2018 marks the 100-year anniversary of the Representation Of The People Act of the Hannah Winbolt was a Stopfordian silk weaver who became a prominent advocate for Women’s Suffrage. She gave speeches across the country on the subject of Women’s Rights from the perspective of, as she described herself, “A Working Woman”. As a member of several influential Liberal Associations, Hannah was uncompromising in her insistence on having absolute equality with men, not only politically, but also socially and economically. Luckily, Hannah kept a record of her extraordinary career in the fight for Women’s Suffrage in her scrapbook, which is now held by the Stockport Heritage Library.
At the age of 12, Hannah was sent to Cheshire to live with her uncle who taught her the trade of silk weaving. She would often take work by train to be sold in Manchester and on one such journey, Hannah was asked by a fellow passenger to sign a petition for Women’s Suffrage. Not understanding what this involved, Hannah returned home to her uncle who said “Yes, lass, it’s nobbut right that she signs; it’s fur t’ rights of women, and rights ye maun have”. She signed and returned the piece of paper to the lady on the train, who turned out to be early Women’s Suffrage leader Lydia Becker.
Hannah’s uncle, who she described as “an old radical”, encouraged her to read progressive journals, from which Hannah said that she learned that “if you want work done well you must do it yourself”. Consequently, in February 1890 she held a meeting to set up a Women’s Liberal Association in Hazel Grove, with herself as President. She believed that, in opposition to the Tories, a Liberal Government would stand up for working people as well as being more likely to give women the vote. In a letter to the paper, Hannah encouraged new members to join by insisting “Right must prevail. There is much that women can do politically, but they will be able to do a great deal more when they are enfranchised.” A year later at the Association’s first annual tea party, Hannah confessed that they enrolled “about four” members that night, which she said jokingly said had been “a good start”. The membership subsequently grew much larger and the Association contributed to the elections of Sir Joseph Leigh as the Liberal M.P. for Stockport in 1892 and 1900. His wife Lady Leigh became friends with Hannah and often spoke at the Association’s meetings.
As a result of her work as President of the Hazel Grove Women’s Liberal Association, in 1981 Hannah was asked by political activist Leonora Wynford Philipps to stand for election to the Executive Committee of the Women’s Liberal Federation. Based in London, this alliance of women’s Liberal associations across the country had upwards of 80,000 members, but its Executive Committee was dominated by upper class ladies and MP’s wives. Until 1893 the President was William Gladstone’s wife and the group was divided between supporters of Women’s Suffrage and those that maintained neutrality on the issue. Those firmly in favour of women’s Parliamentary Enfranchisement called themselves the “Progressives” and would try to push the Liberal Party into adopting Women’s Suffrage as official party policy. Mrs Wynford Philipps was a strong advocate for the Progressives in the WLF, saying that “They must be suffragists before they could be good Liberals”. It was for this faction of the WLF that Hannah stood and was elected, to her surprise, having been returned fourth from the top of the poll.
Other Progressives of the WLF included Ishbel Maria Hamilton-Gordon, Marchioness of Aberdeen and Temair, and Rosalind Frances Howard, Countess of Carlisle (known as the Radical Countess). Hannah was the only working woman on the Executive Committee but she was not intimidated. When she was asked how she felt when in the company of distinguished women, Hannah replied that she felt “just in the right place”. Hannah became friends with the Countess Alice Kearney who would stay with Hannah at her cottage, while Hannah would be the Countess’s guest at her house in Kensington.
Due to her prolific activities, Hannah had run ins with many very famous and influential figures in the suffrage movement, including women’s rights campaigner and president of the Pioneer Club Emily Massingberd. The Pioneer Club was intended as a place where women of all social backgrounds and occupations were gathered to discuss the ‘new morality’ of the late nineteenth century, in particular women’s suffrage and Feminism. As a working silk weaver and highly active suffragist, Hannah attracted the attention of the Pioneer Club and soon after the club was founded Massingberd asked her to join. Hannah declined saying that she could not afford the subscription, but later she received a receipt showing that the subscription had been paid. In her scrapbook entry Hannah says of Massingberd “you will see she is dressed nearly as a man but was splendid”.
Hannah was known as a powerful speaker with a bold and uncompromising oratorical style and the ability to whip up her audience to a frenzy of enthusiasm. She delivered speeches across the country addressing women’s rights, especially those of working women. She enjoyed making her audiences laugh and would often tell stories of her encounters with sexists, such as the man said that women could not vote because they “Women have not as many brains as men”. She answered saying “It’s not the quantity but the quality”. In 1894 Hannah was invited to speak in Hyde Park at a demonstration for the abolition of the House of Lords and her sketch was included in the Penny Illustrated Paper.
As well as advocating for full Parliamentary voting rights on the level of men, she also spoke in favour of Irish Home Rule and the benefits of Co-operation and Free Trade. She spoke alongside Emmeline Pankhurst’s husband Richard Pankhurst in Manchester, and with their daughter Adela Pankhurst in Stockport. Unusually for the time, Hannah often demanded equal pay for men and women doing the same work in any kind of employment. This idea is still being fought for today.
In 1892 Hannah was part of the WLF’s deputation to the House of Commons to urge Home Secretary Herbert Asquith to appoint women as Factory Inspectors. As an ex-factory worker, Hannah was a valuable member of the deputation about the working conditions for female factory workers and argued that they could not be adequately protected or represented by a man. She also argued that it was important that the inspectors were working women and that they be paid the same wages as the male inspectors. The deputation was a success and two women Factory Inspectors were appointed and paid equally with men.
In 1902, a petition signed by 68,000 women textile workers from Cheshire, Lancashire and Yorkshire was taken to the House of Commons. The petition was designed to disprove the idea that Women’s Suffrage was only of interest to bored middle class ladies and show that working women wanted the vote too. Hannah carried the petition signed by the workers in Cheshire and also delivered a speech, causing a reporter from the Manchester Guardian to say that of all the speakers that day, Hannah was “by far the most striking. To a deep and sonorous voice she adds the oratorical advantages of dramatic gesture, a flow of words, and a sense of humour.” On International Women’s Day, Stockport Council announced that in honour of Hannah and other 3 local pioneering women, they were naming the town’s newest public area “Suffragette Square”.