Blue plaques for the suffragettes

In this centenary year of the first UK women getting the vote, there's been increased focus on the suffrage movement in Brighton.

Friday, 22nd June 2018, 2:00 pm
Minnie Turner, Brighton suffragette (Photograph:Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove)

Residents have realised that though our city has a rich suffrage history, at a civic level, little has been done to explore or celebrate it.

Now the council is rising to the challenge. It has agreed to partner a charity bid for the Government’s Women’s Vote Centenary Grant and to set up a suffrage display in the Brighton Museum. It has also signalled approval for a group of four blue plaques to honour suffrage campaigners. In the past, the Blue Plaque Panel has agreed a scheme of plaques for soldiers awarded the Victoria Cross. Now the panel, chaired by redoubtable heritage specialist Roger Amerena, has approved a new scheme to honour heroines of the suffrage movement.

Mr Amerena said “The decision of the Commemorative Plaque Panel was unanimous. The plaques will be a permanent reminder of these brave women who overcame considerable opposition to get the vote.”

Minnie Turner, Clementina Black and Elizabeth Robins SUS-180622-105555001

Campaigners have responded with delight, aware that while Hove has one blue plaque for suffragette Victoria Lidiard, Brighton has none. A plaque will be erected at the North Street Quadrant where the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) had its headquarters. Plaques will also be placed on the former Brighton homes of three women – Minnie Turner, Elizabeth Robins and Clementina Black.

Minnie Turner was born in 1866 in London, then moved to Brighton. A Liberal, she first became a member of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), but then joined the more militant WSPU in 1908. Minnie ran Seaview a boarding house at 13-14 Victoria Road in Brighton as both a holiday destination and refuge for suffragettes recovering from imprisonment, hunger-strikes and forcible feeding. Her guests included WSPU leaders Emmeline Pankhurst, Annie Kenney, Flora Drummond, Emily Wilding Davison, Constance Lytton and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence. Pankhurst’s sister, Mary Clarke lived at Seaview while working as Brighton’s WSPU organiser and in 1910 she and Minnie were both arrested outside the House of Commons. In 1911 Minnie was imprisoned for breaking a Home Office window. When hostile local men broke Seaview’s windows, she hoisted a sign saying ‘Male Logic’.

Minnie was a member of the Tax Resistance League (TRL), whose members refused to pay taxes when they could not vote. In 1912 her goods were seized and sold at auction in lieu of tax. She died in 1948.

Elizabeth Robins was born in the USA in 1862, but spent most of her life in England. A renowned actress, she introduced Ibsen to the British stage and published many books. She joined the NUWSS and later served on the WSPU Executive. Her suffrage play Votes for Women and her novel The Convert were hugely successful.

She met Octavia Wilberforce, who became one of Brighton’s pioneering woman doctors, in 1909. They remained close companions for 40 years, living first at Backsetttown, Elizabeth’s country home near Henfield, which became a retreat for suffragettes and later a convalescent home – then at 24 Montpelier Crescent, a house acquired by Dr Wilberforce in 1923, which she used as a surgery.

Along with Octavia and others, Elizabeth helped develop and fund women’s health services, first the Lady Chichester Hospital and later – with Dr Louisa Martindale – the New Sussex Hospital for women. She was a close friend of Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst and Virginia and Leonard Woolf and admired by Oscar Wilde, Henry James, George Bernard Shaw. She died in 1952.

Clementina Black was a suffragist, writer and trade unionist. She was born in 1853 in Ship Street, daughter to David Black, the town clerk. Her first novel was a published in 1877 and she continued writing throughout her life. A friend of Eleanor Marx, she joined the Women’s Trade Union association and in 1888 attended the Trades Union Congress where she moved the first resolution calling for equal pay. She was active in the boycott of Bryant and May matches, which led to the match-girls’ strike. In common with many suffrage campaigners, she was incensed by hypocritical male politicians who denied women the vote on the basis of physical ‘delicacy’, but had no scruple in ‘sweating’ women workers through hours of heavy labour in appalling conditions.

In 1911 she became vice president of the NUWSS, later editing the suffragist newspaper The Common Cause. Alongside her union work she continued to write novels, including ‘The Agitator,’ based on her work for trade unions. She died in 1922.

Fundraising for the first plaque is complete, but £3,600 is needed for the other three.

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