Saturday, 7 November 2015

Votes for Women. Glasgow and the Suffragettes

Suffragettes of Glasgow and Scotland 

As a schoolchild in Glasgow we learnt about the suffragettes in 'O' Grade history. We learnt of their imprisonment, hunger strikes and release and re-arrest under the "Cat and Mouse Act". Emily Davison and her death whilst running in front of the King's horse at the Derby in 1913, and women being granted the vote in 1918 after World War I were also covered. The recent release of the film Suffragette has brought their campaigning to a new audience, covering pretty much the major points I remember from school. What I was less aware of were the actions of suffragettes in Scotland and Glasgow. 

This was brought home to me on hearing that there is a tree in Glasgow, planted in 1918 to commemorate the struggle these suffragettes. I had not been aware of the "Suffragette Oak" until it won the curious accolade as Scotland's tree of the year 2015.

So I have tried to find out some more about these Scottish women, but discovered that sadly there is surprisingly little information widely available on their activities. It is obviously an area that would benefit from more research and those at the Glasgow Women's Library are one of the teams of people trying to address this.

Early campaigners for the vote in the United Kingdom, such as the Chartists, had many in their ranks campaigning for "universal suffrage", for the rights of all men and women to vote. The Representation of the People Act of 1832 (also called the Great Reform Act) was a disappointment to many when the term "male persons" was specifically included in it. This gradually led to the development of a specific campaign to get women the right to vote, women's suffrage. Organisations such as the National Society for Women's Suffrage, the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies and the Glasgow and West of Scotland Woman's Suffrage Movement campaigned, organised petitions and held meetings. However as their members saw little progress some women looked to take more militant actions.

There was some political support for their campaigning.The Scottish Labour Party (later becoming the national Independent Labour Party or ILP) founded in 1888 by Keir Hardie, Shaw Maxwell and John Murdoch had "the establishment of universal adult suffrage" as the first item on its programme. When some women members of the ILP felt that its campaigning for women's suffrage was half-hearted, they left to form the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). This was founded in Manchester by Emmeline Pankhurst and others in 1903. They opened their first Scottish branch in Glasgow in 1906 at 141 Bath Street in the city centre. From the start their motto was "Deeds, not words". Their aim wasn't just to win votes for women, but by doing so to improve the lives and opportunities for women. 

My grandfather's family were active in the ILP
and this was a card, of Women's Freedom League
founder Charlotte Despard, that he had held onto

There was also the breakaway Women's Freedom League who believed in non-violent protest. One of their founding members was the Edinburgh-born, Anglo-Irish Charlotte Despard. She had previously spent two terms in Holloway Prison but disliked the authoritarian way that Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst ran the WSPU. She had met Gandhi in 1909 and was impressed with his ideas of "passive resistance". She was also a member of the ILP, knew Keir Hardie and had known Eleanor Marx. In Glasgow they established a tea room and bookshop at 302 Sauchiehall Street, before moving to larger premises at 70 St Georges Road, where the M8 now sits at Charing Cross. They preferred passive resistance such as not paying taxes or even dog licences and refused to participate in the 1911 census. They took up the cry of the American colonies from two centuries earlier "No taxation, without representation".

Anna Munro, organiser of the Women's
Freedom League in Scotland
In Glasgow many organisers of the local WSPU held strongly socialist principles, such as Helen Crawfurd and Janie Allan. Helen Crawfurd spent a month in prison in 1912 for smashing the windows at the premises of Education Minister Jack Pease. She had at least two further spells in prison, going on hunger strike on one occasion. When Janie Allan was arrested in London for smashing windows and sentenced to four months imprisonment, a petition from Glasgow signed by over 10,000 people demanded her release. She went on hunger strike in prison and like many others was brutally force fed whilst in jail.

