Thursday, 8 March 2012

Bristol’s Other Women – IWD 2012

On International Women’s Day 2012, I call on you to take a few minutes to remember the unthanked women of Bristol who, more than 100 years ago, shaped our lives to be as comfortable as they are.

Regular readers will know that I’ve a keen interest in the campaign for women’s suffrage, and particularly how it ricocheted around the city of Bristol. But it’s impossible to learn about the work of the suffragists and suffragettes without also taking on board the many other female-fronted campaigns that our city also spawned in the surrounding years.

Today, in honour of IWD 2012, I’m going to outline just a few. And please note, when I say “a few” I really mean it. There’s so much that we have to thank our Bristolian foremothers for. Today, please take a few minutes to remember them.


1819 onwards – Bristolian women are recorded as active members of the Chartist movement. However, as the suffrage campaign grew, suffragists separated from the ambiguously prioritised Chartists.

1831 – Women were prominent participants in the Bristol Riots.

17 September, 1840 – The Bristol & Clifton Auxiliary Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society was formed at the Temperance Hotel, Bath Street.

Catherine Winkworth

1866 – Susannah and Catherine Winkworth, and Anne and Mary Priestman, of Bristol are involved in the signing of the petition for women’s suffrage, presented to Parliament by John Stuart Mill.

1867 – The Reform Act extends the Parliamentary right to vote to all male rate payers in UK towns, and Jacob Bright’s amendment granting municipal rights to women on the same terms had been passed by Parliament. However, the parliamentary franchise still eluded women. In 1867, one lone woman in Manchester voted in a bye-election.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton

1868 – The Bristol & Clifton Society for Women’s Suffrage was formed. Mary Estlin was a prestigious member of both groups and formed strong links with sisters in America, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who visited Bristol in 1883 in a show of solidarity.

1870s –Anne and Mary Priestman refused to pay their taxes in protest that their status as property owners was not recognised by their right to vote. They refused to give in, even after their furniture was seized by the authorities.

1871 – Bristol’s first female doctor, Dr Eliza Walker Dunbar, is among the prestigious names who have signed up in support of the suffrage campaign.

Millicent Garrett Fawcett on a stamp from 2008

1871 – Millicent Garrett Fawcett speaks in Bristol as part of a nationwide speaking tour, at a time when it was considered unseemly for women to speak in public. Mrs Fawcett gave her name to the Fawcett Society, which campaigns for women’s rights – the Bristol branch continues, in 2012, to be the largest and most active local group.

1877 – The Bristol & West of England Society is founded.

1880 – Meetings raising awareness of the demand for women’s suffrage were held in Bristol locations including, but not limited to: Charlton Hall in Lawrence Hill; the Temperance Hall in Bedminster; St Mark’s Schoolrooms in Easton; the Colston Hall in central Bristol; the Broadmead Rooms; plus locations in Stapleton, Clifton, Redland, Cotham and across the city centre.

1880-1884 – The early suffrage movement peaks in Bristol. In 1883, on 22 successive evenings, the Bristol Downs were taken over by meetings and rallies in support of women’s suffrage – all organised by the redoubtable Maria Colby.

September 1869 – The National Campaign Against the Contagious Diseases Act is launched in the Victoria Rooms, Clifton. Women had been appealing the Act since 1883, however, which forced sex workers to undergo invasive medical inspections and, if found to be infected, to be subject to three months in a ‘lock hospital’. The cure for sexually transmitted diseases in the Victorian era was mercury: a poison. The campaign centred on the Act’s violation of women’s rights, the unequal treatment of men and women under the Act, and the implication that the government condoned the use of prostitutes by the armed forces. In Bristol, campaigners set up the Old Park Hospital to offer voluntary treatment to any woman who wanted it. The Act was repealed in 1883.

1875 – Anne Priestman calls for the unionisation of women during a meeting at the Victoria Rooms. She writes a pamphlet entitled The Industrial Position of Women as Affected by the Exclusion from the Suffrage. As a result, the National Union of Working Women is founded in Bristol.

1882 – The Married Woman’s Property Act is passed, extending control over property and earnings to married women – but not divorced, widowed or separated women. Clearly, there were class issues with this Act.

1882 – Elizabeth Sturge and her sister Emily help to found Redland High School for Girls. Elizabeth is also involved in the creation of decent housing for working-class people, and helped establish Shirehampton as a ‘garden suburb’.

