Fighting for the right

From its very earliest days, Shetlanders were deeply involved in the women’s suffrage movement. Marsali Taylor investigates the role of the Shetland Women’s Suffrage Society in the battle for equality at the ballot box.

This year marks the centenary of the founding of the Shetland Women’s Suffrage Society, but in fact Shetland’s involvement in the suffrage movement goes back well before that, to links with the earliest founders of the movement in Britain.

The first three women’s suffrage societies were formed in the 1860s, and the one which had most links with Shetland was formally constituted as the Edinburgh Branch of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage, in 1867. The founder and president of that group was Miss S E S Mair, a great-granddaughter of the celebrated actress Sarah Siddons. By 1870 the women of the society were lobbying for access to further education for women and the election of women to public bodies like school boards, as well as for the vote.

An apparently inspirational speaker, Miss Jane Taylour from Stranraer was giving lectures on women’s suffrage up and down Scotland. Taylour was described as “chaste and elegant, her voice distinct and agreeable, and her manner attractive and graceful.” She visited Orkney first, in October 1871, speaking at Kirkwall and Stromness, backed on the platform by local church ministers. On 12th September 1873, she spoke in the lecture hall, Mounthooly Street, Lerwick, and the meeting was fully reported in The Shetland Times of Monday 15th September, including a detailed account of her speech: “Firstly, the ladies claim the right to the electoral suffrage as it is consistent and logical; secondly, as taxes can only be levied by Parliament, elected by the tax-payers, we hold it unconstitutional to impose a barrier on [tax-paying] women.”

At the end of the meeting a resolution was taken to appoint a committee “to promote the cause of women’s suffrage in Shetland; and the committee to consist of Rev Andrew Macfarlane, Mrs Macfarlane, Rev Robert Walker, AM, Robert Cowie Esq, AM, MD, Mrs Cowie, Miss Ogilvie, Miss Spence, John Robertson Esq, Mrs Robertson, Mr Morris, Rev J K Dobson.” The presence of so many ministers is common across Scotland; the Churches in general supported women’s suffrage.

On Monday 20th October, The Shetland Times printed a letter from the committee to their MP, S. Laing, along with his neatly uncommitted reply: “I have no objection in principle to women exercising the right of voting in respect of property which would give the Suffrage if held by men . . . I would however like to see the measure in a practical shape, and see the course taken on it by such men as Mr Gladstone, Mr John Bright and others, who have taken the lead in recent measures of Parliamentary Reform, before I give any positive pledge as to my vote on the subject.”

For the next two decades, the debate continued. Like the societies springing up across Britain, the Shetland supporters were suffragist: committed to peaceful persuasion through lectures, personal contact and distribution of literature. And gradually the pressure on MPs bore fruit in Scotland. The first women graduated from the Scottish universities in 1893, and the fight was taken up by these educated women. This led, in 1906, to a court case brought by women graduates. By then over 900 women held university qualifications, and in theory this should have made them eligible to vote for the two MPs returned by the four Scottish universities. The 1868 Act giving this privilege specified “persons”, not males, but when the women applied for voting papers they were refused them. Five graduates, including Dr Elsie Inglis and lawyer Chrystal Macmillan, took the case to the Court of Session. The ruling in July 1906 was that “persons” meant males. The graduates appealed, and their case was heard before the House of Lords in 1908, with Chrystal Macmillan pleading the suffragist side. Again, the ruling went against them.

The two main women’s suffrage societies in Britain had now merged into one, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). In England, however, one group of suffragists became more militant, led by the charismatic Pankhurst women, and soon after that the militant Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) was formed. A joint meeting was held in Glasgow, but the Scottish suffragists were unhappy with the militant tactics of the WSPU, and the organisations remained separate. In 1908 a third group was formed, the Women’s Freedom League, who concentrated on civil disobedience, without the extreme militancy of the WSPU.

Against this background, the 19 women and one man who met in Christina Jamieson’s house at Twageos on the 23rd October 1909 were very clear: their new Shetland Women’s Suffrage Society “had no connection with the disturbances which had been caused recently by women suffragists, its object being solely by constitutional means to endeavour to secure to women the Parliamentary Franchise.” The new group was affiliated to the NUWSS at that first meeting, and it was agreed to put the NUWSS magazine The Common Cause in the local reading room, and to report their proceedings to the local newspaper.

