Eleanor Frances Atcherley and the Wakefield Women’s Suffrage Society – Part 1

< Back to Eleanor Frances Atcherley and the Boer War.

 Opening an exhibition of cookery at Normanton Central Schools last night, Mrs. Atcherley, wife of the Chief Constable of Wakefield, after giving a humorous description of her household experiences in South Africa when with her husband at the Boer War, went on to say that young English constables had generally as good and comfortable homes as had the so-called leisured classes. This was largely due to the fact that the wives were chosen for their ability to manage a house. In any sphere a wife materially aided or retarded the progress of the husband. This was especially so in the case of army men. When such were marked for promotion, the authorities took note of the character and habits of the wife, and many a man has remained stationary because he had an untidy wife.Leeds Mercury, 24 March 1910.

I have long wanted to find a member of the Atcherley family who was actively involved in the fight for women’s suffrage. Of all the Atcherley women who might have campaigned for the cause, Eleanor (later Lady Eleanor) Atcherley, with her traditional views on the role of women, was at or near the very bottom of my list of ‘suspects’. So you can perhaps imagine my surprise – and also my delight! – when I recently discovered that the “wife of the Chief Constable of Wakefield” was in fact an active suffragist.

My discovery came about thanks to the British Newspaper Archive’s recent addition of pages from The Common Cause to their vast and still growing collection of digitised historic newspapers. The Common Cause (an example of which, dated 3 Feb 1910, is shown left) was the official organ of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), an organisation founded in 1897. Under the leadership of Millicent Fawcett the NUWSS provided a network of local women’s suffrage societies with a national voice.

In contrast to the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU, led by Emmeline Pankhurst), which was launched in 1903 and used direct action by ‘suffragettes’ in its campaign, the NUWSS pursued a peaceful path. Petitioning, lobbying and marching were the methods used by this organisation in its pursuit of votes for women. The Common Cause was added to the NUWSS ‘toolbox’ in 1909, the first edition being published on 15 April. Through its pages, we can trace the history of the Wakefield Women’s Suffrage Society and the part played by Eleanor Atcherley during the early days of that organisation. The following appeared in volume I, number 49, on 17 March 1910:

Owing to the kind hospitality of Miss Beaumont a most successful drawing-room meeting was held at Hatfeild Hall, Wakefield, on Thursday, March 10th. Wakefield has up to this time taken little or no interest in the subject of the Suffrage, so that we were delighted to have such an interested and representative audience.

Miss Fielden made a most able and interesting speech, and carried her audience completely with her. She dealt with the gradual progression of women, and touched on the various social and economic disabilities under which they labour under their present voteless condition. She also fully explained the nature of the demand, and after detailing the various franchises under which men are qualified to exercise the vote, showed that they applied equally to women. At the close a lively discussion took place, but there was no opposition.

Mrs. Barnes proposed a vote of thanks to Miss Fielden, and said that the best way of showing their appreciation was for them to join the National Union. This was heartily responded to, and out of 45 present 26 joined the Union, and several more promised to consider the matter. We have every hope that, they will join later.

All our ‘Common Causes’ were sold, and we could have disposed of more. Miss Fielden is remaining in Wakefield for a few days, and it is hoped that a branch of the National Union will soon be formed. A public meeting will probably be held later.

There is no mention of Eleanor in this report, but I think it very likely that she was present at the meeting at Hatfeild Hall (the Hall, as it looks today, is pictured right). I say this because within 9 days of that event, Eleanor herself hosted a meeting at the Atcherley family home. The Common Cause of 24 March 1910 provides the following information:

The work in Wakefield is progressing, and arrangements are being made for a public meeting on April 8th in the Music Saloon, Wood Street, when Miss A. Maude Royden and Miss Fielden will speak. On Saturday, the 19th, a very successful drawing-room meeting was given by Mrs. Atcherley at Haddon Leys, Wakefield. Miss Fielden spoke to an interested audience, and afterwards there were questions and discussion. Seven new members joined the Society, and ‘Common Causes’ sold well. A provisional committee has been formed of the Wakefield branch, and it is intended to affiliate to the N.U.W.S.S. shortly.

Whatever her views regarding the role of women in the home, Eleanor clearly felt quite strongly that she and other members of ‘the fairer sex’ should have their say on who represented them in the House of Commons. She was not alone. By the beginning of April 1910 the Wakefield Women’s Suffrage Society had 50 members. At the public meeting held in Wakefield’s Music Saloon on 8 April, another 26 new members joined after hearing Miss A Maude Royden make “a most stirring and convincing speech, explaining the policy and aims of the National Union, and showing how our civilization was warped and one-sided by the woman’s point of view being omitted from our National Council.”

