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A Champion of Women's Rights

By E. Vernon Jones

The presence of obstreperous antagonists might easily have turned a harmless situation into an ugly incident at Carmarthen Fair in the year 1913. As it was, sufficient excitement was aroused at the fair - on Tuesday 13 April - for the local Press to report that a group of women armed with hammers had been mistaken for Suffragettes. That there should have been apprehension is not surprising, for Suffragrettes had gained notoriety by promoting their cause with militant action; still a potent memory was the London rampage of the previous year, when scores of windows had been smashed in Piccadilly Circus, Regent Street and Oxford Street by activists carrying hammers concealed in their muffs. An eruption in Carmarthen, on the edge of the national scene, was not impossible, but, in the event, a circumstance fraught with potential disturbance ended in light-hearted unconcern upon the realisation that the women were no more militant than students of geology, appropriately equipped with the tool of their academic discipline. Nevertheless, the occasion serves to illustrate the uneasy social tensions that were generated whenever female franchise reared its voice in the years before 1914, when the out-break of what used to be called the Great War silenced the clamour and concentrated the nation's total attention.

Debate about votes for women had been going on for decades with increasing momentum until early in the present century, when there were those, urged by frustration and defeated hopes, who felt the time had come to turn words into action. As a result, the issue fell into one of divided opinion as to whether female enfranchisement was to be achieved by direct action or by constitutional persuasion. Famous among the direct actionists was Emmeline Pankhurst, whose husband, Dr. Richard Pankhurst (d. 1898), was a lawyer who had aided the women's cause by drafting proposals designed to bring about votes for women on the same basis as men. Mrs. Pankhurst had formed the Women's Suffrage League as far hack as 1889, but this had foundered after a few precarious years. In 1903 she established the Women's Social and Political Union and, despairing of securing female suffrage from the new Liberal government, she embarked, in 1906, on a policy of direct action, which was pursued until the outbreak of war in 1914. The surge in women's demands brought the question of female suffrage into sharper focus and physical demonstrations in pursuit of their aims earned headlines of increasing size in the newspapers of the day. This was the time when the agitators came to be known as Suffragettes, a sobriquet which, some say, appeared to have been coined by the Daily Mail in 1906, but it is more likely to have been a borrowing from the United States, where the term had been in use for a long time.

Although it undoubtedly elevated the subject of female suffrage to one for serious notice, militant action did not command universal support; furthermore, there were those who were offended by Mrs. Pankhurst's autocratic rule of the WSPU. Sympathies that were thus alienated brought about a break-away faction which formed the Women's Freedom League, whose policy of militancy was less violent than Mrs. Pankhurst's brand. Those who sought redress by constitutional means ultimately formed the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies, which combined the strength of the hundreds of local organisations, many of which had been long in existence. 'The twin virtues of reason and moderation were shown to the best advantage' by this organisation,1 whose members came to be known as Suffragists to distinguist themselves from the militant Suffragettes, but it was the rival label that was to survive in popular usage despite the Oxford Dictionary's stricture about the misuse of a diminutive suffix. Though these were the main bodies, there were many other organisations which sought to advance the women's cause, among them being those attached to political parties, trade unions, the Co-operative movement, and even ethnic and religious minorities.

Challenged by mounting pressure which prevarication had failed to staunch, the House of Commons felt urged to set up an all-party committee in 1910 to consider the whole question of votes for women and in consequence of its deliberations there was drawn up a Conciliation Bill, which proposed to give the vote to women house-holders and women occupiers of premises paying ten pounds or more a year. It should be remembered, however, that this was not the first women's franchise Bill to be introduced into Parliament; there had been several earlier attempts to secure legislation during the preceding half-century, many individual MPs having been prepared to act as sponsors, but without government backing the prospect of success was always extremely limited. For the first time, a measure of general agreement had been brought about by the Conciliation Committee's endeavours and hopes of triumph at last seemed to be enhanced. In July of the same year the Bill passed through the Commons at second reading by a large majority, but in November Prime Minister Asquith vetoed it on technical grounds, claiming that, as framed, it was incapable of amendment; any re-drafted Bill would therefore have to wait until the following year before it could be introduced. A new Bill, technically more satisfactory, was drafted by the Conciliation Committee and in May 1911 this, too, passed second reading, only to be killed by Asquith, who announced that because of lack of time a new Bill would have to be introduced.

