The heart of the suffragette movement in London can be found in Kensington. Situated so close to the seat of parliamentary power of Westminster at the center of London this probably shouldn’t be that surprising.
Throughout the history of the suffragette movement in London the area of Kensington has seen all ranges of activism. It’s also a place which you can wander around and imagine. Many of the buildings where events happened, unlike in the more working class areas such as East London, still survive. This helps with the narrative and to imagine the circumstances of the time.
One of the critical acts in the conversation around what would become the suffragette movement took root in Kensington. Led by groups of educated liberals, this was a discussion taking place in the well heeled district. Out of this environment was born the forerunners of today’s Fawcett Society. It also resulted in an important petition. One which placed the issue into the heart of parliament and presented by the MP John Stuart Mill in 1866. Mill used the petition as the basis of an amendment tabled to try and introduce voting rights. It failed but it was a key salvo and it started the conversation in parliament.
The First Amendment
18 Kensingston Square – Home of Liberal Politician John Stuart Mill
Mill was a politician at the heart of the early suffragist movement. It was he who first tabled an amendment in parliament which, if passed, would have provided for the enfranchisement of women. That was in 1866, a good 52 years prior to women actually getting the vote for the first time. A Liberal politician, he is also now remembered as one of the key thinkers around what we might call liberalism today. In particular his work ‘On Liberty‘ was published in 1859 and was a major text in espousing the ‘rights of the individual in opposition to the claims of the state’. In 1869 he also published ‘The Subjection of Women‘ where he argued in favour of legal and social equality between women and men.
The Kensington Society
44 Phillimore Gardens, Kensington – Location of the Kensington Society
The Kensington Society was a women’s discussion group which ran from 1865 to 1868. They met at the home of Charlotte Manning and discussed issues relating to women’s suffrage and empowerment. It was from members of this society, notably Barbara Bodichon, Emily Davies and Jessie Boucherett that a petition with around 1500 signatures originated which would form the basis of John Stuart Mill’s amendment in 1866 to what would become the 1867 Reform Act.
Mill presented the petition to parliament and used the Second Reform Bill as an opportunity to try and introduce equal voting rights. He did this be tabling an amendment to the bill asking for the enfranchisement of all households regardless of sex. It was defeated by 194 votes to 73. However the move kick started the debate on women’s suffrage in parliament. It meant that from around 1870 onwards the issue would be discussed on an almost annual basis.
Petition for Women’s Suffrage
Aubrey House, Aubrey Road – Home of Clementia and Peter Taylor
The home of Liberal MP Peter Taylor and his wife Clementia was, in the mid 1800’s, a hive of radical political thought. The couple were supporters of Italian unification and the house was a frequent haunt of Giuseppe Mazzini, the revolutionary Italian politician. Giuseppe Garibaldi also stayed there in 1864 during his visit to London. The Taylor’s were known for their social gatherings and were also supporters of the arts. Their ‘pen and pencil club‘ was a place where the work of young writers and artists could be read and exhibited. Both supporters of the North during the American Civil War, they were also anti-slavery campaigners. In 1863 Clementia set up the Ladies London Emancipation Society which aimed to raise British support for the Union cause. The African American abolitionist Sarah Parker Remond was an active member.
Given their radical views at the time it’s perhaps not surprising that the Taylors were passionate about women’s suffrage. In 1866 Clementia was on the organising committee of the petition for women’s suffrage which John Stuart Mill would present to parliament. The signatures for that petition were all collated at Aubrey House. Then in 1867 she helped set up the ‘London National Society for Women’s Suffrage’ acting as its first secretary. It would be from this group which the Fawcett Society, renamed in 1953, would trace its descent.
Kensington also found itself as a central location at the height of the suffragette movements activism. Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst knew the area well. Indeed they lived here for a while during the war years. One symbolic location also remembers the harsh treatment of female prisoners who went on hunger strike. As the campaign got ever more fraught, suffragettes were taking ever more serious action to be heard.
The Mouse Castle a Hunger Strike Refuge
2 Campden Hill Square – The Mouse Castle
The Kensington home of suffragette Marie Brackenbury. Her house became a center of recovery for Suffragettes recovering from hunger strike. The home become known as the ‘mouse castle’ in reference to the hated ‘cat and mouse act’. This piece of legislation was officially known at the ‘Prisoners Temporary Discharge on Ill Health Act’. It allowed authorities to release hunger striking prisoners from prison to be cared for back at home. After full health had returned the now recovered prisoner would then be re-arrested and sent back to complete the sentence. It became known as the cat and mouse act due to the toying nature of being released and then caught again.
50 Clarendon Road – Home of Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst and their War Babies
Two of the most famous suffragettes had a home in Kensington. For the second part of World War I Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst lived at 50 Clarendon Road. Emmeline moved in during 1916 only leaving in 1919 when she emigrated first to America and then to Canada. Christabel would stay at the house between 1917 and 1919. The wartime had brought a truce in hostilities between the suffragettes and the government. Emmeline in particular threw herself into the war effort. One of her commitments to it was to take in four of the ‘war babies‘. These were children born to mothers whose fathers were on the front line. The babies Emmeline took in were given new names after their birth certificates were destroyed. They were called Kathleen King, Flora Mary Gordon, Joan Pembridge and Elizabeth Tudor.
Later Christabel would herself adopt Elizabeth who was more commonly known as Betty. She also established an adoption home nearby. This was at a place called Tower Cressey on Aubrey Road and was for female ‘war babies’. This was set up using funds from the Womens Social and Political Union (WSPU).
Tower Cressey, Aubrey Road (now demolished) – Day Nursery and Adoption Home for Female Orphans
During the first World War Christabel Pankhurst set up a day nursery and adoption home for female orphans. Using funds from the Women’s Social and Political Union she bought an extravagant gothic style building called Tower Cressey and converted it. The venture was run by Catherine Pine who had once cared for Emmeline’s son prior to his death from polio. She also previously cared for a number of suffragettes including Emmeline recovering from hunger strike when working at a nursing home at Pembridge Gardens in Notting Hill.
Tower Cressey itself was built in 1852-53 for Thomas Page the engineer who had designed Westminster Bridge. It is described as a tall structure which dominated it’s surroundings. Indeed it certainly was a remarkable building. Sadly it was badly damaged during World War II and demolished soon afterwards. The location of the building was on the corner of Aubrey Road and Aubrey Walk. It would have stood pretty much opposite Aubrey House.
For more Inspiring City articles about the Suffragette Movement in London, have a look at: