The Women's Suffrage Campaign
In Tunbridge Wells, as in many towns and cities across Britain, the suffrage movement was a significant political phenomenon in the years leading up to the First World War. A constitutional campaign for women's admittance to the Parliamentary franchise had been under way since 1866, for example through the efforts of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), led by Mrs. Fawcett, widow of a former Postmaster General. By the early years of the twentieth century, however, some women suffragists began to be frustrated by what was seen as a lack of progress of the peaceable NUWSS strategy of lobbying, speeches, petitions and pamphlets. The Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) was founded in Manchester by Mrs Pankhurst and her daughters and a militant campaign began, with ‘Deeds not Words!’ and ‘Votes for Women!’ adopted as slogans. The WSPU immediately hit national headlines by heckling members of the Liberal cabinet and demonstrating at Westminster.
In 1906, the Daily Mail coined the name ‘Suffragette’ to describe the predominantly younger women who advocated more radical tactics. These included picketing, the interruption of political meetings, public nuisance, and the heckling of anti-suffrage ministers. The same year, one of the earliest demonstrations in the House of Commons resulted in the arrest of a number of women protesters in the Commons lobby.
'Votes for Women!'
Tunbridge Wells was the scene of a vibrant women's suffrage movement. The signatures of Matilda Ashurst Briggs and her daughters Caroline and Elizabeth had been put to the very first women’s suffrage petition in 1866, and a women’s suffrage meeting had been held in Tunbridge Wells in 1873. In 1906, in the same week of the demonstration at the House of Commons, a meeting of the National Union of Women Workers at the Opera House on the subject of ‘Franchise for Women’ resulted in the formation of a local branch of the NUWSS. Novelist was made President and local Poor Law Guardian Amelia Scott Vice-President.
Over the following years, Tunbridge Wells became home to branches of the major suffrage organisations. The local NUWSS branch was holding regular 'at homes' and public meetings by 1909 and opened a shop at 18 Crescent Road in 1910. By 1913 the branch could boast a membership of 165, the second largest in Kent, together with 278 'Friends'; a scheme that enabled supporters to register without having to subscribe.
Local women also joined the Women’s Freedom League and supported the tactics of the Women’s Tax Resistance League.
As the suffrage campaign gathered momentum, action by militants such as the interruption of a Home Counties Liberal Federation meeting at the Opera House in 1913, and the burning of the Nevill Cricket Pavillion the same year, understandably commanded the attention of the press and public. Less well known, perhaps, is the contribution to the cause made by the much larger number of West Kent constitutional suffragists.
In 1908, a number of women from Tunbridge Wells had attended a mass ‘Votes for Women’ demonstration in Hyde Park, with a special train laid on from Tunbridge Wells station. In 1913, a mass march from seventeen cities across the country to converge in London was organised to remind the public of the work being done by many thousands of peaceful, law-abiding suffragists. The march included what was to become known as the ‘Women’s Pilgrimage’ through Kent, following the traditional pilgrim’s way. The pilgrims passed through the major towns of Kent before combining in Tonbridge on July 21st for the march to London.