Dora Montefiore

From a Victorian to a Modern


The work of the Women’s Social and Political Union was begun by Mrs. Pankhurst in Manchester, and by a group of women in London who had revolted against the inertia and conventionalism which seemed to have fastened upon the Victoria Street Union of Suffrage Societies.

Mrs. Elmy, one of the most wonderful women who devoted her life and her intellectual powers to the cause of the emancipation of women, paid constant visits to London from her home in Cheshire, with the object of stirring up what seemed to be the dying embers of suffrage activities. She knew all the Members of Parliament who had at any time expressed in words, or who had helped with pen or with action our cause; and at the time of these visits to London (usually at the period of the promised debates in Parliament on a Suffrage Bill), she would visit these Members in the Lobby and do her best to stir them into action. The late Mr. Stead, who was a great admirer of hers, would frequently help her to get up small private meetings of sympathisers and workers, and all of us who were looking for a lead in suffrage matters, welcomed these quaint and earnest appearances of hers in London, and derived encouragement from her experience of Parliamentary procedure and intense spiritual enthusiasm. She usually stayed at my house when she came to town, and I had the privilege of accompanying her when she interviewed Members of Parliament or other sympathisers. She must have been then between sixty and seventy, very small and fragile, with the brightest and keenest dark eyes and a face surrounded with little white ringlets. She was an old friend of and fellow-worker with Josephine Butler and of John Stuart Mill, and in those days had been an habituée of what was then known as the “Ladies’ Gallery” in the House of Commons. There, behind the grille, where they could see but not be seen by the Members of the House, these and other devoted women had sat night after night listening to the debates on the Contagious Diseases Acts, which raised questions that concerned their sex as much, if not more, than they did that of the men who were discussing them. This loyalty in the cause of their fellow-women who, they realised, suffered so severely under the C.D. Acts, brought them insult and opprobrium, but it also brought them many of the truest and loyalest friends that women ever possessed; and, as we know, the cause they stood for triumphed in the end.

My friendship with Mrs. Elmy and work with her continued during many years and our correspondence, between the periods of her visits to town, was continuous; I was keeping her au courant with what was going on in London, and she interpreting, encouraging, sending me voluminous newspaper cuttings and helping forward my work in every way in her power with loving counsels and wisest advice. She never faltered in her belief that women’s political enfranchisement was very near at hand, although, time and again, politicians betrayed and jockeyed us, while men who feared our influence in public life, insulted our efforts and talked out our Bills. Mrs. Browning wrote: “It takes a soul to move a body,” and I often thought that it was the little white hovering soul of Mrs. Wolstenholme Elmy which eventually moved a somewhat inert mass of suffrage endeavour and set it on the road of militant activity. At any rate, she hailed with delight the work of the “Women’s Social and Political Union,” which flared up like a torch in Manchester under the guidance of Mrs. Pankhurst and her daughters, and in London, under that of a group of women, myself included, who undertook to attend political meetings and question speakers about their intentions towards the enfranchisement of women, keeping that before the meeting as our supreme aim and if necessary, holding up proceedings until an answer was obtained. Early in 1906 Christabel Pankhurst wrote me from Manchester that Annie Kenney was coming up to town to help us carry on the fight and she wanted to find a place to stay at in the East End of London, where she could get into touch with East End working women. As I was already in touch with many of these women, I was able to find the place Annie Kenney required with Mrs. Baldock, the wife of a fitter, at 10, Eclipse Road, Canning Town, and she and Teresa Billington helped much in our London work. Before this, however, some of us had been on a deputation to Mr. Campbell Bannerman in Downing Street, and the illustrated papers came out with pictures of a group of us, including Mrs. Drummond, Mrs. Davidson, Mrs. Rowe and myself, standing on the steps of No. 10, Downing Street, trying to persuade the elderly manservant to let us in and interview the Prime Minister. We had a long and rather amusing argument with this manservant, who evidently was at his wits’ end to know what to do with us, so politely pertinacious were we. Finally, after closing the door on us more than once, while he went into the house with our messages, he returned to say that Mr. Ponsonby, the Prime Minister’s Secretary, would see two of us, and Mrs. Drummond and myself were deputed to interview him, while the rest of the deputation remained on the doorstep. Our interview was not wholly successful, inasmuch as we could obtain no definite promise that the Prime Minister would receive a deputation, but I think we succeeded in making Mr. Ponsonby understand that we were in deadly earnest about the matter and that if we did not get some definite Governmental promise or assurance that the Liberals, for whom women had worked so loyally to place in power, would fulfil their pre-electoral pledges, we would find other means, unconstitutional if necessary, to force them to do so.

