Monday, February 26, 2018


In all the commemorations around the one hundredth anniversary of votes for (some) women, it’s easy to forget that there were many women who didn’t want the vote. In 1908 a National Women’s Anti-Suffrage League was formed. It later combined with the Men’s League to form the National League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage. One of the leaders of the anti suffrage movement was best-selling novelist Mrs Humphry Ward (1851-1920).

Amongst my collection of suffrage books are signed copies of two of Mrs Humphry Ward’s works. The first is England’s Effort: Six Letters to an American Friend (1916) written to encourage America to join the war. The other is the 1910 novel Lady Merton, Colonist, inside which is a copy of the order of service for Mrs Humphry Ward’s funeral.

Mrs Humphry Ward made her anti-suffrage views known not only through her public speaking but through her novels. In 1915 she published an anti-suffrage novel, Delia Blanchflower, which tells the story of the eponymous heroine and her friendship with a very unpleasant militant suffragette, Gertrude Marvell.

Mrs Humphry Ward was convinced that the majority of English women did not want the vote. Her evidence for this was that only 3% of women had joined any suffrage society at all, although it’s not clear where she got the figure from. By contrast, she said, the Anti-Suffrage League had managed to gather 320,000 signatures on an anti-suffrage petition sent to Parliament in 1909.

Mrs Ward's signature in England's Effort
Pro-suffrage campaigners had often to deal with the argument that women simply did not want to be enfranchised. In a meeting on the Downs in Bristol in 1910, suffragette Dr Helena Jones, who was a medical inspector of schools, was interrupted during her speech by a man who reminded her that women did not want the vote. She replied, “It did not matter whether they wanted the vote, but it did matter if they needed it”. She added that this was exactly the stance taken by Gladstone when he extended the vote to agricultural labourers and was told they did not want it. His reply, Dr Jones said, was “that is all the more reason for giving him the vote”.

Anti suffragists fell broadly into two camps: those who believed that women were completely incapable of wielding political power of any kind, and those who, like Mrs Humphry Ward, thought that women did have a role to play in public life – but in local, not national, government. On the whole, most of those in the “women are incapable” camp were men.

Mrs Humphry Ward was not prepared to argue for the total incapacity of her sex. Indeed, she was a very capable woman who campaigned for the extension of further education opportunities for women, as well as better education for disabled children. By 1907 women had won the right to vote and stand for election on parish, rural district, urban district and county councils. It was in these areas that Mrs Humphry Ward thought women should apply themselves since issues such as education and poor law provision were natural extensions of women’s domestic role.

A signed copy of Lady Merton, Colonist
On the other hand, Mrs Humphry Ward thought that national government was men’s business: “In the field of local government…women are in their right, and the nation has given them powers of which they have scarcely as yet used a fraction…What we want now…is a strong local government movement among women, wholly dissociated from the franchise movement and opposed to it. Women’s local government societies of this kind are now beginning to spring up. The more widely they can be diffused…the more plainly [women] will they see that in a wise renouncement lies their strength, that in leaving to men the work and the responsibilities which are rightfully and specially theirs, they are not curtailing but strengthening their own influence with the nation.”

Unfortunately, Mrs Humphrey Ward contradicted her own argument by involving herself in national politics (as did many other women). During the election in January 1910 she campaigned for her son, Arnold, when he stood for election. The WSPU newspaper, Votes for Women, commented, “Mrs Humphrey Ward, who thinks that other women are not sufficiently intelligent to exercise the vote, has been writing letters on behalf of her son, instructing the electors of his would-be constituency. He was defeated.”

For all that her anti-suffrage views aren’t likely to win much sympathy nowadays, I think it’s a pity if Mrs Humphry Ward’s achievements are forgotten. And while it’s true that some of her novels aren’t much to modern taste – Delia Blanchflower ends with Delia seeing the error of her ways, marrying and looking forward to having lots of babies with a husband whose “tenderness will be the master-light of all her days” – I think she is sadly under-rated as a novelist. Her 1888 novel Robert Elsmere, which explores the contemporary crisis of religious faith, was a ground-breaking book which challenged religious dogma.

So I’m pleased to own my two little bits of anti-suffrage history!

The order of funeral service tucked inside Lady Merton, Colonist

You can find out more about the life of Mrs Humphry Ward in the Spotlight OnArchive (opens as pdf document). 

And for more on the anti-suffrage movement, read Julia Bush’s excellent book Women Against the Vote: Female Anti-Suffragism in Britain.


Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Spotlight On: Mabel Tothill 1869-1964

Mabel Tothill was a Quaker, a tireless worker for social reform , and a non-militant suffragist. She was born in Liverpool and her family moved to Bristol when her father retired from business. Mabel went to Clifton High School and later lived in Clifton with her sister, but they moved back into the family home in Cambridge Park, close to the Downs, after her mother’s death.   

In the 1890s she was a member of the Bristol branch of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), as well as the Independent Labour Party. Her labour politics was to lead to a breakaway from the Bristol branch of the NUWSS when in 1912 the NUWSS formed an alliance with the Labour Party. The NUWSS had lost patience with the Liberal government which stubbornly refused to give women the vote, and had decided to work with the Labour Party which they thought was now the party most likely to help women to the franchise. However, many of the NUWSS's members weren’t happy about this and a large number resigned. The Bristol branch did not welcome the new pro-Labour policy and so Mabel Tothill, with NUWSS organiser Annie Townley, set up a new branch in East Bristol. Mabel Tothill was elected President of the East Bristol NUWSS.

In 1911 Mabel Tothill was one of the first women workers to move into the Bristol University settlement at Barton Hill (see Note). The Barton Hill Settlement provided meals, medical care and schooling for poor children on land which Mabel had purchased and given to the Settlement. When the Clifton High School Old Girls’ Club, as charitably minded as Bristol university students, set up a club for working girls, Mabel Tothill purchased a house for them in Hebron Street.    

