Cambridge Suffragettes’ first action in town


The Cambridge Independent Press in the British Newspaper Archive tells us that it wasn’t until 1908 that the local branch of the Suffragettes carried out their first successful action in town – heckling a Cabinet Minister. (They had tried but failed before). Turns out that this time they made quite an impact.

981113 Cambridge Suffragettes first action

“The militant section of the Suffragettes have last exhibited to a Cambridge audience their pet tactics — the harassing of a Cabinet Minister. On Saturday evening a party of seven or eight sympathisers with the policy of the Women’s Social and Political Union attended the lecture by Mr. Harold E. Gorst on ‘The Curse of Education’ in the small room of the Guildhall, and created a series of disturbances by their interruptions and remarks on votes for women when the President of the Board of Education, Mr. Walter Runciman, M.P., who presided, rose to speak.

“Three young women were ejected with more or less expedition, and another came in for an awkward experience, being brought down from chair by a member of the audience. The meeting, having run its course, broke up in some disorder. It was not the first attempt made by the militant Suffragettes to press their attentions upon a member of the Cabinet at a Cambridge meeting. Their last invasion was on the occasion of the visit of the Minister for War to deliver his address as President of the Cambridge and County Liberal Club, but so well organised was the gathering that not a single one of them succeeded in gaining admission the meeting, and they had to content themselves with holding an open-air meeting on the Market-bill, and shrieking at Mr. Haldane as he left the Guildhall and motored through the streets.

“On this occasion, however, everything favoured them in the accomplishment of their object. Admission was by ticket on purchase; it was therefore impossible to ensure that no Suffragettes should gain admission. In fact, he appearance of Suffragettes was regarded almost a certainty, and while no special precautions were taken inside the meeting to cope with any disturbance which might arise, a special posse of police were on duty in the vicinity of the building.

“Mr Runciman, at any rate, had an idea of what was in store, for prior to entering the hall he made it known to a Press representative that he did not intend to make a speech beyond formally introducing the lecturer. Whatever doubts may have existed on the point were soon set at rest, for directly Mr Runciman rose, to the accompaniment o: applause, a girl, who wore what is known as a “Merry Widow” hat, and who had been sitting half-way down the hall, followed suit.

“Ladies and gentlemen…” began Mr Runciman, but got no further.

“The interrupter meant to have her say, and she made the most of her opportunity. Standing with her back to the wall and gesticulating freely, she hurled pointed questions at the Cabinet Minister at an extraordinary rate, and in tones which enabled er to be clearly heard in all parts of the building.

“Mr Runciman,” she said, “as a member the Government you are responsible for its acts of injustice.”

“Here she momentarily halted for breath, and went on volubly,

“Will you put your Liberal principles into practice? and give votes to women. We demand them as a right. You know it has been exposed in the witness box that this Government is tampering with British justice”—

“At this point, members of the audience appeared to recover from their astonishment, and all sorts of cries and instructions were shouted out, while many stamped their feet, almost drowning the voice of the interrupter. Still she went on, raising her voice, but amid the increasing marks of dissent, mingled with ironical laughter from the bulk of the audience only a word here and there could be heard. One sentence did find its way to the platform, was—

“We demand it as a right that women should be given the vote this session.”

“There were no signs of the uproar abating, and one of the stewards was dispatched for the hallkeeper, and there was loud applause when the burly form of Mr. Jacobs appeared on the scene. Approaching the interrupter, addressed her as “Madam,” and politely requested her to desist. The lady, however, paid no heed, and without more ado the hallkeeper seized her by he waist and removed her from the room. All this time she continued shouting, but all that could be understood was observation to the effect that Mrs Pankhurst was in prison.

“When the door had been closed upon the ejected Suffragette, the humour of the situation fawned upon the audience, and there was an outburst of laughter and cheers for the hallkeeper when he re-appeared. Mr Runciman, who had remained standing with a placid mile on his face, made very brief speech.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “one of the advantages of education is that one learns the art of reticence, and I shall, therefore, at once call upon Mr Gorst to deliver his lecture.”

“The audience laughed heartily, and there was no further interruption during the hour or so Mr Gorst was giving his lecture. Then the proposed a vote of thanks to Mr Gorst, and in doing so made a reference to the earlier occurrence. I think, he said, perhaps many us would have been better pleased Mr Runciman had been a less educated man and had therefore not shown so such reticence as he has done this evening, but we have seen him face little difficulty with courage, resolution, and humour.

