Tuesday 6th February marks the 100th anniversary of the passing of the Representation of the People Act which gave certain women over the age of 30 the right to vote. Although women were going to have to wait another 10 years to be on equal voting terms with men, it was nonetheless an important political landmark. In recognition of this important date, Michelle Nicholls explores the link between Queen Street and the Wolverhampton suffrage movement.
The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), otherwise known as the Suffragists, was founded in the late 19th century to advance the rights of women through peaceful and legal means. From 1904, a Wolverhampton branch was known to exist and chaired by Clara Winifrede Graham who happened to be the wife of Thomas Graham, owner of the Express and Star Newspaper which operated from 51 Queen Street. It is well documented that the women of Wolverhampton played an important part in the story of women’s suffrage. It is less known that Queen Street acted as a vibrant hub of suffrage activity in the early 20th century.
Annual reports, housed at Wolverhampton City Archives, reveal that in 1909, a total of six meetings were held at 52 Queen Street. The 6 meetings are described as ‘at home’ meaning that the premises probably belonged to someone within the branch although this has proved difficult to confirm due to gaps in the historical record. We do know that by 1916, number 52 was owned by the Graham family. Therefore, it is possible that the property came into Graham family ownership slightly earlier and the space subsequently loaned to the group by Mrs. Graham who held the prominent position of ‘Vice-President’ within the Wolverhampton branch.
Although the annual reports tell us when and where these meetings took place, they reveal little of the women who attended the meetings. Who were they? What inspired them to join the suffrage movement? Did they attend marches and other national events? Did they meet with any prominent suffragettes such as the Pankhursts? Though we may not be able to answer these questions, it is fascinating to think of the women from the Suffrage Society meeting at 52 Queen Street and playing their part in the fight for women’s suffrage.
The photograph above was originally thought to have been taken in Queen Street although further research has revealed that this is now unlikely. The image captures members of the Women’s Freedom League which were a militant splinter group within the suffrage movement. Wolverhampton residents may be familiar with the story of Emma Sproson or ‘Red Emma’ who was a prominent member of this group. Irrespective of where the photograph was taken, it remains a powerful image depicting Wolverhampton women (and a young boy!) proudly campaigning for an important and worthy cause.
The 1918 Representation of the People Act, which extended the right of suffrage to women aged 30 and above (with a property qualification), introduced 8.5 million more voters into the system. Sadly, Mrs. Clara Graham passed away in 1923, five years before the Equal Franchise Act which extended the right to all women over the age of 21. This Act increased the number of women eligible to vote to 15 million and most importantly, gave them the same voting rights as men.
For more information, see ‘Emma Sproson, A Black Country Suffragette’ by S.P Walters, a copy of which can be found at Wolverhampton City Archives. The ‘Wolverhampton Suffrage Society Annual Reports’ are also available from Wolverhampton City Archives under the reference L3243. Information on Clara Graham kindly provided by Jackie Harrison and Ann Eales, members of the Friends of Wolverhampton City Archives. Some of you may also be interested to learn that in recognition of International Women’s Day, which takes place on the 8th March, Wolverhampton Art Gallery are hosting a talk ad tour of key paintings from the gallery’s collection produced by influential and inspiring women. Please see the Wolverhampton Arts and Culture website for more information on this event.
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