Swansea’s rebel women

February 18, 2018 10 Comments

For all their strengths in the campaign to gain votes for women Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst were by nature autocratic.  In 1907 some members of their Women’s Social and Political Union took exception to their announcement that the WSPU’s annual conference would be cancelled in future and that they themselves and their inner circle would take all future decisions.

The dissenters, about seventy in number, could not stomach this sudden abolition of democracy in the suffragette movement.  Their leaders, including Charlotte Despard, Teresa Billington-Greig, Elizabeth How-Martyn, Dora Marsden, Helena Normanton, Anne Cobden-Sanderson and Margaret Nevinson, decided to set up a rival or splinter group, which they called the Women’s Freedom League.  Though it never achieved the fame of the Pankhursts’ organisation the WFL deserves to be remembered.  It generally attracted fewer members than the WSPU, but it was more flexible (it welcomed sympathetic male members) and it was much more radical.  Its aims were broader than securing the vote for women in parliamentary elections.  According to its constitution they were ‘to secure for Women the Parliamentary Vote as it is or may be granted to men; to use the power thus obtained to establish equality of rights and opportunities between the sexes, and thereby to promote the social and industrial well-being of the community’. WFL members fought hard to prevent war in 1914 and many opposed the WSPU’s decision to suspend campaigning during the war. 

League members were opposed to physical violence against people and property, but they fought their causes in many other ways, by refusing to pay taxes, failing to fill in census forms and chaining themselves to railings.  They published a periodical, The Vote (1909-33), to propagate their news and views.  One of their weapons was the long walk.  In 1912 Agnes Henderson Brown and five others, dressed in brown skirts, white blouses and green scarves and hats, hiked from Edinburgh to London, gathering petitions in favour of women’s rights.  They walked for five weeks, at a remarkable rate of fifteen miles a day, attending at least one suffrage meeting daily.  With her sister Jessie Agnes was one of the very first female cyclists to be seen in Scotland.  Their father, William, was a firm suffrage supporter, and went to prison for his part in the campaign.

Charlotte Despard

The League soon had almost four thousand members and sixty local branches.   There were seven branches in Wales.  One of the most active was set up in Swansea in 1909, following a visit to the area by the WFL’s leading light, Charlotte Despard.  On the face of it the visit was not a success.  On two occasions in May 1908 Charlotte was howled down and prevented from speaking by large mobs of men at Llanelli and Swansea.  At Swansea, where her theme was ‘The gospel of socialism’, she responded to attempts to silence her by parts of the crowd, now about 3,000 strong.  She shouted ‘Slaves to a government, slaves to a party, slaves to business, poor fools.  One day you may have wives and children and you may see them crying for bread; then perhaps you will remember this’.  The crowd became even more riotous, singing comic and satirical songs, including the lines ‘the men will soon be wearing skirts, and the women be wearing the trousers.’ In the end the meeting had to be abandoned.

Emily Phipps

But Charlotte Despard inspired three Swansea women to come together to make preparations for a local WFL presence: Emily Phipps and Clara Neal, heads of the two main Swansea schools for girls, and Mary McCleod Cleeves.  On 2 March 1909 the branch was formed.  Jennie Ross was an early member of the committee, and one of the Swansea branch’s few working class members; she later became its secretary.  She was another radical cyclist, belonging to Robert Blatchford’s Clarion Cycling Club.  Many other women came to support the branch, including the industrialist Amy Dillwyn, and men were enrolled as associate members or helpers.  On 31 March 1909, the Cambrian newspaper reported, the Swansea branch was launched publicly, in a packed meeting in the Albert Hall.  Despite hecklers (‘Bow wow’, ‘Go home and wash the kid’) the meeting went ahead.  The guest speaker was Muriel Matters, a prominent national League supporter, fresh from a ‘Votes for Women’ balloon flight intended to drop thousands of WFL leaflets over the King and the Houses of Parliament.  She was, the reporter noticed, ‘dressed in a pretty light blue costume, with a dainty lace front, with sleeves terminating at the elbows’.  ‘Men allowed women to pay silly calls’, she told her audience, ‘play afternoon bridge, and to go about gossiping, but directly a woman put her nose outside the door to discuss politics men told them their place was at home.’

Muriel Matters

Muriel Matters, who was later appointed as south Wales organiser for the League, returned to Swansea in August 1909 to give another speech.   This time she spoke about equal pay for men and women.  ‘If the Government set the example of pay according to ability the standard rates would be raised, and the best qualified – man or woman – would get the job’.  (A Voice): ‘you are not strong enough.’  ‘If it was strength alone, why was Lord Roberts, a physically weak man, put in command of the Army?’ 

Helena Normanton

(Equal pay remained an important WFL concern.  In 1914 Helena Normanton, one of its leaders, published a booklet entitled Sex differentiation in salary, arguing in favour of equal pay for equal work.  In it she asked the question, ‘during and after the war, many soldiers’ wives and widows became the breadwinners for families. Should they be paid according to their sex or their work?’  Later Helena became the first woman to practise as a barrister in England and Wales, and the first married woman in Britain to be issued with a passport in her maiden name.)

