“I did not think that women could have used such awful words:” The ‘Fracas’ at the Women’s Liberal Association, Ipswich in 1894.

A little-known and very slim book, that was published between 1877 and 1931 by Ipswich printers, Boswell & Son was The Eastern Counties’ Chronology or Book of Dates. Despite its main title, the content is mainly about Ipswich. It contains a range of odd, but fascinating historical information such as “Deaths of Prominent Personages,”  “Storms, Gales & Shipwrecks,” and  “Executions.” From the 1906 edition, it’s possible to learn that the last bull-baiting in Ipswich took place in Fleece Yard in 1805, that in 1828 Mr. Benjamin Catt “attempted to fly” and on 29th March 1905, Daisy Banyard fell through a skylight in the Co-operative stores.

I’ve been fascinated for a while by the brief reference in this book to a “fracas at [the] Women’s Liberal Association at Christchurch Park, July 10… 1894.” Imagining something excitingly political, I did a bit of research. It actually took place in Christchurch Mansion which was about to be sold to the town by its owner, Felix T. Cobbold. Reports of the event in local newpapers, like the Ipswich Journal were quite comprehensive for something that was about… cake!

I have transcribed just one (of several) lengthy contemporary accounts of the events.

Ipswich Journal, 14 July 2011

THE IPSWICH WOMEN’S LIBERAL ASSOCIATION

 UPROARIOUS SCENES AT CHRISTCHURCH PARK

 THE POLICE CALLED IN

 The Ipswich Women’s Liberal Association held its annual gathering in Christchurch Park on Tuesday. Our daily contemporary, we find, had no reporter present and so could only briefly allude to the meeting. From what we have since heard it seems a most fortunate coincidence that our daily contemporary had not a reporter present, as he might have found it extremely difficult to give a true yet pleasing account of this sociable (?) gathering. We learn from various sources  (of course we were not ourselves admitted into the charmed circle) that the proceedings were dull in the extreme. A large number, chiefly

OLD WOMEN AND CHILDREN, MUSTERED

at the call of their leaders. The “few remarks” made by Messrs.Goddard and Soames not being reported, we cannot say whether they were edifying or not, but they do not seem to have had a good effect upon the moral tone of some of their hearers, for it seems that the only incident that relieved the dullness of the day was one more befitting Whitechapel than Christchurch park. One of the dames demanding cake was told she had had her share, whereupon, in choice language, she attempted to vindicate her character for truth. Search, however, was made in that useful receptacle for so many and varied possessions, the perambulator which she had with her, and there a store of cake was found. Instead of owning herself in the wrong, this worthy member of the W.L.A. discharged her cup of tea in the face of the lady who had  detected her, and it is said that the uproar that ensued necessitated the interference of the police.

 A DISGUSTED MEMBER

writes a long letter to us on the matter, from which we extract the following:- “There were between two and three hundred people present at the gathering, and while the gentlemen were present they conducted themselves in a proper manner.  It was only when they withdrew that I had an illustration of a tea-fight in its literal sense. It was a most disgraceful and disgusting scene. The tea was served in the Hall, and there was a very large number of women present. Tables were not provided, and those that did not secure seats had to stand. The tea was served by three or four ladies, and I expect that the treatment they received will effectually prevent them studying the comfort of any body of people – particularly the Ipswich’s Women Liberal Association – for a considerable time to come. These ladies had to pass through the entrance hall from the room where the refreshments were laid out to reach a series of rooms where the guests were originally intended to partake of the provisions. Now these rooms were uncomfortably crowded, and some of the women preferred to stand in the entrance hall. The self-constituted waitresses told these persons that they must return to the rooms, but they refuse to return, and as the number increased every minute it was decided to stretch a point, and allow those who cared to do so to take tea in the hall. This was the fatal move, as will be seen in the light of subsequent events. of course those in the hall clamoured to be served first.They were given precedence, but unfortunately there were a number of

GREEDY, GRASPING, SELFISH PERSONS

amongst them, who, as soon as the waitresses came out of the room containing the provisions, snatched at them, and the consequence was that those in the rooms beyond were not served. The greedy rapacious mortals in the hall snapped up the cake and tea rapidly that it seemed impossible to satisfy them. When one of the waitresses did attempt to carry something to the people who were sitting patiently in the rooms originally intended to be used for refreshment purposes, one of the women in the hall demanded the plate of cake. The waitress told her to wait. This she refused to do, and actually she jumped up and endeavoured to take possession of the tray. The waitress lifted it high into the air, but the women raised her umbrella and scattered the contents. I believe that the perpetrator of this wanton act received a  smack on the face, but this I heard she replied to by giving the waitress such a violent blow in the eye that it has since become very much discoloured. This act was like putting a match to a gunpowder train.

Many of those who had been sitting quietly and content to watch the wholesale pocketing of the cake, &c., until this outrage, boiled over, and demanded the provisions that some of the women had put into their baskets and pockets. One gave answer by throwing a cup of tea in the face of the questioner.

FACES WERE SMACKED, HAIR WAS PULLED,

and the tea and cake that had been provided was trampled under feet. The language that was used was horrible. I did not think that women could have used such awful words.

At last the police were sent for, so serious did the outlook become, and they at length quelled the disturbance. It was simply disgusting. Many of the rioters were rolled about on the floor, and their dresses were marked in many places with a mixture of tea. cake and butter. Some had their hair pulled down and bonnets crushed. The filth that was made in the place was indescribable, and I believe that the floor – which is composed of marble tiles – is very badly stained.”

So why was a trivial punch-up over cake recorded in such loving detail and continued to be included in the Eastern Counties Chronology until the 1930s? In 1894 the Local Government Act allowed propertied women to vote for local parish councils. The Women’s Suffrage movement was at the height of its campaigning. In 1893, Emmeline Pankhurst had begun to organize members of the Women’s Liberal Federation to hold mass meetings:

“This marked the beginning of a campaign of propaganda among working people, an object which I had long desired to bring about. … Our leaders in the Liberal Party had advised the women to prove their fitness for the Parliamentary franchise by serving in  municipal offices.”

Suffolk had its share of campaigners for woman suffrage. The Garrett sisters of Leiston, daughters of the well-know family of agricultural machinery manufacturers, were both leading lights of the non-militant suffragist movement. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson was the first woman to gain a medical qualification in Britain and the first female mayor in England (in Aldeburgh). Her sister, Millicent Garrett Fawcett was president of the moderate National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies from 1890 to 1919. Later she would lead a government commission of inquiry into the concentration camps set up by the British to hold civilian prisoners after the Boer War.

More militant suffrage campaigners (probably) set fire to the Pier Pavilion in Great Yarmouth and burnt down the Bath Hotel in Felixstowe in April 1914.

So I think the articles about the “fracas” at Christchurch Mansion, although they are funny, were probably a way of undermining the suffrage campaigners. As late as the 1950s, the East Anglian Magazine accompanied an old photograph of Votes for Women campaigners in Suffolk with the heading: “The Ladies, God Bless ‘Em.”

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