Leeds Arts Club and the campaign for women’s suffrage

This week we hear from M.A. student Hannah Cullen on the history of a little-known but highly-influential cultural movement in Leeds and, specifically, its connections with the women’s suffrage movement. Research such as this can be done using Library resources like local newspaper archives and relevant books or pamphlets.

A previous article on the Secret Library blog looks at the general development of the same Club.

The avant-garde Leeds Arts Club was founded in 1903 by Alfred Orage and Holbrook Jackson, to discuss aspects of philosophy, the arts and modernism. It began in rooms on Park Lane, but from early 1908 until its demise in 1923, the Club was based at 8 Blenheim Terrace, opposite what is now the University of Leeds. Nationally significant cultural figures of the era, such as Edward Carpenter, G. K. Chesterton, W. B. Yeats and George Bernard Shaw, visited the Club to deliver their own talks.

1928. View of Park Lane. To the left is number 18 Victoria Buildings, moving right is Taylors Typewriter Copying Office, Hindle, Son and Lewis, auctioneers and rent collectors are at number 14 and to the right William Richardson, furnishers and cabinet makers are at number 12. In 1903 no.18 Park Lane became the original home to the Leeds Arts Club founded by A.R Orage and journalist Holbrook Johnson. The Leeds Arts Club was instrumental in introducing a lot of the Leeds suffragettes and suffragists to socialism and politics. (c) Leeds Libraries, http://www.leodis.net

Unfortunately there are no official records for Leeds Arts Club, which makes it harder to understand its membership and activities. Much of the available research on the Club can be found in Alfred Orage and the Leeds Arts Club, 1903-1923, written by Tom Steele. Since the book’s publication in 1990, the digitisation of many sources has made further research more accessible, and, in particular, research into the Club’s rumoured connections with the campaign for women’s suffrage. These rumours may have been based upon the Club’s association with two prominent suffragettes – Mary Gawthorpe and Leonora Cohen. Gawthorpe had been involved in Leeds Arts Club in its early days and wrote a chapter on this in her memoir, Up Hill to Holloway. She explains, however, that her role as a regional organiser for the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) meant that she visited the Club at Blenheim Terrace only a few times. Leonora Cohen, who was famous for smashing a case in the Tower of London, designed and made a ‘suffragette dress’ for the Leeds Arts Club fancy dress ball in 1914.

The dress Leonora designed to wear to the Leeds Arts Club Ball. (c) Leeds Museums and Galleries, https://www.mylearning.org/resources/leonora-dress

Another well-known Leeds activist, Isabella Ford, was on the first committee of Leeds Arts Club. While she also supported women’s suffrage, she was instead a prominent suffragist, meaning that she advocated for constitutional tactics, as opposed to those of the militant WSPU. Since she was involved in a variety of causes and lived between Leeds and London, the extent of her involvement with Leeds Arts Club is unclear.

28th July 1908. A group of women carrying placards and banners as they take part in the Women’s Social & Political Union’s Procession to Woodhouse Moor where a huge rally was held. (c) Leeds Museums, http://www.leodis.net

It seems though that Leeds Arts Club’s connections to the women’s suffrage campaign ran deeper than this. Event listings in the suffragette publication Votes for Women show that Leeds Arts Club rooms were being used to host WSPU meetings with Adela Pankhurst as early as September 1907. Between July 1908 and the summer of 1909, the Club hosted campaign events and regular meetings for the WSPU. For example, the Club hosted a whist drive fundraiser in February 1909 and also acted as a meeting point for several advertising parades the following month. At this time, Bradford was the headquarters of the campaign in Yorkshire and Leeds did not have a branch office, so having regular accommodation in the city would have been vital, particularly if it was offered at a discounted rate, or even for free.

Votes for Women – Feb 11 1909 (Whist Drive 17 Feb 1909)
Votes for Women – Jun 11 1909 (Notices of meetings at Leeds Arts Club):

While these activities indicate there must have been some support among Leeds Arts Club members, this does not necessarily mean that all members supported the tactics of the WSPU, or even the cause more widely. Some members may have been affiliated with the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), like Isabella Ford. However, there is evidence that some members holding prominent positions in the Club did support the WSPU, including men. Leeds Arts Club, unlike similar clubs at the time, had a progressive approach towards women members, who featured on committees and were encouraged to become involved in debates. This would therefore have been a good environment for women members to develop their confidence in public speaking and campaigning for the cause.

