Women’s suffrage 100th anniversary: How Knebworth House’s Lady Constance Lytton helped get women the vote

PUBLISHED: 08:29 06 February 2018 | UPDATED: 16:32 06 February 2018

Lady Constance Lytton rejected her aristocratic background to join the Suffragette campaign.

Lady Constance Lytton rejected her aristocratic background to join the Suffragette campaign.

Archant

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the first women in the UK getting the right to vote, and we will be uncovering some of the moving, uplifting and often tragic stories of Suffragettes and other campaigners from our area who fought so hard to secure one of the 20th century’s greatest political changes.

Suffragettes campaigning Suffragettes campaigning

In fact residents in Herts were deeply involved in the struggle for women’s suffrage – which led to violence, brutal imprisonment and even death for some.

One of the leading campaigners was Lady Constance Lytton of Knebworth House, who endangered her health and almost certainly shortened her life in pursuit of the cause.

Born and raised among the aristocracy in India and later at Knebworth House, she was the daughter Robert Bulwer-Lytton, the 1st Earl of Lytton who was Viceroy of India at the time of her birth, and Edith Villiers.

The family returned to England when Constance was 11. She quickly rejected the aristocratic life and withdrew from public life to care for her mother after her father’s death.

She was converted to the Suffragette cause between 1908 and 1909 after she became involved with the Esperance Club – which worked to fight abuses against women working in the dress trade in London.

She met and interviewed other Suffragettes who had been imprisoned at Holloway prison and they inspired her to forget her misgivings about the methods used by the movement.

Constance began making speeches throughout the country.She was jailed twice in 1909 after demonstrating at the House of Commons, but was kept in the prison hospital because the doctor said she had a weak heart.

As soon as the government of the time discovered her aristocratic background she was released, but she complained openly about this ‘unfair’ treatment.

While at Holloway prison she tried to mutilate her body by carving ‘Votes for Women’ onto her breast, but had to stop due to fear of blood poisoning.

In January 1910, convinced that poorer prisoners were treated badly, Lytton travelled to Liverpool disguised as a working class London seamstress named Jane Warton.

She was arrested after rocks were thrown at an MP’s car and imprisoned in Walton jail for 14 days ‘hard labour’ and force-fed eight times to prevent her starving herself.

Once released, although she was very weak, she wrote accounts of her experience for The Times and Votes for Women (the monthly journal of the WSPU, launched in 1907.

In November 1911 she was imprisoned in Holloway for the fourth time after breaking windows in the Houses of Parliament.

When the First World War broke out in 1914 the WSPU ended its militant campaign to get behind the war effort.

It was women’s work in the war serving as nurses, land girls and workers that finally won women the vote.

In January 1918 parliament passed a bill giving women over 30 the vote if they were married to a property owner or were one themselves.

Land girls were instrumental in demonstrating how valuable women were to a previously male dominated society during the First World War. Picture: Stevenage Museum Land girls were instrumental in demonstrating how valuable women were to a previously male dominated society during the First World War. Picture: Stevenage Museum

Constance died prematurely in 1923, broken by the poor treatment she had received in prison and the victim of a series of strokes and heart attacks. She was just 54 years old.

Constance’s story of hope and tragedy will form part of an exhibition that will be on show at North Hertfordshire Museum in Hitchin provisionally from Saturday, October 13, to Saturday, December 15.

It is hoped it will then go to Stevenage Museum. It is being set up in partnership with Knebworth House, North Herts Museum and the Garden City Collection in Letchworth.

The museums are also looking for volunteers to help staff research stories of local suffrage for the exhibition.

The museums would particularly like to hear from young volunteers aged 16 to 21, as well as older volunteers, for work including archive research and study trips. They are also keen to hear from anyone who has documents or artefacts relating to the campaign for votes for women.

The plan is to put on exhibitions, talks and events, as well as publishing a book and creating a film on the centenary of women’s first participation in national elections in December 1918.

Before that, Stevenage Museum is showing short films from the Imperial War Museum celebrating the contribution of women to the First World War effort. The first screening is on Friday, March 9, from 1pm to 2pm with a Q&A afterwards. The cost for is £3.75 or £3 concessions.

Prospective volunteers should contact Stevenage Museum by email museum@stevenage.gov.uk or in person, or the other partner museums.

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