Women’s rights and suffrage in Witham

Women’s rights and suffrage in Witham

In the 19th century, women could vote in elections for local bodies if they lived in houses of sufficient rateable value, and this included some poorer women, though they were rarely able to become really involved in the town’s affairs. The Co-op did have a female committee member from 1890 to 1902. She was Mrs Amy Bloomfield, born in Suffolk and wife of a tan-yard worker. Another of my heroines is Mrs Clara Jane Hubbard. She was also from a labouring family and she lived in the very poorest part of town, but she had two £5 shares in the Gas Company. So for three years, until she died in 1913, she went to its general meetings. She was the only poor person there and the only woman. Perhaps it helped her confidence that she had been to London in her youth to be a piano teacher near Bond Street; her neighbours had included an Italian actress and a lady artist. 

Middle-class women who were widowed or single often became dressmakers and milliners. One of them was Miss Elizabeth Smith, a basketmaker’s daughter, who worked for fifty years at the top of Collingwood Road, starting in the 1880s, with a high-class clientele. For many decades before 1900 there had been about sixty women in this trade, a surprisingly large number. Their married sisters had less need to work and might spend time in community endeavours, particularly if they had a servant or two. For instance, the women of the Congregational church ran a branch of the YWCA, whose members debated in 1894 ‘are we better than our grandmothers, i.e. is the present better than the past’ (the majority said yes). In Church of England organisations, such women were rather more likely to be making tea under the direction of the prosperous ‘ladies’.

These ladies’ role in charitable work continued. Amongst them were Admiral Luard’s many daughters. They trained in nursing or social work, or organised local events. In 1890 Alice ran a soup kitchen, and in 1894 she set up an early charity shop – a ‘depot for the sale of anything that has been put aside as worthless’, to the ‘poorest classes’. The poor became rather less dependent on charity after the Old Age Pensions Act of 1908 and the National Insurance Act of 1911. At a meeting in the Public Hall to explain the latter, there was a young civil servant from London – he was Clement Attlee, who became Labour Prime Minister in 1945. But the Braintree workhouse continued to be the fall-back solution to poverty until 1929. People who were unable to walk there were ‘carried off in a jolting cart’. So there was still scope for the Misses Luard to go round on foot or cycle, offering help and advice (the latter not always welcome!). They continued to be tireless in their devotion to Witham’s organisations and to the Church well into the 1930s.

Women could serve on Local Government bodies and when education was re-organised in 1903, the County Council appointed Alice and Edith Luard as school managers. In 1905 Edith’s name was drawn out of the hat to be chairman at the Council School, but she declined the honour. The Boards of Poor Law Guardians were regarded as male-oriented and boorish, and it was said that the old Witham Guardians (disbanded in 1880) used to ‘fight like fun’. But their successors, the Braintree Union, had a woman member as early as 1895. Miss Margaret Tabor from Bocking, a Liberal, joined them in 1913. She was a suffragist like her better known sister Clara Rackham, and when she first arrived, Witham’s Captain Abrey expressed a fear that the meeting might be ‘blown up’.

He seemed less anxious about his neighbour Miss Susannah Vaux. She became a Guardian in the same year, with the help of the Conservatives, and was thus the first woman from Witham to serve on an elected body (she was unopposed). She was born in India in 1858, where her father supervised the building of the Bengal railway, but had been brought to England as a baby to live with relatives. After training as a nurse, she was matron at the Birmingham Eye Hospital. Like lady Guardians elsewhere, she was never chosen for committees which dealt with finance. But she  did become chairman of the two which were concerned with children, and the local newspaper noted the importance of the few lady Guardians, with their ‘kind hearts’ and ‘anxious care for the women and children’.

In the early 1900s, women were still not allowed to vote in elections for parliament. In 1911 a group of Conservatives held a crowded meeting at the Public Hall where Lady Rayleigh of Terling announced that her husband, also present, supported her in thinking that women householders should be given the vote. On the other hand, Witham’s vicar Canon Ingles said he didn’t agree at all, and nor did any of the nine women in his household! There were also two well known national speakers – Mrs Selina Cooper, a former Lancashire mill worker, and Mrs Betty Balfour.

In July 1913 a ‘pilgrimage’ of ‘non-militant suffragists’ marching from East Anglia to London paused in Witham for an open-air meeting, again chaired by Lady Rayleigh. It was ‘very orderly’ in spite of some heckling along the lines of ‘You’re trying to wear the trousers’. It was not until 1918 that some women gained the parliamentary vote, and not until 1928 that they all did.

This was first published in “A History of Witham” by Janet Gyford in 2005






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