Christina (Tina) Jamieson was a poet, essayist and folklorist, born at Cruisdale, Sandness. She contributed stories and articles about Shetland to The Scotsman, and was a founder-member of the Shetland Folklore society in the 1920s. In 1909, Jamieson published, as Sketch of Votes for Women Movement, a brief history of the women’s suffrage cause. She also delivered this closely argued, carefully researched account of women’s history to a packed meeting of the Lerwick Literary and Debating Society, to “frequent applause”. Not everyone was impressed though. One correspondent in The Shetland Times wrote: “I would have borrowed her manuscript and, for her own sake, consigned it to the flames . . . I regret [her father] could not have seen Miss Jamieson’s MS before she ventured before the public with it.”

The minutes show others who were stalwart in their support. Mrs Leisk, the new Chairman of the SWSS, was the wife of draper John Leisk, 169 Commercial Street, where a number of smaller meetings were held. Her daughter was also involved. The names include what look like three more mother / daughter pairs. The first president was Lady Stout, wife of Sir Robert Stout, who had been a staunch supporter of women’s suffrage while Prime Minister in New Zealand (at this point he was Lord Chief Justice). Tina Jamieson herself was appointed honorary secretary and treasurer, with Miss Leisk to assist her. The minutes are written in a flowing, confident hand – Jamieson’s – and countersigned “Harriet Leisk”.

The SWSS’s third meeting was a Special General Meeting, held on 16th December 1909 in the Rechabite Hall (the early suffragists had strong links with the Temperance Movement), to discuss their conduct in the general election. They could not send a delegate to the council meeting of the Scottish Federation, but donated £1 to the election fund. Shetland’s MP, Mr Wason, was a Liberal, but opposed to women’s suffrage. The Society decided on what were to become regular tactics: Mr Wason was to be written to, in London, but Mr Hewsley, of the Unionist Party, was to be in Lerwick later that month, and Mrs Leisk, Mrs Nichol and Miss Jamieson were to interview him on the subject.

As part of this campaign of persuasion, Jamieson had letters published in The Shetland Times of 22nd and 29th January 1910, stressing the support of Shetland men: “It is quite true that many of the menfolk, in the self-complacency fostered by the uncritical adoration of these same women, take the work of the women for granted, and quite overlook its value. Still, the general feeling of equality is such that Shetland men as a rule ‘don’t see why women soodna vot’”.

Norwegian and Finnish women had been granted the vote in 1908: “Will not the men of Shetland show themselves worthy of their kinship to those free descendants of the old Norse Vikings whom they yearly unite in commemorating?”

The Liberals returned to power, but had lost 100 seats, and this persuaded them to bring in the Conciliation Bill, offering women’s suffrage for unmarried women who passed property qualification. In February 1910 the WSPU declared a truce on militancy.

The annual meeting of 5th November 1910 records 23 members present, although Tina’s report ends by saying membership had doubled. None of the members felt confident enough to speak publicly, at a meeting, but Jamieson’s report details their activities: distribution of suffrage literature to the reading room and in local booksellers, and personal debate to spread their message. Lady Stout had raised awareness of the issue by letters in The Shetland Times and “The Town Council of Lerwick had unanimously passed a resolution in favour of women’s suffrage. All honour to the Town Council! (Applause!)”

Links with key people in the wider movement continued: the SWSS had joined the Scottish Federation of Women’s Suffrage Societies in July 1910, and one of its organisers, Miss Lamond, came almost immediately to hold meetings. The Shetland Times of 9th July announces forthcoming meetings in Sandwick, Baltasound, Uyeasund, Symbister, Burravoe, Mid Yell, Bressay, Lerwick and Scalloway, and gives an account of her first “crowded meeting” in the Old Schoolhouse, Fair Isle. The following week gives a report of the meeting in Lerwick Town Hall, attended by 150 people: “The speech was one of the most effective that has been heard in the Town Hall for some time.”

