Huddersfield and the Fight for Women’s Suffrage

In amongst the chaos of house renovations, I have found some time to get out and about in the evenings, learning a little more about the local area, and particularly local history, in the process. One of my recent discoveries has been the trails and guided walks organised by Discover Huddersfield, a group that came into existence in 2012 and has slowly increased its output ever since.

George Square, Huddersfield
George Square, Huddersfield

The first walk I joined was entitled Walking with Women’s Suffrage and led by Jill Liddington, a local writer and historian who has published several books on the women’s suffrage movement (amongst other topics) and is particularly interested in how it affected and involved women in the north of England.

We began our walk on the 30th of July 2015 in front of the railway station, overlooking the expanse of George Square which hasn’t changed much in general appearance over the past 100 to 150 years. In 1906, this would have been the first view of Huddersfield experienced by politicians and parliamentary hopefuls as they arrived in Huddersfield to campaign in the January General Election, not to mention the women who travelled to the town in support the opposition candidate in the December by-election (the sitting MP, part of the Liberal government who were denying women the vote, having moved on to greater things).

Huddersfield Market Cross, from where Emmeline Pankhurst addressed the crowds
Huddersfield Market Cross, from where Emmeline Pankhurst addressed the crowds

A number of prominent suffragettes had been imprisoned in London during the latter part of the year and their comrades disrupted the electioneering to campaign for their release. As soon as the government bowed to their pressure (wanting to get more important-to-them matters back on the newspaper front pages, no doubt) the newly-released women rushed to Huddersfield to join Emmeline Pankhurst and the others in their support of the Independent Labour Party candidate. Although the Liberal candidate was victorious, many Huddersfield women were inspired to join the campaign for the vote and a branch of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) was formed. The meeting minutes still survive in the Kirklees Archives, and so Jill has been able to trace the histories of prominent members, some of whose homes we passed on our walk.

In contrast to many popular accounts of the fight for the vote, the women who joined the WSPU in Huddersfield were not particularly well off.

Looking towards Edith Key's house (middle of the three shops)
Looking towards Edith Key’s house (middle of the three shops)

Many of them worked in the local mills and lived in terraced houses like the one I’m renovating (or quite likely the smaller versions closer to the town centre). Edith Key, who wrote down the minutes of the WSPU meetings lived above the music shop she ran with her husband in one such terrace (later, in the 1911 Census which many Suffragettes either avoided or disrupted, he is listed as a Musical Instrument and Sewing Machine Dealer so the family appear to have been moving up in the world).

This slightly larger than average property (by local standards) was later reported to have sheltered a number of suffragettes fleeing from the 1913 ‘Cat and Mouse’ Act.

Looking down the terrace where Dora Thewlis lived with her family
Looking down the terrace where Dora Thewlis lived with her family

Round the corner from Edith and her family, in possibly a more typical cramped and crowded terrace, lived the Thewlis family. Dora Thewlis was photographed being arrested by two burly London policemen in 1907 and gained notoriety as this picture was first splashed across newspaper front pages and then turned into a picture postcard. Because she was only 16 at the time of her arrest, Dora was remanded in custody rather than imprisoned (although the difference is hard to determine) and the magistrate wrote a stern letter to her parents, stating that she ought to have been at school rather than enticed to the city by disreputable older women. As Dora had been working for at least four years by that point her parents were taken aback by how out of touch this well off southerner seemed, but wrote him a very eloquent reply prior to Dora’s return.

Back at George Square and the station (picture taken earlier this year when the students were in residence)
Back at George Square and the station (picture taken earlier this year when the students were in residence)

Although the Huddersfield branch of the WSPU was in existence for only a very few years, unlike the local branch of the less radical National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies which kept going until the outbreak of the First World War, its rich history has provided material for several of Jill’s books, including Rebel Girls: Their Fight for the Vote (with that picture of Dora on the front cover) and Vanishing for the Vote about the 1911 census.

Jill’s description of an earlier version of the walk, and also of a second, longer, Women’s Suffrage walk can be found in the Autumn 2009 issue of HerStoria, still available from HerStoria’s website and you can listen to Jill talk about the 1911 Census on the Women’s Hour website (possibly UK people only though). I also highly recommend her books and the walks.

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10 thoughts on “Huddersfield and the Fight for Women’s Suffrage

  1. I live in Huddersfield and i knew nothing of this history. Maybe i should look into Jill’s books.
    Thanks for the information ☺

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    1. Huddersfield has a lot of history people don’t seem to know about. You can sample ‘Rebel Girls’ in the Local History Library, and I’ve just added a link to the Women’s Hour interview with Jill where she talks about the 1911 Census (it should work for you if not for the US folk).

      Thanks for dropping by.

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  2. Your blogs are always fascinating, Stevie. I tend to skim most of the blogs which come my way via email (time poverty) but yours are well put together and concise, and give an interesting insight into your part of the world.

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  3. I have an ever increasing thirst for knowledge about the Sufragettes I’ll check out those books, thanks for that. It’s also cool your putting northern England on the map, it’s the place to be 🙂

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