National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies
Plaque erected in 2022 by English Heritage at 22 Great Smith Street, Westminster, London, SW1P 3BT, City of Westminster
Law and Law Enforcement, Philanthropy and Reform
The NATIONAL UNION OF WOMEN’S SUFFRAGE SOCIETIES was based here 1910–1918
The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) is commemorated with a blue plaque at 22 Great Smith Street, Westminster. This location served as its headquarters from 1910 to 1918, the crucial period leading to the partial enfranchisement of women for parliamentary elections.
The first mass petition for female suffrage was in 1866, and the following year the philosopher and Liberal MP John Stuart Mill led the first parliamentary debate on the subject. The year 1867 also saw the foundation of the Manchester National Society for Women’s Suffrage by Lydia Becker and a London equivalent by Millicent Garrett Fawcett, who inherited the national leadership of the cause on Becker’s death in 1890.
In 1896, 20 suffrage societies held a conference and in October 1897 they formed the NUWSS.
A slow start
Initially an umbrella group to improve coordination between local groups, the NUWSS started slowly, with only 16 affiliates in 1903.
It was also in 1903 that Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in Manchester. Their members became known as the suffragettes, and their militant tactics – notably their willingness to suffer imprisonment – contrasted with the less confrontational suffragists of the NUWSS.
On 19 May 1906 the NUWSS took a deputation to the Prime Minister, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, who told them that while he was personally in favour of women’s suffrage, most of his cabinet were not. This disappointment galvanised the NUWSS into greater activity and an organisational restructure.
The first NUWSS-organised mass demonstration, in the form of a procession from Trafalgar Square to Exeter Hall on the Strand, was held in February 1907. It became known as the ‘mud march’, owing to the poor weather conditions.
The NUWSS continued its policy of promoting private members’ bills in favour of women’s suffrage, in the hope that these might achieve government backing, or at least significant support. Other activities included summer schools for its members, and among the public at large, the NUWSS sought to educate opinion in favour of women’s suffrage. In April 1909 it established its own journal, The Common Cause, edited by Helen Swanwick. The following year its affiliate branches numbered over 200, its membership reached over 21,000 and its annual income topped £5,500.
Great Smith Street
By this time the NUWSS had developed a considerable centralised organisation. After occupying a succession of offices around Westminster over the years, by May 1910 the NUWSS had its first dedicated premises at an imposing red brick office building built just six years earlier, and then called Parliament Chambers, numbered 14 Great Smith Street. It was later renumbered 22 and known as Park House, and is now listed Grade II. Like the previous offices, these new headquarters were conveniently located near the Palace of Westminster for lobbying purposes. The NUWSS executive first met here on 18 May 1910.
Other than Fawcett, some of those who worked here included Kathleen Courtney, the honorary secretary during most of the time the NUWSS was headquartered in Great Smith Street; Catherine Marshall, who handled press and parliamentary relations, and Eleanor Rathbone. Among the organisations that the NUWSS shared the building with were the Westminster Liberal Association, the Home Rule Council (which campaigned for Irish home rule) and the Additional Curates Society, which still exists today.
After the Labour Party declared its support for women’s suffrage in 1912, the NUWSS abandoned its policy of party-political neutrality and campaigned for Labour candidates in seats where they opposed Liberals who were hostile to female enfranchisement.
In 1913 the NUWSS – by then the largest organisation campaigning for women’s suffrage – held a suffrage ‘pilgrimage’ from around Britain, culminating in a meeting in London. At its peak, that year, the organisation had nearly 500 affiliates and its total membership reached 50,000.
During the First World War, Fawcett redirected the NUWSS towards the war effort, with lobbying for women’s suffrage still taking place, albeit discreetly. In 1918 the Representation of the People Act, which gained royal assent on 6 February that year, gave the vote to women over 30 who met a property qualification.
The last NUWSS executive meeting held at Great Smith Street took place on 28 February 1918, and the organisation moved to 62 Oxford Street, also in Westminster. In 1919 the society changed its name to the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship. Under the leadership of Eleanor Rathbone, Fawcett’s successor, it played a strong part in securing votes for women on an equal footing to men – at age 21, with no property qualification – in 1928.