When the First World War began, women workers were badly hit by unemployment as people retrenched their expenses and sales of fashion and luxury goods dropped. Women in the textile industries were particularly affected. Mabel Tothill was involved in schemes to alleviate women’s unemployment, such as offering training for unemployed seamstresses at Barton Hill. Women’s war-time unemployment was, however, only a temporary issue. Before long women were much in demand to take over men’s jobs as men joined or were conscripted into the armed forces and there was no longer a need for such schemes.

Mabel Tothill had other work to do. Acting on the Quaker peace testimony to oppose all war, she became secretary of the Bristol Joint Advisory Committee for Conscientious Objectors. This group looked out for the interests of imprisoned objectors, and campaigned against the war. 

In 1915 Mabel Tothill was involved in controversy after she wrote a letter referring to the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a pacifist organisation, on Barton Hill note paper. This, together with her well-known involvement in peace work, was one of the incidents that led to accusations against Bristol University that it was riddled with pro-German pacifists. However, a Lord Mayor’s enquiry found no evidence of pro-German sentiment at the University, and in order to avoid further embarrassing the University Mabel Tothill left the Barton Hill Settlement.

Mabel Tothill continued to campaign for peace. She set up a Bristol branch of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. In 1923 she took part in a No More War Demonstration on the Downs.

After the war Mabel Tothill stood as a Labour candidate for St Paul’s in the municipal elections of 1919. By this time she had left the house in Cambridge Park and was living in the much less salubrious Rosemary Street, which was bombed during the Blitz and has now disappeared under Broadmead. Here she helped found the Rosemary Lane Nursery School for poor children, which still exists today as Rosemary Nursery School. 

Mabel Tothill argued that women were needed in local politics because they were concerned in issues such as nursery provision, improved education for poor children, and the need for new houses. Lloyd George had famously promised homes fit for heroes to the returning soldiers, but it was not a promise that was kept. As well as better housing, Mabel Tothill also campaigned for the provision of bath houses, and public toilets for women – not a very exciting issue perhaps but one that affected women’s ability to move around in public spaces.

Mabel Tothill was not successful in the 1919 election, but in 1920 she was elected onto the city council for Easton Ward. She was Bristol’s first woman councillor.

Unfortunately, she lost her seat a few months later. She was however co-opted onto the city council’s education committee and continued to work for education provision, particularly for poor children.

In the mid 1920s Mabel Tothill moved back to Clifton. She lived in Berkeley Square, and then in Pembroke Road – where her home was burgled. She was a governor of Badminton Girls' School in the 1930s. By 1939 she was living in Sandford, a village in the parish of Winscombe, where she was active in the local Women’s Institute, and a member of Winscombe Parish Council.

Mabel Tothill, Bristol’s first woman councillor, died in 1964.

Note: Settlements originated in the Victorian era. They were often associated with universities, and were established in poor areas as places where young educated people could live while doing community work.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Discovering Diamonds: An Entertaining Interlude for Christmas

I hope you’ve not been missing out on the Discovering Diamonds Christmas blogs – but if you have you’re in for a treat when you catch up!

This “entertaining interlude for Christmas by a variety of authors” organised by Helen Hollick on the Discovering Diamonds blog is a bulging Christmas stocking full of tiny treats. With stories that take you on journeys around the world and into different eras, it’s a bit like a tin of assorted chocolates with something for everyone.   

Follow the links in the titles if you want to read one of these stories.

The first Diamond Tale, a short story set in 1960s Friern Barnet. Who remembers Jet Harris, bass guitarist of The Shadows? A lovely tale on the power of a song to evoke memories. 

A rearranged excerpt from the third Sea Witch Voyage, Bring It Close, by Helen Hollick in which that devilishly wicked pirate Jesamiah Acorne calls on an ex-lover to help him gain access to the Governor of Virginia’s house – where he is definitely not welcome. 

In 1914 British officer Nicholas Dawlish reflects sorrowfully on previous conflicts on the day Britain declared war on Turkey.  

Two lovers arrange a clandestine meeting on a cold, snowy night in this beautifully realised tale – but will their plans succeed?

That dreadful moment when you look down at your finger – and it’s bare!

The power of Welsh legend and storytelling in a story about the great Welsh poet Taliesin.

A story set in London in 1744 based on fascinating characters from The Jacobite Chronicles and the hunt for a stolen gem.

To London’s East End now and the hard struggle for existence for many in contemporary Britain – and the hope a lottery ticket brings.

Through Anglo-Saxon Britain tracing the fate of a mysterious stone known as a Sunstone.

Two treats today following the adventures of a plausible con man with his eye on a string of diamond-clasped pearls. Only problem – they’re still around the owner’s neck.

In London 1918, we discover the lure of diamonds – forged a hundred million years ago and polished to make men richer – or poorer.

An excerpt from Men of the Cross, in which King Richard weighs up his chances of defeating Saladin.

Finally, Diamond Tales also includes an exclusive preview of the next Dan Foster Mystery, which I’m currently working on. 

In spring 1798, Bow Street Runner Dan Foster is called to his second murder case in a week – one he’s been told to prioritise because of the victim’s high-society connections. As if that isn’t irritating enough, the lead officer in the case is Principal Officer John Townsend – and he and Dan are not exactly on friendly terms...

And there are still more fabulous Diamond Tales to come, with stories from Susan Grossey, Alison Morton, Nancy Jardine, Elizabeth St John, Barbara Gaskell Denvill, Anna Belfrage and Cryssa Bazos. 

So make a morning coffee date from now until Christmas with Diamond Tales!