Tag Archives: Edith Eskrigge

Leeds Welcomes Suffragists

This year marks the centenary of women being granted the parliamentary vote in 1918 (though it was for over-thirties only at first, whilst it was twenty-one for men!). We may expect the media to dwell through the year, as usual, upon the sensational activities in support of this goal of the militant “suffragettes”, led by the Pankhursts. But the peaceful, non-militant, “suffragists” were much better-supported and were arguably more effective in the long run.

The crowning glory of the non-militant suffragist campaign was their Great Pilgrimage of Summer 1913, in which thousands of women (and some men) marched from all over the country to London where a huge rally demanding women’s suffrage (over 50,000 attended) was held in Hyde Park on July 26th. They trekked along six main routes to the capital, over a six week period. The “Great North Road” contingent, starting out from Newcastle on 18th June, had an eventful time of it in the West Riding of Yorkshire, which I shall describe in this post. 


Suffragist leader Millicent Fawcett (1847-1929) photographed as a young woman. Public domain

The Great Pilgrimage was organised by the suffragist National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), which was led to victory by Millicent Fawcett from 1897 to 1919. Mrs Fawcett deserves to be at least as well-known as Emmeline, Christabel and Sylvia Pankhurst, as does Mrs Katherine Harley, (from Shropshire) who masterminded the Pilgrimage. And countless ordinary women, who campaigned long and hard for the cause in local branches of the NUWSS, also deserve to be better-recognised. My own great, great aunt Edith Eskrigge, was on the “Watling Street” route of the pilgrimage from the North-West, and my blog about her, posted on 1st December 2014, can be read on this site.


NUWSS Poster, 1913. Public Domain

Leeds Women’s Suffrage Society (LWSS) was formed in 1890. This followed a sometimes acrimonious conference of Northern Counties Women’s Liberal Associations, held at Leeds Philosophical Hall on Park Row in November 1890, when members voiced frustration at the Liberal party forever giving priority to causes other than women’s suffrage (in this case Irish home rule). Prominent amongst LWSS’s founders were the Quaker Ford family of Adel Grange, particularly Isabella Ormston Ford (a longstanding trade union activist) and her sister Emily Susan Ford (a noted artist). Its object was “to obtain for all duly qualified women the right to vote at all the elections at which men vote…”.

When it was announced that the Great North Road route of the Pilgrimage would pass their way, the LWSS set itself to organising the marchers’ itinerary and accommodation at short notice. In an echo of today’s “man with a van” phenomenon, the LWSS advertised in the Yorkshire Evening Post, on 17th June, for “a public-spirited Leeds tradesman”, to come forward and earn “the LAW-ABIDING SUFFRAGISTS gratitude” (though not their cash reimbursement, apparently!), by providing a van to carry their hand baggage from Wetherby to Leeds and then on to Wakefield.

Law-abiding though the marchers were they got into trouble at Ripon, where their arrival on Wednesday 25th June coincided with the annual Agricultural Show and its accompanying drunkenness. The Yorkshire Evening Post reported that their leader, Miss Ida Beaver of Tyneside, who “knows how to take care of herself in the rough and tumble of the world”, apparently landed “a left straight from the shoulder” on “a rough and boorish fellow” who had ill-used women who tried to speak with his “rude hands”. She “floored him.” Rowdy behaviour denied the marchers a hearing at Ripon and elsewhere, and this was not the sort of publicity they were seeking. The whole point of the exercise was to present women as responsible public citizens, and to distinguish them from their anarchic suffragette sisters. 

They fared much better in Leeds where the Yorkshire Evening Post greeted their arrival on Tuesday 1st July (from Wetherby) warmly, describing the “little band” of marchers as having, “all the winsomeness, refinement, and delicacy which one expects to find in women.” The paper also praised the “silver-tongued” oratorical skills of Miss Beaver, and those of Miss Meikle, West Riding Federation NUWSS march organiser, who was reckoned a “rare spouter” after she held forth at Collingham on the road to Leeds.

The Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer was also well-disposed towards the pilgrims. It described them lunching at Bardsey and then taking tea at the Mansion in Roundhay Park, where a meeting held by the lake was attended by about five hundred people and addressed by Miss Meikle and Mrs Renton (LWSS organising secretary). By this time there were about twelve original pilgrims remaining, though their numbers were swelled to a “valiant” fifty on their departure from Leeds to Wakefield.