In The Common Cause of 5 May 1910 it was announced that: “Mrs. Atcherly has kindly invited the members of the Society to her house, Haddon Leys, on May 23rd, to hear a paper by Mrs. Davies, of Horbury, on the history of the Women’s Suffrage movement. We are very grateful to Mrs. Atcherly for her kind help, and trust that there will be a very good attendance of members.” The meeting itself was reported on as follows:

On Monday, May 23rd, Mrs. Atcherley very kindly invited us all to her house to hear a paper by Mrs. Davies on ‘The History of the Movement.’ Everyone was delighted with the able and instructive sketch of the ‘Suffrage History’ given by Mrs. Davies, and she had no difficulty in securing the absorbed attention of her hearers. On the motion of Mrs. Atcherley, seconded by Miss Beaumont, Mrs. Davies was warmly thanked for her delightful paper. Mrs. J. Livesey Lee proposed, and Mrs. Peacock seconded, a cordial vote of thanks to Mrs. Atcherley for so kindly entertaining us. Some discussion followed, and after a stroll in the garden and a much-appreciated tea, a very pleasant afternoon came to a close.

Eleanor opened her house to the Wakefield Society’s members again on 1 July 1910, when tea was served and two talks were given. Miss Beaumont spoke on ‘Charlotte Bronte and Women’s Emancipation’. Miss Fielden updated members on current events and “appealed for members to go up to the demonstration in Trafalgar Square on the 9th.” The report on the Wakefield Society in The Common Cause then noted: “The Society has worked hard for Mr. Shackleton’s Bill, and our Member [of Parliament], Mr. Brotherton, supported the Bill in both divisions.”

The Bill referred to by The Common Cause was the Parliamentary Franchise (Women) Bill, otherwise known as the Conciliation Bill, which had been introduced into Parliament by Labour MP David Shackleton. The aim of the Bill was to extend the right to vote to a million or so women, based on property ownership and marital status.

The restricted scope of this Bill proved to be a barrier to its success. MP Winston Churchill argued during the Bill’s second reading on 12 July: “It is not merely an undemocratic Bill it is worse. It is an antidemocratic Bill. It gives an entirely unfair representation to property as against persons.” Lloyd George, another Liberal MP who had been seen as a friend of the women’s suffrage movement, also argued that the Bill was undemocratic, and that the number of women to whom it would give the vote was not large enough.

Ironically the latter view was in addition expressed by the Liberal Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, a long-time opponent of women’s suffrage! He stated in the House of Commons: “For my part I should not regard any measure of woman suffrage as satisfying my conceptions of equality which did not confer the suffrage on precisely the same grounds as, for the time being, it is enjoyed by man.”

Despite this high profile opposition, the Conciliation Bill passed its second reading with a vote of 299 in favour and 189 against. However further barriers then came into play. As a ‘Ten Minute Rule’ Bill, success for this proposed legislation depended not only on support for its measures Parliament but also on the government being willing to provide parliamentary time for its progress. Under Millicent Fawcett’s leadership the NUWSS did all in its power, publicly and behind the scenes, to ‘squeeze’ Asquith and obtain the facilities needed for the Bill to proceed. They found that Asquith was not for squeezing.

Another problem was a deepening of the divide between the NUWSS and the WSPU (which at that time had called a truce, an end to militancy, until the fate of the Conciliation Bill was known). In the same issue of The Common Cause which reported on the meeting hosted by Eleanor Atcherley on July 1st, a statement from the Executive Committee of the NUWSS read, in part:

In answer to inquirers, the Committee have instructed me to ask you to insert the resolution passed by them with regard to the W.S.P.U. demonstration of July 23rd, and forwarded to Mrs. Pethick Lawrence. It was as follows: ‘That the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies accept the invitation of the Women’s Social and Political Union to a united and peaceful demonstration in Hyde Park on the 23rd inst., on the definite understanding that militant tactics are not resumed until after that date, and that the resolution to be submitted is one which our Union can endorse.’

Mrs. Lawrence, whilst heartily welcoming the co-operation of the National Union, replied that it would be impossible for them to give any undertaking that militant tactics would not be resumed before July 23rd, and she gave no answer about the resolution to be moved in Hyde Park. Under these circumstances it was decided not to take part officially in the demonstration, though the Committee wished it every success.

Just at the time when unity in the women’s suffrage movement was most needed, the two main players found themselves unable to form a team.