Among the electoral meetings we attended in order to question the candidates on the subject of the enfranchisement of women, I remember one meeting specially at the. Queen’s Hall, Regent Street, when Mr. Asquith was to support the candidature of Mr. Chiozza-Money, when I obtained tickets for Annie Kenney in the orchestra and myself and Mrs. Baldock in the stalls. The meeting was a huge packed one, and the audience while waiting sang the Land Song and other favourite Liberal ditties. It was in excellent humour with itself for it smelt victory and knew that the spoils of office were within the grasp of Liberalism. It was not in a humour to brook interruptions. The applause when Mr. and Mrs. Asquith entered was noisy and prolonged. That gentleman’s speech was punctuated with cheers, then a shrill voice came from the orchestra seats, “What are you going to do for women?” There was a roar of displeasure from the audience. Again the voice rose: “Votes for Women!” There was a rush of stewards for the spot from whence the voice proceeded. Many of the audience rose to their feet, a signal was given and the organ began to play. Mr. Asquith sat down and beamed a fat smile, Mrs. Asquith an acidulated one. There was a prolonged scuffle in the orchestra punctuated with cried of “Votes for Women,” and finally Annie Kenney was carried out. The organ ceased to play, and Mr. Asquith continued his speech.

It was then my turn and at the next opportunity that Mr. Asquith gave when rehearsing the Liberal programme, I rose to my feet and asked if the Liberals were returned to power, what they were going to do for the emancipation of women. A gasp of outraged surprise filled the stalls and people round me asked me to sit down, but I insisted: “Will the speaker tell the audience what the intention of the Government is about the enfranchisement of women?” Stewards approached me and one of them said “Will you write the question and send it up to the platform.” The ladies round me hearing this said: “Yes, write the question and send it up by the stewards.” This I did and I watched the paper being passed to Mr. Asquith and read by Mrs. Asquith, who sat just behind him; again they both smiled sarcastically, but no answer was vouchsafed. I rose to my feet again to protest that wanted an answer, but those near me and the stewards who were now surrounding me, said: “Wait till the end of the meeting, and the other speakers have made their speeches, and he will then give you an answer.” I, believing that this assurance had been given to the stewards, waited till the end of the meeting, but when that end came those on the platform walked out without vouchsafing a reply to a question voiced by a delegate from organised women. This shows the contempt with which the Liberal Leaders met the women’s organised demand for enfranchisement, and it was the cause of many of the angry meetings in front of Mr. Asquith’s house during the course of the manifestations which followed.

We were also getting up suffrage meetings in various parts of London and laying our plans for joint demonstrations of militant suffragists. In connection with this work the following letter from Miss Esther Roper, who, with Miss Gore Booth, had been for several years organising for suffrage work the women of Lancashire, is of interest:—

Cringlebrook Park,
Victoria Park,

I have been away for nearly a week, and I am sorry for the delay in answering your letter. With regard to the Political and Social Union, there is no quarrel between us, but it seems undoubtedly better that the attack on the Government should come from as many quarters as possible, independently of one another, so that the Prime Minister may realise that he has numbers to deal with, and so cannot think he can tire us out. We therefore think it better that the first demonstration that we have, we should do without joining forces with the Union. There is plenty of room for us both in London, and I do not think we shall have any difficulty in getting a big demonstration. Has the Prime Minister Offered to see the Social and Political Union as reported?
With kind regards,
Yours sincerely,

To prove how we were helped at this time in our demonstration and questioning of candidates, the following letter from my working woman friend, Mrs. Baldock, will show. She puts no date to it, but it was written either towards the end of 1905 or early in 1906:—

10, Eclipse Road,
Canning Town.

