposition. Most of the women were campaigners were supporters of the Liberal party and felt bitterly betrayed. But the campaign continued.

Lydia died suddenly in Switzerland in July 1890 having gone for a rest as her health had worsened. The women’s suffrage journal ceased publication on her death with the following notice:

“To all Readers. For twenty years and four months this Journal has received the impress of one hand and one mind, so that its long row of volumes forms one continuous work, and now when that careful hand is laid low and the energies of that far-seeing mind are carried beyond our mortal ken, it would seem the most fitting course to close these pages where Miss Becker left them., so that the journal shall be wholly hers…”

In 1903 Helen Blackburn donated a collection of books on women’s questions to Girton College, Cambridge in memory of Lydia Becker and Caroline Ashurst Biggs. The Memorial Library consists of books, pamphlets, periodicals and newspaper cuttings which relate to the world-wide position of women during the last century. It contains works in Dutch, French, German and Italian, in addition to works in English. The collection was arranged by Blackburn in a mahogany bookcase of her own design and each book contains a bookplate to the memory of Becker and Biggs designed by Edith Mendham and printed by the Women’s Printing Society. A condition of the bequest was that the books should always be kept together and this has been honoured. Manchester Central Library also holds an extensive collection on Lydia and the suffrage campaign, including correspondence and press cuttings.

Article by Michael Herbert

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Fascism and anti-fascism in 1930s Manchester

The following article on Fascist leader Oswald Mosley’s humiliation by anti-fascists at Belle Vue is reproduced by kind permission of Manchester University’s Centre for Jewish Studies, and is by Michael Wolf of the anti-fascist periodical Searchlight. The introduction to the article is based on an article by Yaakov Wise, also on the CJS website.

One of Manchester’s most unpleasant claims to fame is its connections to Sir Oswald Mosley, the founder of the British Union of Fascists and supporter of Hitler and Mussolini. Mosley Street in Manchester city centre is named after his family – although not after Oswald Mosley himself. Early meetings of BUF were held in Hyndman Hall on Liverpool Street in Salford and rallies held at Queen’s Park in Harpurhey.

In 1933 a BUF meeting at the Free Trade Hall descended into rioting between fascists and anti-fascist communists and was broken up by police. The BUF also had its northern headquarters – inaugurated in a ceremony performed by Mosley flanked by two columns of blackshirts – at 17 Northumberland Street, Higher Broughton, Salford, in a house called Thornleigh.

Despite strong opposition from Manchester’s left-wing and Jewish communities, the BUF grew in 1933 and 1934, opening eighteen branches in Manchester and surrounding areas, including in Stretford, Altrincham, Ashton-under-Lyne, Hulme, Rusholme, Withington, Blackley, Oldham, Bolton, Bury and Rochdale. At one time the BUF even considered moving its HQ to Greater Manchester, after the Daily Mail and Lord Rothermere withdrew their support for the organisation in 1934. Jock Houston, one of Mosley’s violent and racist officers in London, was slated for a move to Manchester but was instead sent to Wales after objections from Greater Manchester Police.

Their presence was recalled by a Jewish member of the Young Communist League, Maurice Levine, who later fought in Spain and wrote in his autobiography “From Cheetham to Cordova: A Manchester man of the Thirties:”

“A favourite café of theirs was Walter’s on Great Ducie Street near Victoria Station, and they would walk through Strangeways along Bury New Road to Northumberland Street to provoke the Jewish population – they would often be scuffles with the inhabitants of Strangeways, who were very sensitive to the menace of fascism in their midst.”

The Jewish Chronicle of 27th October 1939 reported the activities of fascists around Manchester, including chalking slogans such as ‘Christians awake! Don’t be slaughtered for Jewish finance’ in Fallowfield. A BUF member was also fined 20 shillings by city magistrates for chalking fascist slogans on a wall at Boggart Hole Clough in Blackley. “A representative of the Manchester Parks Department said that chalking had caused them a great deal of trouble, as they had to be ‘ever-lastingly cleaning walls,” the paper recorded.

