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Mabel Tothill

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April 2021

Yes, I know you’ve never heard of her. Unless, that is, you Zoomed in to the April meeting of the Thornbury History and Archaeology Society. Mabel probably spent half her life in meetings (and the other half doing voluntary work) and would have given her right arm for a laptop with Zoom on it. In her day, Mabel Tothill worked tirelessly to improve the lives of Bristol people.

The lives of Victorian women were restricted by convention as never before or since. Their sphere was limited to the home. It was believed that their character was not suited to the ‘public sphere’, and this belief was one of the arguments used against giving them the vote. It was also considered un-feminine for women to devote themselves to intellectual pursuits. So it was a brave and strong woman indeed who swam against the current and devoted her life to women’s suffrage and education.

Mabel was born to a middle class family in Liverpool in 1869. She moved to live in Clifton in the 1890s, where she became involved in the local Quakers and in the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, also known as the Suffragists, becoming president of the East Bristol NUWSS. This movement is not to be confused with the Suffragettes, the movement founded by Emmeline Pankhurst, which engaged in direct action and civil disobedience. The Suffragists aimed to achieve women’s suffrage using peaceful, legal means by education, promotion, lobbying and introducing parliamentary bills. Their leader, Millicent Fawcett, said that their movement was “like a glacier, slow moving but unstoppable”.

Mabel joined the Bristol Independent Labour Party, seeing this party as the most likely to promote women’s suffrage, and the causes of the Labour Party and women as intertwined. From its beginning the Labour movement was devoted to the cause of peace, but with the outbreak of the First World War they made an about turn and supported war. Mabel, however, stuck to her Quaker principles and continued to support the politics of peace. She devoted her time to supporting conscientious objectors, visiting prisoners and their families, and became secretary of the Bristol Advisory Committee for Conscientious Objectors.

Before the war Mabel had volunteered at the Bristol University Settlement at Barton Hill. This organization facilitated education for under-privileged families, and Mabel had purchased land and buildings for the Settlement to use. Her pacifist principles, however, caused her to become labelled ‘pro-German’ and ‘unpatriotic’, and in 1915 forced her to give up her work for the Settlement.

She continued her work for the Labour Party and in 1920 became the first woman councillor for Bristol City Council, continuing her struggle to get women interested and involved in politics. But at the next elections opposition parties used the old ‘unpatriotic’ label to get Mabel ousted from the council. She continued her work in education and helped found the Rosemary Nursery School for poor children.

The Suffragist’s struggle was a long one, but finally in 1928 women received the same voting rights as men. Mabel Tothill may not live in the memory of many, but throughout her long life she improved the quality of many lives (she died in 1964). Many thanks to June Hannam for the interesting and stimulating talk.

The Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society always welcomes new and occasional members. Details of our programme can be found on this website, the library or the Town Hall. Our meetings are on the second Tuesday of the month, held at St Mary's Church Hall beginning at 7.30pm. Visitors are always welcome at the society for the small charge of £2.50.

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