by Rachel Newton, UROP student
This summer, I have a research internship working with Dr Jacqui Turner on a University Research Opportunity Programme (UROP) within the History Department and in collaboration with Special Collections here at the University of Reading. We are preparing a digital exhibition curating material from the Nancy Astor archive to tell the story of the political career and legacy of Nancy Astor, the first sitting female MP in Britain. While researching, I came across these fascinating and timely documents relating to a garden party that Astor held at her country home Cliveden House to celebrate the passing of the Equal franchise Act of 1928, the garden party was organised by NUSEC and heralded the opportunity to meet Millicent Fawcett.
90 years ago, today, the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship (NUSEC) held a Garden Party at Cliveden House (the home of Lord and Lady Astor) in celebration of the passing of the Equal Franchise act of 1928. This act gave equal voting rights to men AND women over the age of 21. It was a significant development from the 1918 Representation of the People Act that gave some women the vote for the first time, but on restricted terms. Thus, this was a huge achievement and an important occasion that deserved a celebration!
Attendees were welcomed to the great house and were provided with train times to make travelling more convenient – look at how regular the trains were! On arriving at the party, they could expect “attractions”, outlined in the source below; activities such as Hoopla” “Coconut Shies” and an “American tennis tournament” – what a treat! “Character Reading” might also have been illuminating considering the inspiring and determined group of women who attended.
Even more exciting was the opportunity to meet Dame Millicent Fawcett, leader of the NUWSS and avid campaigner for women’s rights more broadly. She was an honoured guest at such a celebration. The letter below is her acceptance, even though she had lost the RSVP address, she described it as a “treat day”.
Unfortunately, Lady Astor could not be present herself as she was in Plymouth on constituency duty. However, the party was a great success and her offering of Cliveden for the occasion is an example of her ongoing support for the equal franchise. Astor’s work and support for the suffrage movement often goes unnoticed. She acted as a conduit between the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship (NUSEC) and other women’s organisations and an, often reluctant, Conservative Party. She often held meetings for various women’s groups at her London home, 4 St James’s Square, where she would also invite senior politicians and influencers. This often provided a unique opportunity for campaigners to interact with influential people (most often men) helping establish communications that may otherwise have been difficult to facilitate.
It is not the only example of Astor supporting causes directly related to women and through this UROP I have been able to discover many instances where she devoted herself to the development of women’s rights. Let’s remember she was MP for Plymouth Sutton for 26 years- an incredible achievement for a female MP during the interwar period. Through this project, with Dr Jacqui Turner and postgraduate researcher Melanie Khuddro, we are researching and curating a digital exhibition to prepare for the centenary celebrations surrounding Astor’s election in 1919, and these documents are just a taster of what’s to come. Make sure you keep an eye out for ASTOR100 celebrations!!
- MS1416 Nancy Astor Papers, Special Collections, University of Reading.
- NUSEC Garden Party Leaflet 1928, MS1416/1/1/264
- Letter regarding details of the Garden Party, from K Hancock General Secretary of NUSEC to Miss Goddard, MS1416/1/1/264.
- Letter from Dame M. Fawcett, 25/05/1928, MS1416/1/1/264.