Breaking The Mould – The Suffrage Movement in North Devon

hollerday house

Hollerday House, Lynton © Margaret Atherton.

'...not a tale of a sleepy rural backwater but of women prepared to protest'.

On August 4th, 1913, a car was spotted speeding away from a North Devon mansion late at night. Moments later flames lit up the sky. Newspapers were filled with speculation that suffragettes were to blame. Truth or fiction? Just one question that opens the door to the fascinating story of the fight for the vote in the south west – not a tale of a sleepy rural backwater but of women prepared to protest at political meetings, recruit in the streets, join mass rallies in London, and suffer the depravations of Holloway prison. All this … and the biggest sleepover the region has ever known.

The mansion was Hollerday House in Lynton, a property with strong associations with the Liberal Government, which repeatedly refused to pass legislation to give women the vote, and with the Judge who sentenced hundreds of women to Holloway. It was just one of many properties targeted under the Suffragettes arson campaign. It was a policy born out of years of frustration as attempt after attempt to pass legislation giving women the vote failed. Woman suffrage had been debated in the Commons no less than twenty times before 1911. Twelve Bills were brought before the House. Six passed a second reading. None had become law, largely because of opposition from one man, Prime Minister Asquith.


Suffragette medallion © Clovelly archive.

When Herbert Asquith came to the area on a visit to Clovelly Court he was left in no doubt of the strength of feeling amongst women in Devon. Three suffragettes walked from Bideford station to Clovelly arriving around two in the morning where they set to work on some horticultural decoration. Before long the gardens were covered with messages for their prime minister on discs of paper, banners, pieces of material, with some more strident than others.

Women in the south west were galvanised into action by Annie Kenney, the area organiser for the Women’s Social and Political Union, (WSPU) the militant Suffragette organisation initiated and headed up by Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst. Annie Kenney visited Ilfracombe in 1910 to support a new WSPU group. Two prominent women within the town, Marie Anstice du Sautoy Newby (1880-1962) and Nurse Anne Ball, were pivotal in gathering a growing band of supporters around them, enthusiastically embracing the WSPU’s call to action. Marie Newby campaigned in Ilfracombe wearing an apron advertising Votes for Women, a step that took enormous courage. It was unthinkable that a lady of her standing and position within the town should protest on the streets.


Annie Kenney © Public Domain/ United States Library of Congress.

'...women from across North Devon...gathered for this mass sleepover, their first act of civil disobedience'.

Anne Ball also took direct action with her membership of the Women’s Tax Resistance League. Working women were required to pay taxes but without the vote they effectively had no say in how they were spent. No Taxation Without Representation became her clarion call as year after year she withheld her taxes, resulting in regular appearances of the bailiffs to remove property to be sold at auction.

Alongside this action, in April 1911 she opened up her Trained Nurses Institute in Ashleigh Road, Barnstaple for anyone who wanted to evade the census. Late at night women from across North Devon, many of whom had to either defy or gain the permission of husbands or fathers, gathered for this mass sleepover, their first act of civil disobedience. Anne Ball resisted by spoiling her return, a tactic hundreds adopted nationwide, scrawling Votes for Women or No Vote No Census instead of entering information. It was inspired. As a businesswoman she couldn’t risk arrest but now she had found a way of protesting that would strike at the very heart of government.

Mrs Du Sautoy

Mrs Marie Du Sautoy Newby © The Suffragette Magazine.

In June 1911, Marie Newby and Anne Ball, alongside other women from Ilfracombe and Barnstaple, joined The Great Procession of Women promoted as ‘the most memorable which has ever taken place in history. It will stretch for seven miles in length and will be made up of forty-thousand women who have chosen this method to demonstrate their determination to win the franchise for their sex.’ It was a stunning display of support but sadly achieved nothing.

It was a turning point for Marie Newby. She joined more militant protests in London in November 1911 and then, on March 4th 1912, she was arrested for breaking a Home Office window and sentenced to two months imprisonment with hard labour. At the end of her sentence she was presented with a WSPU medal ‘For Valour’ with the inscription: ‘Presented to Marie du Sautoy Newby by the Women’s Social & Political Union in recognition of a gallant action, whereby through endurance to the last extremity of hunger and hardship a great principle of political justice was vindicated.’ She continued to campaign after her release, remaining loyal to the WSPU and the Pankhursts until the organisation was disbanded in 1918.

Alongside the WSPU the non-militant suffragists, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) led by Millicent Fawcett were also active in North Devon. In 1911, Marguerite Norma-Smith the Devon organiser, addressed gatherings in Barnstaple, Lynton, Combe Martin, Ilfracombe, Bideford and Appledore. The NUWSS was experiencing a surge in membership as more and more women walked away from the WSPU horrified by increasing militancy. They joined groups initiated by prominent local women: Mrs Morgan in Barnstaple, Mrs Preston-Whyte in Instow, Mrs and Misses Kelsall in Bideford and Miss Martin in Appledore. While Ilfracombe had embraced militancy, it seemed the rest of the region was much more comfortable with the moderate approach of the NUWSS.

Anne Ball © Museum of London.

‘the...means of doing much excellent propaganda work'.

These groups continued to thrive through 1912, with over seven hundred gathering for a debate in Bideford, despite its reputation for being ‘an anti-suffrage neighbourhood’. The Barnstaple group was also growing, holding regular meetings and planning a Suffrage summer school on Dartmoor. Names were invited by the new organiser, Miss Christine Wodehouse, someone well known for her work with young people in her father’s parish at Bratton Fleming – and even more famous for her family connections. She was a cousin of author and humorist, P.G. Wodehouse.

The NUWSS continued to capitalise on the backlash against militancy in North Devon after the arson at Hollerday House. They extended their reach with a meeting in North Molton under the leadership of Mrs Clunn and the Barnstaple group were boosted by the support of Miss Rosalie Chichester, now holding meetings at Arlington Court. There was also a promotional caravan tour that stopped off at Holsworthy, Black Torrington, Torrington and South Molton before moving on to mid Devon.

As a publicity stunt it was remarkably effective and it was the catalyst for some active canvassing in George Nympton and South Molton. Like many societies before and since, the NUWSS took a stall in the market, the ‘means of doing much excellent propaganda work.’ All the activity was certainly proving very effective with a total of 478 NUWSS societies nationally with 52,000 members, a stark contrast to the 2,000 signed up to the WSPU.

Campaigning was suspended on the outbreak of war and in many ways the conflict achieved what more than seventy years of lobbying had failed to, a limited franchise for women. However it was to be 1928 before all women over twenty-one achieved the vote, finally giving them electoral equality with men.

Mrs Marie Du Sautoy Newby’s WSPU Medal © Public Domain.

Pamela Vass’ book ‘The Suffragette Story in North Devon’ is available from Boundstone Books.

Written by Pamela Vass

Editor Adam Murray

Receive news about exhibitions, events and family workshops.