Although he had announced in public that he was in favour of votes for women, Asquith was, in fact, among the opponents within his divided Cabinet, and these delaying tactics could not fail to infuriate. It needs to be said, however, that circumstances were never so stable that the warring factions were always consistent in their stances and there were times when the protagonists responded to expediency rather than principle. And, if on one hand, increasing violence hardened opposition from those whose influence might have been turned to better account, there were, on the other hand, those opponents who felt that total rather than selective franchise was the solution. Conservatives, if they favoured any enfranchisement at all, tended to support a limited property vote for women as a preferable alternative to the admission of the lower orders to the polling booth; whereas radical Liberals and the fledgling Labour party objected to a selective franchise because they saw votes for all, men and women, over twenty-one as the ultimate objective. As for the militants, one suspects a touch of perversity in those who baulked at the prospect of seeing their demands satisfied by provisions incorporated in legislation to extend the male franchise; votes for women was for them a just subject for a Bill solely concerned with the rights of women.

Failure of the Conciliation Bills brought predictable reaction from Mrs. Pankhurst and her cohorts. Already there had been refusal to co-operate in the 1911 census - No vote, no census, had been the cry. Many were fined, although the authorities jibbed at imprisonment when these were unpaid. Civil disobedience, such as ritual chainings to symbolic railings and the like, had been ineffectual; militancy now meant violence, which included window-smashing, stone-throwing, assaults on government ministers and police and even attempted bombings. 'No Taxation without Representation' cried these rebellious spirits as they were hauled off to prison, where some, heroic in defiance, suffered the indignity of forcible feeding. But it was not only the militants who revived the battle-cry of the eighteenth century American colonists; the constitutionalists joined in with the fervour of religious conviction. Even so, relatively few could have been liable to tax, a circumstance which partly explains the middle-class nature of the movement; the less articulate masses remained voiceless in a political wilderness.

Yet these were by no means the only events to distinguish those hectic years of political turbulence. On a different power-front another class battle raged over Lloyd George's land tax budget of 1909; a serious constitutional conflict between Lords and Commons precipitated two general elections within a single year and threatened the creation of hundreds of peers, the crisis being resolved at last by the passage of the Parliament Act 1911, which severely curbed the powers of the Upper House. Throughout this parliamentary confrontation - from 1909 to 1911 - the women's cause was almost submerged. But in 1912 the clamour was renewed with increased fervour, in which were joined the constitutionalists, now spurred to greater effort.

Beatrice This was the context in which steps were taken to establish an organisation in Carmarthen to secure votes for women, and foremost among those who demanded a new deal was Beatrice Alice Holme, headmistress of the County Girls' School, a post she had held since 1895. Born on 17th February 1866, she was the daughter of a Manchester civil engineer, William Holme, and his wife Sarah Hough. After attending Manchester High School she entered Girton College, Cambridge, where she was a college scholar, in 1884, and in 1887 was successful in the mathematical tripos, being placed in Class II.2 This was at a time when women, although allowed to sit the examinations, were not admitted to degrees of Cambridge University; later, the University awarded titular certificates, which was a way of conceding that had they been men they would have been granted degrees, but many women refused on principle to apply for certificates. It was as a result of this circumstance that Beatrice Holme, like many others, received a master's degree in arts from Trinity College, Dublin, which showed its disapproval by offering its own degree to women deprived by the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.3 Not until 1948 did Cambridge University admit women to degrees, though Oxford had yielded in 1920 and London as far back as 1878. Such indignity, suffered for no better reason than prejudice against her sex, must have rankled still when, almost twenty-five years later, she set forth upon a local crusade to play her part in the demand for women's voting rights.

