Suffragettes and suffragists – no, they weren’t the same, but all were campaigning for ‘Votes for Women’ in Worthing before the First World War.
The Suffragettes, members of Emmeline Pankhurst’s militant Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), are remembered as having provoked the ‘Kursaal Riot’ in March 1913.
The Worthing Women’s Franchise Society (WWFS), a branch of Millicent Garrett Fawcett’s law-abiding National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), earned no notoriety, yet its banners are in Worthing Museum, and the 1912-15 volume of its Minutes Book is in the West Sussex Record Office.
I began researching women’s suffrage campaigning in Worthing in preparation for a talk to the Worthing Family History Society.
I had already dug out the story of the Cuckfield and Central Sussex Womens’s Suffrage Society from the microfilmed Mid Sussex Times in Burgess Hill Library, so I knew that organised campaigning across inland Sussex was conducted by a network of NUWSS branches, and that WSPU activity was largely confined to coastal centres, notably Hastings and Brighton.
What was particularly interesting about Worthing was that it was the scene of much activity conducted by both the militant and the non-violent wings of the movement.
Suffragettes are very much associated with rowdy meetings on the seafront and at the Kursaal.
The WWFS presence in Worthing was less headline-grabbing.
The branch, founded and led by Ellen Chapman, was very businesslike: it had its own office, at no. 31, and then at no. 1, Warwick Street.
Delegates attended NUWSS meetings in London, and members worked closely with the Surrey, Sussex and Hants Federation of Women’s Suffrage Societies, displaying the Federation banner as well their own when taking part, for example, in the Suffragist Pilgrimage from Brighton to London, in July 1913.
If the 1909-12 volume of the WWFS Minutes book could be found, it would surely record the making of the banners, but a photocopy of Volume II can be studied in Worthing Local Studies Library and matched up with reports in the Worthing Gazette, now available in the library in digitised CD form.
While the Worthing Gazette consistently deplored destructive militant action, it did admire Ellen Chapman, and her approach to campaigning contributed to its increasingly favourable view of the movement.
Had the Worthing Gazette had its way, Ellen Chapman would have become the town’s first woman Mayor in 1914.
It was thanks to Ellen Chapman that the WWFS took a leading role in the Sussex-wide campaign for ‘Votes for Women’, and it was fitting that, as a constitutional Suffragist, she did eventually become the first woman Mayor of Worthing, and the first woman Mayor in the county, in 1920.
• Frances Stenlake’s case study, Women’s Suffrage Campaigning in Worthing, 1909-15, is now in Worthing Local Studies Library, as are her other works – Mid Sussex Suffragists (2009), ‘The Lady Fired Splendidly,’ Lewes and the Women’s Suffrage Campaign, Sussex Archaeological Collections 152 (2014) pp139-52, and ‘Heathfield Story in New York Public Library’, Sussex Family Historian, June 2014.