The BUF also prepared for the general election of 1940 – never held due to WW2 – by preparing a man called Dick Bellamy as a parliamentary candidate for Blackley. The BUF had also been declared illegal in 1937, but one of the staff from Mosley’s Higher Broughton office still stood as a candidate in the Middleton & Prestwich by-election (breaking the convention that in wartime a deceased’s party successor stands unopposed) in 1940, winning 418 votes against the Conservatives’ 32,036. MI5 files on Mosley record him being tracked in Manchester, including during a secret meeting in 1940 in a curtained-off booth in a restaurant called the Victoria Grill. But the day after the by-election Mosley and other BUF leaders were arrested in London and the party collapsed.

‘Bye Bye Blackshirt: Oswald Mosley defeated at Belle Vue
By Michael Wolf

After the notorious brutality of the fascist meeting earlier in 1934 Mosley thought he would have a repeat performance in Manchester. To combat this threat an anti-fascist co-ordinating committee was created to counter the fascist thugs. A dynamic campaign of leafleting, fly-posting and public meetings were organised to mobilise the opposition. Deputations were organised representing the broadest possible democratic coalition to demand the banning of the fascist meeting. In the face of all the protests the meeting was allowed, and to add insult to injury the Chief Constable banned all marches, a decision clearly taken to make anti-fascist mobilisation more difficult.

However, the anti-fascists were determined that there would be no repeat of fascist violence and intimidation. Saturday 29th September the opposition mobilised. Three marches from Openshaw, Miles Platting, and Cheetham marched to meet the hundreds already waiting to meet them at Ardwick Green to form a united demonstration of over 3,000 who would march along Hyde road to join the protest meeting outside Belle Vue. The contingent from Cheetham comprised in the main young working class Jewish activists from the Challenge Club, the Youth Front Against War & Fascism and the Young Communist League formed the backbone of the group that was to rout the fascists later in the day. When the marchers arrived at Belle Vue they were greeted by the hundreds already assembled for the protest meeting. The marchers however had not come to listen to speeches. They had come to stop Mosley.

At the agreed time they left the meeting, crossed the road and in orderly fashion queued up to pay their entrance fee for Belle Vue. Once inside the amusement park scouting parties tried to find the fascists. They had no success, as these examples of the “master race” were hiding in the halls hired for them.

Mosley was to speak from The Gallery which was protected by the lake, his supporters were to assemble on the open air dance floor which was in front of the lake. Even so the fascist leader did not feel safe and in addition to the gang of thugs he called his bodyguard, there were wooden barriers and the police. In case this was not enough searchlights were available to be directed against the anti-fascists and fire engines with water cannon at the ready. The scene was set.

500 blackshirts marched from a hall under The Gallery and formed up military style. Mosley, aping Mussolini stepped forward to the microphone to speak. He was greeted by a wall of sound that completely drowned his speech. “Down with fascism”, “Down with the blackshirt thugs!”, “The rats the rats clear out the rats!”, “One two three four five we want Mosley, dead or alive!”. Anti fascist songs, the Red Flag, and the Internationale. The sound never stopped for over an hour. In spite of the powerful amplifiers turned up to maximum Mosley could not be heard.

To quote The Manchester Guardian, “Sitting in the midst of Sir Oswald’s personal bodyguard within three yards of where he was speaking one barely able to catch two consecutive sentences.”

Mosley tried all the theatrical tricks he knew to try and make an impression but without any effective sound he appeared like a demented marionette. Defeat stared him in the face and he knew it, as did his audience which slunk away as soon as the police bodyguard was removed. The humiliation of the fascists was complete. The only sound they could now here was the singing of ‘bye bye blackshirt’ to the tune ‘bye ’bye blackbird’, a popular song of the time.

With the fascists defeated and demoralised, the protesters raised their banners and posters high and proudly rejoined the meeting outside Belle Vue.

Mosley’s humiliation was complete, what was supposed to have been his most important meeting since Olympia was in fact the first of a series of defeats he was to suffer in Manchester.