Dr Marion Gilchrist
When the Glasgow offices of the WSPU opened on Bath Street in 1908 Dr Marion Gilchrist made a speech. She was the first woman in Scotland to qualify from university as a medical doctor, graduating from the University of Glasgow in 1894. She became a general practitioner in the west end of Glasgow and worked also as an eye surgeon at the Victoria Infirmary and the Redlands Hospital for Women. A member of the Glasgow and West of Scotland Women's Suffrage Movement since 1903 she left and joined the WSPU in 1907. She said in her 1908 speech that she now saw... 
"...clearly that nobody has done more for the cause than those militant suffragists. They have been the most heroic and deserve the highest praise. They have brought the question to the public notice and that was what the advocates of women suffrage who had carried on the work quietly for 60 years had failed to do"

Initially the actions of the WSPU were focused on raising awareness of their cause, holding public meetings, selling literature and opening new branches. Much of the activity at this time was towards a major march planned in Edinburgh in October 1909. 

March in Edinburgh for Women's Votes, 1909
Many artists in Glasgow such as Helen Fraser, Jessie Newbery and Ann Macbeth were drawn to the suffragette cause. Jessie Newbery founded the embroidery department at Glasgow School of Art and was married to the art school principal. She was an associate of Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Ann Macbeth succeeded her as head of the embroidery department in 1911 and was responsible for creating many of the high quality suffragette banners. She herself was imprisoned and endured solitary confinement and forcible feedings in the name of the cause. Her colleagues at GSA supported her protests. In May 1912, she wrote to the Secretary of the School thanking him for his ’kind letter’. 
"I am still very much less vigorous than I anticipated’, she said, ’after a fortnight’s solitary imprisonment with forcible feedings … but the doctor thinks this will improve when I get away"

Like many other women protesters who were force fed, she suffered long-term ill health. She retired to Cumbria, where she continued her design work and her writing.

Ann Macbeth
In March 1912, in Glasgow, Emily Green was arrested for smashing six windows on Sauchiehall Street as protests turned increasingly violent. Attacks in galleries in Glasgow, Edinburgh and London are reported with "a valuable painting" in Kelvingrove Art Gallery being attacked with a hatchet. These actions were reported around the world.

Aug 1909, Boston newspaper report of Glasgow actions of a suffragette

In 1913 Glasgow pillar boxes were attacked with acid by Jessie Stephen, a domestic servant and trade unionist who headed the Domestic Workers' Union. She was never caught for this. She stated afterwards that dressed as a servant nobody paid her any attention as she deposited her acid containing packages. As a working class suffragette and member of the ILP she also apparently enlisted dockers in the ILP to "deal with" hecklers at WSPU meetings. Elsewhere in Scotland suffragettes cut telegraph wires in Dumbarton, Leuchars train station in Fife was burnt to the ground. An attempt was made to burn down the new stand at Kelso racecourse, Lanarkshire and Ayrshire mansions were burnt down, a portrait of the King was slashed at the Royal Academy in Edinburgh and politicians were attacked or heckled throughout the country. Bowling greens in Glasgow had their lawns cut up, the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh was bombed and the marker flags at Balmoral golf course were replaced one night with flags in the WPSU colours of green, white and purple.

WPSU supporters picketing outside Duke Street Prison in Glasgow
Since 1909 imprisoned suffragettes had been going on hunger strike to protest their cause and being force fed whilst imprisoned. This often had severe effects on the health of these women. By 1913 there were increasing numbers of women being arrested for their actions and the authorities struggled to cope with the numbers going on hunger strike. Fearing a death in custody creating a martyr, in 1913 the Liberal government passed the Prisoners Temporary Discharge For Ill-health Act (better known as The Cat and Mouse Act), temporarily releasing prisoners on hunger strike, to re-imprison them when their health improved.