A big splash was made on the evening of 1st July, when a crowd of some eight thousand people demonstrated with the pilgrims at Woodhouse Moor: “Large crowds lined the streets as the ladies marched to the Moor. Here and there they were subjected to rough chaff, and in places there was booing, but when it was seen that they belonged to the ‘peaceable’ party this soon ceased. In Woodhouse Lane some supporters of the cause strewed flowers on the roadway as the party approached.”  At the Moor speeches in support were delivered from two platforms, not just by NUWSS members but also by local worthies (some of them male), and “Resolutions pledging support to the movement were carried with few dissentients.”

The Yorkshire Evening Post concluded that: “Leeds has unmistakably received the non-militants well – so well that the pilgrims themselves are inclined to look upon their progress through the city as one grand triumphal march.” Miss Beaver (“their Amazonian young leader”) went into raptures about the Woodhouse Moor crowd, saying “…they were tremendously enthusiastic. Practically they were all for us, so that the ‘anti’s’, who had been there before, had evidently troubled themselves in vain.” They left Leeds in “high spirits”, having signed up nearly four hundred new adherents and raised a good deal of money for the cause.

Though they were generally well-received on their subsequent path through West Yorkshire, their time in Leeds seems to have been the highpoint. At well-attended meetings in Wakefield things were slightly marred as, “At times the speakers were interrupted, and occasionally pebbles and lumps of cotton waste were thrown by hobbledehoys at them.” And the marchers on this route of the pilgrimage were to experience a good deal of hostility and violence as they passed through the East Midlands, particularly at Mansfield where there was a near-riot.

Nevertheless, the Hyde Park rally in London on Saturday July 26th was to prove a “joyous” (Millicent Fawcett’s word) culmination of all the marchers’ efforts. Maintaining its sympathy for the pilgrims, the Yorkshire Evening Post declared on the day of the rally that: “All will agree in their admiration for the pluck displayed by these women who have marched long distances to London, and roughed it by the way, for the sake of the cause they have at heart…All the more honour to them, therefore, because they will not stoop to unworthy means.”


Women’s Suffrage Pilgrims in Cathays Park, Cardiff, 1913. Public Domain


Book: Hearts And Minds: The Untold Story of the Great Pilgrimage and How Women Won the Vote, J. Robinson (2018). This excellent account is just out. It includes references to my great, great aunt, Edith Eskrigge.

 Newspapers: Leeds Mercury,  13/11/1890, 10/12/1890, 1/7/1913, 3/7/1913; Yorkshire Evening Post, 9/12/1890, 17/6/1913, 1/7/1913, 2/7/1913, 26/7/1913; Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 16/8/1889, 15/11/1890, 8/7/1891, 18/6/1913, 25/6/1913, 30/6/1913, 2/7/1913, 3/7/1913; Leeds Times, 15/11/1890

Edith Eskrigge and the Suffragists

On the eve of the First World War, just over a century ago, the militant “Suffragette” movement demanding votes for women was in full-swing. The names of Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia, who founded the suffragette Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903, are still widely recalled, as is their campaign of direct, often violent, agitation. But mention of the peaceful “Suffragist” movement, which had been going for almost fifty years by 1914, produces blank looks nowadays. My great-great aunt Edith Eskrigge (1872-1948) was an active suffragist, and deserves to be celebrated for her lifetime of selfless public service.

Unlike the Pankhursts and their followers, Edith did not go in for window-smashing, or fire-setting, or painting-slashing or attacking cabinet ministers with dog-whips. Nor did she endure terms of imprisonment and bouts of force-feeding. She was also unlike the socially influential Pankhursts in having a provincial middle class upbringing, being the sixth child of seven born into a prosperous merchant’s family at Liscard Vale, Wallasey, on the opposite bank of the Mersey from Liverpool. Her father worked as a cotton broker in Liverpool, and a photograph, taken in the 1890s, has the family posed outside their large house (which stood where Vale Park is now, in New Brighton) in all their sober, but splendid, late-Victorian self-assurance. Edith, then in her early twenties, is standing, second from the right.


(An Eskrigge Family Portrait: Private Collection)

A keen sense of social concern was instilled in Edith by her non-conformist background (Quaker on her mother’s side and Congregationalist on her father’s), which discouraged bright girls from living lives of moneyed idleness. Starting out working in London’s East End at the Canning Town Settlement, she became immersed in voluntary social work. On her return home, she taught disabled children and undertook charitable work on their behalf, particularly in establishing Invalid Children’s Aid, later the Child Welfare Association. During the First World War she was Chief Officer of the Soldiers and Sailors Family Association in Liverpool, when she worked closely with Eleanor Rathbone. Afterwards she became Hon. Secretary of the Liverpool Women’s Citizen’s Association, which was concerned with preparing women for their duties as citizens. Later she took an active interest in the Lancashire and Cheshire Child Adoption Society. But she declined to become a magistrate, being dubious of the value of imprisonment and unwilling to be responsible for imposing it.


