At precisely 8:00pm, February 6th, 1918, The Representation of the People Act was passed by Royal Assent in Westminster. After decades of campaigning, some women were now allowed to vote. The Equal Franchise Act, passed in 1928, gave all women over 21 the right to vote.

We're used to seeing photos of 'Suffragettes' protesting in London, but what about the campaign in Wales?

Non-Violent Protest

Even though the press at the time concentrated on the trials and tribulations of the Suffragettes, there were far more Suffragists in Wales. Suffragists believed in peaceful action, and changing things through constitutional means. Among them were members of the Cardiff District Women's Suffrage Society - the largest branch of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies outside London.

At their helm was Rose Mabel Lewis (Greenmeadow, Tongwynlais) – or 'Mrs Henry Lewis' as she is described in our museum documentation. The most prominent members of the branch tended to be the city's well-connected, middle-class women. Their annual report for 1911 shows they held a whole host of activities to raise awareness of their campaign, including a fancy dress dance, whist drive and jumble sale. That year, their membership doubled to 920.

Banners: The Craft of Activism

Banner of the Cardiff Cardiff & District Women's Suffrage Society. Made by Rose Mabel Lewis, President of the Society
Banner of the Cardiff Cardiff & District Women's Suffrage Society. Made by Rose Mabel Lewis, President of the Society

Rose Mabel Lewis made the silk banner now held in the Museum's collection - a powerful example of how the Suffragists and Suffragettes used craft to communicate and express themselves. The exact date of the banner is unknown, but evidence shows it was used in a protest in 1911. During that year, on the 17th of June, Rose Mabel led the women of south Wales in the Women's Coronation Procession in London. The banner's accession documents contain a note of explanation from one of the branch's former members:

The banner was worked by Mrs Henry Lewis… [she] was also President of the South Wales Federation of Women’s Suffrage Societies + she led the S. Wales section of the great Suffrage Procession in London on June 17th 1911, walking in front of her own beautiful banner… It was a great occasion, some 40,000 to 50,000 men + women taking part in the walk from Whitehall through Pall Mall, St James’s Street + Piccadilly to the Albert Hall. The dragon attracted much attention – “Here comes the Devil” was the greeting of one group of on lookers.

Banners like this were an incredibly important part of the visual culture of activists campaigning for women's right to vote. A number of these banners can be found today in museums and archives, including the Cardiff University Special Collections and Archives. Organisers of the 1911 march expected over 900 banners on the day!

Two years later, in July 1913, the banner appears again on the streets of Cardiff, as part of a march in the city to raise awareness of the Great Suffrage Pilgrimage. In the museum's collection, we find amazing pictures of Rose Mabel Lewis, and the branch's other members, gathering with the banner in front of City Hall in Cathays Park:

According to the annual report for 1913-14, some of the members were worried about the march, but were emboldened after receiving a positive response on the day:

It was with misgivings that some members agreed to take part in the procession, but afterwards their enthusiasm aroused and the desire to do something more in the future. The march was useful in drawing the attention of many people to the existance of our society.

Making History: St Fagans and the centenary

In 2018, the banner will be on display in Cardiff once more - not in a protest, but in a display of iconic objects from Wales at St Fagans National Museum of History. The display, which is part of the Making History project to redevelop St Fagans, will mark the first time the banner is displayed since it was donated in 1950 by the Cardiff Women Citizen's Association. At that time, their treasurer wrote a letter to Dr Iorwerth Peate, Keeper of St Fagans, to express their great pride in seeing the banner preserved for the future at St Fagans:

A cordial vote of thanks was accorded to you for realising how much the Suffrage Cause meant to women and for granting a memorial of it in the shape of the banner to remain in the Museum.

In addition to the banner, the museum also holds a number of objects relating to campaigns for women's right to vote, including letters and reports from the NUWSS, as well as an unusual hand-made anti-suffragette doll from west Wales.

Anti-suffrage voodoo doll sent anonymously to a woman in west Wales, early 1900s
Anti-suffrage voodoo doll sent anonymously to a woman in west Wales, early 1900s

Primary Sources:

National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies: Cardiff & District Annual Report, 1911-12 (St Fagans National Musuem of History).

National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies: Cardiff & District Annual Report, 1913-14 (St Fagans National Musuem of History).

Accession Documents 50.118 (St Fagans National Museum of History).

Secondary Sources:

Kay Cook a Neil Evans, 'The Petty Antics of the Bell-Ringing Boisterous Band'? The Women's Suffrage Movement in Wales, 1890 - 1918' yn Angela V. John (gol.), Our Mothers' Land Chapters in Welsh Women's History 1830 - 1939 (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1991).

Ryland Wallace, The Women's Suffrage Movement in Wales 1866 - 1928 (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2009).

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