Aristocrat’s fight for the common cause

PUBLISHED: 13:28 27 April 2006 | UPDATED: 10:03 06 May 2010

Lady Constance Lytton

Lady Constance Lytton

WOMEN who go to the polls to register their vote next Thursday will be exercising a hard-won right that followed a long and bitter campaign in the early 20th century. Residents in North Herts and Stevenage were deeply involved in the struggle for women s

WOMEN who go to the polls to register their vote next Thursday will be exercising a hard-won right that followed a long and bitter campaign in the early 20th century.

Residents in North Herts and Stevenage were deeply involved in the struggle for women's suffrage which led to violence, brutal imprisonment and even death.

Emily Pankhurst, legendary leader of the Suffragettes, came to Hitchin in March 1907, and her daughter Christobel, speaking in Letchworth four months later, said women "are regarded as less than human and inferior to men."

She threatened to "make men's lives a thorough nuisance until we get the vote", and the Suffragettes certainly did.

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.

She was jailed in March 1909 but kept in the prison hospital because the doctor said she had a weak heart.

Lady Constance disagreed and felt she was getting special treatment because she was an aristocrat. She determined to hide her identity when she was arrested again.

She put on common clothes for her next demonstration and told the police that she was Jane Warton, an impoverished seamstress.

Instead of being treated with respect, she was insulted and this time a doctor said she was well enough to be force fed - eight times in all.

But the first doctor had been right and when Lady Constance came out of jail she was a sick woman. She suffered a stroke two years later and died in 1923, aged only 54.

Her brother Lord Lytton was fully behind the women's campaign and disgusted by the treatment his sister received.

He argued: "The exclusion of women from the franchise is both unjust to women and detrimental to the best interests of the state."

It was a view that Julius Bertram, MP for North Herts and Stevenage, disagreed with violently.

His argument was simple: "Taxation is not the whole basis of representation. The real basis is manhood - the ability to bear arms and defend the country if necessary from invasion."

Hitchin Debating Society agreed with him and voted 28 to 14 in his favour when he spoke to them in 1910. That was despite an assertion by member Mr G Crosoer that it was hard to decide if women were inferior.

"A very few women are, I should say, almost as good as I am myself," he declared generously.

The society's first debate when it was set up in 1904 was whether to admit women at all - they decided that would be OK but women speakers were few and far between.

Suffragettes faced physical violence on a regular basis. Leading campaigner Flora Drummond met a very frosty reception in Baldock in 1907 and speakers at Hitchin Town Hall were drowned out by whistles, singing and cat calls.

Speaker Nellie Martel, on a visit to the Town Hall in 1907, stood on a chair to try and make herself heard and had to be escorted out by six police officers. Cayenne pepper bombs and acetylene gas were set off as she left.

The columnist who wrote in the Hertfordshire Express newspaper probably applauded the opposition. He told readers: "Woman is reverting to the primitive type", and said they should be content to keep to the nursery, home and schoolroom. "Are men to have no rights sacred to themselves?" he finished.

The long and bitter campaign for women's suffrage was called off when World War I broke out in 1914. Women aged 30 and over finally got the vote in 1917, with the age being lowered to 21 in 1928 - the so-called flapper vote.


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