1887 – Catherine Winkworth, a suffragist, founded Clifton High School for Girls. Like Elizabeth Sturge, Catherine was involved in the creation of housing for working-class people and attempted to set up projects in the Jacobs Well area. Incidentally, Winkworth Place in St Paul’s is named after Catherine Winkworth.

Women at the Great Western Cotton Factory, Barton Hill, in 1900

1889 - Anne Priestman supported strike action by women working at the Barton Hill cotton factory over low wages and poor working conditions. There were also strikes by women workers in Bristol’s tobacco factories.

1892 – There were further strikes by Bristolian women working in the cotton mills, tobacco factories, docks, and at Sanders’ confectionary factory, which concluded with a meeting of 4,000 women workers at the Ropewalk in Bedminster. They were led by middle-class women who were socialists and suffragists.

Banner of the Women's Co-operative Guild

16 October, 1893 – The first Co-operative Working Women’s Guild is formed in Bristol, and the Bedminster Guild passed a unanimous resolution in favour of women’s suffrage. The Bedminster Guild is now closed but the Horfield Guild remains.

1897 – Enid Stacy writes an essay for the Independent Labour Party called A Century of Women’s Rights. She sets out a string of demands, many of which were echoed by the demands of the second wave of feminists in the 1970s. “The right to choose whether or not to have children; equality within marriage and fairer divorce laws; the right of mothers to guardianship of their children; full legal and political rights, including the right to vote in both local and parliamentary elections.” (You can read the whole essay here.) Enid died in 1903, aged 35, and was given a moving eulogy by her comrade Sylvia Pankhurst, who felt Enid had campaigned herself into an early grave.

1904 – The non-militant Bristol & West of England Suffrage Society resurfaces. They organise marches and electoral work.

Annie Kenney, 1909

1908 – Annie Kenney is dispatched by the Pankhursts to Bristol to establish the South West branch of the Women’s Social and Political Union. She is helped by local women Anne Priestman, Maria Colby and Lilias Ashworth Hallett.

November 1909 – Theresa Garnett is arrested and imprisoned at Horfield Gaol, following her attack on Winston Churchill at Temple Meads Station.

1910 – Thanks to Annie Kenney, there are a string of suffrage events at the Prince’s Theatre, on Park Row, Bristol, including a pageant, play and concert with a combined cast of hundreds.

Annie Keney's 1911 census form

1911 – Annie Kenney and her sisters organise a mass refusal of Bristolian women to sign the census – women believed if they did not have he right to vote, they should not be counted as citizens.

1913/1914 – Suffragettes begin a period of attacks on property, including burning a timber yard, a mansion at Frenchay, a mansion at Stoke Bishop, and the University Sports Pavilion at Coombe Dingle. After the last, the students took revenge by destroying the WSPU headquarters on Queens Road, opposite the university, with fire.

1913/14 – Alongside this, suffragettes and suffragists were involved with an enormous door-to-door canvassing of women who had been given the municipal vote, meetings for working women in Bedminster and other areas, jumble sales, lectures etc. Many suffragettes were held at Horfield Gaol where they endured hunger strikes and force feeding.

1914-1918 – During World War One, Bristolian suffragists (alongside those elsewhere in the country) cease protest in support of the war effort. They have more opportunities for paid work, which necessitate them being out in the dark hours. As a result, Bristolian women form the Women Patrols and Police. The patrols aimed to protect women from physical attack and ‘moral danger’ on the streets. After the patrols came under the control of the Home Office, Bristol Women’s Aid was formed to both protect women from assaults on the street and to help women in the courts, particularly unmarried mothers facing the workhouse or separation from their children.


Ellen Malos

In compiling this timeline, I owe a huge debt to Professor Ellen Malos’ article Bristol Women in Action 1840-1940, which appeared in the book Bristol’s Other History, published in 1983 by Bristol Broadsides: a cooperative based on Cheltenham Road. Alongside Ellen’s article, there is also a fascinating piece by Dr Madge Dresser about slum housing in the city. For those who don’t know, Madge is still a Reader in History at the University of the West of England, and next year she is publishing a book about the history of Bristolian women with Redcliffe Press.

Ellen is responsible for a raft of important developments for women in Bristol, thanks to her tireless work in the 1970s and 1980s. Ellen founded the Bristol Women’s Centre in her home, offered free pregnancy testing, took battered women in, and much more. I had the honour of meeting Ellen last year and speaking on a Festival of Ideas panel with her at Bristol’s Watershed last May. In October, Ellen retired as Senior Research Fellow at the University of Bristol’s Centre for Gender and Violence Research. Please listen to this clip of Debi Withers interviewing Ellen for the Sistershow project last year.

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