Thursday, 7 May 2015

A Suffragette Intervention, 1908

Local history features in my post of this month.  As Britain wakes up to the results of yesterday's  General Election, it seemed appropriate to look back to 1908 and  a visit  by Liberal Prime Minister Herbert Asquith to the village of Earlston in the  Scottish Borders.    The visit  features on several postcards in the  collection of "Auld Earlston", my local  heritage group,  with past  newspapers, held  at the Heritage Hub in Hawick,  giving  a colourful account of the event.   

This is not boring politics! So do read on - the description of the suffragette incident is particularly entertaining, not least for the journalistic style. 

"The Jedburgh Advertiser" of October 3rd described the plans  for the visit.  These included  the erection of a tent, measuring 220 feet by 60 feet  with seating accommodation for about 4000 people - this when the population  of Earlston in the 1911 census was only 1677!   How many political meetings in the Borders attract that kind of number today?  

Special trains were laid on from Jedburgh, Kelso and Edinburgh;  a large number of Members of Parliament  had intimated  their intentions to be present, and it was noted that presiding over the event would be Mr H. J. Tennant, M.P. for Berwickshire.   

 Bunting out on Earlston High Street for the Prime Minister's visit. 

The visit  proved to be a notable  occasion,  disrupted by the late arrival of reporters and M.Ps on a delayed Edinburgh train which took three hours to cover the 35 miles to  Earlston; crowds spilling out of from the congested,  hot marquee, the intervention of a woman suffragette,  and noise from the "shunt, snort and whistles" of a railway engine threatening  to drown out the speakers.  

The newspaper report gave a vivid picture of the crowds and the conditions in the marquee:
 "The special train that had started at Jedburgh Railway Station seemed to provide more than ample accommodation for the passengers, but so many persons joined it at Jedfoot, Nisbet, Kirkbank and Roxburgh, it was evident miscalculations had been made.   All the passengers from Kelso joined it at Roxburgh and when it had received additions at other stations where it stopped, the carriages were full. 
The marquee could not contain all who wished to be present.  The side canvas was raised and hundreds of people had to be content with standing room beyond the lines of the tent........Many who were in places distant from the platform did not hear the speeches distinctly.   Lighted lamps were suspended from lines and were affected by pressure on the canvas and cords were bobbing most of the time and presented a somewhat fantastic appearance that was slightly distracting.  The heat was very great and the people were so densely crowded that there was some discomfort".    

The arrival of the official party at Earlston Station
Leaving the station for the marquee

"The Jedburgh Advertiser" of October 9th noted that "When the Prime Minister appeared there was nothing of the enthusiasm that was displayed when Mr Gladstone entered a great meeting....... The reception given to the chairman cannot be described as cordial and it was apparent that the rupture between Mr Tennant, MP for Berwickshire. and his constituents had not been altogether healed".   

When Mr Asquith stood to speak "He got  a warm greeting.  Mary of the people rose to their feet and waved hats and handkerchiefs and cheered with great cordiality".  

However he had only said a few words when,  at the remark  "My primary purpose in coming here this afternoon is...., a woman startled her neighbours by exclaiming " Give votes to women!".  The interrupter was a young woman of graceful figure and pleasant features.  Stewards made their way to the fair  suffragette  and quickly bore the woman out,  calm and unresisting but with her sailor hat somewhat awry". 

By his description, the newspaper reporter clearly found this incident far more interesting than Mr Asquith's speech which he described as "Unimpassioned with no striking phrases.    The Scottish Small Landholders Bill was his main theme.  He had great command of language  and discussed  the subject with much detail". 

The vote  of thanks was given by Sir John Jardine, M.P. for Roxburghshire.    "His speech was " a striking contrast to that of Mr Asquith.  He spoke with great fluency  to stir the majority of his hearers.".

The Lord Advocate Mr Shaw brought the meeting  to a close commenting "There are four great institutions in this little land of ours - public houses, the school, the workhouse and the land.  We are in favour of fewer people in the public house and more people in the school;  fewer people in the workhouse and more on the land".  This of course was very loudly cheered".     


But what had prompted this meeting to be held in a small Berwickshire village in the rural Scottish Borders?   Mr Asquith was M.P. for East Fife and had Border connections.  His second wife was socialite Margot  Tennant, daughter of the prominent Tennant family  of the Glen, Innerleithen, whilst his brother-in-law  Mr H. J. Tennant was the local Berwickshire Member of Parliament.

No general election was looming.  For Mr Asquith had assumed office  only a few months before, on the resignation of Mr Campbell Bannerman due to illness.  A turbulent political situation faced him, with issues of House of Lords reform,  home rule for Ireland, industrial strife, an increasingly militant women suffragette movement and worsening international relations with Germany, culminating in the First World War.  

But on a brief Saturday afternoon in October, Earlston was on the national stage politically.

Official photograph taken by Walter Swanston, an Earlston-born photographer
 who set up a studio on Leith Walk, Edinburgh. 



  1. Very interesting. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Sounds like quite an event! Can you imagine that enthusiasm now? I found Mr Evans' comments intriguing as to the four key pillars of the community.


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