How I wish I had the chance of working side by side with these splendid go-ahead women at Wigan. I believe though that I could speak out more than I do now. I often feel very cross with myself for having lost an opportunity, because I have had no one here to back me up. I was pleased to read about the Liverpool meeting; that is just as it should be, the more there are to protest, the better. I think it is most encouraging to think that at last we women are acknowledged and are worth talking about. I have had a letter from Miss Miller, who had read about us asking the questions in the Queen’s Hall; she belongs to no organisation, but is very strong re Woman Suffrage, and also very brave. She asked me to come to one of Sydney Buxton’s meetings. Although very busy, I felt that I could not damp her ardour, so we went. She was to do all the shouting and would not mind so long as I was with her. We went to a crowded meeting held at the Poplar Town Hall, we sat in about the middle of the hall and listened very attentively to the Chairman and S.B., but no reference was made to women. So my friend stood up and asked S.B. if he was returned would he give votes to women, but received no answer. She then stood on her seat arid held up a flag she had made. White with red letters “Votes for Women.” She made me laugh, for she turned round like a spinning top so that everybody could see, and would not get down until the stewards came to her and asked her to go on the platform; they could not turn her out as the place was so packed.

I was rather sorry at the time that she consented, but they gave her a chair on the front and told her they would answer her question. They then asked for questions; my friend then placed her banner over her knees so that for the rest of the evening everyone could see it. When S.B. answered he said he could not vote for Woman Suffrage, they could not sit in Parliament, and he did not believe in them having a vote for where they could not sit. (As if they could not amend the law.) They talked to us and about us as if we were fools indeed. I was ready to answer him that way, but my friend had sent me a note saying that S.B. would allow me to say a few words about W.S., if I was connected with the constituency, as if it was not a national question. I was so glad, for I just felt fit and I held that united manifesto in favour of votes for women in my hands. I was going to mention what Mazzini said about women and tell them that we wanted power to help ourselves, etc. I should have read the manifesto to them, but I waited in vain. They closed the meeting without calling upon me. I shall know better next time than to believe their logic. We made an impression, anyhow, and my friend was cheered for her bravery by some men. Now, dear friend, I hope I have not tired you with this. Our election takes place on the 15th and we are very short of helpers.

Thorne would be so glad if you could manage to speak for him next Sunday morning (two meetings), it is the day before the election and we are nearly all worn out. I am busy canvassing and have been speaking publicly for Thorne, I do not think the people or my comrades would appreciate it if I did; but if you can come, will you let me know, and I will be at 124, Barking Road at half past eleven on Sunday morning. You can come to Plaistow Station and get into Hermit Road tram that goes to Canning Town and passes the door. I can then talk to you about coming to Hammersmith. I think I can do something to help.

So glad you are well, thanking you for the opportunity.

Yours fraternally,
(Signed) M. BALDOCK.

Another letter from Mrs. Baldock dated 2nd January, speaks of my work on the New Age, in which I had been writing for several years the column headed “Women’s Interests.”

10, Eclipse Road,
Canning Town,
Victoria Docks,
2nd January.

Received your card and have been wondering how you are. I do hope your health is better; I wish there were more women like you to cheer and help us, I am sure there would be very much less done were it not for your helpfulness not only in Hammersmith, but here in West Ham, in slums and all sorts of places. Do not let us be discouraged because we do not see the results; you are doing a good and great work, so please take good care of yourself, for the world cannot do without women like yourself, they are very scarce. I have been very much encouraged since knowing you and reading your pages in the New Age. It has helped me you will never know how much, and I am not the only one.< /p>

Yours fraternally,

Mrs. Baldock was a Guardian in the East End of London and knew, therefore, the conditions under which men, women and children were suffering in that part of our great Metropolis, and she was keen about political enfranchisement for women, because she hoped, as all we suffragists did, that women would then have the power to alter the bad and unfair laws which she and others working in local government had to administer. She was eventually one of those who took part in the demonstration in the Lobby of the House of Commons and went to prison with the first group of militant suffragists.

