RIGHT NOT PROPER
A SUFFRAGETTE’S STORY
CHAPTER 1 - LENTON VICARAGE, NOTTINGHAM APRIL 1905
Harriet turned away from the landing window, hoisted her skirt and ran down the stairs.
The postman handed her the letters with a smile. “Good Morning, Miss Loxley. A bright one, isn’t it?”
She shuffled through the envelopes. It was there, a House of Commons postmark. The invitation. The address in her brother’s handwriting.
“Indeed it is. A very bright one.”
She turned her letter over. She shouldn’t open it now. It was Father’s privilege to open all the post. Half her handful of letters fell to the floor. She sighed, bent down and her elbow caught the stand with the aspidistra, a plant that only survived in the hallway because it was right by the window next to the door. She turned, steadied the toppling plant and dropped the rest of the envelopes.
Heavens above. Mother said she was accident prone, but this was ridiculous. Mother had also said she would grow out of it. She was twenty-four already, so when was that going to happen?
She strode across the hall to the Dining Room.
“Good morning Mother, Father. I’m sorry I’m late down. I have the post.”
She made sure the House of Commons letter was on the top of the pile that she put down at her father’s side.
“Mmm,” her father said. “Late. Becoming something of a habit.”
She apologised again, went to get her breakfast and managed to put two rashers of bacon on her plate before staring into the mirror above the sideboard. Father was spreading marmalade on toast and not paying any attention to the stack of envelopes by his right hand.
She took some toast for herself. She could hear Emma, Gwen and Eleanor chatting about the cool spring and when they could hope to get out their summer frocks.
She looked back in the mirror for Eleanor’s husband, Wesley, or the newspaper he would probably be behind. He wasn’t there. Good, no opposition to her plans to get up to London from that quarter. He must have left for the manufactory early. Which would explain why Eleanor was down for breakfast, despite having been unwell for the last few days. Eleanor was pregnant, again, and suffering with it, but she would feel obliged to keep an eye on her two boys, who right now were kicking each other under the table and about to get into serious trouble with their mother. Harriet caught young Charley’s eye through the mirror and shook her head. The kicking stopped.
Her father wiped his fingers on his napkin and lay his hand on the pile of letters at his side. Harriet pushed her teeth into her lip.
Her mother said, “Harriet, take more food. That’s not enough to feed a mouse.”
Harriet picked up three more plate covers and clattered them down so they chimed out, I am eating, Mother, before sliding a poached egg onto her plate. The food smelt damp, salty and warm. She walked towards her chair.
Gwen, her sister younger by four years, flashed her one of her, you-know-it’s-useless-trying-to-escape-Mother’s-notice looks. She shrugged and gave Gwen a yes-I-know look back. Gwen was already dressed in her plain green-striped blouse. She must also be going into the manufactory. Gwen didn’t believe in displaying anything as frivolous as lace at the manufactory, despite it being a lace manufactory. With her loosely piled jet black hair, strong brows and severe dress, Gwen liked to play on looking commanding. She shared Father and Robert’s dark looks, unlike the rest of the Loxley brood, who had Mother’s chestnut hair and propensity to blush. Gwen never blushed.
When Harriet sat down, the letter was next to her place, together with her father’s paperknife. Her mother held out a cup of tea, and Harriet had to take it with both hands to prevent their shakiness spilling it. Everything depended on convincing her parents, and particularly her father, that her going to the House of Commons was a good idea. Harriet put down the tea and opened the envelope.
All conversation ceased. And apparently all eating too. The room was silent.
She read aloud, “‘Mr James Yoxall, Member of Parliament for Nottingham West, cordially invites his constituent Harriet Loxley to attend the Ladies’ Gallery of the House of Commons on Friday, May 12th 1905, at 2 p.m.’
It’s the date of the Second Reading of the bill to extend the franchise to women, Father. I would very much like to go.”
He said, “Capital,” and then, “Yoxall is an excellent fellow.”
Eleanor, laying down the cutlery she had just picked up, said, “Wesley says he is too much for the unions.”
“Ah, your Wesley would say that. He has lace to sell. What’s more, he has my brother’s lace to sell. Wesley needs must support the owners. But I have a duty as a clergyman to speak for the poor. Working people need unions if their conditions are to improve.”
“The conditions at my uncle’s factory are very advanced, Father, and the women are not poor. They are working women with wages of their own.”
“I know, Nell, but the government has issued report after report about improvements needed in the lace industry. The women’s hours are too long and the rooms are too hot.”
“They are too hot because of drying the lace. You must dry the washed lace.”
It was good to hear her older sister talk so spiritedly. But had her father forgotten that she needed his permission to travel to London, not to mention the price of the train ticket? Harriet turned her gaze towards her mother and realised that Mother was watching her push her bacon around her plate. Mother complained she was too thin. She needed Mother on her side. Harriet cut off a piece of bacon, put it in her mouth and chewed.
