Looking Back: How Town Hall made the case for Votes for Women in the 1880s

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 ‘great demonstration’ of 1881

Birmingham-based historian Nicola Gauld has done a lot of work on the women’s suffrage campaign in Birmingham. In her book, Deeds not Words, she talks of a ‘great demonstration’ at the Town Hall in February 1881 which was supported Liberal MP Hugh Mason’s call for votes for women householders.

Women got free entry; men paid 2 shillings and sixpence. This pricing was designed to get as many people attending as possible. Elizabeth Crawford, another historian who has a book in this area, says this is because the government at the time needed to see ‘evidence of a genuine public desire’, and packing Town Hall with women and men was a good way to show them.

Wiki Hugh Mason Mp 1880

          Image sourced from Wikipedia

Hugh Mason had been Liberal MP for Ashton under Lyne (in Greater Manchester) since 1880, only a short time before the meeting. He had already made a name for himself as a reforming politician and supporting votes for women actually put him at odds with the mainstream in his party.

Later, a suffragist and suffragette tactic was to support the other candidate in elections. This threatened the Liberal majority in parliament unless they supported women’s suffrage. Mason’s political career didn’t extend very far beyond this meeting at Town Hall: in 1885 he became very ill, and died in February 1886, only surviving one election as an MP.

Catherine Osler: Birmingham suffragist

Before Hugh Mason's meeting however, in January 1883, Catherine Osler led another meeting at Town Hall. In it, according to Nicola Gauld, she expressed her frustration at the lack of progress, despite the huge turnout two years ago at the Hugh Mason meeting. 

Lse Catherine Osler 1910

          Image sourced from LSE Women's Library

She was born in 1854 to a politically reforming family. Her parents were both members of the Birmingham Women’s Suffrage Society. The BWSS was a branch of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, or NUWSS. Osler went from treasurer if the BWSS to secretary in 1885, to president in 1903.

She would be referred to as a suffragist, coming from an earlier generation like Millicent Fawcett who were in favour of peaceful protest, rather than a suffragette, who believed in violent direct action.

In 1911 she joined the executive committee of the suffragist NUWSS, which Millicent Fawcett was president of. However, she remained concerned with local developments in Birmingham all through her life. She died in Edgbaston in 1924.

Carl Chinn, a Birmingham historian who has written about Osler in the Birmingham Mail said that Osler's encouragement of the BWSS to recruit factory women was important:

It is also really important that we do not forget the role of working class women in the movement. For some it was just a middle class movement, they were not interested in giving the vote to working women. But those women in the factories had to campaign and do their hard day’s work.

Carl Chinn

Below is a trailer for a short film produced by Nicola Gauld, called ‘Fight for the Right’. It was the product of a project which brought local schoolgirls into the Birmingham Archives to learn about the history of the suffrage movement in Birmingham between 1909 and 1914, about 30 years after the events described here.