Looking back: How did Birmingham become a ‘stronghold’ for the suffragette movement?

In the run up to International Women’s Day, THSH is diving into the archives for our #THSHLookingBack series: exploring Birmingham Town Hall’s rich history as a hub of speechmaking, protesting, and campaigning in the suffragette movement, which won the vote for most women 100 years ago last year.

The WSPU in Birmingham

On Wednesday 20 November 1907 Nell Kenney hosted a meeting at Birmingham Town Hall which was pretty much a who’s-who of the twentieth-century Suffragette movement.

The WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union) had a regional office in Birmingham, and they came out in force with this meeting at Town Hall. 

The intention of the all-star lineup was probably to attract as large an audience as possible, to show the government of the time the popularity of the cause, as in the ‘great demonstration’ in Town Hall of 1881.

Emmeline Pankhurst, who founded the WSPU in 1903, was in attendance. Her daughter Christabel Pankhurst, and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, also spoke at the event.

          Emmeline Pankhurst, Christabel Pankhurst, and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence with Christabel Pankhurst. Image Sourced from LSE Women’s Library.

Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence and the Votes for Women newspaper

Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence was born in 1867 in Bristol and was involved in women’s suffrage campaigning when she became the WSPU’s treasurer in 1906. She also founded the WSPU’s magazine Votes for Women with her husband. Frederick Pethick-Lawrence was a socialist politician who went on to join the Labour Party as an MP (1923), Leader of the Opposition (1942), and a Secretary of State (1945).

Votes for Women published speeches and articles by prominent suffragettes like the Pankhursts, and advertised upcoming WSPU events around the country. They even wrote about this meeting beforehand to advertise it in their Programme of Events in the November 1907 issue. Thanks to the British Newspaper Archive, you can read about Nell Kenney’s preparations here:

1907 Nov Developments In Brum

          Newspaper images © The British Library Board. All rights reserved. With thanks to The British Newspaper Archive

Who was Nell Kenney?

Nell Kenney, who wrote the article, was born in Lees, Lancashire in 1876. She was the younger sister of the more well-known Annie Kenney, born 1879, a working class suffragette who was a member of the WSPU and close with Christabel Pankhurst.

Kenney Cartoon

          Cartoon of Nell Kenney centre. Image sourced from the Library of Birmingham

According to Suffragette Stories, Nell worked in the cotton mills from an early age. She would later become a West Midlands organiser for the WSPU – hence the Birmingham Town Hall meeting. She emigrated to Canada with her husband in 1908-9.

The Birmingham Owl and the Dart

The Birmingham Owl and the Birmingham Pictorial and Dart were two weekly gossip magazines which began in the 1800s, designed to keep fashionable men up to date on current affairs in the city, as well as the country more widely. The Owl was more left-wing, while the Dart was more right-wing – but both it seems were anti-suffrage.

Thanks to the Birmingham Midland Institute’s wonderful collection of the two magazines, you can read how they “advertised” the upcoming in event in the gossip sections that the Owl called “whispers” and the Dart called “what we heard”:

          Images sourced from the BMI Birmingham Library.

At the event, the Dart describes how some anti-suffrage hecklers used megaphones to drown out what was being said on stage, leading to the event being cancelled.

1907 22 November Whispers Suffragettes Owl

          Image sourced from the BMI Birmingham Library.

Meanwhile the Owl says quite cruelly in its “Whispers” section that ‘the Suffragists now know what freedom of speech means in Birmingham’.

Nonetheless, Votes for Women were apparently very impressed with the success of the meeting, saying,

‘Birmingham, we believe, is about to become one of the strongholds for our movement’