“The Mayor of the Borough was not in the room when he was called upon to second the rote of thanks, and a strongly-built lady, who wore no hat, rose to the occasion. She was one of the earliest arrivals at the meeting, and had installed herself in the front row of chairs, and, given her chance, she pressed the claims of women’s suffrage upon Mr. Runciman. As she stepped towards the platform, she loosened the furs from about her neck and disclosed to view a scarf of the colours of the Women’s Social and Political Union. She was evidently far from being self-composed, but she carried out the task she had set herself.

“Will Mr Runciman answer a question,” she asked. ’‘We should very much like it if he would be kind enough. We would like to know if he can justify the attitude of the Government towards women’s suffrage. (Uproar). We shall all be immensely pleased if he will answer that question. (Uproar). We are sorry he is so very silent.”

“Be quiet, go and get married,” interposed well-known resident of Chesterton, who had been the lady’s neighbour the whole evening.

Unheeding the interruptions, the lady asked Mr Runciman,

“Will you answer our question?”

“.:..and straightway she began to read a clause from the Magna Carta, as she thought there there some points in it Mr Runciman did not realise. There was considerable disturbance, but nevertheless the lady managed to read the ‘‘right of justice” clause, and proceeded —‘

‘We have been talking about education tonight. Will you go and educate the Government upon this question? I don’t wish to close up a fruitful avenue in your mind.”

“She got no further. The hallkeeper came up, and, placing his hand on her shoulder, pointed to the side door near the platform which leads down some stairs into Butter-row, and said,

“Madam, will you please retire?”

“But I cannot go out that way,” madam pleaded.

“Oh, yes you can!” obdurately replied the hallkeeper, and with a parting shot.

“Women will not submit to tyranny. Good night, Mr Runciman”

“… & madam went the way of the stairs. There were a few minutes of calm while the Mayor was speaking, but the storm broke out again when Mr Runciman rose to reply. He had not uttered half-a-dozen words when another hatless Suffragette rose from a seat near the entrance to the Aldermen’s Parlour and cried—

“Mr Runciman, Mr Runciman, as Minister for Education, I want know why you don’t allow women of the country help you to settle this question.”

“At this a lady sitting next to her clapped her hand over her mouth, and there was an exciting little struggle before the hallkeeper arrived and escorted the interrupter out by the nearest door. As she went out she angrily shook her hand at Mr Runciman, and said-

“You are responsible for imprisoning 400 women as well as Mrs Pankhurst. (Loud cheers.) Down with Government. Votes for Women, It’s outrageous tyranny!” (Cheers.)

“After this Mr Runciman was allowed to reply to the vote of thanks without interruption When he had finished, a little woman rose from the middle the hall and requested to allowed to ask a question There was at once a move her direction, but she cleverly  succeeded in putting everybody off the scent by adding that she wanted to ask a question of Mr Gorst dealing with his lecture This was permitted, and she went to ask a question with regard the education of women This was answered the lecturer, but proved only the preamble to the demand for “Votes tor Women.”

“Don’t you think,” replied the lady, “ that if women had the determining of the education of the country…”

“The uproar which arose prevented her from being heard any further, and Mr Runciman and those supporting him prepared to leave the platform. As he did so another of the at sitting near the front attempted to attract the attention of the Minister of Education, getting no response, she mounted in, said,

“There are three women teachers to every male teacher. Why are they not represented in the government of the country?”

“She further, for certain member of the County Council who was making his way out gave to his annoyance the behaviour the woman with  push. It was done in the heat of the moment, but it had its consequences. The Suffragette fell with a whack across the backs of a couple of chairs, and there flourish of skirts, and while the lady was being restored to her feet, a lady friend burst upon the County Councillor with red hot denunciation

“You brute, you coward, you dastardly coward!” This is what the Liberal Government teaches —oh, you are a coward.”

“The interruptor who had been unceremoniously put out of action for the time being, had this time recovered her composure, and called for three cheers for “Votes for Women,” the meeting breaking up in entire disorder.

“We understand that the first of the Suffragettes to be ejected— apparently the leader of the party—was Miss Lightman, of the Women’s Social and Political Union. She said she was an old Cambridge student and she had been removed from the hall she asked leave of the Mayor to hold a protest meeting, but the market was still in progress and His Worship declined.

“After the meeting, nothing more was seen of the ladies, who presumably returned to town the same night. Mr Runciman, who was accompanied by Mrs Runciman, stayed in Cambridge until Sunday evening as the guest of the Member for West Cambs., and was not further molested.

Who was Miss Lightman?

The newspaper article indicates that Miss Lightman was a former student at Cambridge, so any of you with access to the archives of Newnham, Girton or Homerton may well find that the first woman to take direct action against a government minister for the suffragettes in Cambridge, was one of your former students.

The book Suffrage Outside Suffragism: Britain 1880-1914 indicates it was Nancy Lightman who was the individual concerned – a member of the WSPU who took part in many such direct actions.

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