Nine Places That Tell the Story of Suffrage Activism in Devon
From public places to domestic spaces, find out where and how suffrage activism took place in Devon.
The General Election held on this day (14 December 1918) was the first in which women could exercise their right to vote. This right, which still did not apply to all women, had only been achieved by means of a long, persistent and sometimes violent campaign undertaken by women all over the country.
This year Devon History Society is marking the centenary of the Representation of the People Act 1918 by carrying out new research into women’s suffrage activism in the county. 131 women who played an active part in the movement have been identified and their addresses plotted on a map of Devon.
Now biographies are being created for each of these women and a picture of suffrage activity in Devon is emerging. These women were not only active in campaigning for the vote, they led active lives in other ways. Some were professional women: teachers, writers or doctors. Others had the means or family support to spend time on charity work: for children, for animals, for missions at home and abroad. Some held public offices on school boards or as poor law Guardians. Many were active in political parties, even if they could not vote. Their experiences led them to claim the right to vote not only as a matter of justice but because they could see how society needed to change.
We have worked with the Devon History Society to create a digital legacy for their new research and make it available to wider audiences. Together we have Enriched the List for 41 listed buildings which have links to Devon women activists, so that the significance of those places, particularly to women’s history, is recorded and better understood.
Work is also underway with the South West Heritage Trust to map suffrage activities in places across Devon on the Know Your Place website. This allows places important to the suffrage movement not on the National Heritage List for England to be recorded.
To mark both the project and this important centenary, here are nine places which tell the story of suffrage activism in Devon.
1. Jubilee Fountain, Trinity Square, Axminster (Grade II)
Trinity Square, around the Jubilee Fountain in Axminster, was the market place and assembly place for public events in the town.
In April 1913 an auction took place in Trinity Square at which silver bangles belonging to Mildred Tuker of Ashe House, Musbury, were sold. The bangles had been seized by the bailiffs because Mildred, who was a member of the Women’s Tax Resistance League, had refused to pay her taxes, claiming that there should be ‘no taxation without representation.’
After the auction she and her supporters held a protest meeting in the Square.
2. Clovelly Court, near Bideford, North Devon (Grade II)
Herbert Asquith, Liberal prime minister from 1906 was blamed by suffrage activists for refusing to allow Parliamentary time for a full debate on women’s suffrage. He was related to the Hamlyn family who owned Clovelly Court.
In 1909 the news that he was staying there over the Whitsun holiday prompted three women from the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), Elsie Howey, Jessie Kenney and Vera Wentworth to travel down to Bideford and on to Clovelly Court to attempt an interview with Asquith, which he refused to give.
Removed by the police, the women crept back overnight and hung paper discs with messages such as ‘Down with Asquith. Death to Tyrants’ all over the shrubberies in the Clovelly Court gardens in the hope that Asquith would ‘get the message’.
3. Arlington Court, Barnstaple, North Devon (Grade II*)
Arlington Court near Barnstaple was the home of Rosalie Chichester (1865-1949), the heiress of one of Devon’s oldest families. The house and estate is now owned and managed by the National Trust.
As an upper class conservative woman, Rosalie pursued a number of artistic, literary and scientific interests and travelled independently. She spoke out on causes close to her heart: unusually for her time and position in society, she was vehemently opposed to stag hunting. She supported women’s causes generally, and helped found the Barnstaple branch of the Women’s Citizens Association in May 1918.
If Rosalie supported the idea of women’s suffrage she doesn’t appear to have formally joined the movement until 1913 when the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) militancy was at its height. Indeed that summer, Hollerday House in Lynton, North Devon had been hit by an arson attack attributed to the suffragettes. By December 1913, Rosalie had joined the Barnstaple branch of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) and presided over a meeting in which she described militants as ‘no doubt well meaning, but were misguided people who had done any amount of harm to the cause.’