I must here correct a mis-statement made by Miss Sylvia Pankhurst in what she calls her “History of the Suffrage Movement.” The statement appears in Votes for Women of 5th November, 1908. It was describing how Annie Kenney first came to London as organiser for the W.S.P.U., which organisation had been already for several months working in London and the members of which were alert, hardworking and very enthusiastic. She gives no date as regards the arrival of Annie Kenney, but writes:—

“Therefore with two pounds in her pocket she set off. The present writer (then a national scholarship holder at the Royal College of Arts, South Kensington, and therefore precluded from working for the Union except after College hours) was a tenant of two small rooms in a little house in Chelsea. On arriving in London, Annie Kenney, at her suggestion, took a bedroom in the same house and therefore it was in the tiny, scantily-furnished sitting-room at 45, Park Walk, Chelsea, that the London Committee of the W.S.P.U. began its work.” When Annie Kenney arrived in London she came straight to me at my house in Upper Mall, Hammersmith, and told me she wished specially to get in touch with working women in the East End of London, and that her means at the moment were very small. I therefore sent her to Mrs. Baldock, where she lodged during the first weeks of her stay in London, and where she was able to get in touch with many of the women among whom I had been working. Also, the London Committee of the W.S.P.U. had been doing good work in London long before Annie Kenney arrived on the scene, or Sylvia Pankhurst took the “scantily-furnished sitting-room” in Chelsea. She also made several misstatements and suppressions of truth in her account of the Queen’s Hall meeting I have just described, where she only mentions Annie Kenney, Mrs. Baldock and “another woman” as taking part in the questioning of Mr. Asquith. I happened to be “the other woman”, but I happened also to be the organiser and inspirer of that particular heckling, having been to the Headquarters of the Liberal Association and obtained the tickets, and having been the principal questioner at the meeting. Years afterwards, when both Sylvia Pankhurst and I were in the advanced ranks of the Socialist movement, I asked her one day why she had so wilfully distorted facts in her so-called “History of the Votes for Women Movement”; and she replied that she was very young at the time and entirely under the influence of her mother, who wished my name to be suppressed; she also added that Mrs. Pethick Lawrence had also complained to her of mis-statements in the same “History.” I did not consider Sylvia’s excuse satisfactory and I told her so. Sylvia was neither a schoolgirl nor a bread-and-butter Miss at the time she started her work in the militant movement. She had before this won an Art scholarship and had studied Art in Rome, so she knew something of the world and should have known right from wrong, and truth from falsehood. Therefore she should never have allowed her name to be put to a series of intentional mis-statements.

To return to my Suffrage work among the East End women, I must also mention Mrs. Knight, a delicate little woman with a large family of children, but who never spared herself when it came to real militant work either at meetings, or in the street. She was more than once injured in some of the scuffles with the police, which took place between them and the militant suffragists; she went to prison when the time came for it to be necessary for her to do so and she shrank from nothing that would help forward by word or deed the revolutionary changes for which she stood. I feel bound to mention here that “going to prison” for East End suffragists was a far worse ordeal in some respects than it was for their West End sisters. Those East End women lived, if not in slums, on the borders of “slumdom,” where the inhabitants were ignorant and often unintentionally cruel in their judgments. They had no notion of the idealism which inspired all of us militant women and they were only too ready with gibe and pointed finger to point out the “jail birds” or to persecute the children of these women, and annoy by rough ignorant jests the husbands. Miss Sylvia Pankhurst, in the same article from which I have already quoted, also describes the day of the opening of Parliament, 19th February, 1906, when some of us led a crowd of these East End women with their banners from St. James’s Park Station towards the House of Commons. I had been one of those who helped to organise these women to express themselves by marching on the West End and on Parliament. Of course, the police would not allow them to approach nearer to the House than St. James’s Park Station, but on our agreeing that the women should furl their banners, they allowed the procession to go to Caxton Hall. I was one of those who addressed the meeting at Caxton Hall, and never shall I forget the electric thrill that passed from the platform to the audience and back from the audience to the platform, as we each of us made our rebellious speeches and urged the women in the audience to help in the coming intensive struggle. Lady Carlisle, a very good suffragist according to her lights, was in the audience. I had worked with her on the old United Suffragist Executive, and she told me after the meeting that she had come to hear what new plans we militants had for making things move more rapidly. She further told me how she had recently had a long talk with Labouchere, one of our bitterest opponents, and had said to him: “On all subjects but this, Mr. Labouchere, we see eye to eye; now can’t you alter your point of view on the woman question; and if you find that you cannot work with us Liberal women on this subject, won’t you cease your obstructions?” Labouchere would make no promises, but in years to come he certainly was less offensive in his methods. Mr. Cremer, M.P., was another most unpleasant opponent. Whenever we managed, after much arduous work, in getting a private Member to bring in a Resolution or a Bill, Mr. Cremer was always ready with one of his offensive, vulgar speeches, the gist of which generally was that “he knew something about women as he had been three times married; and that women were totally unfit to fulfil political duties because at certain periods every month they were incapacitated from thinking or reasoning.” In the early years I can remember these speeches used to be received with laughter as being one of the “funny turns” in the dullness of parliamentary debates, but in later years a growl of displeasure would go through the House and Mr. Cremer discovered that he had ceased to be the funny man. I mention this just to show the difference in crowd psychology towards questions affecting women and their functions in society. These changes in outlook and in taste are so subtle and came about so slowly that they are sometimes not realised as they should be; but I feel that a speech of the calibre of those of Mr. Cremer which I have just described would be now impossible in the Parliament of to-day, whatever Government were in power. Though that meeting which I have just described at Caxton Hall was an epoch-making meeting in the history of Suffrage Movement, we did not obtain any definite promise from the Government of Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman that they would bring in, or even support, any measure for the enfranchisement of women.