Her mother said, “Yoxall is for the teachers’ union, I believe. And the teacher’s union wants to stop women teachers losing their positions when they marry.”
“A married woman has duties,” Eleanor said. “Family is more important than work.”
“Family is, of course, more important than work.” Her father waved his hand as if to encompass his own well-fed family. “How could I say otherwise? But what about a married woman who has no children? Or who is the main breadwinner with a sick or unemployed husband? Or what about a married woman who has other family who can help care for the small children? It makes little sense to discard the skills of these excellent women teachers because they marry. We should leave that decision to them.”
Harriet couldn’t sit quietly any longer. She had to bring her trip back into the conversation. She said, “That is a very radical view, Father. Perhaps, you would also concede that such excellent women should be able to vote.”
“Perhaps your plans to attend a franchise vote have put me in mind of a little radicalism, Harriet. What will I do when all the women in this household can vote? I’ll not be able to get a word in edgeways.”
“Oh, Robert, dear,” her mother said, “you are quite safe. You know very well that this bill merely extends the existing franchise for men to women. To vote a man has to own land or rent property to the value of ten pounds a year. We live in a vicarage. We own no land and pay no rent.”
Emma, looked up from her food and spoke for the first time. “But Father votes, doesn’t he Mother?”
“Yes, he does.” Her mother said. “Vicars are an exception.”
Harriet smiled. Mother knew all the ins and outs of the main franchises; freeholder, occupier, university, and lodger. She understood the concept of franchise through ancient rights. She could explain how the system led to plural voting. She knew how counties differed from boroughs. And she knew Father could vote because he inhabited, by virtue of office, a dwelling house in which his master did not reside. Was a divine or secular master being referenced? The voting qualifications were peculiar enough for it to be either.
Eleanor said, “My Wesley hasn’t got a vote. Neither do either of our brothers. Not Robert, not Will. Not Will, even when he works in Parliament. Do you think women should be able to vote when so many men can’t, Harry?”
“That question, only makes sense, Nell, if you believe women must always come after men in everything.”
“I believe the reasoning,” her mother said, “is that only people who contribute to the wealth of the nation should have a voice in its affairs, which, in our family means your father and your Uncle George.”
“And don’t you contribute, Mother? You are a Poor Law Guardian and you undertake half of the work that goes with this parish. What more of a contribution could you be expected to make?”
“Half, Harriet? I only do half the work in this parish?” Her father threaded his napkin through its ring and made to get up from the table.
Had she annoyed him? Was he going to drop all thought of her going to see the bill passed?
“Father, please. I need a decision. May I go?”
“Ah, yes. Of course. The decision.”
He sat down again. Harriet held her breath.
“I think it a jolly good idea for Harriet to go, do you not Maria?”
“Indeed, I do, Robert.”
Harriet exhaled, sharply enough for all in the silent room to hear. She suspected, from this last little pantomime, that her parents had been teasing her all along.
Her father gave her a look that spoke authority. “Only, Harriet, I do not wish you to travel unaccompanied. I will finance a trip for you and your younger sisters. I think I need not ask Robert to give up a day’s work at the manufactory to accompany you on the train. There are ladies’ carriages you may use. You can travel together as far as Will’s care, and stay with your Aunt Loxley in town. Emma and Gwendolyn, you can take those stricken expressions off your faces. I am not expecting you to spend your afternoon in the Ladies’ Gallery of the House of Commons. You may make an early start on Christmas in Bond Street.”
Two small heads snapped up from dipping toast-soldiers into boiled eggs. Like a string of Chinese crackers going off in a quiet street, Charley and Bobby’s bright laughter flew across the breakfast table. They were good-looking boys, mixing their father’s blond hair and fair skin with the Loxley deep-brown eyes.
Harriet said, “Thank you, Father. Thank you so much.”
It was a chance to go as Will had gone, to the centre of everything; not as a niece to visit her aunt but as an independent person with an interest in politics. She smiled across the table at Eleanor, enjoying her sister’s delight in her boys’ sparkling faces.
Her father said, “I’m sure Aunt Loxley would love to have Gwen and Emma, as well as Harriet for the weekend, wouldn’t she, Maria dear? And you would welcome some of the burden of Christmas being taken from you.”
Her mother’s eyes crinkled at the corners as she patted her youngest grandson on the head. “May is a little too early for Christmas shopping, Robert. I suggest the girls get some new dress patterns and fabrics for the summer. Perhaps their aunt could accompany them to Liberty’s.”
Eleanor gestured to her two wriggling boys to get down. “You may run around in the garden for half an hour.”
“Will you come and play cricket with us, Harry?” Charley whispered it as he passed her chair.
Eleanor’s gaze made her answer clear.
“After your arithmetic lesson,” Harriet said quietly. “And in the park,” she added, sure Mother was also staring appropriate responses into her mind. Last week she’d had to admit it was her ball that had broken the Drawing Room window, not one thrown by either of the boys.
