Representation of the People Act Centenary Walk

This afternoon a group of Club Members met at Queen Anne’s Gate, across from St. James’s Park, for a special walk commemorating the Centenary of the Representation of the People Act 1918. We chose this special date for the walk as it coincides with International Women’s Day. Our guide was City of Westminster Guide, Keith Warner, who have led a previous walk for Club Members relating to WW1 in Westminster a few years ago.

Keith provided an introduction to the walk, outlining the fact that in the mid-nineteenth century voting was not seen as a universal right but as a privilege for the wealthiest class of society. Before 1832, only men who owned a property over a certain value and was over the age of 21 were allowed to vote. By the early 1860s around 1.43 million could vote out of a total population of 30 million. In 1867 the Conservative government introduced the Parliamentary Reform Act which increased the electorate to almost 2.5 million.

When looking at the women’s organisations in the late-19th and early-20th centuries that fought for the right of women to vote in public elections, it is worthwhile to note that the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), led by Emmeline Pankhurst became increasingly bitter, with campaigns ending in property damage and hunger strikes. On the other hand, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (the NUWSS) which united under the leadership of Millicent Garrett Fawcett, aimed to achieve women’s suffrage through peaceful and legal means.

We  walked to Caxton Hall, a listed building of 1878-82, which was originally designed as the Westminster City Hall. It was associated with the Suffragettes, who started their marches to Parliament from here. The first meeting at the Hall was organised by Sylvia Pankhurst for February 16th, 1906. Emmeline Pankhurst, Sylvia’s mother was incensed that the King’s Parliamentary opening speech for the newly elected Liberal Administration contained no promise of Votes for Women. She led those at the meeting through the rain to the Strangers’ Entrance to the House, where after first being denied access, relays of twenty drenched women were eventually allowed to lobby their case to a Member of Parliament.

The walk then led to nearby Christchurch Gardens where we gathered at the sculpture of the Suffragette Scroll, made of fibreglass and finished in cold cast bronze. It was commissioned by the Suffragette Fellowship and erected in the gardens in 1970. On the scroll-shaped sculpture is inscribed a message, invoking “the courage and perseverance of all those men and women who in the long struggle for votes for women selflessly braved derision, opposition and ostracism, many enduring physical violence and suffering”. On the back of the sculpture is the Suffragettes badge of a portcullis with an upward pointing arrow

We then walked to Millicent Fawcett Hall, constructed in 1929 in Westminster as a place that women could use to debate and discuss the issues that affected them. It is interesting to note that Fawcett’s older sister Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, went on to become Britain’s first female doctor. The Hall is now a Westminster School. Near the hall is a blue plaque that shows where Eleanor Rathbone used to live in Westminster. Rathbone of course succeeded Millicent Garrett Fawcett as the president of the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship in 1919 (formerly the NUWSS). She is remembered for the Family Allowances Act which was enacted in 1945. She launched the campaign in 1918 and it was of immense importance to Rathbone that the allowance be paid to mothers, however ministers opposed this premise. MPs Nancy Astor, Mavis Tate and Edit Summerskill agreed that the issue was one of women’s rights, forcing the bill to be quietly amended.

On our way to the House of Commons, we stopped at the statue of Emmeline Pankhurst. She died in 1928, a month before all adult women could finally vote in elections. The memorial is by A G Walker and stands at the entrance to Victoria Tower Gardens. It was unveiled in 1930 by the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, who had opposed votes for women.

In Parliament Square, we learnt that a statue of the suffragist leader Millicent Fawcett will be unveiled in April on the Square, the first monument of a woman to stand in the central London location. Nancy Astor was the first woman MP to sit in the House of Commons on 1 December 1919. Emily Davison, the suffragette who was to die in 1913 after throwing herself in front of the King’s horse at the Epsom derby, is famously said to have secreted herself in the House of Commons at the time of the 1911 Census in order to have herself enumerated within Westminster.

When these suffragettes were arrested, they were usually brought to the police station in Cannon Row, a short walk from the Square. More than 1,000 women were held in Holloway Prison between 1905 and 1914. Our guide went on to mention hunger strikes and the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’.

Our penultimate stop was the National Monument to the The Women of World War II situated in Whitehall. Soon after WW1 broke out the WSPU abandoned its campaigns in favour of a nationalistic stance, supporting the British government in the war. Most other women’s suffrage organisations also chose to suspend their activities and many supported the war effort. The involvement of women in the war effort did much to change perceptions of the role of women in British society. During the war years women undertook jobs normally carried out by men. Between 1914 and 1918, an estimated two million women replaced men in employment. How far did women’s efforts contribute to gaining the vote in 1918?

Our last stop was Trafalgar Square, where on 10 March 1914 suffragette Mary Richardson (known as one of the most militant activists, also called “Slasher” Richardson) walked into the National Gallery and attacked Diego Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus with a meat cleaver.

Finally, we made our way back to the Club with the guide for afternoon tea in the Drawing Room.

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