thumb Beatrice Holme belonged to the non-militant school and it was as a Suffragist that she took the leading role in setting up a Women's Suffragist Society at Carmarthen. It was appropriate that the society came into being at her home at Minyrafon, 8 The Parade, Carmarthen, where the inaugural meeting was held on Saturday evening, 4 November 1911.4 (Also, see Postscript) The date is worth noting, for the Parliament Bill resolving the conflict between Lords and Commons, which had commanded the attention of the nation, had now passed to the statute book. The time had therefore come when the movement could re-capture public interest in full measure. The meeting at Minyrafon, at which there was a 'fair attendance of ladies', was presided over by Mr. E.V. Collier, and among other men present was the Rev. A. Fuller Mills. That men should have played a significant part in the proceedings may appear strange until it is remembered that political power and positions of social and economic influence were exclusively possessed by the male of the species and not until they had been won over in sufficient strength could there be hope of the fulfilment of women's aspirations. Support from men was therefore welcomed and some suffrage organisations even had men's sections. Nationally, many important figures espoused the women's cause, both inside and outside Parliament; even so, no political party was prepared to commit itself. Carmarthen Suffragists were therefore enhancing the possibility of achieving their aims by enlisting the aid of men. Ernest Vale Collier, architect, artist and antiquarian, was a much respected figure in the town, where he served the arts - notably the Operatic Society and the Sketch Club - and cared about the welfare of the young. More influential in local politics was Andrew Fuller Mills, Baptist minister, county councillor, and secretary of the Carmarthen Liberal Association; ten years later he would be mayor of the Borough. These two were elected to the committee, along with the following: Miss F. Morris, Bryn Roma; Miss Morris, Bryn Myrddin; Mrs. Lewis Giles; Miss Gwladys Lloyd, Lammas Street; Miss Holme; Mrs. Stephens; Mrs. Evan Jones, Green Bank; Mr. J.A. Maguire and Mr. F. Humphreys (treasurer). Miss Ann Jones, Green Bank and Miss Alice Evans, Green Hill were appointed temporary secretaries, but by the end of the year they were added to the committee and succeeded as secretaries by Miss Marion Jones, The Parade and Miss Mary Davies, Priory Street. Affiliation to the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies and an annual subscription of one shilling (five pence) was agreed and thanks were accorded Miss Holme for 'the use of her Drawing-room'.

Four days later the committee, presided over by Mr. Fuller Mills at Green Hill, agreed that Miss Holme should be chairman, and decided to 'stand by the Conciliation Bill unless there was a possibility of securing something better'. The second Conciliation Bill had already foundered because of lack of time, Mr. Asquith having announced that a new Bill would have to be introduced. In the same month as the Carmarthen Suffragists formed their society Mr. Asquith came out strongly in favour of adult suffrage, i.e. votes for men over twenty-one, and promised that in the next session the Government would introduce a Bill to give it effect; the Bill would be capable of amendment to include women, if the House so agreed. Suspecting treachery, Mrs. Pankhurst reacted violently. This was the time when she and her supporters had wanted nothing to do with any measure that adulterated the principle of women's voting rights by mixing it with the enfranchisement of more men; they insisted on a Conciliation Bill which would be exclusively concerned with women. The issue thus divided itself on party lines, the Conservatives tending to favour the Conciliation Bill's limited property qualification, while the Liberals refused to acknowledge any perfidy in Mr. Asquith's announcement of a policy offering an all-embracing franchise that would bring in the wife of the working man.

The Carmarthen Society's reaction was expressed at a meeting on 2 December, when letters from Mr.Asquith and Mr. Llewelyn Williams, the Carmarthen Borough M.P., were received. Writing from King's Bench Walk, Temple, London, Mr. Williams stated: 'I am sorry that I cannot agree with the Resolution passed at your meeting the other night and think Mr. Asquith has taken up a very reasonable attitude and if all friends of the suffrage are well advised they will unite to support an Amendment to the Government's Bill providing for the inclusion of women. All that can be obtained from the Conciliation Bill can be won by amendment to the Manhood Suffrage Bill even if the majority of the House of Commons are against universal suffrage.'

Not wholly pleased with Llewelyn Williams's reply, the committee responded by expressing the hope that he would 'vote for that Amendment which will give Votes to Women on the widest basis possible'. At the same time, they affirmed their determination to exert every effort 'to secure votes for women on the same terms as they are allowed to men, but failing this to secure the enfranchisement of as many women as possible'.

