Suffragettes storm the Eisteddfod Stage in 1912

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On Tuesday 8 March the world celebrates International Womens' Day with thousands of events and activities to inspire and recognise the achievements of women worldwide. Today, this date is part of the calendar of many countries, but a hundred years ago, even the women of Wales were up in arms calling for the right to vote – at the National Eisteddfod of all places.

In 1912, the Suffragettes campaign reached its height, with women protesting across the country to raise awareness and draw attention to their cause. The National Eisteddfod with its impressive pavilion, was the perfect location for a high profile protest, especially on a Thursday afternoon, with the choral competitions, the Chairing – and most importantly maybe for maximum impact, David Lloyd George, the Chancellor – addressing the crowd.

According to Baner ac Amserau Cymru, 14 September 1912:

TRANSLATION: This undoubtedly is the big day of the festival a day which will long be remembered by Eisteddfodwyr of all sorts. Generally called ‘Lloyd George day’ – and that’s what it is in more than one meaning… People turned their faces towards Wrexham from all parts of the country. By two o’clock, the tent was full to its rafters – some sitting, others standing as best as they could. There was at least thirteen thousand within the pavilion walls, and outside, thousands more. We are not exaggerating when saying this.

It promised to be a perfect afternoon in the Pavilion, with the large crowd excited at the prospect of hearing the Chancellor – the great Orator himself – address the faithful. The band played ’See the Conquering Hero Comes’ and then David Lloyd George stood up to ‘address his compatriots in clean and pure Welsh’.

David Lloyd George

In an article the following week (12 September 1912), Y Brython described Lloyd George as:

TRANSLATION: …Wales’ national hero. He is the nation’s loadstone, pulling people’s hearts towards him like a strong magnet.

But the attitude of some of the women sitting in the audience that Thursday afternoon was very different. Eisteddfod organisers were aware of the threat of the Suffragettes, and according to Baner ac Amserau Cymru:

TRANSLATION: Strong police officers were placed here and there in the Pavilion to look out for troublemakers, and others had been briefed to serve if needed.

The paper describes what followed, saying:

TRANSLATION: Before Mr Lloyd George had finished a sentence or two, the peace was shattered by a thin shrieking, coming from somewhere in the front seats, undoubtedly one of the ‘Women for Votes’. Within a second it caused general excitement, and the next second, a smart young girl was in the arms of two police officers, being hurried away towards the door of the Pavilion. She only said a few words, but this was enough to alienate the crowd. ‘Chuck her out’ said someone close by, and this is what happened quite unceremoniously.

Y Brython’s report on the protest makes interesting reading:

TRANSLATION: The moment the Chancellor opened his mouth, one of the petticoated bandits would scream their inane message, and three or four police officers would rush to fetch them, and on the way towards the door, everyone would shove and push the woman, so roughly that a few of the silly women will be bruised and scarred for the rest of their lives. I saw one witch, when being taken past the centre of the stage in the arms of a policeman, turn to Mr Lloyd George, frothing at the mouth, pulling the most diabolical scowl I ever saw.

And things went downhill, as more women stood up to voice their opinions, with the report in Baner ac Amserau Cymru less than supportive:

TRANSLATION: Woman after woman was moved; they were swept past the stage with the greatest speed, and if they were not guarded by police officers they would, undoubtedly have been castigated in the pavilion itself. Their hats were thrown off and their hair pulled before they reached the crowd outside… They were pleased to be guarded in an ante-room, where they were held captive for hours, as a crowd of four thousand awaited them outside. It is said that one of the women was from Glamorganshire and another from Shropshire. The excitement lasted for about half an hour.

Memories of the protest at the Eisteddfod in 1933

Twenty one years later, the Eisteddfod returned to Wrexham, and by then, women had the right to vote. It’s obvious that the troubled events of 1912 had an impact on Wales, and on the press in particular, as the papers in 1933 were full of stories about the Suffragettes and the protests of 1912.

Y Cymro, 5 August 1933,prints the memories of Grace Sarah Owen, a woman who was pulled into the fracas as she happened to be sitting next to the protestors. She recalls:

TRANSLATION: We thought the hall was going to come down on top of us, between the clacking chairs, sticks being raised a loads of big men like ‘The Sons of Anac’ closing in on us, and dragging the women to move them… Two grabbed me awkwardly but strongly, and I felt like a cheap wooden doll being dismantled. I begged for mercy in the language of my mother. I said that I didn’t care a three penny piece for the vote for women, and that keeping house for my father and feeding the chickens were my main aims in life, and that I had fallen into bad company by accident, and so on.

The paper also notes that a ‘man of repute in the church and the world’ had testified that he knew Grace Sarah Owen, and she was therefore released.

Miss Kitty Marion Memories

Miss Kitty Marion, one who was, according to the Western Mail of 5 August 1933, ‘a music-hall artiste in the pay of the propagandist movement’, was less fortunate than Grace Sarah Owen, but she was a bona fide protestor.

The paper reports that she ‘…part[ed] with a large hank of her auburn hair that had been torn from her scalp… Miss Marion’s hair is still in Cardiff, and for a long time was exhibited in the vestibule of the old Western Mail building in St Mary Street. At the outset she declined to part with the hank as she said it would make a most useful “transformation” later on, to cover the bald patch on her bleeding scalp.

“Let me have it,” said her interviewer, “and I will give it to Dr Evans Hoyle, the director of the Welsh National Museum, for permanent exhibition at the Museum as a historic relic.

This bait took, Miss Marion was so happy in the thought that she would become a historic figure that she succumbed and handed the hair over. Unfortunately the director of the National Museum would not accept it as an exhibit and it has been hidden in a private secretaire ever since!

Eisteddfod Maes

So, as we see, protesting on the Eisteddfod Maes is nothing new, but it is something that we have seen often over the last one hundred and fifty years, although today’s protestors may not be aware that the Eisteddfod was used as a stage for pressure groups almost a century ago. Many Eisteddfodwyr have protested on a wide range of issues over the years, and as part of our Memories 150 campaign, celebrating a century and a half of the Eisteddfod in its current form, we’d like to hear your memories about protesting on the Eisteddfod Maes.

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