A historic Cheshire icon
She was the suffragist from Congleton who arguably did more for women’s rights than any other feminist of her day – yet she’s been erased from the history books. Now a local campaign group is working to change that
Ayoung woman fervent about the burning political questions of her age, Elizabeth Clarke Wolstenholme Elmy, who lived in Congleton for most of her life, campaigned fearlessly and stood by her beliefs, despite those around her being horrified at her, at times, unconventional lifestyle. In many ways, Elizabeth was Cheshire’s Greta Thunberg of her age. And 2020, local campaigners hope, will be the year she finally gets the recognition she deserves.
‘Elizabeth was a very outspoken, passionate campaigner,’ Dr Maureen Wright, author of Elizabeth Wolstenholme
Elmy and the Victorian
Feminist Movement, says. ‘She was a women’s emancipator, campaigning for more than 20 separate issues over her lifetime.’ Her campaigns included the right to education for girls, the right to refuse sex in a marriage, the right for a woman to keep her own property and earnings when she married, and perhaps most significantly, the right to vote. Indeed, Elizabeth was described by Moss Side-born Emmeline Pankhurst as the ‘brains behind the suffragette movement’.
But aside from a small blue plaque on Buxton House in Congleton, where she lived for 54 years, and her name on the bottom of Fawcett’s recent statue in Parliament Square, Elizabeth has largely been forgotten for the vital campaigning work she started in Cheshire but then spread across the country. It’s something a passionate group of local campaigners have started to change. ‘We have managed to draw attention to her, and people are getting enthusiastic about the need to redress the fact she has been forgotten,’ says Susan Munro, chairperson of Elizabeth’s Group, who are raising money for a statue in her honour, as well as other community projects they hope will continue Elizabeth’s work.
It’s music to Dr Wright’s ears. ‘I think Elizabeth’s coming into her moment,’ Dr Wright says.
‘She was ahead of her time in her attitudes and beliefs. Now’s going to be a really good time to bring her to more prominence.’
Elizabeth’s campaigning streak all started with education. She was born in 1833, at a time when women had few rights.
Her elder brother received an expensive private education and ended up as a professor of mathematics at Cambridge University. Elizabeth, equally bright, was only allowed to go to school for two years. Outraged at the injustice, she founded a private girls’ boarding school in Boothstown, near Worsley, when she was just 20, and later moved it to Congleton. ‘She passionately believed in the right for women and girls to a better education,’ Dr Wright says.
The more injustice she saw, the more she fought to make it right. She worked tirelessly. ‘At her peak she was writing, on average, 300 letters a day, all by hand and sometimes till two or three in the morning,’ Susan says. And she didn’t tolerate slackers. ‘She complained bitterly about people who didn’t work as hard as her,’ Dr Wright adds. ‘She worked all the hours God sent – not that as an atheist she would appreciate that phrase – and expected others to do the same.
‘Her most outspoken campaign was that of women’s right to choose when they had children,’
Dr Wright says. ‘Marital rape was not unlawful, and she started a campaign against it in 1880.’ According to Dr Wright, Elizabeth was the first woman on record to speak publicly against marital rape and argue for its criminality. ‘Unbelievably it remained unlawful until 1994.’ Of a separate campaign to allow women to keep their own money and property when she was married, she saw success in the Married Women’s Property Act in 1882.
Elizabeth’s private life caused a fair amount of scandal, even among the pioneering feminists she campaigned with. In 1870 she met her partner Ben Elmy, a schoolmaster who described himself as a feminist, a term that few men use even today. Despite society’s expectations of them, at first they refused to marry, but lived together, because of the hypocrisy of the law at the time that meant any money she earned would automatically belong to her husband. When she did marry Elmy, in October 1874 in a civil rather than Christian wedding, it caused scandal: aged 40, she was already six months pregnant.
It wasn’t the only point of friction: she also fell out with the suffragettes when Christabel,
‘Elizabeth can be a great role model for women of all ages and young girls in particular’
Emmeline’s daughter, started more violent campaigning tactics to draw attention to their cause. ‘Elizabeth objected to their militant stand when they began setting fires and planting bombs, as they were beginning to endanger life,’ Susan says. ‘She fell out with the Pankhursts and was written out of their story.’
Nonetheless, one of her final public political acts was for the women’s right to vote. In
1913 she led the Great Suffrage Pilgrimage through Congleton, a non-violent march for women’s right to vote that took place all over the country and ended up in London’s Hyde Park, despite the fact that she was nearly 80-yearsold. ‘It was a really big deal,’ Dr Wright says. ‘She rode her pony, Vixen, through the streets and it was her last notable public participation.’
She died in 1918, aged 84, in a nursing home in Manchester. Among those who spoke at her funeral was Margaret Ashton, fellow suffragist, local politician and the first woman City Councillor for Manchester. Women were awarded the right to vote the following year.
Along with her death died her memory. After a lifetime of campaigning, few now know her name. But fast forward to modern days and the Elizabeth Group, which formed last International Women’s Day after listening to a local librarian give a talk about Elizabeth, decided to fundraise for a statue to commemorate her. The cost of the statue, which will be made by a local artist, will be around £60,000 and the group has so far raised £20,000.
The Elizabeth Group’s mission has since widened; recently they received a Heritage Lottery Grant of £10,000 to do research and community work. ‘One of the many things our group has been doing is researching her life locally and we have identified a number of sites across the town where significant things happened in her lifetime,’ Susan says. ‘We are hoping to place plaques at these sites to establish an official Elizabeth Heritage Trail, linking to our website, so that visitors can learn about her and what happened there.’
Susan says there is particular resonance for the area’s young people: ‘Elizabeth can be a great role model for women of all ages and young girls in particular.’
But Susan says it’s not just about educating girls on Congleton’s pioneer. ‘It was encouraging that at a recent talk I gave in a local secondary school, the boys were just as interested as the girls and asked really sensible questions. We can challenge toxic masculinity just as Elizabeth and Ben tried to do.’
ABOVE: Elizabeth’s Group
BELOW: Elizabeth’s Group have attracted media attention for the campaign to get a statue of Elizabeth erected in Congleton