A specific committee of the North of England Society for Women’s Suffrage, The Lancashire and Cheshire Women Textile and Other Workers Representation Committee, (hereafter The Committee) were a group of suffragists formed mainly from working women, who chose to promote a Women’s Suffrage candidate in Wigan Their nominee was Hubert Sweeney. Hubert Sweeney was a Headmaster for London’s Hackney School Board, a trainee barrister and a member of the London Ethical Society.
Hubert Sweeney’s Wigan campaign began in January 1904. Much of the organisation and publicising of his candidature was undertaken by a group of suffragist working women of the women-led Wigan and District Weavers, Winders, Reelers and Beamers Association. The union was, at this time, independent of the male-led Amalgamated Weavers Association. Its President and Co-member of The Committee from its founding in 1903, Fairhurst (née Silcock). She worked in partnership with prominent members of Women’s Labour and Suffrage societies, the Lancashire and Committee, and certain leading male members of Wigan’s labour movement. In Wigan, Esther Roper and Eva Gore Booth (secretaries of The Committee) Sarah Reddish from Bolton (President of Bolton’s Co-operative Women’s Guild and Treasurer of the Committee) Selina Cooper ( Nelson/Burnley Poor Law Guardian.) and Mrs Pankhurst (WSPU, Manchester,), John Hodge, founder member of Wigan’s Labour Representation Committee, member of Wigan and District Trades and Labour Council and President of the British Steel Smelters, Mill and Tinplate Workers’ Association, Mr. James Parkinson (Wigan’s Labour MP 1918-1941) of the Miners Union, Mr E. Taylor, of Wigan and District Trades and Labour Council and Mr Thorley Smith its Treasurer, gave their public support throughout his candidature. Interestingly in the light of her later repudiation working women suffragists, Mrs Pankhurst, (seconded by John Hodge), whilst moving the 9th January meeting’s resolution stated her personal support thus, she, ‘heartily sympathise with the Women’s Textile Representation Committee in their struggle to gain the franchise for women workers of the country’. Her daughter Christobel Pankhurst (WSPU) addressed meetings of the Trades Council to solicit their support the WSPU standpoint, this was taken to the branches where three quarters were in favour. This evidence of Helen Fairhurst’s (née Silcock) activism runs contrary to Jill Liddleton and Jill Norris’ suggestion that after 1902, she appeared to have lost interest in women’s suffrage,
In December 1905, Hubert Sweeney resigned, after two years as candidate. It appeared that had he stood for Parliament in 1906, he would have lost his livelihood in London. Thorley Smith replaced him as Wigan’s Women’s Suffrage candidate. Thorley Smith was born in Standish Wigan in 1873, third son of a Monumental Stone Mason ). He married at Christ Church, Ince, Lancashire, his wife, Mrs A.L.Smith was also involved in local labour politics. Thorley Smith was the Stonemason’s delegate on Wigan Trades and Labour Council and was its Treasurer; he chaired the meeting that established the Wigan and District Labour Representation Committee; chaired many several labour meetings including an outdoor meeting of the unemployed; he was the first labour member of Wigan Town Council. His election programme reflected his labour leanings, he promised to support and campaign for all the current organised labour platforms whilst at the same time giving Women’s Suffrage his first priority.
The Conservative-Liberal Unionist Government resigned in December 1905, and a general election was called for 12 January to 8 February 1906. Polling in Wigan was on the 17th January. Thorley Smith’s campaign began around the 2–3 January.
Given his proven labour credentials one would be forgiven for assuming that the organisations associated with the political aspirations of Wigan’s working people would support Thorley Smith. However the Wigan and District Trades and Labour Council refused to endorse his candidature or ‘accord him any moral support’. Whilst expressions of respect were made regarding his personal character, the consensus of opinion was that he had been ill-advised in becoming the Woman’s Suffrage candidate before consulting them first. They refused to consider it was urgency that led him to begin his campaign immediately. Stating ‘within the Trades Council there was’...’evidence of a decided opinion on the advisability of him accepting the Women’s offer’...that ‘delegates from the larger branches strongly objected to the suffragists coming into the field at the eleventh hour with a fresh candidate and expecting the trades unionists to accept their dictum without consultation’. They objection that one of their own was an ‘unknown new candidate’ suggests there may have been another agenda.
To many Wiganers the political activism of women’s suffrage was an anathema. Quite aside from accusations that Thorley Smith was acting as the ‘cats paw’ of women and accusation that it could result in ‘petticoat’ governments, Wigan’s press had their own political allegiances. The Observer’s opinions had a Liberal bias whilst the Examiner its Conservative. Thorley Smith received letters of support from MPs Will Crooks and D. Shackleton
During the fortnight long Women’s Suffrage campaign over 80 meetings were held in Wigan Due to lack of funds the campaign was fought on a shoestring with most political meetings held in the open air. Thorley Smith’s ‘doughty henchwomen’ i.e. Wigan’s working weavers, addressed four meetings each day, at factory gates, on street corners, at the gas works and tram sheds anywhere they could find male voters. Thorley Smith, supported by visiting women speakers held two or three open-air meetings each evening.
Though these women were named in the press I could find no direct reference of the identities of the army of working class women canvassers. I did find recognition, admiration and details of their activities within Thorley Smith’s published post election address, all-be-they subsumed in the collective.
‘Many smiled at the idea of women running an election’ but ‘they did not laugh now, because they realised the earnestness of those women. They had stood on street corners, propagating their cause and earned the respect of their opponents. Out in the cold blast of winter they had fought well and nobly and could return to their homes content with what they had done. He felt that from the way they had conducted that campaign they could fight better than any other body’.
On election day, Thorley Smith was seen accompanied by six political ‘Amazons’ who ‘amazed the natives’, as they drove through Wigan in a carriage pulled by four horses with two women outriders, the leaders and individuals of various women’s groups active in WIgan. In the carriage were Mrs Pankhurst, Eva Gore-Booth, Esther Roper, Selina Cooper, Sarah Reddish and Dora Monetfiore.
The election results astounded many, the Wigan Examiner pronounced ‘We cannot believe there are 2,205 women’s suffragists among voters in Wigan’.
The results were;- Sir Francis Sharp Powell Cons. 3,573 votes Thorley Smith Women’s Suffrage 2,205 votes William Woods Liberal 1,900 votes.
For more information about the political activities of the Wigan Weavers, Winders, Reelers and Beamers Association contact Alex Miller, Archivist, at the Wigan and Leigh Archives, Leigh Town Hall, Leigh and ask to see the archive - D/DS/3 1 +