Harriet left her father looking for a porter and her sisters looking through magazines at the stationery stall and went to stand in the queue at the booking office. As the traveller ahead of her moved away she checked her coat pocket for the leather purse Mother had given her for money and train tickets. The clip was stiff. She had to look down and use both hands to persuade it to open.
“Good morning, madam. How may I help you today?”
Harriet raised her head, surprised. The booking clerk was a woman. In fact, she was barely more than a girl, about Emma’s age, with a charming smile and fine teeth. Harriet realised she was staring, pretended to adjust her hat, coughed and said, “Three first class tickets for London Marylebone, for the ladies’ carriage please, and I need to register one trunk for the luggage van.”
She had agreed with her sisters on one trunk and a small portmanteau between them, rather than three large portmanteaus for the weekend. The trunk wasn’t full. There was room for bringing fabrics back from London.
Harriet looked at the clerk’s blond head bent over the tickets. How had she obtained this job? How hard at it been? The only way to find out was to ask.
She said, “Excuse me. I don’t mean to be impertinent, but is it common for women to be employed by the railway?”
The young clerk looked her in the eye as she handed her the tickets. “You’ll need the luggage ticket at Marylebone to claim your trunk. Is it clearly labelled? Trunks are forever ending up in lost property.” Then she smiled and said, “My father worked for the railway and when he died my uncle vouched for me. They took me on so I could help support my mother and the other children. I had to pass the relevant tests in arithmetic.”
“I’m so sorry.” Harriet felt herself blushing. “About your father, I mean. Not the arithmetic tests. Or your employment.”
“I enjoy it. Although I get a bit of comment from some people.”
“Well, I think it shows how the world is changing for the better. Maybe, one day I’ll work for my father’s employer. He’s a vicar.”
The clerk laughed and covered her mouth with her hand. “I don’t think we’ll ever be seeing that, madam.”
Gwen, Emma and her father came up beside her.
“Oh, “Harriet said. “I almost forgot. A platform ticket for my father, please.”
Harriet settled into her seat and thought about the young clerk. A family tragedy had opened up life for her. She had occupation and resources. Harriet wondered when and how her own life had taken a turn into a closed-off court. She and Will used to be inseparable. Even when he had been playing cricket for the school eleven he had still included her in the local friendly matches. And if the other side laughed he put her into bowl first. That soon changed their tune. They had used to botanise together too, collecting wild flowers from all around, pressing them, finding out their Latin names and creating books of the flora of Nottingham. They had walked so many miles that Mother complained of them wearing through their boots. So they’d taken to going on bicycles.
Then she’d left school and asked Father if she could continue the studies in biology she had so enjoyed in her final two years and he had patiently explained that he did not have the money to finance any further education for his three younger daughters. There was only enough for Will to go to Cambridge. It hadn’t been a problem with Eleanor or Robert. Robert went straight into the manufactory and Eleanor couldn’t wait to marry the handsome and charming Wesley Brown. The Reverend Loxley knew his younger daughters had talent but, he was sorry, he didn’t have the funds to turn that talent into study.
And then Will had finished university and used his own initiative to get into the world of politics. And her younger sister, Gwen, had used hers to persuade Uncle George to let her work in the accounts section at the manufactory. Harriet had been moderately content to care for her nephews and tramp and cycle through the Nottinghamshire countryside in search of plants. But soon those boys would be off to boarding school. What skills did she have? Drawing flowers and throwing balls? What future? Helping her mother with her work in the parish? It wasn’t exactly at the heart of the changing world. She sighed as she pulled Will’s most recent letter from her coat pocket.
The Women’s Enfranchisement Bill, Sis, is a Private Member’s Bill and they are always debated on Fridays. It’s called a Private Bill because it isn’t a Government Bill. Rather it’s one an ordinary M.P. has put together. The First Reading of any Bill is a formality. The Second Reading is what is important. It’s when the Bill can be debated by any M.P. who wants to speak. Friday will go like this: Mr. Bamford Slack will propose the question to the House that the Bill be read a second time. Sir John Rolleston, the M.P. for Leicester, will second his proposal. Then the Speaker will call on other M.P.s, who will ask to be heard by standing up. They will give their opinions. The end of the debate will happen when no more members rise to speak. If it seems the debate is going to carry on past the end of the session, Mr. Slack will ask, “That the question now be put”. Whether it will, that is whether a vote will be taken, is at the discretion of the Speaker.
By the way, the Bill is timetabled to come on second in the day, after one for the lighting of motor vehicles.
Good, Harriet thought, lighting motor vehicles could be debated easily and voted on quickly, and the House could go on to discuss the important constitutional business of extending the franchise.
Powerhouse Museum from Sydney, Australia,
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Suffragettes boycotting 1911 census- Manchester
Johnny Cyprus, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Crocus Nudiflorus, James Sowerby, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons