36 Coney Street, York YO1 9ND
Women in York played an active role in the campaign for women’s suffrage. At first, peaceful methods of protest, including marches and petitions, were adopted but, from 1908, the mood darkened and Suffragettes resorted to more direct action such as smashing windows and setting fire to property. In York, letter bombs were placed in pillar boxes and a parcel bomb was left on the doorstep of the local newspaper. The First World War halted the campaign and, partly due to the war effort of the nation’s women, some women were finally given the vote in Parliamentary elections in 1918.
The Representation of the People Act, 1918 gave the vote in Parliamentary elections to all men over the age of 21 whether or not they owned or occupied property of a certain value and to women over 30 if they or their husbands met a separate property qualification that entitled them to vote in local government elections. This condition restricted the vote to 78 per cent of women over 30. Around 8.4 million women could now vote, comprising about 40 per cent of the electorate. Women voted in a general election for the first time on 14 December 1918. The first woman to vote in York was Sarah Booth of 134 Haxby Road. Only in 1928 did Parliament give women the vote on the same terms as men.
The earliest women in York known to have lent their names to the women’s suffrage campaign were Emma Fitch, Agnes Smith and Ann Swaine who were among 1,499 signatories of a petition presented to the House of Commons in June 1866. Ann Swaine, who lived at No.1 The Crescent, off Blossom Street, was a campaigner for women’s education. She also addressed public meetings on women’s suffrage, for example in April 1880 at the Victoria Hall, Goodramgate alongside several other women including Lydia Rous, a former headmistress of The Mount, York’s Quaker girls’ school.
As part of a concerted and peaceful campaign, in the 50 years before 1918 around 17,000 petitions for women’s suffrage were presented to the House of Commons; women were not allowed to vote but they could petition Parliament. In March 1876, the York MP and railwayman George Leeman presented a petition to the House of Commons ‘from the inhabitants of York’ in favour of women’s suffrage. The first York-based women’s suffrage organisation, the York Women’s Suffrage Society, was formed in March 1889. In 1901 it became affiliated to the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), an umbrella group for local organisations. The NUWSS was the home of the peacefully-campaigning suffragists. Its president for many years was Millicent Garrett Fawcett who spoke in York in September 1908 at the Friends’ Meeting House in Friargate.
The Women’s Social and Political Union
Since 1903, Emmeline Pankhurst, aided by her daughter Christabel, had led the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) which revolutionised campaign methods. The WSPU adopted the colours purple, white and green – representing dignity, purity and hope, the motto “Deeds not Words”, and the slogan “Votes for Women”. Their tactics were more “militant” than those of the NUWSS. The term “suffragette” – intended to belittle and demean militant campaigners – was coined in January 1906 by the Daily Mail newspaper and adopted by WSPU members as a badge of honour.
In June 1908, Emmeline Pankhurst and others addressed meetings in the De Grey Rooms and in the open air in Exhibition Square in York and lobbied women workers at Rowntree’s Cocoa Works during their lunch hour, trying to drum up support for a demonstration in Hyde Park, London. It is not known if anyone from York attended the demonstration. The WSPU also sent speakers to address public meetings in St Sampson’s Square and Exhibition Square during the York Pageant in July 1909. Finally, in 1910, a branch of the WSPU was established in York. The initial driving force was Annie Coultate, head assistant mistress at Fishergate School. She became the branch’s secretary and was joined by Violet Key Jones, first as joint secretary, then as treasurer and, finally, as the WSPU’s official organiser in the city.
York’s suffragettes opened an office where they could be contacted and hold meetings. Initially this was at No.35 Coney Street (since 1910, the premises in Coney Street have been renumbered and the property concerned is now No.36). There was a piano warehouse at that address in 1910 so the WSPU presumably had a room or rooms on one of the upper floors. In April 1911, they moved to No.8 New Street. At that time the property bearing that number was the one at the south-east corner of New Street, at the junction with Coney Street. From January 1912, the office was at Colby Chambers, No.11 Coppergate.
York’s suffragettes organised visits from leading WSPU figures to address public meetings including Mrs Pankhurst herself, her daughter Adela who organised the WSPU’s branch in Scarborough, Flora Drummond who was known as “the General”, and both Emmeline and Frederick Pethick-Lawrence who provided vital financial and administrative support to the WSPU until they were forced out in October 1912 because of their opposition to the WSPU’s increasing attacks on property. Favoured places in York for public meetings were Exhibition Square, the de Grey Rooms, the Assembly Rooms, the Exhibition Buildings – the exhibition hall at the back of the Art Gallery which suffered bomb damage in the Second World War and was demolished in 1942 – and the Festival Concert Rooms – also now demolished – situated behind the Assembly Rooms and fronting on to Museum Street.
York’s suffragettes made their cause visible by distributing handbills and selling the WSPU’s newspaper, initially called Votes for Women and later the Suffragette, both house-to-house and on the street especially in Coney Street and the Market Place, that is, Parliament Street. They raised funds through whist drives, jumble sales and raffles and made their own particular contributions to the cause by what they said and did. For example, in November 1911, Violet Key Jones pointed out that, for 40 years, women had tried peaceful methods without success. Tactics such as smashing windows showed women’s ‘earnest spirit in asking for the vote, and it was the only way in which they could hope to get [it]’ (Yorkshire Evening Press, 28 November 1911). In 1912, Annie Coultate urged her audience to do something, in line with the WSPU’s slogan, “Deeds, not words”; the women who held back the movement were those who believed in it but did nothing.