The Shetland society had its own way of supporting events on the mainland. A Suffrage Festival was to be held in April 1911, including sales of craft work to emphasise the femininity of the suffragists, and Shetland goods were to be sent: “each member is to endeavour to make the parcel a large one!” The next few meetings show Jamieson chasing up hosiery from the members.

The fight to get the Conciliation Bill through continued, with a second Conciliation Bill to be introduced on 5th May 1911. The Shetland society wrote to their town, county and parish councils asking them to petition MPs to support bill. The county council and Dunrossness parish council petitioned; the letter was received too late for the town council’s monthly meeting, and Lerwick Parish Council deferred consideration. By the end of April 1911, 24 town councils, including Lerwick, had carried resolutions in favour of the bill.

On 17th June 1911, a big march was to be held in London in honour of the coronation of George V. The Scottish Federation sponsored a Shetland society delegate, and Jamieson was unanimously elected. Jamieson had also designed a banner, and Miss J Mitchell, another founder member, offered to paint it. Shetland members also got to see the event for themselves: a cinematograph film was taken, and the Shetland society arranged for Mr Calder to show this at his next performances.

In November 1911, the Conciliation Bill ran out of time and was abandoned. However, the government announced a Reform Bill to enlarge the male vote, with the possibility of a female suffrage amendment. The WSPU immediately returned to militancy, and the Shetland society discussed this in their minutes of 7th December. The NUWSS circular letter condemning the militants was sent to The Shetland Times.

On 3rd December 1911 Lady Stout, now the delegate of the Shetland society at NUWSS in London, asked for instructions on how to vote with regard to the proposed Reform Bill, and was told “this meeting is not anti-Government, but otherwise gives Lady Stout a free hand.”

What exactly Lady Stout did with her “free hand” isn’t clear. On January 23rd, the speaker of the House of Commons caused an uproar by announcing that the Reform Bill could not continue with its suffrage amendment – it altered the bill too much. The minutes of 1st Feb 1912 report a “communication from NUWSS re Lady Stout” and a “letter of explanation from Lady Stout”, followed by a telegram in which she “repudiated the tactics of the National Union”. The committee “unanimously homologated the attitude adopted by Lady Stout and deplored the defeat of the Amendment to the Motion of the Special Council Meeting of NUWSS.”

By now, militant tactics had spread to Scotland. Window smashing in Sauchiehall Street was followed by pillar-box attacks, and by October there had been a triple attack on sporting facilities in Kelso, Ayr and Dundee, the first of several bomb attacks and a number of house fires.

The SWSS obviously felt the escalation of events on the mainland, for it was agreed at this point to hold a general meeting quarterly. The SWSS was also determined to be present at events on the mainland from now on. The minutes of their meeting of February 1913 record: “it was decided that if there was to be a procession organised in Edinburgh in Assembly week, this Society would attempt to send representatives and their banner.”

The banner was in demand: the Edinburgh Society also wanted it for their summer school, “as they consider it one of the most beautiful of the Scottish banners, besides being that of the most northerly society.” Two or three members also hoped to attend. The banner was also to be “sent to the Women’s Exhibition as requested”. In the May minutes, referring to a demonstration in Glasgow, the SWSS agreed to “send the banner to be carried in procession and to ask ‘Friends’ resident in Glasgow to join procession to carry it. Ask that members of Orkney and Shetland Association do same.”

During spring 1914, Scottish opinion, which had been alienated by militant tactics, swung again when suffragettes were forcibly fed in Perth Prison. On 27th February 1914 the ancient Whitekirk near Edinburgh was destroyed – the destruction of a medieval building in retaliation for the use of medieval torture.

A committee meeting was held on 4th August 1914, the day war was declared, and the minutes record that, “In view of the present critical condition of international affairs, it was decided that no further suffrage work be undertaken meantime, and that the energies of members of the Society be directed instead to making preparations for the suitable accommodation of wounded men, should a naval engagement take place in the vicinity. It was hoped that it might be possible to form a Red Cross detachment. Miss Bury undertook to find out what steps it would be necessary to take and those present agreed to meet again the following evening to further discuss the subject, and to make the project known to their friends.”