It, no doubt, however, paved the way for the reception in Downing Street in May, 1906, by Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman of a delegation from the various Suffrage Societies then existing. I was one of the members of that delegation, when one of the best speeches was that made by a Lancashire working woman from the Society organised by Miss Roper. These women were particularly keen, because they were suffering under the double injustice of having, through the Textile Union, to help to pay the larger share of the levy which formed the parliamentary salary their so-called representative, Mr. (now Sir David) Shackleton. There being more women than men in the Textile Union, the heavy burden of the levy fell on the women members; and Mr. David Shackleton, who should have represented them with some sort of enthusiasm at Westminster, was not an ardent Woman Suffragist. Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, and the group of parliamentarians who came in to hear the speeches, were evidently impressed by the arguments used, but no promises were made and the delegates dispersed with the backs of the militants more than ever stiffened. Sir William Bull, our M.P. for Hammersmith, was a sympathiser with our movement, and in the autumn of 1906 I had written to him at the suggestion of Mrs. Wolstenholme Elmy to try and get some Resolution for Woman Suffrage tacked on to the “Plural Voting Bill,” which was then being discussed and prepared. This was his reply:—

King Street,
2nd October, 1906.

As you are aware, the Government have taken the autumn session entirely for their own business. I do not know what their plans will be, but I suspect it will be somewhat upset by the Irish.

Under the circumstances, any prophecy with regard to the Plural Voting Bill is of no value. You can rely upon me doing my best to make a stir about it. To alter the title would not be sufficient, they would have to withdraw the Bill and re-draft it. I am sure the permanent officials would not like such an easy way out of the difficulty as you suggest.

Yours faithfully,

Mr. Keir Hardie, founder of the I.L.P., was one of our best friends in Parliament and outside, and encouraged in every way our militant activities. He and Mrs. Elmy (who was then 72) spoke from the plinth of the Trafalgar Square Monument after the delegation had been received at Downing Street, and the sight of these two white-haired pioneers of advanced thought standing side by side and encouraging us younger women was a great help to us in the fight. He was always ready to give what I may call “detailed” assistance, such as bringing out into the Lobby Members who might be won over by our representations to our cause; getting Committee rooms in the Houses of Parliament put at our disposal, addressing meetings for us, and as I have said, helping what was then an unpopular cause in a very devoted and disinterested manner. Enfranchised women owe a real debt of gratitude to the late Mr. Keir Hardie. I have now come to the period of my fight under the auspices of the London Section of the W.S.P.U., for “No taxation without representation” at my house in Hammersmith, but the details of that must be told in another chapter.

Next: Chapter V. Years of Maturing