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Wednesday, 7 February 2018

The Votes for Women Campaign in the Scottish Borders

100 years ago this week SOME women were, for the first time in Britain, given the vote - provided they were  aged over 30 and met a property requirement.   Only 40% of women in the country met this stipulation. The Representation of the People Act 1918  also extended the vote to ALL men over the age of 21.  

It took another  ten years before the Equal Franchise Act of 1928  gave women the same voting rights as men.

 A suffragette meeting, at Towerknowe, Hawick in the Scottish Borders, 1909.
Note - the number of men there.
Photograph by permission of Scottish Borders  Museum & Gallery Service
 from the Hawick Museum Collection.

The Campaign in the Scottish Borders
We tend to associate suffragette marches with London  and the cities, but the scene above   was in the small mill  town of Hawick in the Scottish Borders (population  in 1911 - 16,877),  where women were an integral part of industrial and economic life in the manufacture of tweed and knitwear.

The main source of documentary  information on early local suffragette activities in the Borders was "The Kelso Chronicle",  which was regarded as a bastion of reform. 

The earliest reference to women's suffrage in the Borders  was found  in a report published by the newspaper  in 1871, with  a public meeting held in Hawick in the Exchange Hall in 1873.  Although suffrage bills in 1870, 1886, and 1897 had been presented to Parliament,   all were  defeated.

The Role of Emmiline Pankhurst 
Many of the Border towns were aligned to the law-abiding National Union of Suffrage Societies.  However the 20th century saw a dramatic change in the campaign  with a new militant form of protest.   By  1903 Emmeline Pankhurst, believed that years of moderate speeches  about women's suffrage had yielded no progress and with her daughters Adela, Christabel and Sylvia,  she founded the Women's Social & Political Union (WSPU)  dedicated to "deeds, not words".   The WSPU had a charismatic leader, who inspired an almost fanatical devotion to the cause.  It also adopted a public identification  with its colours - Violet, Forest Green and White (symbolising Votes for Women), which they used as ribbons, sashes and badges on  their white dresses.   
Mrs. Emmeline Pankhurst  (LOC)
Emmeline Pankhurst  - http://foter.com/Suffragettes/

Emmeline Pankhurst in Hawick 
In February 1909 "The Hawick News" had a headline which read "Suffragette Invasion" - the occasion the campaign for the Border Burghs election. Emmeline Pankhurst addressed a crowded meeting in  Hawick Town Hall on 27th February 1909.  A piper marched around the platform  and the audience sang the local song "Votes for Women".

Rise, ye men of Border burghs.
Show yourself in your true colours
As you've done in days gone by
Stand by British Liberty
"Votes for Women" loudly defying
Stubborn foes you'll put to rout
Vote  and keep the Liberals out

"The Hawick Express" of February 26th 1909 reported that:
"The Suffragists are extremely busy in connection with the elections and have taken  a shop on the High Street as their headquarters,,,,,the window is smartly decorated with suffragette literature and pictures  and they are reported to be doing a roaring trade in the sale of "Votes for Women" badges".
Mrs Pankhurst returned to Hawick in August 1909 when she called on women to join a large demonstration in Edinburgh. 

Militant Protests in the  Scottish Borders 
In the Borders, more militant protests hit the headlines in April 1913 when the "The Kelso Chronicle" of April 1913 proclaimed   "Militant Suffragism coming Near Home". 
"There was considerable commotion in Kelso on Saturday morning when it became known that a couple of women, presumably suffragettes, had been caught red handed in an attempt to destroy by fire the new stand which had been erected in the paddock at the Racecourse.......The fire was subdued before any damage could be done and the suffragettes arrested......In the walk down to Kelso Police Station, the Ladies beguiled the time by giving lusty voice  to the suffragette song " March On. 
The women  were conveyed to Jedburgh and apprehended before the  Sheriff.   A big crowd collected in the vicinity of  the court room to catch a glimpse of the daring but mischeiveouly disposed females." 
The protesters  were committed to prison and taken by train to Edinburgh,  They  were found guilty as charged and sentenced to nine months imprisonment in Carleton Jail, Edinburgh.  However they were liberated within a week having gone on hunger strike.  The terms of their temporary release  stated that they must return after a stipulated number of days - an instance of the infamous "cat and mouse"  policy.

Emmeline Pankhurst died in 1928,  the year when women  were granted equal voting rights with men.  It was  the  part women played on the home front during  First World War that was widely regarded as the  major factor in the  change of attitude to their right to vote.

But Emmeline's  role  is recognized as a crucial element in achieving women's suffrage in Britain - and the Scottish Borders played its  part. 

With grateful thanks to local historian Gordon Macdonald
for his research  on this topic in his work
" Universal Suffrage - A Borders Perspective"


Adapted from a post first published on my blog in March 2013


  1. I am so glad to read this about smaller groups in the movement, which took many hours and lives dedicated to suffrage.

  2. Thank you for your kind comment, Barbara. Yes, I too knew next to nothing about suffragette activity in the. Borders, but local newspapers online proved a most valuable source of information.


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