A year after its formation, it was reported to the annual meeting in March 1910, the Swansea branch was thriving.  Four mass meetings had been held, 36 branch meetings, 12 committee meetings and six speakers’ classes.  Membership had trebled.

Thanks to Ursula Masson’s research in the branch’s archives we know something of the Swansea WFL’s other activities.  In May 1910, to mark its first year of operation, it staged the touring theatrical ‘Pageant of Famous Women’ in the Albert Hall.  Charlotte Despard took the part of Florence Nightingale.  A large banner emblazoned with the words ‘Pleidlais i ferched’ occupied the stage.  The reporter of the Tory South Wales Daily Post grudgingly acknowledged the success of the Pageant, though he felt that ‘the wisdom of giving votes to women is perhaps another matter’.   The Swansea campaigners had a gift for amateur dramatics.  In October 1910 they arranged, on the street outside the Bush Hotel in Sketty, a mock auction of ‘Mrs Cleeves’s dog-cart’, which the Government had seized for non-payment of taxes.  As well as agitprop of this kind WFL members often broke the law and ended up in prison.  In 1911 Emily Phipps and Clare Neal, with three other women, spent Census night in a cave on the Gower coast in order to avoid being enumerated.  When war broke out in 1914 they continued to campaign, for example in favour of women police officers and for women’s municipal housing.

The women members of Swansea WFL were strong in mutual support.  Jennie Ross wrote in a letter in The Vote in October 1913 after the birth of her daughter, ‘It does one good to feel there is such a bond of comradeship among the members of the WFL.  I shall never forget their kind and generous acts.  I hope to be able to take up active service again very soon.  Nothing gives me greater pleasure than fighting for justice for women.’

The Representation of the People Act of February 1918 conceded some of the WFL’s demands.  Some women, and more men, were granted the vote.  But it took another ten years before men and women could vote on an equal basis.  Emily Phipps continued to fight.  She stood in Chelsea as an ‘independent progressive’ against the Conservative Sir Samuel Hoare in the general election of December 1918 election (the first general election in which women could stand as candidates) and polled well enough, with 2,419 votes, to keep her deposit.  In 2013 a blue plaque was erected in her memory at Orchard Street Clinic in Swansea, near to the site of Swansea Higher Grade Girls’ School, where she was headmistress from 1895 to 1925.


Pageant of Famous Women. From Swansea Museum.

Poster in Swansea museum

Comments (10)

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  1. Melissa Roberts says:

    I wonder if you have any information regarding the suffrage movement on Gower, please? I live in Llanmorlais and am attempting to acquire a piece of land for community use. I have noted that there are grants available re the suffrage movement and so wondered if we could tie the 2 ideas, together? Any suggestions/ideas etc would be fab. Thanks.

  2. Margaret Morris says:

    Dear Andrew
    I found the information above very interesting.
    Oystermouth radio which is run by a group of volunteers on the Pier is doing a special project on local women involved in the movement. Is it possible to interview you on the above so that we can make a podcast for our listeners.

  3. Great article certainly filled in the lack of knowledge regarding Suffrage in this area. Winifred Coombe Tennant was active in local politics do you know if she was ever a member of a Suffragette society?

    • Andrew Green says:

      Hello Lynette. WCT, who lived in Cadoxton, was President of the Neath Women’s Suffrage Society, which may have been affiliated to the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. So she was a suffragist rather than a suffragette. Interestingly, she was a great friend of Lloyd George, no friend of the women’s cause at the time. Lots more details in Peter Lord, ‘Between two worlds: the diary of WCT, 1909-1924’.

  4. Sue Hagerty says:

    Hi Andrew
    Thank you for the article, and the links.
    I’m hoping to find people in South Wales who may have personal links to suffragettes/suffragists, and who might like to take part in an event. Have you come across anyone in your research?

    • Andrew Green says:

      Thanks, Sue. I can’t answer your question, alas. One person you might try, in the case of Swansea, is Avril Rolph, Vice-President and Secretary of Women’s Archive Wales.

  5. Hi Andrew
    Thanks for your concise and informative article. I am a local artist interested in doing a commemorative mural and banner celebrating the Welsh women involved in the Swansea WFL. I use faces as a starting point so any links to further pictures of the above mentioned would be appreciated.


  6. Clare Frances says:

    Thank you, Andrew, for this very interesting article. I have only very recently discovered the involvement of Mary Macleod Cleeves, who was my great aunt’s mother-in-law. This was through my research in family history. That’s on my father’s side. I know that on my mother’s side my great aunt was a suffragist in Aberdare, who later became the Liberal Part political agent for Aberdare, so I was told. However, I have failed to find any information on her. Any ideas, please? Thanks once again for the interesting article.

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