4. Broadway House, Topsham (Grade II*)
Broadway House, Topsham, was the home of Mrs Mary Frood (1855-1931), one of a relatively small number of women in Devon to be a member of both the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) and National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies.
She organised suffrage meetings at Broadway House (in a wing - now demolished - built by a previous owner to house a Museum). She also painted suffrage slogans in white oil paint on the property's rear boundary walls facing the railway line.
Her daughters, Constance and Hester, carried the Topsham banner in the 1913 Suffrage Pilgrimage.
5. Plymouth Guildhall
In April 1908 Miss Nell Kenney of the Women’s Social and Political Union visited Plymouth to raise awareness about the cause of women’s suffrage. She spoke to the Plymouth Co-operative Guild, the Plymouth Parliamentary Debating Society and also addressed public meetings in Plymouth Market and outside the Dockyard Gates in Devonport.
The brief campaign concluded with an evening meeting in Plymouth Guildhall where Christabel Pankhurst spoke, and where a motion calling upon the Government to pass the Women’s Enfranchisement Bill was carried by a large majority.
6. 18 Southernhay West, Exeter (Grade II*)
The Andrew family lived at 18 Southernhay West from the 1880s until the end of the 1940s. The Andrew daughters, Clara, Edith and Mary, were Devon Suffrage Activists, although it is not always possible to tell which of them attended which pro-suffrage event as these sometimes list 'Miss Andrew' or 'the Misses Andrew'. They were members of the Exeter branch of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) and also supported the Devon and Exeter branch of the National Conservative and Unionist Women’s Franchise Association.
Clara became involved in work with the Belgian Refugee Committee during the First World War. She was also a founder member, after the war, of the National Children’s Adoption Association.
7. The Square, South Molton
In the late spring of 1914 members of the South West Federation of Women’s Suffrage Societies went on the road with a horse and caravan. They wanted to take the message about Votes for Women out to the villages of rural North Devon. Their caravan stopped in a different town or village each night and the suffrage activists held an evening meeting in the square or on the green.
By the time they reached South Molton on 14 May they had already visited Holsworthy, Black Torrington and Great Torrington, and were to go on to Chulmleigh before doubling back via Lapford and North Tawton.
A ‘large and interested’ audience turned out in South Molton, and a resolution in favour of Women’s Suffrage was passed and forwarded to the MP, George Lambert. Lambert, originally in favour of Women’s Suffrage, had recently changed his mind as a result of his disapproval of militancy.
8. Newton Abbot
When a by-election was to be held in Devon in 1908, several senior members of the Women’s Social and Political Union visited Newton Abbot to urge the electors to vote against the Liberal candidate because of the government’s attitude to women’s suffrage.
Morrison Bell, the Conservative, was elected, taking the seat from the Liberal, Charles Buxton. Some of the electors of Newton Abbot took to the streets to protest and upon seeing Mrs Pankhurst and Mrs Martel in Courtenay Street, shouted ‘Suffragettes!’ The two women were jostled and kicked by an angry crowd, forcing them to take refuge in the County Stores on the corner of Queen Street.
9. Chapel Hill, Exmouth
A major meeting of the Exmouth Women’s Suffrage Society took place on Chapel Hill on 5 October 1909. A sizeable crowd gathered which increased considerably as the meeting progressed. Prior to the start chalked notices on the pavements throughout town declared ‘Votes for Women’ - though boys had followed this up by writing ‘No’ in front of some of them!
Two national suffragette figures addressed the meeting, Miss Daisy Dugdale and Miss Vera Wentworth. At one point Vera Wentworth said that suffragettes had got tired of asking quietly for the vote, to which a man in the audience responded ‘you’ll never get it.’ Her immediate retort was ‘you’ll live and learn my friend’.
Overall the meeting was an orderly one and was followed up within a month by another at the Temperance Hall where again Vera Wentworth was a speaker, alongside Mrs Eugénie Bouvier from Finland (where women already had the vote).
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