To bring the aims of the branch into the public eye, an open meeting had been held at the Saleroom of the Ivy Bush Royal Hotel on Thursday, 23 November 1911, when Miss Holme, 'the lady principal of the County Girls' School', presided and 'was supported by several prominent townspeople. The room was crowded long before the appointed hour and a large number of people were unable to gain admission, so packed was the audience'.5 The invited speaker was Miss Helen Fraser of Cardiff, who had been active in the suffrage movement since 1906 and had taken part in over twenty by-elections. A Glaswegian who had been trained as an artist, she had been one of the speakers at a rally organised by Mrs. Pankhurst's Union in June 1908, when half a million people were said to have assembled in Hyde Park, London. In the meantime, however, she had switched her allegiance to the constitutionalists. Introducing the guest speaker, Miss Holme said: 'I have supported this movement for many years for I know of no logical reason why women who have to obey the laws of the country and who also in many cases have to pay taxes, should not have a voice in forming those laws. I have heard many arguments against women's suffrage, but none, apart from sex, which, in my opinion, could not be applied to some if not all men.' She went on to say: 'Arguments similar to those now used against women's suffrage were brought about forty years ago against the higher education of women. Women were assured that they were incapable of such work and there were gloomy prognostications as to the results if they dared to enter the portals of knowledge hitherto sacred to men. Well, during the last forty years in spite of much opposition on the part of men ... women have shown capacity for intellectual attainments to a degree never dreamt of by our ancestors nor even by the pioneers themselves. The number of women who take Arts degrees at the London University at the present time is in excess of the men. During the three years I was at Cambridge - more than twenty years ago - there were two women who proved themselves superior to all men of their year - one being Senior Classics and the other Senior Wrangler.6 I may say in passing that this intellectual superiority did not prevent one of them from being a devoted wife and mother. Many of more recent years have done equally well. Only the other day Madame Curie - the discoverer of radium, the greatest discovery of the age - was awarded ... the Nobel Prize ... Florence Nightingale - that noble woman to whom England owed so much, whose name is honoured through-out all Europe - was an ardent suffragist. To such women as these the vote is denied while it is given to an ignorant man who is willing to sell his vote for a glass of beer.'

After claiming that the interests of women and girls had come a bad second to those of men and boys, she continued: 'In the labour market there is a vast army of women - the census of 1901 gave it as 4,000,000 - who are working for weekly wages and are dependent on their own labour for a livelihood. The Royal Commission which reported on the subject declared that the average wages - not minimum, mind you - earned by the women workers was not more than 7s. [35 pence] a week ... Many of these women are driven by lack of food to lead immoral lives. Again, how many companies are there controlled by men, directors who exploit women's labour - doling out to them less than a living wage, and then paying their shareholders dividends of 10, 15, 20 or even 35 per cent.'

Looking forward to the time when their demands would be conceded, Miss Holme said: 'I am firmly of the opinion that when women have the vote their whole social status will be raised, their views of life will be broadened, the sins of emptiness, gossip and slander for which we are often blamed but for which we do not hold a monopoly, will grow less - they will accept their responsibilities and apply themselves to the work they entail. They will use their powers to get better conditions for the mothers and children of the working classes, they will fight the sweating system, the evils of drink, social impurity and vice. I believe, too, that giving women a share in the government of their country will result in closer comradeship between men and women - not in family quarrels, as some Jeremiahs would have us believe - but in more happiness in the home life.'

In 1912 there was 'an access of strength and an increase of activity in the ranks of the constitutionalists',7 which was manifested in Carmarthenshire by a parliamentary by-election brought about early in the year as a result of the appointment of Llewelyn Williams as Recorder of Swansea; at that time the law forbade him to continue as a member of Parliament without seeking re-election. This was an opportunity for the local Suffragists to take practical steps and as a result of a commitee meeting at Green Hill on 13 January 1912 it was resolved to confront the candidates with the following questions:

  1. Are you in favour of the Parliamentary Vote being extended to women?
  2. In the event of a Bill being brought forward for the extension of the Franchise and such a Bill does not give Votes to women, are you prepared to support an Amendment giving Votes to women on the same terms as votes are allowed to men?
  3. If not prepared to give Votes to women on the same terms as to men, to what extent are you prepared to allow the Parliamentary Franchise to women?

