Votes for women in Cornwall

Votes for Women rally poster, Penzance, 1911 To join the commemoration and celebration of the Women's Suffrage movement, particularly the centenary of the Great Suffrage Pilgrimage of 1913, we are publishing a series of articles on the women's suffrage movement in Cornwall.

Starting with this retrospective, based on The Cornishman newspaper's archives, we will then be hosting guest posts from historians about the impact of this movement on Cornish politics and culture.

By 1913 there was a clear difference between the tactics of the Suffragettes, led by Pankhurst (Women’s Social and Political Union) who favoured direct action to force the issue of votes for women, and the Suffragists (National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies) who championed the continuation of non-violent protests and petitions which had started in the 1870s.

This is a slightly extended version of an article I wrote for The Cornishman which came out today [Errata: The Cornishman mis-edited my original article suggesting that the Suffrage Pilgrimage as being organised by the Suffragettes. Correction sought. Ed.] It also highlights the work of other projects, notably Dreadnought South West's play, Oxygen and the forthcoming social history exhibition at Penlee House, which are marking this momentous event which changed the lives of tens of thousands of women.

The first thing to note is that although the Suffragettes have remained in popular consciousness as the face of Votes for Women, there were in fact two movements campaigning for broadening the franchise (i.e. reforming the law so all women could have the vote) and other issues of social justice such as child poverty, poor working conditions and bonded white labour (slavery).

The Great Suffrage Pilgrimage was initiated by the Suffragists who prided themselves on their peaceful tactics: rallies, marches and petitions. Millicent Fawcett was the face of the Suffragists and their colours were red, green and white.

The Suffragettes who came to be known through names such as Emmeline Pankhurst and Emily Davison (who died tragically at on Derby Day 1913) took direct action. Their cause was to  use drastic measures to draw attention to the appalling injustice that allowed the law to be based on the decisions of men only. Their colours were purple, green and white.

Land's End to London, 1913 (credit: Jill Morison)

In the 19 June 1913 edition of The Cornishman, sandwiched between a report on the output of black tin from Botallack Stamps and a physician’s advice about curing indigestion, was a short notice headlined MRS. PANKHURST RELEASED.

Emmeline Pankhurst was a Suffragette leader and had been on hunger strike, enduring the torture of force-feeding, while incarcerated at Holloway Prison for conspiracy to commit property damage. Emily Davison had also tragically lost her life while trying to pin Suffragette colours to the King’s horse at the Epson Derby barely a week before.

By 1913 there was a clear difference between the tactics of the Suffragettes, led by Pankhurst (Women’s Social and Political Union) who favoured direct action to force the issue of votes for women, and the Suffragists (National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies) who championed the continuation of non-violent protests and petitions which had started in the 1870s. Cornish activists enjoyed widespread support, from the dominant Liberal political class and influential religious groups such as Quakers headed by families such as the Foxes of Falmouth.

“There is a rumour that at Camborne they may be pelted with stale eggs"

The Cornishman 21 June 1913 (credit: The Cornishman)

The tragedies of Pankhurst’s treatment and Davison’s death rallied peaceful Suffragists into action and on Thursday 19 June an amazing thing happened. Seven women gathered at Land’s End to start the Suffrage Pilgrimage, a gruelling march through Cornwall and up country to London. The Cornishman reported:

“There is a rumour that at Camborne they may be pelted with stale eggs; but surely, when it is realised that not one of the marchers has been guilty of breaking the law or inciting others to break the law, they will be treated with as much respect as would be a procession of Oddfellows or Freemasons.”

Scenes at Penzance

“This little band of zealots comprised Miss Misick (organising secretary), Mrs. Ramsay (Plymouth), Miss Raby (Exeter), and Miss Helen Fraser (London). Mrs. Robins Bolitho, who is actively interested in the non-militant movement, gave the party a hearty send-off, whilst a number of men who had assembled raised a cheer. Along the route to Penzance literature was left at the houses, and the idea of the movement explained.”

Suffrage Pilgrimage van on Market Jew Street, Penzance 100 years ago today (credit: Penlee House Gallery and Museum)

The march came to Penzance and paused at Trereife crossroads. The report continued, “Quite a crowd of people had assembled to witness the junction, and the numbers were constantly added to as the procession neared Penzance. Being market day, the processionists did not parade the main streets, but simply marched up Clarence-street and dispersed at the Pig Market.”

A rally led by Fraser took place on a makeshift stage in the Pig Market where a large crowd gathered, including the “hobble-de-hoy.” Fraser’s eloquence was complemented by the reporter, “few orators of the masculine gender could have held and swayed an audience in the open air as did Miss Fraser.” A scuffle broke out after her rousing speech as she had apparently been kicked in the ankle. The leaders had to be escorted by police to a safe-house on Clarence Street.

“…and if anything like the same success can be achieved in the various towns en route, they will have materially helped their cause to victory ere—like the “twenty thousand Cornishmen” of Trewlany’s spirited days—they summon London town to surrender.”

The march resumed on the Friday morning from Clarence Street, “up Alverton, through the Green Market, and on their way to the station, on the second stage of their long, self-imposed tramp to London.”

Land's End to London, women from Cornwall marched for six weeks (credit: Penlee House Gallery and Museum)

Invoking the last great march of Cornish people to London in 1497, the report ends, “…and if anything like the same success can be achieved in the various towns en route, they will have materially helped their cause to victory ere—like the “twenty thousand Cornishmen” of Trewlany’s spirited days—they summon London town to surrender.”

It took a further ten years for universal franchise to be granted to all women in 1928.

A small number of women were finally given the vote after World War 1 in 1918 as part of the Representation of the People Act. About 8.4 million enfranchised women (related to status and property holding) over the age of 30 voted.

It took a further ten years for universal franchise to be granted to all women over the age of 21 in 1928. That was a full 15 years after the Great Suffrage Pilgrimage and the height of Suffragette action.

Further reading

Katherine Bradley, Friends and Visitors: a History of the Women’s Suffrage Movement in Cornwall 1870-1914 (2000, The Hypatia Trust). Available from the Hypatia Trust Online Bookstore. £5.