Bertha Doyle was a local artist and singer who had lived with her family on Blenheim Terrace for many years. She had been a prize-winning student at the Leeds School of Art and in 1906 she had her work exhibited at Leeds Arts Club, alongside that of many men. In the following years, she went on to have work displayed at Leeds City Art Gallery.

Leeds Times – Prizes for Art Students, 3 November 1894

In 1910, Doyle became a committee member of Leeds Arts Club, during a shake-up of its management. In February of the same year, Votes for Women records Doyle volunteering to draw cartoons for the WSPU shop window on Albion Street. In 1911, she also volunteered to design and stencil a banner for the Leeds branch of WSPU for the famous Women’s Coronation Procession in London. This suggests that Doyle could have used her position and influence within Leeds Arts Club to provide accommodation to the WSPU, but equally, she may have been one of many supporters who held prominent roles.

Votes for Women cartoons by Miss Doyle, 19 May 1911, p553

As you might expect of a radical Club in this period, there were also male members who actively supported the women’s suffrage cause, and specifically, the WSPU campaign. Frank Rutter has been the most well-known of these, but he only moved to Leeds in 1912 to become the curator of Leeds City Art Gallery. Robert Ernest Wilkinson, who married Bertha Doyle in 1912, was Honorary Secretary of Leeds Arts Club and wrote to The Yorkshire Post in March of the same year, to defend militancy in the women’s suffrage campaign:

“Those who know anything of public opinion know also of its instability, and can safely prophesy that the swing of the pendulum against women’s suffrage is bound eventually to swing the other way, and whilst now all, or nearly all, condemn the military tactics, then they will agree with me in praising the bravery and courage of these fine women who dare to do something foolish with the foreknowledge that they will pay the penalty.”

– The Yorkshire Post, 8 March 1912

Earlier than this, however, Votes for Women documents two donations from Rev. A. H. Lee and W. H. Perkins in December 1907. These were likely to have been key Leeds Arts Club members Reverend Arthur Hugh Evelyn Lee and William Hughes Perkins. Lee had been one of the founding members of the Club and regularly featured on the programme of talks. The above donations were made before the WSPU meetings at the Club became a regular occurrence, which could indicate the pair helped to facilitate them. In April 1908, the Yorkshire Evening Post reported on a fraught suffragettes’ meeting which was being chaired by Reverend Lee. After moving to London in early 1910, Lee was involved in the Church League for Women’s Suffrage, founded the year before. He also co-signed an open letter from members of the clergy to the Home Secretary in 1913, condemning the infamous ‘Cat & Mouse’ Act.

Yorkshire Evening Post on the Lee suffragettes meeting – 1 April 1908, p6

Perkins, meanwhile, was a chemist working at Leeds University. He married May Rhys Davids, who was at one time a ticket secretary for the Leeds WSPU branch. According to their granddaughter, the pair had met at the Club and after their marriage had hosted Adela Pankhurst at their home in Headingley (it was common for friends and sympathisers of paid district organisers to provide accommodation in order to save WSPU funds). There is, however, evidence that both Perkins and his wife were also involved with the NUWSS, demonstrating that divisions in the campaign were not always clear cut. Their granddaughter recalled Mrs Perkins saying that she had attended a suffragette march in London, but preferred to describe herself as a suffragist. Increasing militancy among WSPU members may have been the cause for this, as had been the case for others in the movement.

Despite the persistent rumours regarding Leeds Arts Club and its support for women’s suffrage, its involvement in the campaign has perhaps previously been underestimated. It is clear that prominent members actively supported the cause in a variety of practical ways and that the Club played an important role in the growth of the campaign in the city.

Bibliography/further reading:

Gawthorpe, M. (1962) Up Hill to Holloway. Penobscot, Maine: Traversity Press.  [The Central Library has a copy – contact us on 0113 37 85005 to access]             

Spalding, S. (1978) Letter to Mrs [Rosemary] Stephens [regarding William Hughes Perkins], December. Available at University of Leeds Special Collections, LUA-PER-072.

Steele, T. (2009) Alfred Orage and the Leeds Arts Club: 1893-1923. Mitcham: Orage Press.

Votes for Women newspaper and other suffragette publications available from LSE Digital Library: https://digital.library.lse.ac.uk/browse#journals.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Peter Robert Adamczyk-Haswell says:

    Thank you for a very interesting article.
    Speaking as the grandson of Leeds’ first woman councillor in 1921, may I suggest that the the WSPU dress be recreated, if that is possible. It may sound far-fetched, but it is just an idea

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