On 17 October 2018 Jackie Arnot, our Chairman, welcomed members and friends to a talk on a subject of great relevance to the date: Chelmsford’s Suffragettes. The speaker, Stephen Norris, reminded the audience that 2018 marked the centenary of the beginning of women’s suffrage, though it would be another ten years before women were given equal voting rights with men. In Chelmsford the first campaigner for women’s rights was Anne Knight. From a Quaker background, Anne’s first interest was in the anti-slavery movement. Attending a conference of the movement in London, Anne discovered, to her fury, that she was not allowed to speak. Suddenly realising that women were forced to endure their own kind of slavery, Anne from then on became a fierce supporter of the fight for female equality with males.
Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, and until the outbreak of the first world war, the campaigners for women’s suffrage grew in numbers and determination. It was surprising to learn that meetings were often held in Chelmsford and supported not only by women resident in the town but by women from all over Essex. Among the Chelmsford supporters was Richenda Christy, daughter of a local manufacturer, while from a little further afield, Margaret and Clara Rackham of Bocking regularly attended meetings. But it was not only women who supported the cause, many men were also sympathetic to women’s claims for equality. One of the best known in Chelmsford was John Ockleford Thompson, proprietor of a local newspaper and seven times mayor of Chelmsford.
It is well known that women were not united in ideas for achieving their aims. The Suffragists believed that speeches and letters were the means to their acceptance, while the Suffragettes were activists, with no qualms about hurling bombs and breaking windows. Both groups had supporters in Chelmsford and the local paper recorded ugly scenes, with women being arrested for causing damage and even assaulting police officers.
Campaigning was halted during WWI but resumed immediately after peace was declared, and soon women over the age of thirty were granted the vote. However, another ten years were to pass before all adults over the age of twenty-one were given the right to vote.
Jackie thanked Stephen for his interesting talk and was sure many were surprised to learn that Chelmsford women were so involved in the fight to gain the vote.
Subsequent reports are much shorter because of the limitations imposed by publication in one of our Essex newspapers.