By Curator Judy Aitken
On 6 February 1918 the British Parliament passed the Representation of the People Act by an overwhelming majority of the House of Commons (385 for and 55 against). This Act was one of the major milestones of a long and sometimes violent struggle for representation.
Wealth and class have had an impact for centuries on the right to voice opinion and, in formal democracies, to vote and, indeed, to be elected to represent people. Until the 20th century your right to vote depended on your social class and your gender. In 1884 the right to vote was extended from 30% to 60% of all adult men, based on property and other rights. It brought many more men from poorer backgrounds into the democratic voting pool. But women’s voting rights continued to be severely restricted.
The Municipal Franchise Act of 1869 gave some single women the right to vote in local elections only – and for this they had to qualify by living in a rated property and having paid rates for a year. Married women were specifically barred from voting, as they were considered femmes couvertes. The Local Government Act 1894 confirmed single women ratepayers the right to vote in local elections, and extended it to married women ratepayers, except a husband and wife could not both qualify to vote through residence at a single property. Where both were qualified, the man got the vote.
That is not to say women were not part of the political scene or campaigning social life. Women actively took part in or drove many social reforms and improvements during the 19th century and early 20th century. But the one perhaps most contentious was the women’s right to vote, known as Women’s Suffrage. The history of this campaign is long and full of both peaceful and forceful action on both sides, from campaigning women, from men supporters of the campaign and from those who resisted the demands. The women, above all, suffered a great deal as a result of harassment, attack, imprisonment and state-sponsored repression, with their treatment in prison little different from outright torture.
The violence lessened during the First World War, as everyone focussed on the war effort and women became more and more involved in occupations and responsibilities on the home front which had previously been only for men. The war in effect gave women the chance to demonstrate to detractors that women could play a vital role in society beyond domestic life.
The passing of the Representation of the People Act is often seen as a “reward” to women for their contributions during the war. It was certainly a little surprising given the massive resistance up to 1914. However many people now think this takes away from the role of the suffragists and the result owed more to their effort and sacrifices than simply to a benevolent gift.
In truth the Act was only one of many needed to bring women into full political involvement. The 1918 Act gave the vote only to women of property over 30 years old. About 22% of adult women over 30 did not have any property and could not vote. In contract the Act increased the male vote to all men over the age of 21 (or 19 if the man had been on active service in the armed forces). However compromised the victory was hard won and was a huge step forward.
Southwark had its own organisations and campaigning heroes. The United Suffrage Women’s Club opened at 92 Borough Road in November 1914 and continued to campaign during the war. You can read more on this blog written by contributor Johnl.
Southwark’s archive and museum collections have only a small amount of suffrage related material. However, the borough’s art collection, formerly at the South London Gallery and managed by Southwark Council, also has several artworks by significant campaigners for women’s suffrage including Bertha Newcombe and Charlotte Elisabeth Babb.
Bertha Newcombe (1857-1947) attended the Slade School of Art in 1876. It is believed that she was one of the first women artist to train at the school. Following her successful arts training, Newcombe was a frequent exhibitor at the Royal Academy, Fine Art Society, Royal Institute of Oil Painters, Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolours, and Society of Women Artists, among other esteemed exhibiting societies. In 1888 she became a member of the New English Art Club.
Newcombe was highly influenced by the artist Stanhope Forbes (1857-1947) and also by other artists associated with the Newlyn School. She was romantically involved with the playwright George Bernard Shaw and painted a series of portrait studies of him in her studio at 1 Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, in the spring of 1882.
Newcombe was a strong advocate for women’s rights, in particular their right to suffrage. She became a member of The Society of Women Artists, The Society of Lady Artists and The Artists Suffrage League; a collective of female artists who produced artworks and posters for the ‘Votes for Women’ campaign.
Charlotte Elizabeth Babb (born Peckham 1830, d. 1906) was a female artist and sister to John Staines Babb, a mid nineteenth century decorative painter who is also represented by the Southwark Art Collection. Babb spent much of her career campaigning for equal rights for women, in particular their right to suffrage. In 1859 Babb started campaigning for the admission of female students to the Royal Academy schools and resulted in her own admission in 1861. Babb was among the first female students at the Royal Academy Schools. Throughout her career Babb exhibited widely with arts societies including the Royal Society of British Artists, the British Institution and the Society of Women Artists, among many others. She was a frequent exhibitor at the Dudley Galleries from 1862.
Babb produced oil paintings and watercolours in a typical Pre-Raphaelite mode and with a strong emphasis on female figures and associated subjects (such as the Annunciation and story of Saint Cecilia). Babb was also associated with the decorative Arts and Crafts movement through established figures such as ceramic pioneer William de Morgan. Babb’s fairly accomplished yet loosely Pre-Raphaelite style enabled her to migrate over the more stylised Aesthetic Movement will relative ease. It was within this more decorative art territory where Babb produced large commercial paintings directly onto ceramic tiles (which were made by Minton).
Babb exhibited works at the Walker Art Gallery (Liverpool) Manchester City Art Gallery (1881) and also the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, USA (1893). Her paintings and drawings remain mostly in private collections. The Southwark Art Collection holds the only known publicly owned oil painting by her.
To find out more about the Vote100 commemorations taking place during 2018 visit the Vote100 project pages.
In addition as part of their regular talks series, Southwark Cathedral is having a day of talks devoted to women’s history on Saturday 24 March 2018.