When the militant suffragettes visited North Somerset... and burned a historic church

PUBLISHED: 08:00 08 February 2018

Suffragettes gathering to protest in London c.1910 - There would be another eight years of the struggle before women got the vote. Picture: PA

Suffragettes gathering to protest in London c.1910 - There would be another eight years of the struggle before women got the vote. Picture: PA

This week marks the 100th anniversary of women obtaining the vote in Britain for the first time.

Suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst in a Polling Booth circa 1910. Picture: PA Suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst in a Polling Booth circa 1910. Picture: PA

It was a hard-fought battle, first made through petitions in Parliament before escalating to arson when peaceful methods seemed to fail.

Mary Jane, Helen and Margaret Ann Tovey, who lived in Duncan House, Clevedon, were among the 1,500 women to sign the first mass petition to Parliament calling for female suffrage. It was presented by John Stuart Mill in 1866.

Campaigning continued for the coming decades, and some of the most prominent suffragettes descended on Clevedon in 1908.

The Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), started by Emmeline Pankhurst, was notorious by 1908, and the first sign some of those women were heading to Clevedon was in chalk messages proclaiming ‘Votes For Women’ scrawled on the pavement.

Adela Pankhurst, Emmeline’s youngest daughter, and Annie Kenney addressed crowds at Salthouse Fields, along with Dorothy Pethick from Weston.

They received ‘a constant stream of good-humoured chaff and interruptions’ from the 200-strong crowd.

But 48 years on from the first Parliamentary petition, women were still waiting, and some had grown impatient.

In 1914, an attempt was made to burn down the 1,000-year-old parish church in Clevedon.

It is suspected suffragettes set St Andrew's Church on fire. It is suspected suffragettes set St Andrew's Church on fire.

The Suffragette newspaper, edited by WSPU leader Christabel Pankhurst, said the floor was burned, the ceiling charred, and a window had been smashed in.

The paper said: “Fastened to the tombstones in the churchyard outside was found Suffragette literature, and a paper bearing the inscription: ‘votes for women’, and ‘apply to Asquith [the Prime Minister] and co. for damages’.

The same year, war came. The WSPU and non-militant National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) agreed to stop campaigning.

During wartime, women were promoted to jobs traditionally held by men, and by 1918 the Government extended the suffrage to all land-owning women aged over 30.

In the Weston constituency, which included Portishead and Clevedon at the time, women outvoted men three to one in some polling stations, and seven to one in others. 
A woman stood for election in the constituency for the first time in 1920.

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