In just under four weeks’ time, I will take a short walk from my home to a local primary school, stand in a wooden booth and make a cross on a ballot paper. Almost 100 years ago, the women of Tunbridge Wells (or at least those aged over 30) were able to vote for the first time.
The 1918 general election took place on a grey, rainy December day, in a country which was just beginning its recovery from the Great War. In Tunbridge Wells the event was marked by a procession of women, some carrying banners, who walked through the streets to the Town Hall on Calverley Road. At the front was an elegantly dressed lady, with grey hair, a pale complexion and grey-blue eyes, holding a red, white and green bouquet. 64-year-old novelist Madam Sarah Grand had been actively involved in the local Votes for Women campaign, right from its beginning in 1906.
Sarah was born in Ireland in 1854, but spent much of her childhood in Yorkshire. Income from the sales of her first novel enabled her to leave an unhappy marriage and the success of subsequent ones (such as Heavenly Twins, which dealt with sexual double standards and the fact women alone were blamed for the spread of syphilis) meant that she was well known by the time she moved to Tunbridge Wells in 1898.
In June 1908 Sarah had a prominent position in a huge parade of over 10,000 women who marched from the Embankment to the Albert Hall, calling on MPs to give them the vote. When a local branch of the NUWSS (National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies) was established in Tunbridge Wells later that year, Sarah agreed to be their president. She subsequently chaired and spoke at numerous Votes for Women meetings, wrote articles and took part in campaigning activities.
Sarah believed in campaigning by peaceful means and was strongly opposed to the militant suffragettes and their tactics. In 1913, when members of the WSPU (the Women’s Social and Political Union) were suspected of burning down the Tunbridge Wells cricket pavilion, she co-signed a letter to the newspaper disassociating the NUWSS from their actions. A few weeks’ later a national suffrage organisation of women writers which she belonged to took part in the funeral procession for Emily Wilding Davison (who died after jumping under the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby) and Sarah resigned in protest.
There were around 16,000 women in the Tonbridge constituency (which included Tunbridge Wells) eligible to vote on 14th December 1918 and a high proportion of them did so. They arrived at the polling stations early in the day, in twos or threes and in the company of female neighbours rather than husbands. Being unfamiliar with the process, some had to be reminded that voting was a private action and they could not help each other in the voting booths. ‘Is that all’ said one, reflecting general surprise at the simplicity of the activity women had been excluded from for so long. Then as now there were party activists waiting outside the polling stations to ascertain who was voting and it was observed that many women, suspicious of their motives, responded to the request for a voter number with a withering look and no reply.
When Sarah emerged from the Town Hall, having cast her vote, she was received with cheers. The Courier reported that the faces of the ladies gathered there ‘showed how profound was the satisfaction felt by them that the long struggle for political freedom was over, and that women had at last entered into citizenship’.
In 1918 the Conservative candidate, war veteran Lieutenant-Colonel Herbert Spender-Clay, was elected with a substantial majority. The same party’s candidate will undoubtedly win in 2015 and my vote, for a different party, will make no difference to the outcome. Yet I believe strongly in the importance of exercising my right to vote, especially in the light of the campaign by women such as Sarah, in Tunbridge Wells and elsewhere. I will be thinking of her and other Tunbridge Wells campaigners on May 7th.
- Following an extended stay at the Spa Hotel in 1896, Sarah Grand lived in Tunbridge Wells from 1898 to 1920, at Langton Green and then on Grove Hill Road.