But the militants were not inactive, either. Infuriated by thwarted endeavour, their battle-cry was 'Get the Government out', and at every by-election they harried the Liberal candidate. Thus it was that Emmeline Pankhurst visited Carmarthen on Saturday, 20 January 1912 to address a crowded hall at the Assembly Rooms in King Street.8 Cheered and booed, she proclaimed with fiery passion that 'we are here to do our best to secure the defeat of the Government candidate' unless he secured from the Prime Minister before the election in the following week an undertaking to withdraw the Manhood Suffrage Bill in favour of one ensuring equal votes for women. This, of course, was no more than a rhetorical demand, which Llewelyn Williams could hardly be expected to meet. In any case, he had already made clear his counter-stance in response to the appeals of the local Suffragists.

During question time after Mrs. Pankhurst's speech there came a sparkle of light relief when there was a sudden stir and all eyes turned to the gallery. 'There, with folded arms, eyeing the crowd with a calm and supercilious stare, stood the renowned Dr. Brown', recorded the local reporter. All present, it seems, roared with abandon, while Mrs. Pankhurst, mystified, tried to restore order, only to be dared by the tormenting doctor, who 'suddenly smiled sweetly, took off his hat and waved it to her'. Appealing to the crowd, Mrs. Pankhurst said, 'I am entirely in your hands', whereupon the doctor responded with, 'Will you put yourself in my hands?', an invitation which the assembly chose to misinterpret amid fresh uproar.

This Dr. Brown seems to have been something of an eccentric carpet-bagger with Parliamentary ambitions. He had associations with Porthcawl and Bridgend and had been a ship's surgeon; now he was tramping around the countryside vainly seeking nomination in the Labour party cause, but his role at the hustings was inconsequential, though not without a bizarre kind of entertainment, and nobody took him seriously.9 Neither he nor the women's suffrage movement had any significant effect on the election and Llewelyn Williams found himself returned once more to Westminster.

Asquith's promised measure (the Manhood Suffrage Bill which had been referred to by Llewelyn Williams) that was to be capable of amendment to include women was the Franchise and Registration Bill, which was introduced in June 1912; beside extending male franchise, this sought to destroy plural voting and abolish all property qualifications. Postponement of the committee stage of the Bill until 1913 spawned sporadic outbursts of militancy in the autumn and winter. In the meantime, support for the women came from the Labour party, which had agreed at its annual conference that no franchise bill which did not include provision for women would be acceptable. Even so, this support was far from total. Although the parliamentary party produced outstanding sympathisers - notably Keir Hardie and George Lansbury - there were many who were less enthusiastic and among the rank and file the miners were opposed to the conference decision.

In due time the Franchise Bill attracted four amendments:

  1. Deletion of the word 'male' (but this would not have ensured the inclusion of women).
  2. Enfranchisement of women on the same basis as men.
  3. Enfranchisement of all women householders and the wives of householders over 25.
  4. Inclusion of the terms of the earlier Conciliation Bill.

The debate, which opened on 24 January 1913, produced exemplary oratory that might just as well have been left unuttered, for on the second day the Speaker, wholly unexpectedly, ruled that if an amendment allowing women's suffrage were approved it would cause such a fundamental alteration that, in accordance with the rules of the House, the Bill would have to be withdrawn. Blame for this failure, by tendering bad advice, fell upon the Law Officers, but Asquith could not escape embarassment, which he sought to assuage by promising facilities for a private member's bill on women's suffrage. This was introduced in May, but the debate, almost the fiftieth of its kind in the Commons, ended in defeat by forty-eight votes.

The failure of these bills goaded the militants into renewed violence, which erupted with an unprecedented rage that resorted to arson and bombing - women were now 'burning to vote', as was said at the time. Imprisonment of offenders was thought by many to be ineffectual and extreme opponents advocated birching and hair-shaving before deportation - to remote Scottish islands, Australia or even St. Helena! Such a reaction had no deterrent effect on those who had unshakeable faith in the justice of their cause, whatever the cost. That cost reached its peak when Emily Davison threw herself before the King's horse in the Derby of 1913 and died of her injuries a few days later. By the summer of 1914 even King George was the subject of mild abuse.