Suffragette protest against the
Cat and Mouse Act
Different prisons in Scotland applied the laws in different ways, with Perth prison having some of the most brutal regimes, with women tied down for days on end and force fed. Arabella Scott, arrested after the fire at Kelso racecourse, endured five weeks of being force fed at Perth Prison after her re-arrest in June 1914 under the Cat and Mouse Act. During this time she was tied to a bed and not allowed to see anyone. Duke Street Prison in Glasgow had a reputation for less severe treatment of their suffragette prisoners with some suggestion that the governess was more sympathetic to their cause, or possibly to their class background. Whatever the reason, one curious artifact which the Glasgow Women's Library possess is an umbrella stand from  the governess's office at the prison. Rescued from a skip when the prison was demolished this was apparently painted in the nearest they could get to the WPSU colours by suffragette prisoners in the jail.

Umbrella stand from Duke Street Prison

Ellison and Margaret Gibb

Assault on Miss Ellison Gibb of Hillhead Glasgow
Beyond these prominent women leading the fight, there were many other lesser lights from around the country taking action and making sacrifices. A pair of Glasgow suffragette sisters that I had never heard of I recently discovered on reading the chess blog of Ilkley Chess Club. 

Ellison Gibb and Margaret Gibb lived at Elliot House, Elliot Street, Hillhead in Glasgow (now 40 Cresswell Street just off Byres Road). Their father was fish merchant Peter Gibb. Their mother, Margaret Skirving Gibb, was the founding member of the Glasgow Ladies Chess Club in 1905. Ellison Gibb was first arrested in 1908 outside 10 Downing Street, and again later on in London for smashing windows. There is a newspaper report of her managing to get into the train compartment next to cabinet minister Winston Churchill on on a Stranraer to Glasgow train in 1912. After haranguing him on the suffragette cause Churchill seems to have lost his temper with her behaviour, and ended their dialogue with "Remove this woman". She was imprisoned several times at Holloway Prison, once for smashing the windows of  Barkers of Kensington and was also on hunger strike whilst in prison. In November 1912 she was imprisoned in Dundee for smashing windows. Afterwards a newspaper recounts (see above) how she was assaulted whilst protesting against the Prime Minister at Ladybank in November 1912. 

Margaret Gibb ("Ann Hunt") in Birmingham Mail, July 1914

Ellison Gibb's younger sister, Margaret Gibb (who also used the alias Ann Hunt), also took up the cudgels for the suffragette cause. In the article above she has been arrested in London for attacking John Millais's portrait of Thomas Carlyle in the the National Portrait Gallery "with a chopper". She is quoted in court unrepentedly as saying
"The picture will have an added value and be of great historical interest because it has been honoured by the attention of a militant"
There is a striking police surveillance photograph of Margaret Gibb on the Museum of London website. It records that she was sentenced to two months in Holloway prison for striking a constable outside the prison with a dog whip.

Margaret Gibb exercising in the yard of Holloway Prison
Their suffragette activities quietened down during the war, but the Ilkley Chess Club blogger tracks the sisters down in later chess matches that they take part in. I do love this report below in the Glasgow Herald of a match played by the Glasgow Ladies Chess Club in 1923 against Paisley Chess Club. "A surprise was in store for the spectators as the ladies were victorious" although the reporter explains away the victory due to a weakened Paisley team, naturally. Both Gibb sisters can be seen to have won their games in this match: from chopping paintings in the National Portrait Gallery, to beating the Paisley men at chess. Well done Margaret Gibb. 

The Campaign Continues

In 1914 the newspapers reported further "Scottish outrages" as the Glasgow Herald put it. Janet Arthur was arrested whilst trying to blow up Burns Cottage in Alloway, Bonnington House in Lanark was completely destroyed by fire. In January 1914 two bombs are placed at the Kibble Palace in Glasgow's Botanic Gardens. Night watchman David Watters discovered a bomb with a burning fuse, which he cut, only to be "stunned" moments later by the blast of another bomb which smashed 27 panes of glass and caused minor damage to some plants. Although nobody was found committing the act, the evidence was clear as the papers report "footprints clearly indicate the high heels of ladies shoes”. Later Helen Crawfurd was arrested in connection with this and sentenced to two years imprisonment, though released after going on hunger strike.

