Photo-a-Day (Saturday, 7th December, 2019)
Starting the work
Photo: Thomas Walsh (iPad)
'He Served his Generation Faithfully'
In the early 1900s Wigan to many particularly in the Metropolis, would be seen as a political backwater ; how very wrong the 'chattering classes' were to make that assumption. The north of England in general was a hotbed of discontent regarding women's suffrage. (1903: Women's Social and Political Union WSPU is formed ,led by Emmeline Pankhurst) Wigan in particular was, to the astonishment of the establishment in the forefront of rebellion regarding women's enfranchisement. The Wigan result in the 1906 general election would prove this in no uncertain manner, and I'm sure would have sent a collective shiver done the backs of the political elite of the time !
Hubert Sweeny had been selected in 1904(1) to stand for Wigan as the parliamentary candidate for next general election on a 'Votes for Women' platform, incidentally Thorley Smith backed his candidature enthusiastically. A specific committee of the North of England Society for Women's Suffrage , The Lancashire and Cheshire Women's Textile and other Workers Representation Committee were a group of mainly working class suffragists who chose to support a Women's Suffrage candidate in Wigan. Much of the work of the organisation and publicising his candidature was undertaken by a group of suffragist working women, particularly the women led, Wigan and District Weaver,Winders, Reelers and Beamers Association. He also received support from the women of the town in general. Encouragement was to come from all corners of the country and from many leaders of the suffrage movement in its many different guises.
Mrs Pankhurst (WSPU) addressed a public meeting on the 27th January 1904, she moved a resolution, extracts from the report reads. She hoped the worthy example being set by the constituency of Wigan would be very soon followed by other constituencies throughout the country, she further went on to say , She wanted the men of Wigan to set such an example to the whole country that when their grandchildren looked back upon the time when women did not have franchise, the men of Wigan would feel proud of what their fathers had done (2) . This was not to be her last visit to the town , later to give support Thorley Smith after he took up the cudgel on the surprise withdrawal of Sweeny in late1905, leaving little time to choose a replacement. Thorley Smith was chosen as the new candidate on 2nd of January 1906 only a few weeks before the poll. He threw himself it to the battle with great commitment and vigour addressing up three meeting each day.
The reason given as to Sweenys late withdrawal from the fray, was he would loose his livelihood as a head teacher if he stood; there's possibly more than a grain of truth in that assertion , remember that most local authorities adopted the policy, on marriage a women teacher must leave the profession; with the now unbelievable dictate , no questions, no debate, no exceptions. It is unlikely that Sweenys employers would have been supporters of women's rights either at the ballot box or the work place , and may have looked unfavourably on his involvement in what many would see as the 'rabble rousers' of the day. The nagging doubt I have with this synopsis is, he must have known the likely consequences that would ensue when he accepted the nomination in the first place. I can't help but wonder if he didn't have the stomach for the fight. Either way more than a century later we are in the realms of supposition and on balance I think it's reasonable to except the motivation given regarding his employment concerns.
Whatever the reason , Thorley Smith was a more than adequate replacement and it can be argued had a better result given his local connections, I subscribe wholeheartedly that conjecture. It may seem very parochial but I think Sweetny's southern accent would not have 'cut the mustard' in Wigan ,especially in the days,before the wireless and other mass spoken communications , when accents could vary wildly from from village to village. Many would find his accent bafflingly and bewilderingly; not to mention his problem with the northern 'lingo' which when spoken broadly would seem like a foreign language to the unaccustomed ear ! Not everyone was pleased with his decision to stand on a suffrage ticket including his colleagues in the local Labour Party who refused to back his candidature, whilst they had been happy to support Hubert's Sweeny's 'tilt'. This must have been a hammer blow but the brave man that he was, he determined to carry on without their blessing. Nationally it was a different matter , a few years ago, fortunately and quite by chance I came across a letter from Keir Hardie sent to his agent and published in The Wigan Observer,during the campaign, the next paragraph contains the transcript of the letter verbatim.
Dear Sir- it is now quite certain I shall not be able to get to Wigan before the election,as I shall need to be in my constituency where the election takes place on the 18th. I regret this,as I feel the presence in the House of Commons of a member able to devote his special attention to the claims of women for political enfranchisement would be of great help,and I heartily commend Mr .Thorley Smiths candidature to the electors of a Wigan - Yours faithfully J. Keir Hardie.( 3)
This letter must have more then made up for his disappointment of being abandoned by the party locally and must have acted a great incentive to carry the banner of universal suffrage; knowing that he was far from alone in the labour movement. He was a Labour member of Wigan Council so it must have been difficult for him to work with the local party after ignoring their urging not to stand however he was clearly a man who put conscience before party, a rare commodity in politics !
During the fortnight Women's Suffrage campaign over 80 meeting were held in Wigan (4 ) Due to lack of funds the campaign was fought on a shoestring with most political meeting held in the open (5) Thorley Smiths 'doughty henchwomen' i e Wigan working weavers addressed four meeting each day at factory gates on street corners at the gas works and tram sheds anywhere they could find a male voter. Thorley Smith supported by visiting women speakers held two or three open-air meeting each evening ; this remember in the depths of winter . His election campaign reflected his Labour leanings ,he promised to support and campaign for all current organised labour platforms whilst at the same time giving Women's Suffrage his first priority. Thorley Smith claimed to be the first to stand on a purely Women's Suffrage platform. to date I found nothing to contradict that assertion; Mrs Pankhurst remarks mentioned earlier also seem to lend credence to his claim; whether he was first or not he was certainly in the vanguard.
