Turbulent Spinsters: Women’s Fight for the Vote in Hastings and St Leonards
By Ann Kramer

Review by Ben Bruges

Most of social historian Ann Kramer’s meticulous research comes from the Hastings Observer’s records, and one of the interests in the book is in tracing the way the paper moves from outrage and outright opposition to the struggle for votes for women, to grudging support while criticising methods. The development of different objectives and the story of the transition from suffragist to suffragette campaign methods is traced, most shockingly marked by the burning down of Conservative MP Arthur du Cros’ stately mansion ‘Levetleigh’ in Dane Road, St Leonards, which happened weeks before suffragette Emily Davison famously ran out onto the racecourse in front of the King’s horse. (Have a look at the results in Pathé news footage here: player.bfi.org.uk/free/film/watch-st-leonards-outrage-1913-online)

As long-time Hastings resident Kramer explains, her focus is to show that echoes of the bigger battles in London occurred in just about any small town across the country, but that’s somewhat negated by the fact that Hastings is not typical. There was then, and is now, a strong strand of radical activism here – currently we have a strongly left Labour party; most of the leading members of the Jewish Voice for Labour; an active contingent of Extinction Rebellion; Greens; community activism such as the Hastings’ ‘town hall meets’ and community union Acorn; even having a printed community paper such as HIP… maybe there’s something different about Hastings? As Kramer acknowledges, “Hastings and its sister town St Leonards seem to have either produced or attracted a significant number of radical thinkers and political activists, including strong-minded women.”

The first suffrage meeting was a talk by Mrs Jane Ronniger on votes for women in the Castle Assembly Rooms on 27th April 1871, a talk the Hastings Observer described as, “a long but… highly interesting discussion of the claims of ladies to participate in the Parliamentary Franchise.” The patronising tone continues, “the fair pleader was of prepossessing appearance, and certainly the very antitype to the strong minded women the masculine mind flinches from, at women’s rights meetings generally.”

Kramer carefully traces the history (herstory?) from then to the stepped victories of 1918 and 1928 and concludes: “Starting from small beginnings in the late 1860s through to the turbulent years before the First World War, bands of thoughtful, determined women in Hastings and St Leonards devoted many years of their lives to the cause of achieving votes for women. They hosted meetings, booked public halls, took up public speaking, networked, wrote letters, lobbied politicians, joined huge marches and even broke the law in their absolute commitment to winning the vote. Women in Hastings and St Leonards today owe these dedicated campaigners a great deal.” 

Australian-born Muriel Matters was an actor and elocution teacher, who was inspired by an interview with the famous anarchist Peter Kropotkin and who arrived in Hastings in 1908 in a carriage emblazoned with ‘Votes for Women’ to campaign for the vote with the Women’s Freedom League, set up as a democratic alternative to the increasingly autocratic Emmeline Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union. The meeting in Wellington Square went off fairly peacefully, but in the Fishmarket they met a barrage of fish-heads and entrails, but which failed to stop them speaking. She then became the first woman to speak in parliament from the ladies gallery where she had chained herself to the metal grille, saying, women have sat behind “this insulting Grille for too long… it is time that the women of England were given a voice… we demand the vote!” 

www.annkramer.co.uk 


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