Published on October 14th, 2015 | by Kate Ellis0
Suffragettes in Reading
While we mostly associate the most iconic aspects of the suffrage movement with the streets of London, Reading can trace its connections to the suffragettes back to the origins of the movement. Discover Reading’s suffragettes from the 1866 petition to arson attacks…
The origins of the suffrage movement can be traced back to the 1866 petition for women’s suffrage where 1,500 women across the country signed a petition demanding that women should have the same political rights as men. There was only one signatory from Berkshire: Mrs Eliza Ratcliffe, principal of the Ladies’ School, Burlton House in Reading.
The petition was presented to Henry Fawcett and John Stuart Mill who added an amendment to the Reform Act that would give women equal rights; however, the amendment was defeated by 196 votes to 73. The failure of this amendment helped launch the suffrage movement and three years later in 1869, nine more women from Reading signed their names to a universal suffrage petition.
The women’s suffrage movement grew gradually in Reading. In 1872, George Palmer chaired a meeting where Rhoda Garrett read a paper about suffrage. In 1874 and 1878 there were further meetings at Reading Town Hall with George Palmer in attendance at both.
By 1881, the Reading Liberal club opened a conference on the subject of extending suffrage to women householders and in 1887, icons of the Suffragette movement – Millicent Fawcett and Florence Balgarnie – came to speak in Reading.
Suffragettes in Reading…
Suffragettes didn’t have a particularly large presence in Reading until 1907 when the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies formed their own group in Reading.
Not long after in 1908, the Women’s Social and Political Union opened in Reading with its first meeting launched by Emmeline Pankhurst at St. Mary’s Butts. Both groups opened shops selling women’s suffrage literature to the people of Reading.
The WSPU campaign particularly focused on female workers at Reading’s famous biscuit factories which soon lead to the creation of a group for working men who supported universal suffrage.
Berkshire as a whole was considered to be strongly Anti-Suffrage as a county due to the influence of Lady Wantage who was president of the North Berks branch of the Anti-Suffrage League. However, Reading was one of the few hotspots in the region for suffrage activity, only being beaten by Oxford.
Fire in Wargrave…
Reading did not escape the attention of militant suffragettes who allegedly targeted a church in Wargrave in 1914.
On the 1st June, Wargrave’s parish church was set on fire and was almost totally destroyed. The police soon claimed that the arson attack was due to suffragettes as postcards accusing the authorities of torturing women were found near the church.
Although the suffrage movement was focused on equal political rights, many suffragettes objected to the Church of England’s marriage vows where women were expect to obey their husbands.
On the same night as the attack on Wargrave, a house in Windsor was set on fire and a similar attack was made on a house in High Wycombe a few days later. Although suffragettes were blamed for the arson, no conclusive evidence was ever found.
However, the attack came at the end of the suffrage movement. Following the outbreak of the First World War, most suffragettes pledged to help the war effort and in 1918 all women over the age of 30 were given the right to vote.