Skip to main content

The 1896 women's suffrage petition

17 September 2016

This month Dr Sarah Richardson discusses the 1896 women's suffrage petition and the Special Appeal to Parliament that was signed by over 257,000 people.

Why the need for a ‘Special Appeal'?

The organised women's suffrage campaign began with a petition of 1866 signed by around 1,500 women. but in the following quarter of a century little headway had been made. Bills and amendments to legislation were introduced, but failed, and hundreds of petitions containing thousands of signatures were presented to the Commons.

After the defeat, by only 23 votes, of a private members bill aimed at enfranchising women in 1892, leading suffrage activists were determined to act. A meeting was held on 1 June 1893, in Westminster Town Hall, chaired by Florence Davenport Hill, with representatives from the Conservative, Liberal, and Liberal Unionist parties and delegates from all over the British Isles.

The aim was to unite women of all political views and ranks in one grand appeal to Parliament to refute the widely-held argument used by politicians that ‘ordinary' women did not care about the suffrage. Campaigners argued that a ‘special appeal' signed by large numbers of women would attract attention and convert MPs who seemed to shrug off and ignore conventional petitions.

Organising the Appeal

The appeal emphasised the diverse political and economic status of the signatories claiming that continued denial of the vote to women affected the home, factory and workshop, and parliament itself with female voices unheard and legislation drafted that was unfair to women.

Special efforts were made to circulate the appeal to working-class women. For example, Esther Roper, the secretary of the Manchester Society for Women's Suffrage, attempted to secure signatures from northern female textile workers by campaigning near factory gates during dinner breaks. Charlotte Carmichael Stopes undertook a gruelling tour of the north of Scotland addressing at least two meetings a day. There were ‘At homes', lectures, conferences of workers and public meetings and 3,500 women helped to collect signatures by the agreed deadline of 21 March 1894. By that date over 248,000 women had signed the Appeal making it the largest parliamentary petition since the Chartist ‘Monster' petition of 1842. The signatures were returned to the Appeal Office, sorted by parliamentary constituency and pasted onto sheets to be formed into volumes county by county.

What happened to the Appeal?

Originally it was agreed that the Appeal would be presented in association with the Registration Bill of 1894 which had an amendment to include women. However, the Bill did not go forward and thus the organisers waited for the next suitable occasion. It was eventually decided the petition should accompany Mr Faithfull Begg's Parliamentary Franchise (Extension to Women) Bill in 1896 by which time the number of signatures on the appeal had increased to 257,796.

There were over 50,000 signatories each from Scotland and London but every constituency in the country was well represented. Originally the Speaker had given permission for the petition to be displayed in the Commons' Library but withdrew his consent and thus it was laid out in Westminster Hall on 19 May 1896. The organisers of the Appeal maximised opportunities to engage MPs directly with the issue of women's suffrage as this contemporary report makes clear:

"Fifty feet of tables were arranged in a modest corner, and delegates from England, Ireland, and Scotland took charge of the precious volumes… By a coincidence the ladies found themselves at the feet of James the First, the monarch in whose reign their privileges were first whittled away. A little farther on Charles the First had his shoulder turned to them, ignoring the progress of thieving, and there the ladies passed the afternoon and evening. As the members began to arrive for the sitting of the House many visited the hall. Friends of the ladies brought down as many of the violent opponents as possible, and playfully introduced them to the lists of their own constituents, whose names were in evidence."

As with so many other pieces of legislation on women's suffrage Faithfull Begg's bill was not discussed, Commons' time being taken up with government business. The failure of the Appeal to win over recalcitrant MPs led many activists to abandon petitioning as a strategy to win support and move to more militant tactics.

Dr Sarah Richardson is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Warwick

Image: Westminster Hall. Colour aquatint by John Bluck after Augustus Charles Pugin & Thomas Rowlandson.

© Parliamentary Art Collection, WOA 544.