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Wednesday, 28 October 2015

The Suffragettes and Essex Hall


I went last weekend to see "Suffragette", Sarah Gavron's political costume drama set just before the First World War when the campaign for the women's suffrage developed into civil disobedience.

Essex Hall, the centre for British Unitarianism, played a part in the Suffragette campaign hosting many public meetings - look carefully at the photograph opposite. Located just across the road from the offices of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) in Clements' Inn (now LSE), it was a convenient location and every Thursday evening public meetings were held either there or at Steinway Hall. Ticket prices ranged from 6d to 2s 6d but there was free admission on the night for women.

Essex Hall was the scene of the meeting on 10 September 1907 when Mrs Pankhurst explained that the WSPU was no longer to have a constitution resulting in many supporters leaving to form the Women's Freedom League. This more left-wing grouping was not only committed to democratic organisation but to furthering the cause of labour.

In December 1909 the mainly Anglican, Church League for Women's Suffrage, held its inaugural meeting at Essex Hall and in July 1912 it was the venue for the inaugural meeting of the Women Teachers Franchise League.

By 1912, as shown dramatically in the movie, the suffragettes had turned to smashing windows, cutting telegraph cables and placing bombs in pillar boxes and then even arson. Annie Kenny told a crowd at Essex Hall on 30 January 1913, with the Police present and taking an account of the meeting which is to be found in the Public Record Office:

"It is the duty of every suffragette and suffragist to go on attacking every pillar-box throughout the country and break every window without being caught".

Her speech at Essex Hall on 3 April 1913 resulted in her being arrested for incitement to riot.

The American newspaper "The Gazette  Times" on 1 May 1913 reported on a "Plot to Spirit Mrs Pankhurst from London" with a Miss Macauley (no relation) telling a packed meeting at Essex Hall, "From now on it will be war - real war". They highlighted:

"That the belligerent suffragettes are not daunted by the capture of their stronghold and the arrest of their leaders was evidenced by the attendance, which far exceeded the capacity of the hall. Hundreds of women, unable to squeeze in, remained outside the gates throughout meeting". I believe that the large hall at Essex Hall held 600 people, including in the gallery.

Rev Mortimer Rowe in "The Story of Essex Hall" (Lindsey Press, 1959) highlights that Essex Hall was a popular meeting-place, especially of progressive or left-wing movements, He mentions that the Fabian Society used it for their public and other meetings and describes a particularly rowdy prohibition meeting in the 1920s but  he soon moves to denominational affairs. Of the Suffragettes nothing...

Yet Unitarians had from the very beginning been supporters of women's suffrage. Alan Ruston in a review article in the Transactions of the Unitarian Historical Society (April 2002) has noted the involvement of at least 27 men and women with Unitarian connections listed in "The Women's Suffrage Movement: A reference Guide, 1866-1928". The Rev Robert Spears was present at the very first meeting on women's suffrage, he reported in The Inquirer on 19 June 1999.

A final piece of fascinating information. I was aware that the Bahai leader, Abdul Baha, has spoken at Essex Hall in 1913. Indeed two weeks ago a Bahai couple from Paris visited Essex Hall on a tour of various locations in central London with which he was associated. Infact, he lectured on "The Equality of Women" at a meeting sponsored by the Women's Freedom League, as was reported in "The Suffragette" periodical.

Monday, 19 October 2015

Marriage Law Reform in England and Wales


The reform of marriage law in England and Wales seems finally to be on the agenda. Last month I met with the Law Commission to discuss the reform of marriage law and contribute to a national scoping study. The Law Commission is a statutory independent body created by the Law Commissions Act 1965 to keep the law under review and to recommend reform where it is needed. The aim of the Commission is to ensure that the law is fair, modern, simple and effective. For many years there has been no appetite for reforming marriage law; it has been put in the “too difficult” box.

Changes have, of course, been made over the years, not least the introduction of same sex marriage, but marriage is still fundamentally governed by the Marriage Act 1949, as amended. On this occasion it seems likely that further work will be requested from the Law Commission with a consultation paper leading to final proposals and perhaps draft legislation

The scoping study is therefore an important first stage in the process of reform of the law governing how and where people can marry in England and Wales. Their work does not cover Scotland as marriage is a responsibility of the Scottish Parliament. They wish to consider what issues exist within the current law, and possible avenues for reform. They were asked to undertake the work by the Government following the Government’s consultation on allowing the solemnization of marriage by non-religious belief bodies. This arose out of support in Parliament for such a change in the law when the issue was raised during consideration of the legislation on same-sex marriage. The Law Commission’s work is, however, wider than that of the consultation.

As part of the scoping study, they were interested to hear from different faith groups as to their experiences of the current law, any concerns they would like to raise, and any possible reforms they would like to see and that’s why they approached the General Assembly.  So off I went to the Home Office.

It was made clear that they would not be making recommendations for reform at this stage but that they wished to explore issues such as:
who should have the authority to solemnize marriages,
where marriages should be able to take place,
what forms marriages should be able to take,
what is required by way of prior notice and subsequent registration, and
how the law deals with ceremonies that fail to comply with some or all of the legal requirements.

The work will not include who can be married, so there will be no consideration of changing the age of consent or the restrictions on marrying within prohibited degrees; the question of whether or not religious groups should be obliged to solemnize marriages of same sex couples nor of the rights or responsibilities which marriage imparts, such as the financial entitlements of surviving spouses or the consequences of divorce.

Aside from consideration of same-sex marriage there has not been any substantive recent discussion on possible marriage reform at the General Assembly Annual Meetings. I managed in the limited timescale available to ask for views from Ministers and Lay People in Charge. There was a remarkable (for Unitarians!) unanimity of views, particularly on moving towards a celebrant rather than a building based system, as in Scotland and indeed Ireland.

When I met the Law Commission I was able to explain the distinctive nature of Unitarian and Free Christian marriage belief and practice emphasising its diversity. In many ways the religious/non-religious boundary central to the current law is not helpful to our approach which seeks to make the wishes of the couple central to the marriage ceremony within our inclusive framework. There is also a need for greater simplicity in the administrative processes which would help authorised persons.

The Commission plan to produce a paper at the end of the year with their findings. At the latter stages, of course, the General Assembly will have more opportunities to make a more formal response.

To many Unitarians and Free Christians our involvement in the solemnization of marriage is an important contribution to our local communities, offering a service to all rather than simply to our membership. It is something I am sure we value and wish to maintain.

That we were invited to join in discussions on the future of marriage law affecting England and Wales is another endorsement of our position as a small yet influential faith group often leading the way on social change. This is, of course, an important role that the General Assembly plays on behalf of local congregations. I look forward to seeing this issue progressing to legislation.