SUFFRAGETTES & SUFFRAGISTS
Women gaining the vote is often cited as a major legacy of the First World War, but it was not that simple, only women over the age of 30 could vote as long as they or their husband owned property with a rateable value above £5. Women only gained the full franchise when the government finally passed the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act that gave the vote to all women over 21 on equal terms with men.
The fight for female empowerment had ran alongside the First World War, through two lines of ideology. The suffragettes, with protest and confrontation, and the suffragists through peaceful campaigning.
Suffragette activity in Norfolk probably included setting fire to Great Yarmouth Britannia Pier on 17 April 1914. In a newspaper report, blame is placed squarely on The Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), as members were not granted access to the pier before the fire. Florence Tunks and Evaline Burkitt were thought to be responsible, though they were only convicted following the Bath House Hotel fire in Felixstowe on 28 April 1914.
When the First World War broke out, suffragette activists were granted amnesty. Before that, several Norfolk-born suffragettes had made themselves famous fighting for women’s enfranchisement. Grace Marcon, who went by the name Frieda Graham, was born in Erpingham and was imprisoned for attacking five paintings in the National Gallery. Marian Aitken briefly worked for The Suffragette newspaper and was a campaigner and hunger striker. Caprina Fahey was a Norfolk midwife who went to prison twice for suffragette activity and Miriam Pratt was another suffragette arsonist. They are just four among many Norfolk women who used militant activity in a bid to win the vote for women across Britain.
Some women who were no-less committed to the struggle for female enfranchisement, were ideologically opposed to the suffragettes’ means of obtaining it. Among them was Mary Sheepshanks, daughter of the Bishop of Norwich and briefly a suffragette. Though her pacifism eventually drove her away from the movement, she first used her own power as editor of the ‘Jus Suffragii’ (law of suffrage) magazine to promote peace in campaigns, as well as an end to the war for Britain. Other suffragists, pacifists and Independent Labour Party women supported her in this, including Sylvia Pankhurst.
The Labour Party continued to provide a voice for British pacifists and kept up its support among Norfolk women. In 1918, Norwich’s Branch of the National Council of Women, founded by Laura, Ethel and Helen Colman, three sisters with political power in post-war Norwich, recorded that many women ‘in closer touch with politics’ wanted ‘a better representation’ of Labour. They too were dedicated to British female empowerment, which they ultimately achieved through peaceful protest and civic action. In 1923, Dorothy Jewson became one of The Labour Party’s first female Members of Parliament.
The two main organisations opposing the war were The Union of Democratic Control and the No Conscription Fellowship. Groups with a religious basis, such as a Quaker group known as ‘The Fellowship of Reconciliation’, and a woman-only group named the Women’s Peace Crusade also campaigned to stop the war. Whilst all these groups functioned in Norfolk, little is known about them as no records are known to exist. Being liable to persecution by the state, some groups deliberately kept few records to avoid interception.
Despite their existence, men and women involved in peace activity were always at a small minority throughout the First World War. In 1916, the Great Yarmouth Independent reported that “pacifists are dumb when asked ‘what would you have us do on August 4, 1914?’ They realise we could do no other than we did consistent with honour.” To be a pacifist was portrayed as a negative by the British press because peaceful intentions opposed propaganda intended to promote war enthusiasm. Likewise, the British public thought of pacifism as cowardly, as demonstrated by women handing out white-feathers to conscientious objectors. However, several daring individuals went against the grain to become a different type of war hero.
THE COLMAN COUSINS
James Colman and his wife Mary had two children Jeremiah James and Mary. Jeremiah James in turn had two sons and four daughters with his wife Caroline. Their daughters were Laura, Ethel, Helen and Florence. Mary Colman married John Willis and they had two sons and two daughters, Mary and Edith. This is part of the story of the Colman cousins:
Of the Colman’s daughters, Laura Colman married James Stuart, Ethel and Helen never married and Florence married Edward Boardman. Of the Willis’ daughters, neither Mary or Edith married. All the ladies were involved in the welfare and care of the Colman’s workers and Norwich life in general.
Before the First World War, Laura Stuart had been a city councillor in Norwich. With her sisters and cousins, amongst other interests, she organised Drovers Teas, the Norwich Ladies Camera Club, headed the Carrow First Day School to provide education to the men and women of Colmans and organised fundraising for the RSPCA. The burgeoning suffrage movement in the early 1900s inspired them to form the Norwich Women’s Suffrage Society in 1909. This was affiliated to the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). Laura was elected President and Edith Willis the Secretary of the branch. There are few reports from that first year, but on 6 December 1909 they held a Suffrage meeting featuring a talk by Lady Frances Balfour. In her opening speech, Laura Stuart stated that ‘its objects were to obtain the Parliamentary franchise for women on the same terms it was given to men and the methods by which it worked were those of peaceful persuasion.’ It should be noted that ‘there were also a great many men in the audience’ and ‘payment was exacted for a considerable number of the seats’.
In January 1910, the group opened a shop in Brigg Street selling badges, pins and books to raise money during the general election campaign and asking people to sign their petition.
The group held their first annual meeting in May 1910 at which Laura was re-elected President, Edith Willis Secretary and both Ethel and Helen Colman Vice-Presidents. Their guest speaker was Clara Rackham, a member of the Executive committee of the NUWSS. At the meeting, Edith Willis reported that the membership was at 100.
The Suffrage newspaper, ‘The Common Cause’, lists Edith L Willis of Southwell Lodge, Norwich, as the Secretary of the Norwich Branch of the NUWSS in May 1910. Edith became very committed to the cause and represented the Norwich branch at a meeting of eastern affiliated societies with the aim of establishing an Eastern Counties Federation. In September 1911, Edith was the contact name for anyone interested in starting an East Norfolk branch and in October 1911 she assisted at a meeting in Diss to set up a South Norfolk and Diss branch of the NUWSS – a ‘blackspot on the suffrage map’.
The Colman’s cousins pride in their suffrage task is apparent in the 1911 census where Ethel Colman lists Edith Willis as Honorary Secretary of the Women’s Suffrage Society.
At the outbreak of war in 1914, the cousins’ activities transferred to the necessities of fundraising for the soldiers away and for the families and hospitals at home. Mary Willis and Laura Stuart, who lost her husband James in 1913, were Secretaries of the Norfolk & Norwich branch of the RSPCA. They addressed people’s concerns over the welfare of horses in the battlefield and announced that RSPCA inspectors would be at the front to ensure equine care. Laura Stuart, was also Secretary of the Voluntary War Work Organisation and arranged a steady stream of garments, bandages and knitted mufflers and gloves.
The remaining cousins, Ethel and Helen Colman, were similarly occupied. They edited the Carrow Works magazines, to which all cousins contributed articles and photographs. Ethel and Helen’s sister-in-law, Edith Colman was the Vice President and organiser of the Norwich and Carrow Voluntary Aid Detachment for which she received an OBE.
Meanwhile in January 1915, Edith Willis raised funds for the Scottish Women’s Hospital in Scotland. This organisation was set up firstly to help the war effort by providing medical assistance and secondly, and equally importantly, to promote the cause of women’s rights and by their involvement in the war, help win those rights.
After the war, the cousins returned to ‘normal duties’ and with the Representation of the People Act in 1918, the suffrage struggle was finished. In 1918, Laura, Ethel and Helen founded the Norwich branch of the National Council of Women whose aim was to encourage the effective participation of women in the life of the nation and remove discrimination.