The Suffragette campaign had it all – a stirring anthem, beautiful banners and a small but energetic band of woman activists in big hats. But the Suffragettes and the Suffragists (non-violent campaigners) were standing on the shoulders of giants, working class men of the nineteenth century who had fought against the restriction of voting rights to the property owning classes. In 1831, only 4,500 men out of a population of more than 2.6m people could vote in parliamentary elections. Increasing criticism of the system began to alarm the government, which only had to look at troubles over the Channel to see what could happen without reform.
Despite its name, the Great Reform Act of 1832 still limited the vote to property owners and excluded most working class men. Campaigning continued through the decades and in 1884, the Third Reform Act was passed, further extending the number of men who could vote but still not introducing universal male suffrage.
These photos comes from the album of Dr Thomas Hood Wilson Alexander. His album is in impeccable condition, his initials are embossed in gold on the leather cover and its only fault is that he had a doctor’s handwriting, and several of the captions are illegible. The son of a corn merchant, Thomas Alexander, and Elizabeth Wilson, Thomas was born in Perth in 1878. He later studied medicine at Edinburgh University, graduating in 1900. The following year he married Agnes Kilpatrick, and the couple had two daughters and a son. During WW1, he served as a Major in the Royal Army Medical Corps and served in the Salonika operations in northern Greece.
One photo in Dr Alexander’s album was puzzling. It showed a group of over sixty men, all dressed in dark hats and coats and many wearing medals. On display was a banner, under which is suspended a kettledrum with a crossed clarinet and flute. My ever-present digital microscope revealed the wording “Relics of the Pomerium Band used in 1831-2”. Utterly baffled, I searched the web for the word ‘Pomerium’, which appears to be an early music term relating to a concert of a variety of instruments.
No further forward, I sent a copy of the photo to the A K Bell Library in Perth, and the helpful staff unearthed the following events. In 1832, the weavers of Perth had marched as part of the prolonged nationwide agitation that led to the first Reform Act. In 1884, the tradesmen of Perth, this time represented by the dyers, had once again taken to the streets, assembling on the South Inch, parading through the city streets and massing at the North Inch to listen to speeches by local Liberal M.P.s. (The Liberal Party had a historical commitment to democracy and supported male universal suffrage. Its views on female suffrage were less clear cut.) Veterans from the 1832 demonstrations rode in a large carriage alongside a banner with the motto “We’ll fight and we’ll conquer again”.
The doctor is recorded attending a Liberal Party garden fête at Innes House, Elgin, so the inclusion of this photo in his album is probably a good indication of where his loyalties lay. As early as 1910, the Scottish Liberal Association was calling for the government to introduce a female suffrage bill, but it was the part played by women during World War I that ensured the ultimate outcome of the campaign. If indeed Thomas Alexander did support universal suffrage, he lived to see its introduction in 1928, forty four years after the Perth weavers had taken to the streets. He died aged 63 in an Aberdeen nursing home on 30 April 1941.