...it's our town

Listed Buildings
of Ipswich Unitarian Meeting House reflected in Willis Building (both Grade I)

Newsletter, January 2015 (Issue 198)

Suffragettes and the buildings of Ipswich

When I was researching my book A Song of their Own, about the local campaign for Votes for Women a hundred or so years ago, I enjoyed looking for and at the places where some of the events occurred, and where they were organised.

The first thing the two new suffrage organisations in town did when they set up in 1909 was to hire office premises. The most radical of these, the Pankhurst-founded Women's Social and Political Union, started out at 4a Princes Street.

The Women's Freedom League first had a room at 13 Friars Street (right by the Unitarian Meeting House), and then moved to a larger office at 16 Arcade Street. This was on the corner of Arcade Street and Museum Street until part of it became the Henslow Room within Arlingtons Brasserie. It is fitting that the old WFL office is now part of the restaurant. The Old Museum Rooms, as the restaurant was called then, belonged to an auctioneer, who let out rooms for meetings. In 1911 the Women's Freedom League, led by the social reformer Constance Andrews, hired it out for a night of protest.

The Census Boycott - No Vote, No Census - involved women staying away from home on Census night (April 2 1911) so their personal details could not be entered on their household Census form. This was in protest at having no say in how such information would be used by the Government. Astonishingly for a small town like Ipswich, about thirty women went and spent the night in the Old Museum Rooms. If we remember how little power, influence and freedom women had at this time, their courage is noteworthy. We're told that they had an all-night party, singing political songs and playing games, eating supper and breakfast.

Constance Andrews continued to show her absolute commitment to the cause when she was fined for not buying a dog-licence. In a national campaign called No Vote, No Tax, women refused to pay taxes until they had a say in how the Government spent their money. Constance refused to pay her fine, and when the bailiffs turned up at her home in 160 Norwich Road, they found that she had signed all her possessions over to her sister. She was arrested at what is now the Ipswich Institute and taken to the women's section of Ipswich Gaol. This law-abiding, determined woman served a week's sentence to demonstrate the strength of her beliefs.

The women's prison was a tiny part of Ipswich Gaol. The records of the time show that there were only three other women in prison at that time. On her release, Constance was met at the prison gates by a huge crowd. She was placed in a carriage which led a triumphant procession through the town centre to a celebration breakfast in Arcade Street.

The suffragettes rented shops in the town. The WSPU were at 2 Dial Lane first and then Tower Street (where H&M is now), and the WFL had a shop at 22 Queen Street. Their shop fronts were decorated with banners and posters. Inside, they sold propaganda booklets and their weekly newspapers, suffragette games and other merchandise. They might have a little library of suffrage books, and a tea-room for people to meet and talk.

In the picture of the WSPU shop in Tower Street, the placards relate to the force-feeding in Ipswich prison of two women from the Midlands who came to the area and burnt down the Bath Hotel in Felixstowe in April 1914.

Details of all these, and many other, events by local campaigners are in my local history book A Song of their Own - the fight for Votes for Women in Ipswich. Published by The History Press, it is available from Waterstones and Ipswich Tourist Information Office.

Joy Bounds

    Front cover of issue 198 Cover, issue 198

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