(A Youthful Edith: Private Collection)

My mother remembers her great-aunt Edith, by then an elderly lady, as an influential role model. In order that opinion about the place of women in society be altered, it was necessary for women like Edith to demonstrate their suitability to public office by means of pioneering example. But my mother also remembers the private Edith as a generous woman with a great gift for friendship, who was the pivotal member of the extended family and who took responsibility for the care of its ailing members. Edith had a horror of violence and war, and hoped that the influence of women in public affairs would be for peace. But she was broad-minded and undogmatic in her approach to any given issue, always being able to see both sides of an argument. Although briefly engaged in the 1890s, she never married. She was outgoing, nevertheless, and was a lifelong enthusiast for the outdoor pursuits of walking, climbing and cycling. She also travelled a good deal abroad.


(An Elderly Edith: Private Collection)

Her capacities for organisation and public speaking were used to the fullest extent in the suffragist movement. She was much involved in running the pre-war West Lancashire, West Cheshire and North Wales Federation of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) led nationally by Millicent Fawcett. This explicitly non-political and non-militant organisation set out to campaign by persuasion on a range of social issues, as well as on the cause of women’s suffrage. Edith was especially prominent in promoting the educational side of her federation’s work, particularly at the summer school held at Talybont in North Wales to train women working in the federation. It was through her great-aunt’s connections in Talybont that my mother and her brother were evacuated there as children from Wallasey, during the Second World War blitz.

In 1913 the suffragist NUWSS staged a Women’s Suffrage Pilgrimage, wherein its constituent federations marched to London during June and July and combined in a great demonstration at Hyde Park on July 26th. Edith organised and led her federation of the NUWSS’s contingent (of about 450 participants) which joined members of other federations to march on the “Watling Street” route from Carlisle to London. The Times estimated that about 50,000 people attended the eventual Hyde Park rally, which was conducted in a peaceful atmosphere designed to show the strength and extent of the non-violent suffrage movement. Suffragette Emily Wilding Davison had stepped to her death in front of the king’s horse at the Epsom Derby only weeks before, and it is interesting to note that this lone act of horror is routinely replayed in modern media accounts of the period whilst the peaceful activities of thousands of women like Edith seldom rate a mention.

Of course such efforts did not secure parliamentary votes for women before the First World War, but then again neither did the more sensational actions of the suffragettes. It is not generally appreciated that the organised suffragist movement traced its origin back almost half a century to the formation of the “Kensington Society” in 1866, since when it had been advocating a broad range of women’s rights with a fair degree of success. It had secured the important objective of legal property rights for married women, and had seen female ratepayers obtain the right to vote and stand as candidates in local government. For the first time, in the late nineteenth century, women established themselves in large numbers as members of public bodies. In such ways suffragists like Edith were influential in shifting opinion toward an acceptance that women had a rightful place in public life as well as in the home. The question of the franchise was not, in any case, a clear-cut gender divide, because a large minority of men did not themselves have the vote in parliamentary elections before the First World War. It took the wartime sacrifices of men and women alike before this right was extended to all adult males, and to women over the age of thirty, at the war’s end in 1918. Full electoral equality between the sexes was not granted until 1928.

A good friend of hers wrote that Edith “was one to whom cultural pleasures of the mind came as naturally as breathing and throughout her life she absorbed knowledge like sunlight and made it part of herself.” That friend also wrote that Edith “remained to the end essentially an open air person of country tastes and with a primitive gypsy element in her composition…She would say that mountains intoxicated her, and that nothing gave her such pleasure as nature. She had indeed great knowledge of natural objects and wild creatures, and acute powers of observation; she was also something of a weather prophet…On long walks she would often sleep on the ground, a form of rest which gave her instinctive enjoyment and fulfilled some primitive urge…The ‘sense of wonder’ never failed her…There were no windows closed on life…Her essential wisdom, her readiness to appreciate the good in life and accept the painful, made her a restful as well as a profoundly stimulating companion.”

I would love to have known her.

A collection of papers and photographs relating to Edith Eskrigge is held at The Women’s Library at the LSE (Ref: 7EES)