Wealden District Council

Wealden Women Suffragists

News : 06 February 2018

Wealden has a special women’s suffrage story of its own to contribute to the national marking of the centenary of the granting of the Parliamentary vote in February 1918 to women aged 30 and over.

Womens Suffrage

Impressed with commitment of some of the leading figure of the women’s suffrage movement, Miss Maud Roll -  who eventually became a member of Wealden District Council’s predecessor, Uckfield  Rural Council - led a protest to secure women the vote.

Local historian Frances Stenlake takes up the story of how the fight for Votes for Women came to Mark Cross:

“Dr Sophia Jex-Blake was a major figure in the women’s suffrage movement. In the 1870s she had led the battle at Edinburgh University for women to enter the medical profession. She founded the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women and taught there until, on her retirement in 1899, she and her partner, Dr Margaret Todd (c1859-1918), came to live in her native Sussex: at Windydene, Mark Cross.

As a campaigner for the vote, she spoke at meetings and wrote letters to the Times, always insisting that taxation and representation should go together and that all taxpayers alike should have a voice in the governing of the country:

‘Of course, if male taxpayers assumed the whole financial responsibilities of the nation, the position would be different. As, however, I have not yet heard of any such proposal, and have very substantial proof of the large claims made on the purses of women, I really fail to understand the mental condition of those who think it just to deny them the correlative rights that should go with such claims.’
Sophia Jex-Blake was clearly an inspiration to certain other Rotherfield residents.  They joined the Women’s Tax Resistance League (WTRL), formed in 1909 with the rallying cry, ‘No Vote, No Tax’. Members would refuse to pay their taxes, then bailiffs would seize goods to the required value and hold public distraint sales to which the ‘tax resisters’, to attract as much publicity for the cause as possible, would invite their friends and supporters, and the press.  
This method of campaigning, although non-violent, was nonetheless newsworthy, and was followed by the two local weeklies of the time, the Kent and Sussex Courier and the Crowborough Weekly.
The Kent and Sussex Courier reported at the beginning of July 1912, just months after the death of Sophia Jex-Blake, that Miss Maud Roll, of Rotherfield, would be this district’s first WTRL ‘martyr’ and that her passive resistance would be watched with great interest. She would be supported by Mrs Kineton-Parkes, secretary of the WTRL, by Dr Charles Drysdale, of Cherry Croft, Heathfield, secretary of the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage (MLWS), and by Honnor Morten, of Oakdene, Rotherfield, a social worker, and writer and lecturer on nursing and health care.

The following week, the Crowborough Weekly called the ‘No Vote, No Taxes Sale’ an event that was unique in the history of Rotherfield. Six silver teaspoons belonging to Miss Maud Roll were auctioned. Supporters were present in force, and the more prominent among them drove up to the Square, where the proceedings were conducted, in a carriage drawn by a pair of horses and displaying their posters. Curiosity brought many residents to the scene of the gathering, which was ‘of a perfectly orderly description’.

A meeting was held on the spot, chaired by Honnor Morten. A resolution moved by Mrs Kineton Parkes, that women were justified in refusing to pay taxes until the Government granted them the vote on equal terms with men, was seconded by Dr Drysdale. The resolution was carried with one dissentient.

Dr Drysdale expressed admiration of the WTRL. This form of protest could not be objected to as violent or unladylike. It seemed to him one of the most excellent methods of propaganda.

The spoons were returned to Miss Roll the same evening by Dr Helen Webb, secretary of the Rotherfield and Mark Cross Women’s Suffrage Society, as a present from the committee.

The Kent and Sussex Courier called the event ‘a village diversion’.

‘The picturesque village of Rotherfield was in quite a holiday mood on Saturday evening. The villagers turned out en masse in the Square to witness a demonstration organised by the WTRL. The local inhabitants apparently regarded the affair as a pretty little joke, and were bent on having a good time. They were content, however, to enjoy themselves quietly and politely, and were, in fact, quite as passive as the resisters themselves. Probably this was due to their evident agreement with the demonstrators. There were few queries as to the ‘why and wherefore’ of the little event, for had not the village discussed the matter and little else, for a whole week beforehand?’ 

The following year, the supportive Daily Herald carried a notice of a public auction and protest meeting to be held at Mark Cross on 24 May. The Kent and Sussex Courier reported that Miss Maud Roll and Miss Honnor Morten of Rotherfield had again refused to pay their taxes and had yielded to the police a silver salver and a gold ring for public auction.

According to the Daily Herald, these items were sold from a wagonette on the village street where a crowd of more than 150 had assembled. Immediately after this second distraint sale, another protest meeting was held by the WTRL. Maud Roll presided, declaring that she and Honnor Morten would be at Mark Cross crossroads every year until they won their rights. A large crowd, including numerous well-known ladies and gentlemen, and several doctors, Margaret Todd among them, was addressed by speakers from the WTRL and the MLWS. The usual resolution to justify the women in refusing to pay taxes until granted representation was carried unanimously.

Suffrage literature was distributed by a corps of women carrying propaganda banners. Some people in the crowd made a small bonfire of the papers distributed.

Honnor Morton was actually absent from this meeting because of illness, and the Kent and Sussex Courier, announcing her death some weeks later, paid tribute to the indomitable enthusiasm with which, while health and strength lasted, she was accustomed to advocate her causes in the face of all opposition.

In June 1914 Maud Roll was the subject of a third distraint sale, again attended by Mrs Kineton-Parkes, when a silver dish was auctioned in the Pantiles Assembly Rooms, Tunbridge Wells. The ‘lively protest meeting’ held outside on the Common afterwards was addressed both by Mrs Kineton-Parkes and by Mrs Cavendish Bentinck of the new Constitutional Society for Women’s Suffrage. It ended with the adoption of the motion, ‘We protest against the seizure and sale of Miss Roll’s goods and consider the women tax-payers of this country are justified in refusing to pay all Imperial taxes until they have the same control over Imperial expenditure as the male tax-payers possess’.

Miss Roll declared that she could have found a more pleasant way of spending the afternoon than standing on a trolley in the hot sun, but she and her co-workers were engaged in a fight that, although long, was certain to result in victory.

With the outbreak of war later that summer, suffrage campaigning was discontinued. From 1924 until 1934 Maud Roll was to serve on the Uckfield Rural Council as one of the three members for Rotherfield, and as a JP from 1931 until she moved to Tunbridge Wells in the early 1940s. “


Text © Frances Stenlake 2018

Illustration © Malcolm Bull 2018