In February 1911, York’s suffragettes performed three plays in the Assembly Rooms: one that they had written themselves; J. M. Barrie’s’ The Six Pound Look about women’s financial independence; and the most celebrated suffrage play How The Vote Was Won by Cicely Hamilton and Christopher St John. The cast of this included the sisters Nona and Dorothy Baines of Bell Hall, Naburn and Violet Key Jones herself.
Evasion of the 1911 census
One known York census evader was Annie Coultate. The census enumerator wrote on the form for her address at No.33 Melbourne Street that she ‘was away from home during the night of the Census, but was most probably enumerated amongst a number of Suffragettes who passed the night in a room in Coney St, York, with the object of evading the Census’. Violet Key Jones also evaded since, although her mother and two brothers were recorded in Main Street, Bishopthorpe, Violet herself is not to be found. Other likely York evaders were three daughters of William Suffield, a dairy farmer according to the 1911 census when the family home was at East View House in Fulford, and his wife Mary. Alice, Clara and Agnes Suffield were active members of the York branch of the WSPU from the start. None of them is to be found recorded on the 1911 census, nor is their sister Ada who was secretary of the Scarborough branch.
In June 1911, suffragettes from York, marching behind their banner (sadly now lost), were among tens of thousands of women who marched in London in support of the cause. In March 1912, they infiltrated an anti-suffrage meeting in the Exhibition Buildings in sufficient numbers to ensure the defeat of an anti-suffrage motion when it was put to the vote; the meeting broke up in disorder as Violet Key Jones and others celebrated. Suffragettes heckled politicians who spoke in York: John Redmond, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, in November 1912; and two Labour MPs, Keir Hardie and Philip Snowden, in March 1913, when Violet Key Jones was forcibly removed despite having tied herself to her chair.
In January 1913, Annie Seymour Pearson of No.14 (now No.58) Heworth Green was one of 17 women who took the train from York to London to take part in a demonstration. Annie was arrested, found guilty of obstructing the police and sentenced to a £2 fine or two weeks’ imprisonment. Like suffragettes generally, she refused to pay the fine and was sent to Holloway prison. She was there only a couple of days before her husband paid the fine. She is the only York suffragette who acquired a criminal record.
The day after Annie Seymour Pearson’s arrest, someone posted letter bombs, said to have been addressed to Prime Minister Asquith, in pillar boxes at Castle Mills Bridge and in Wigginton Road, Parliament Street and Balmoral Terrace. One went off in the sorting office, setting fire to a number of other letters and burning the hands of two postal workers. In April 1913, a parcel containing a bomb with a timing device was left on the doorstep of the office of the Yorkshire Evening Press and the Yorkshire Herald newspapers at what was then No.9 Coney Street. The parcel contained cards and paper on which were written ‘Votes for Women’ and ‘We will have votes’. Annie denied to a local journalist that local suffragettes had anything to do with it.
In August 1913, Annie was instrumental in securing the escape of Harry Johnson who had been sentenced to a year’s hard labour in Wakefield jail for trying to set fire to a house in Balby, Doncaster in league with the Scarborough-born suffragette Augusta Winship. Temporarily released from prison under the “Cat and Mouse” Act, whereby prisoners weakened by hunger strike were released, allowed to recover and then returned to jail, Harry Johnson visited Annie Seymour Pearson in York and, while police officers escorting him were obligingly paying their taxi, he entered her house and disappeared, perhaps out of the back door and into a waiting car. In February and March 1914, suffragettes interrupted services in Bishopthorpe Church and York Minster by praying aloud, ‘Oh God, help and save the women who are being tortured in prison for conscience sake. Amen.’ In May 1914, suffragettes in the upper and dress circles at York Theatre Royal threw down suffrage leaflets and then stayed to watch the show, and attacks were made on pillar boxes in the Mount and Heworth districts and in Bishopthorpe Road by pouring in phosphorous. The phosphorous ignited when the pillar boxes were opened.
On the outbreak of the First World War, women’s suffrage organisations ended their public campaigns and the Government released suffragette prisoners. Mrs Pankhurst put all her energy into supporting the war effort. The NUWSS under Millicent Garett Fawcett remained an active force and lobbied Lloyd George who, in 1916, succeeded Asquith as Prime Minister and who was more sympathetic than Asquith to the cause of women’s suffrage. It was Lloyd George who introduced the legislation which, in 1918, gave some women over 30 the vote in Parliamentary elections.
Krista Cowman, The Militant Suffragette Movement in York (York: Borthwick Institute, 2007)
Henry Miller, ‘How 17,000 petitions helped deliver votes for women’, www.theconversation.com
Michael Waters, ‘The Campaign for Women’s Suffrage in York and the 1911 Census Evasion’, Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, Vol. 90 (2018) pp178-194
This is a condensed version of a talk given by Michael Waters to the Fishergate, Fulford and Heslington Local History Society, York on 30 October 2018. A full transcript is available at www.ffhyork.weebly.com
© Michael Waters