At Carmarthen the campaign proceeded more sedately. A committee meeting at Minyrafon on 2 March 1912 had, on the motion of Mr. Collier, seconded by Mr. Fuller Mills, resolved that a memorial, signed by influential Liberals, be sent to Mr.Hinds,10 requesting support for the terms of the Conciliation Bill. The committee also resolved that the Llanelly Society be asked to take similar action towards securing the co-operation of Mr. Abel Thomas, the Liberal member for Carmarthenshire East. To raise money for the South Wales Federation, Miss Maude Royden11 was invited to give a lecture on 28th April 1912, the admission charge to be sixpence (2 pence). The meeting was held at Lammas Street Chapel Schoolroom and Joan of Arc was the subject of her talk, a piece of allusive symbolism, no doubt, in keeping with the fact that a London procession had been led by a lady in armour astride a white horse, other historic figures invoked from time to time being Elizabeth I and Boadicea. Maude Royden was an influential figure in the movement and was a member of the executive of the committee of the NUWSS.

Local interest appears to have flagged somewhat, for almost a year passed before the next committee meeting, which was held on 13 February 1913, the last to take place at Minyrafon. It was agreed that Lady Frances Balfour and Miss Frances Stirling be invited to speak at the Society's annual meeting 'after the Easter holidays'. Lady Balfour, daughter of the eighth Duke of Argyll, who had married A.J.Balfour's brother, was renowned for the invective she brought to the support of female suffrage. By the next meeting, on 18 October 1913, Miss Holme had moved to a house, which she called Kai Ora, in Myrddin Crescent, where the committee met and accepted the offer of a lecture by Laurence Housman,12 who spoke at the Ivy Bush Saleroom on Thursday evening, 30 October, the chairman being Mr. Fuller Mills. In June 1909, Housman had been the 'distinguished man' who had figured in the uproar in the Central Lobby of the House of Commons. Earlier the same day Mrs. Pankhurst had been arrested in the House after striking a police officer on both cheeks, an eventuality that persuaded a host of followers to cause rumbustious scenes in the Central Lobby and at the height of the clamour Housman called out: 'The women of England are clamouring outside', only to be bundled out to join the throng of thousands which beseiged Parliament.13

A committee meeting called for 5 June 1914 had no quorum, but a garden party and a tennis tournament were discussed. No further entry appears in the Minute Book. Soon there were volcanic rumblings of another war, which was to unite the whole nation, men and women, through four tortured years during which women rallied with a patriotic fervour that left the years of agitation in limbo. But recognition came at last, almost unsought. The Electoral Reform Bill, which gave the vote to all women on reaching the age of thirty, passed through the Commons by 364 votes to 23 and became law in January 1918. The so-called 'flapper vote', which gave women equality with men, was granted in 1928.

Beatrice Holme continued as headmistress of Carmarthen County Girls' School until her retirement in 1926 after thirty-one years in the post. When she took up duties in September 1895 the school, which had thirty-five pupils, was housed at 10 Quay Street before moving to new premises between Richmond Terrace and Wellfield Road in 1899. During her time many hundreds of girls passed through the school which she strove unremittingly to improve, both in its educational standards and its facilities. Largely through her efforts and determination the school got its own swimming pool, opened in 1925, an uncommon adjunct in those days; she herself presented the school with a hard tennis court. Her retirement was an occasion for many tributes, reported at length in the local press, which described her as 'being among Wales's greatest educationists'. She received many gifts, and surplus money subscribed by Old Girls all over the country she used to found a scholarship.

Although she left to settle at Lenham near Maidstone in Kent, where she was joined by her brother who had been education secretary at Norwich, she maintained contact with many friends and acquaintances in Carmarthen for whom her home was open house. She died on 1 April 1948, aged 82, remembered and mourned by many in the town she had served with so much distinction. Tributes to her memory were paid at a meeting, on 9 November 1949, in the hall of her old school, where a bronze memorial plaque14 was unveiled and a reading-desk and Bible presented for school use. The authority which she was able to impose by force of personality made up for the inches she lacked in stature and the devotion she gave to her profession earned her the gratitude of her protegees, the admiration of her friends and the respect of her fellow-citizens.

Postscript (21 Sep 2014). I received an email from Paul Walker, with the following photograph attached, believed to be taken at the inaugural suffragette meeting:


-- CJ

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