Although privately she knew that the Conciliation Bill would proceed no further in 1910, Millicent Fawcett (or Mrs Henry Fawcett as she was usually referred to) continued campaigning for it both nationally and locally (Millicent is pictured right). This was in the hope that with enough support, facilities for the Bill would be provided in the next session of Parliament. Her efforts included a visit to the Wakefield Women’s Suffrage Society, which I imagine Eleanor Atcherley must have attended. In The Common Cause of 3 November 1910, a report from the Society stated:

Tuesday, October 18th, was a red-letter day in our history, for Mrs. Henry Fawcett, LL.D., was with us, at a drawing-room meeting at Hatfield Hall. She received a most hearty welcome from a deeply interested audience, and spoke splendidly, filling us all with fresh courage and enthusiasm. Miss Fielden also spoke, and a resolution was carried unanimously asking the Government for facilities for the Conciliation Bill.

It was another Bill, the Parliament Bill, which put the final nail in the coffin of the first Conciliation Bill in 1910. The government felt that the only way to advance the Parliament Bill and resolve the constitutional dispute which then existed between Commons and Lords was to call an election and gain a fresh mandate. The King, acting on the advice of his ministers, announced the dissolution of Parliament on 18 November, and members of the NUWSS – in Wakefield and elsewhere – would soon be bringing pressure to bear on their constituencies’ parliamentary candidates.

On to Part 2.


Picture credits. Cover of Common Cause dated dated 3 Feb 1910: Adapted from an image at the LSE Library Flickr photostream; no known copyright restrictions. Hatfeild Hall: Photo © Copyright Mike Kirby; taken from Geograph and adapted, and used, under a Creative Commons licence. NUWSS ‘Support the Conciliation Bill’ poster: Adapted from an image at the LSE Library Flickr photostream; no known copyright restrictions. Millicent Fawcett: Adapted from a public domain image at Wikimedia Commons.


References

[1] Leeds Mercury, 24 Mar 1910, page 3. “The Constable’s Wife.” Copy viewed at Findmypast (search for Atchcrley).
[2] The Common Cause, vol. I, no. 1, 15 Apr 1909. Copy viewed at British Newspaper Archive.
[3] 1897 Foundation of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Society [sic]. At www.parliament.uk (website, accessed 23 Apr 2018).
[4] National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. At: Wikipedia (website, accessed 23 Apr 2018).
[5] The Common Cause, vol. I, no. 49, 17 Mar 1910, page 697. Copy viewed at British Newspaper Archive (page 13 of this electronic version; search term Wakefield, restricted to Common Cause).
[6] The Common Cause, vol. I, no. 50, 24 Mar 1910, page 714. Copy viewed at British Newspaper Archive (page 14 of this electronic version; search term Atelierley).
[7] The Common Cause, vol. I, no. 52, 7 Apr 1910, page 741. Copy viewed at British Newspaper Archive (page 13 of this electronic version; search term Wakefield, restricted to Common Cause).
[8] The Common Cause, vol. II, no. 53, 14 Apr 1910, page 14. Copy viewed at British Newspaper Archive (search term Wakefield, restricted to Common Cause).
[9] The Common Cause, vol. II, no. 56, 5 May 1910, page 61. Copy viewed at British Newspaper Archive (page 13 of this electronic version; search term Atcherley).
[10] The Common Cause, vol. II, no. 60, 2 Jun 1910, page 125. Copy viewed at British Newspaper Archive (page 13 of this electronic version; search term Atcherley).
[11] The Common Cause, vol. II, no. 68, 28 Jul 1910, pages 258 and 266. Copy viewed at British Newspaper Archive (pages 6 and 14 of this electronic version; search term Atcherly).
[12] D J Townsend (2010), 100 years ago today: 300 suffragettes clash with police over Conciliation Bill. At: Archives and Manuscripts at the Bodleian Library (blog, accessed 23 Apr 2018).
[13] Leslie Hume (1981), The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies 1897-1914. Copy of 2016 edition previewed at Google Books.
[14] H. H. Asquith (Votes for women). At: Wikipedia (website, accessed 23 Apr 2018).
[15] Black Friday (1910). At: Wikipedia (website, accessed 23 Apr 2018).
[16] The Conciliation Bill: 1910-1912. At: Spartacus Educational (website, accessed 23 Apr 2018).
[17] Jill Liddington, Elizabeth Crawford (2011), ‘Women do not count, neither shall they be counted’: Suffrage, Citizenship and the Battle for the 1911 Census. In: History Workshop Journal, volume 71, issue 1, pages 98–127.
[18] Hansard: House of Lords Debate 18 November 1910. Volume 6. Cc 760-776. Electronic copy viewed at Parliament.uk website.

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