After the initial rush of men to join the fighting at the beginning of the Great War the country seemed to pause. However, after the Battle of Marne (an Allied victory but beginning of trench warfare) the realisation became clear that an end to war would not come quickly. The true realities became obvious and beyond the death and destruction in Europe, on the Home Front men were beginning to return home with horrendous wounds, rationing was introduced, zeppelin raids began to occur and women took on the additional responsibilities of men’s jobs. To complete this picture, life’s usual struggles continued the rent needed to be paid, meals to be cooked, the children fed and educated.
It was during this time that Margaret Ashton stepped out from the shadows.
Who was Margaret Ashton?
Born in 1856, Margaret was the daughter of Hyde mill owner Thomas Ashton, whose family were early cotton pioneers in Hyde. The family were well known for the good conditions provided to their workers and their estate at Flowery Field became a testament to their work. The Ashton’s were amongst the first employers to provide day schools for their child workers.
Beginning in 1875, Margaret had helped to manage the mill school, and then went on to found the Manchester Women’s Guardian Association, she joined the Women’s Liberal Association and was a founder member of the Women’s Trade Union League. She also became the first woman elected to Manchester City Council in 1908 standing as an Independent candidate. As a councillor she worked for women’s health, education and the improvement of women’s conditions of employment. She implemented many reforms and improvements in public health and it was in part due to her efforts that there was a fall in child mortality in Manchester during 1914-1918. Margaret helped to found the Manchester Babies Hospital in 1914 taking a lifelong interest in the hospital and financially supporting it. She was particularly concerned with the education and welfare of Manchester’s women and children and was on many of Manchester City Council’s subcommittees voicing her opinion.
Manchester Babies Hospital
The Manchester Babies Hospital opened on August 4th 1914 and was staffed entirely by women doctors guided by Dr. Catherine Chisholm. The ambition of the Manchester Babies Hospital was to become not only a centre for children’s health (20% of its patients had rickets) but also a centre for training medical women. The importance of a facility like this to the women and children of Manchester, pre-National Health cannot be undervalued.
Suffrage and Peace Campaign
Margaret was also a keen suffragist and pivotal member of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) acting as Chairman. At the onset of WW1 the suffragists had agreed to cease the campaign for Women’s suffrage and during the war years channelled their energies into the war effort. However, this split the loyalties of women’s suffragist groups like the NUWSS. Emmeline & Christabel Pankhurst and their followers, argued that advocating peace was a sign of defeatism, capitulating to the enemy and undermining the morale of the troops. They were more concerned with helping British men win the war. Margaret resigned the NUWSS with a number of other prominent Suffragists and joined the Women’s International League of Peace and Freedom (WILPF) which better represented her position on peace, later becoming founder of the Manchester branch. In addition to her work with Manchester City Council , during the war Margaret also became involved with an ever growing peace campaign in order to bring this issue to prominence.
Open Christmas Letter of 1915
Margaret Ashton was also one of the 101 suffragist signatories in the Open Christmas letter of January 1915 written by Emily Hobhouse. This letter was an open public message of peace written to acknowledge to growing horror of the war.
Women’s Peace Conference
In the spring of 1915, one hundred and fifty five German feminists answered the Open Christmas letter. American Carrie Chapman Catt taking these messages as her inspiration proposed that, instead of holding a women’s suffrage convention in Berlin, that an international peace congress of women should meet in The Hague for four days beginning April 28,1915. It was the intention that the Hague conference would foster “goodwill, love and charity between all Nations”.
Unfortunately, only two representative from Great Britain managed to attend the Congress. One hundred and eighty delegates were ready to travel including Margaret Ashton and Sylvia Pankhurst, however travel papers were refused to all but twenty five. In the end, only two delegates Kathleen Courtney and Chrystal Macmillan managed to reach the conference as the British Admiralty coincidentally closed all transport to shipping in the North Sea. Delegates on the authorised list made every effort to board the last boat to cross the North Sea with Margaret Ashton and Maude Royden arriving from “remote parts of the country” at dawn. All to no available, the disappointed women then waited at Tilbury Docks for 10 days until the Conference had ended and returned home.
Margaret’s stance on pacifism was regarded as pro German and condemned by Manchester Council and she was removed from the Education committee as an unfit person in 1917, finally resigning in 1920.
Margaret’s feminism was the source of her pacifism but she always kept Manchester at the heart of her work. Her long record of public service to Manchester ended when Margaret Ashton died October 15, 1937 aged 82.
Women’s International League: Miss Margaret Aston on its Objects. The Manchester Guardian (1909-1959) Oct 15, 1915; Pro Quest Historical Newspapers: The Guardian and The Observer pg3
The Women’s Congress at the: Hague;Elliott, Spencer H. The Manchester Guardian (1901-1959) Apr 30, 1915; Pro Quest Historical Newspapers: The Guardian and The Observer pg12
Manchester Council: Punishment of Unpopular Opinions Miss Ashton.The Manchester Guardian (1901-1959); Jan 6, 1916; Pro Quest Historical Newspapers: The Guardian and The Observer pg 3
Miss Margaret Ashton : Excluded from the Education Committee. Manchester Evening News 17th November 1917
Death of Miss Margaret Ashton Women’s Suffrage Pioneer: Long Record of Public Service. The Manchester Guardian (1901-1959); Oct 16, 1937 ; Pro Quest Historical Newspapers: The Guardian and The Observer pg16
The Women’s Peace Movement During World War One. A Contribution towards the Study of British Appeasement by Stanislav Tumis- http://usd.ff.cuni.cz/?q=system/files/tumis+british.pdf
Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom http://www.wilpfinternational.org/wilpf/history
The Quest for Public Health in Manchester by Emma L Jones and John V Pickston pp23-24
Medicine and Industrial Society by John V Pickston pp239-241