Throughout the country women threw themselves into similar projects. The 1915 AGM meeting gives a long list of work done by the London society: “Bureau for Voluntary Workers, Municipal work among the Belgians, Queens’ Work for Women Fund, Help for the Wounded etc, as instancing the valuable work done by Suffrage Societies, and receiving recognition as such by Government Officials.”

Perhaps the most important of these, and the one the SWSS was directly involved with, was the Scottish Women’s Hospital for Foreign Services, founded by Dr Elsie Inglis. This was partly funded by the NUWSS, and attached to the Serbian Army. All the Shetland fund-raising efforts were directed towards this. The next meeting was held in the Emergency Helpers’ Rooms, and discussed a whist drive, which raised £7.12/-. A Serbian Flag Day was held on 5th June 1915, and another in April 1916. In June of that year, the committee voted to “pay to [the Treasurer] £3 1. 2. being the balance required to complete £25 collected to name a Lerwick bed at Abbaye de Royaumont, France for six months.”

There were fewer meetings of the Shetland Society during the war years, and the minutes mostly concerned instructions to delegates at National Union meetings. There was difficulty keeping going: Miss Jamieson was away, and the Treasurer, Miss J Mitchell, was also frequently absent. Mrs Leisk was back to counter-sign the minutes in June 1916, and the meeting of 1st May 1917 is back at 169 Commercial Street. It discussed the New Electoral Bill, and the society agreed to “communicate with Mr Wason, and that the Town and County Councils be asked to repeat their resolutions in favour of Women’s Suffrage and forward copies to Mr Wason.” It would be interesting to know if Mr Wason voted, at last, for votes for women householders over 30 years of age on 19 June 1917. The bill received the royal assent on 6 February 1918.

The last meeting in the minute book was the general meeting of Saturday 8th February 1919 in the Rechabite Hall, with Mrs Leisk in the chair. There’s a jubilant note in the first item: “contributions were being asked from Societies by the NU for the new fund being opened to commemorate this year in which the vote was accorded to women, to be known as the Mrs Fawcett Victory Thanksgiving Fund”. The society agreed to donate £3: a third of their remaining funds.

“The future of the Society was the discussed, but as the attendance was small, no decision was come to, beyond that members be asked to continue their subscriptions in order to keep the society together until the NU decided on a definite course of action.”

In the margin at the bottom of page is squeezed: “Last Meeting Present Mrs J Leisk, Miss J Mitchell, Miss C Jamieson: £6 – 13 9

Given subsequently to Elsie Inglis Memorial Fund £3

In my hands £3 -13 – 9 [signed] Christina Jamieson

The last message from the society’s founding spirit reads: “The £3-13-9 left in my hands was invested in War Bonds ‘till we saw’. I thought it might be spent in placing some memorial of Mrs John Leisk, as an active and public-spirited philanthropic and social worker during all the years she lived in Lerwick. An alternative is to give it to Child Welfare. I believe I added money to make it an even sum – £5 – when investing it. Christina Jamieson

I closed the minute book with a strong admiration for those dedicated and tireless workers. The vote wasn’t won for us by militants like the Pankhursts and their dozen followers who caused so much damage in Scotland, but by tens of thousands of women like Harriet Leisk, Tina Jamieson and all their committee, who spent hours writing letters, organising meetings, talking to opponents, distributing pamphlets. Distance didn’t stop them being right at the heart of the movement, with their contacts in London and Edinburgh to vote for or against these fiercely discussed National Union initiatives. When the war came, they set their own cause aside to work for the national good, and showed the doubters, led by Mr Asquith, just how much women could do for the nation.

Marsali Taylor

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An appeal: The Shetland Museum and Archives is keen to hold a small exhibition in honour of the centenary of the Shetland Women’s Suffrage Society. However their holdings are small, so they’re looking for anything that could be lent: letters, badges, suffrage ribbon, photographs. It would be particularly amazing to find the banner – maybe that’s in somebody’s loft somewhere. Any offers of loans should go to the Shetland museum.

I would also like to expand this article into a pamphlet about the SWSS, but I’d really need more information, stories and memories, particularly about the women of the committee. Is your grandmother or great-grandmother among them, or did you know them? Please contact me on 01595 810452, or e-mail me at


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