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 out riders, 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. (6) What a stare this must have caused and I'm sure did no harm to his candidature.quite the opposite I would have thought.
The result of the election was - Sir Francis Sharp Powell Cons. 3,573 votes Thorley Smith Women's Suffrage 2,205 votes William Woods Liberal 1,900 votes.
Thorley Smith secured almost 29% of the vote pushing the liberal into third place . The result was all the more remarkable when viewed in context of the national result. The Liberals, led by Prime Minister Henry Campbell-Bannerman, won a landslide majority at the election. The Conservatives led by Arthur Balfour, lost more than half their seats, including party leader Balfour's own seat in Manchester East, leaving them with their lowest ever number of seats.
The election saw a 5.4% swing from the Conservative Party to the Liberal Party, the largest ever seen at the time ,however, if only looking at seats contested in both 1900 and 1906, the Conservative vote fell by 11.6%). This has resulted in the 1906 general election being dubbed the "Liberal landslide", and is now ranked alongside the 1931, 1945, 1983 and 1997 General Elections as one of the largest landslide election victories . On these figures ,without Thorley Smith the Liberals could have reasonably expected to take Wigan. The Wigan result must have sent shock waves through the establishment, and I sure give them food for thought at the very least ! The astonishment didn't stop at London The Wigan Examiner pronounced ' We cannot believe there are 2,205 suffragists among Wigan voters" (8)
I recently located his grave in Wigan Cemetery, to my chagrin the headstone was in an appalling condition after highlighting it in The Wigan Observer, a local business has offered to fund a replacement. Wigan Council have also indicated that they are minded to celebrate his life by placing a plaque to his memory on The Town Hall. To be erected in 2018, a year with special significance, the centenary of first giant step along the way to universal suffrage finally achieved in 1928. I am proud that Wigan, Thorley Smith and my forebears played no small part in achieving that much overdue validity.
His life can be summed up by those who knew him best ,his family ,on his gravestone they choose the epitaph ' He Served his Generation Faithfully '. What a wonderful tribute to a brave and principled man !
1 Wigan Observer 6th Jan.1904.
2 Wigan Observer 27th Jan. 1904.
3 Wigan Observer Jan 1906.
4 Jill Liddleton and Jill Norris, One Hand Tied behind us.
5 Appeal Esther Roper Working Class Movement Library,Salford.
6 Wigan Examiner 20th Jan 1906.
7 BBC NEWS - Programmes- BBC Parliament- 1906:' The Liberal landslide '
8 Wigan Examiner 20th Jan. 1906.
A special thank you to Alex Miller, Yvonne Eckersley and Rita Muss, Museum of Wigan Life.
Lovely thought, will look nice in Spring.
I would love to have seen the 'Amazons' in their carriage with the two 'outriders' and listened to the comments from 'the natives' as they flew over the cobbles. The older women of Wigan cosseted in their woollen shawls, aghast at the impertinence of these women.
". Eee what's world coming to - wimmin wearing men's britches un' cocked on 'orses!". God knows what the pitmen would have said!
A very interesting read Tom, good for you.
They are the nicest people you could ever wish to meet , they spent 2 hours planting the bulbs ,they chose colours of the Suffragettes , purple and white also bulbs that would bloom at different times .
Their names are Sue , Peter daughter Barbara and Phoebe the little terrier .
Is Thorley Smith connected to the factory on Clayton Street in Wigan,
also called Thorley Smith. It is a
sewing factory which produces shrouds,
burial gowns and coffin suites.
For a few years, about once every two
weeks, I used to deliver about 1000
of their products to Co-op Funeral
Care at Shieldhall in Glasgow.
Thank you Tom for everything you've done to let people know about Thorley Smith and his story - we are very proud to have found him in our family tree! And thank you for your lovely comments,very enjoyable company and a warm welcome to Wigan. We will visit again to check the bulbs and plants, and to find the graves of our other relatives in the Wigan cemeteries.
I particularly like the clever 'bulb rotation' plan, Tom.
What lovely people they must be.
I'll bet it will be a beautiful site next spring, and I hope you, Thomas, will be kind enough to return here and photograph it again then.
Cheers. Good photo.
Very good and interesting information Tom,I hope someone also answers Ray's somewhat unusual story
Hello Ray - I was asking Tom about the Thorley Smith funeral company while we were doing the planting at the grave and whether it was still the family business - I'm not sure if I've remembered it correctly but I think Tom said the name of the business had been 'bought' and carried on by new owners and they now supply shrouds etc - Thorley Smith's family had been stonemasons and I thought I'd read somewhere that they'd had a funeral business but can't find that at the moment. I'll try and find out more.
This is so interesting as I have recently found out Thorley is my Great Grandad so pleased that he has been recoginsed with his plaque as well