American newspaper report of the incident in January 1914
There were many public meetings held on Glasgow Green for the suffragette cause, often addressed by members of the Pankhurst family on speaking tours. One particular meeting addressed by Emmeline Pankhurst at St Andrews Halls on 9th March 1914 became known as the "battle of Glasgow". At the time the police were trying to re-arrest Mrs Pankhurst under the Cat and Mouse Act and her attendance at the meeting was kept secret, although much anticipated. The front of the stage was decorated with white and purple flowers, which concealed a string of barbed wire and many women at the meeting were apparently armed with clubs, expecting the police to charge the stage. Having smuggled Mrs Pankhurst into the hall past a police cordon outside, as soon as she began to speak the police made their move and 50 police officers who had been in the basement and several plain clothes officers already in the hall charged forwards. A blank was fired from a pistol by one of the women bodyguards present, whilst others revealed the clubs they had concealed about their person or tried to defend Mrs Pankhurst from the police with ju-jitsu that they had been practicing. The actions of the baton-wielding police, at what was a legal meeting, shocked many people and generated publicity for the suffragette cause. The suffragettes also got adverse publicity for their violent response in reports in the Daily Record (which carried the photograph below) and other newspapers. After the meeting 4000 people marched to the Central Police Station to protest. Helen Crawfurd was arrested for attacking police officers who were attempting to arrest the suffragette leader Emily Pankhurst at the public meeting in St. Andrews Halls in Glasgow. Although released later that night without charge, Helen was promptly re-arrested the following night for smashing the windows of the army recruiting offices in Glasgow, and was sentenced to one month's imprisonment in Duke Street prison in Glasgow.

Weapons carried by suffragettes at the meeting in 1914
There was a failed attempt to set fire to the waiting rooms of both platforms of the Shields Road train station in Glasgow and in May 1914 a bomb, which failed to detonate, is discovered under the viaduct bringing water to Glasgow from Loch Katrine.

May 1914


In July 1914 war with Germany was declared and the women of Scotland declared a truce with the government, to fight the common enemy. The munitions factories, public transport and farms throughout the land would become largely staffed by women. Women took up roles as nurses and doctors at field hospitals in France, such as Glasgow nurse Agnes Climie, who died when the hospital she was working at in France was bombed by enemy aircraft.

Many suffragettes were also pacifists and opposed the war on principle. Sylvia Pankhurst came to Glasgow to speak at John MacLean's great anti-war demonstrations in the city. Helen Crawfurd held strong anti-war beliefs and turned away from the WSPU and sought new directions for the "women's movement". 

Helen Crawfurd, Oct 1915

Helen's involvement in the WSPU ceased shortly after the outbreak of the first world war because of the pro-war stance of Emily Pankhurst and the WSPU leadership. She became a powerful voice against poverty in the city and for peace. A relentless campaigner, she was secretary of the Glasgow Women’s Housing Association and a key player in the Rent Strikes of 1915, alongside other women such as Mary Barbour. A founder of the Women’s Peace Crusade in Glasgow, Crawfurd was also an associate of John MacLean.

Glasgow Rent Strike 1915

Votes For Women

The women's war effort was acknowledged when the Representation of the People Act 1918 granted women over the age of 30 the vote. A separate act that year also allowed woman to stand for election to Parliament for the first time. A further act in 1928 extended the franchise for women, lowering the age limit to 21, giving women voting equality with men. By the time Lochgelly's Jennie Lee was elected to parliament in 1929 representing the ILP, and becoming the youngest MP in the House of Commons at 24 years of age, she was in the curious position of still being too young to vote. 

Having won the vote, women now had to carry on the fight for their rights, a battle still being waged.

1 comment:

  1. A detailed article about the Gibb family is available in the Chess Scotland History Archive at

    Historian, Chess Scotland


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