Watts was active in the Church League for Women’s Suffrage and as a campaigner for equal pay for women teachers.
For some time, I have been interested in finding out more about one of the many pre-1914, special-interest, pro-women’s suffrage groups, the Church League for Women’s Suffrage (CLWS). Research on this organisation is now much easier since its Monthly Paper has become available online through the British Library. My interest was sparked because the clergyman who founded the CLWS, the Reverend Claude Hinscliff, at some stage held a living in the village of Bobbing, near Sittingbourne. Hinscliff officiated at the funeral of Emily Wilding Davison, who was one of the most famous suffragettes of all.
The CLWS was founded in 1909 but the Monthly Paper was not published until January 1912. By the time of the second issue in February, the Sittingbourne branch was well-established, with Agnes Watts as Secretary and Treasurer. This was not only probably the sole, organised suffrage society in the town (the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies did not establish a presence there until after the Pilgrimage of July 1913 passed through), it was also one of only two CLWS branches in Kent – the other being Bromley. Surprisingly, it was some time later that Canterbury gained a branch, despite the importance of the Church of England within that city. Once again, we can see great variation in the organisational composition of the pro-suffrage movement in different towns throughout Kent. Perhaps the CLWS dominance in Sittingbourne was related to the connection with Hinscliff, or maybe it was due to the activism of Agnes Watts.
Who was Agnes Selina Watts? She was born in the parish of Little Walsingham in Norfolk, in 1869. Her father was the local relieving officer and registrar of births and deaths, that is, he worked for the local Poor Law Board of Guardians. Interestingly, her mother also had an occupation according to the 1871 census, as a dealer in china, glass and earthenware. Agnes had several older siblings as well as a younger sister. Agnes trained as a teacher in Norwich and began her teaching career in the early 1890s. In June 1895 she took charge as headmistress for the first time, at Tilney-cum-Islington mixed elementary school near King’s Lynn. The following year she became head of the British girls’ school in Fakenham remaining for three years before taking up the post of head of St Michael’s girls’ school in Sittingbourne, where she worked for 27 years. Agnes Watts later returned to Walsingham and she died in Norfolk in 1956 at the age of 86.
Agnes Watts was clearly a talented woman who quickly reached the top of her profession – or at least, the furthest that a woman could go. Her teachers’ registration form (available via Find My Past) demonstrates that she held qualifications in physiography, drawing and botany. I don’t know exactly what drew her to the suffrage movement, but support for it was known to be high among women teachers (Oram, 1996). Synergy developed between the demand of women for parliamentary representation and dissatisfaction in the teaching profession with the unequal pay for women teachers. In 1904 an Equal Pay League was formed within the National Union of Teachers (NUT). Over time this developed into the National Federation of Women Teachers (NFWT), and in 1920, after the disappointment of the Burnham committee on teacher’s salaries which refused to equalise the pay of men and women, the federation became a separate union – the National Union of Women Teachers (NUWT). Significantly, Agnes Watts was the founder of the first NFWT/NUWT branch formed in Kent (East Kent Gazette, 13 December 1930).
I have not been able to find Miss Watts in the 1911 census online. There are several likely reasons for this, including the possibility that she deliberately evaded the census. Agnes Watts may well have sympathised with the militant suffragettes although as a teaching professional she would not have been in a position to take any really militant action herself. As Cowman (1998: 481) mentions, the CLWS was often criticised for being too close to the militant suffrage organisation, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). In January 1912 the Sittingbourne CLWS branch heard an address by Evelyn Billing, a paid WSPU organiser who moved through Kent in the years 1911-13 establishing branches and encouraging local activists. It is likely – although I cannot establish this with certainty – that Agnes was the ‘A S Watts’ who made regular contributions to WSPU funds between 1913 and 1917. There is some evidence of a Sittingbourne WSPU branch and there were also branches in both Medway and Canterbury which she could have attended. For the CLWS, Agnes’ tasks were fairly mundane: organising meetings, collecting subscriptions, and passing some of the money collected to the central organisation. Her branch co-operated with other suffrage bodies: in December 1913 they held a joint ‘at home’ meeting with the newly-formed Women’s Suffrage Society.
There is no doubt that Agnes Watts was a hard worker as well as committed to the Cause. When the First World War broke out, the CLWS emphasised patriotic war work: Agnes herself volunteered (in her spare time) for the Red Cross hospital in Sittingbourne (Monthly Paper, November 1915). She also organised her pupils to contribute to the war effort by getting them to make 132 garments to be sent to Serbia, using money – with the girls’ agreement – that would have funded their needlework prizes, to pay for the materials (ibid, March 1916).
To conclude, I want to let Agnes Watts speak for herself and for the Sittingbourne and Sheerness branch of the NFWT. Writing to the East Kent Gazette (13 Dec 1919) to express dissatisfaction with the teachers’ pay scales recommended by the Burnham Committee (which paid men £10 a year more than women), she expressed her cause as a fundamentally moral question:
‘the agitation for equal pay will go on [because]…our case is just and one of fundamental morality. We owe it to ourselves, and to the women of the country to establish the recognition of women’s equal worth and dignity with men’.
Watts’ concern for morality and dignity exemplifies her suffragette spirit.
Photo of CLWS badge courtesy of the LSE Women’s Library.
Thanks to Mary Claire Martin and the LSE Women’s Library.
Census records and teachers’ registration via Find My Past
CLWS Monthly Paper(aka Church Militant)
East Kent Gazette
Suffrage Annual and Women’s Who’s Who, London, Stanley Paul (1913)
NUWSS Kentish Federation First Annual Report, 1913 (LSE Women’s Library)
Krista Cowman, ‘We intend to show what Our Lord has done for women’: the Liverpool Church League for Women’s Suffrage 1913-18, Studies in Church History 34 (1998).
Alison Oram, Women Teachers and Feminist Politics, Manchester University Press (1996)