Museum Musings: Prince Albert and women’s suffrage

Mrs. Emmeline Pankhurst was schedule to speak at the Empress Theatre in Prince Albert during her Canadian tour before she became ill. Photo courtesy of the Bill Smiley Archives.

The Bill Smiley Archives receives many different types of requests, but probably the most frequent type is for information about family members.  “What can you tell me about my grandfather?” or “Where can I find my great-aunt’s grave?”  “Where did my half-brother live, and what did he do when he lived in Prince Albert?”

I was researching one such request, about a woman who had lived and died in Colleston, when I came across the following headline in the June 2nd, 1916 edition of the Daily Herald:

Noted English Suffragist Touring in Aid of Serbian Relief”

Now this was quite a coincidence!  Mrs. Emmeline Pankhurst was, you will recall, the leading English suffragette campaigning for the women’s right to vote.  The woman about whom I was conducting my research had been raised in the home of Captain Richard and Mrs. Deacon, whose daughter Johan just happened to have founded Prince Albert’s chapter of the Equal Franchise League.

Johan, a school teacher, had married Colonel James Wilson (who was employed in the Land Titles office) in Prince Albert on the 16th of September 1901.  She called and addressed the first meeting of the League in Prince Albert, and helped to organise the Equal Franchise League in Regina.  She addressed meetings both there and in Melfort.

The June 2nd story went on to relate that Mrs. Pankhurst had been “secured for a speech” on June 16th.  It reported that she was making a Canadian tour in the interests of Serbian relief and other “patriotic funds”, and that it was through the efforts of the local Equal Franchise League that she was to come to Prince Albert.

Mrs. Pankhurst was to speak at the Empress Theatre (on 1st Avenue West, which was located just south of what is known today as the Harlon Building), the largest venue of its kind in the city.  That theatre had already been booked for the viewing of the special documentary, Britain Prepared, a ten-reel film produced for what could only be called propaganda purposes.  Mrs. Pankhurst was to speak for about an hour during a break about halfway through this presentation.  A quiet, convincing speaker, Mrs. Pankhurst was known as one of the leading speakers of her day, capable of holding the attention of her audience whether it was on an open-air square or in a crowded clubroom. 

Amongst those making the announcement of Mrs. Pankhurst’s travel to the city were Mayor William Knox, Mrs. D.J. Rose, president of the local Equal Franchise League, president R.H. Hall of the Board of Trade, and Mrs. D.W. Adam, president of the Red Cross society.  They advised that arrangements were being considered how best to entertain her during her stay in the city, including the possibility of a luncheon or banquet.

A further story from the Daily Herald, this one dated Monday, June 6th, suggested that Mrs. Pankhurst might speak on one of four topics during her stop in Prince Albert.  These included: Patriotism and the Needs of Men; Women’s Part in the Great War; How Women Have Helped in the War; and, Ideal of National Service.

The story went on to suggest that Mrs. Pankhurst had helped a great deal in the war and was so well in touch with matters as to be an exceptionally interesting speaker.  But it further cautioned that, at the outbreak of the war, she had called for a truce in the militant agitation of suffragettes, intimating that those in the audience expecting her to demand votes for the women may be left unhappy with her presentation.  She could be expected, however, to call vigorously for the national service of both men and women, to encourage the adoption of orphaned babies, call for the opening of a war service register for women, and to advocate for patriotism, self-sacrifice, and a vigorous prosecution of the war as had been suggested by the Women’s Social and Political Union.

Although Mrs. Pankhurst might not address women’s suffrage directly during her visit to Prince Albert, her Canadian tour still resulted in considerable talk about the topic.  The Toronto Globe, in an editorial, had noted that although women had been granted the right to vote in municipal and provincial elections, legislation passed by the Alexander MacKenzie government in 1875 (during which the territories now known as Alberta and Saskatchewan had been given a greater role in federal affairs), would still preclude women in the two newest provinces the right to vote in federal elections, even though women in British Columbia and Manitoba had the right to cast federal ballots.  Other editorials suggested that the effective service women had rendered during the ongoing war gave them as much right to vote as “any other class of the community”.

Speaking in Calgary at a meeting a few days prior to coming to Prince Albert, Mrs. Pankhurst suggested that the allied nations must continue their fight against Germany until such time as that country had abandoned its idea that Germany was called directly “to enforce its form of civilization upon the world”.  As a result, Mrs. Pankhurst called for compulsory military training for all Britishers, and issued a plea for even more recruits.

All of this coverage, and the controversy arising from some of her stances, ensured a sold-out audience at the Empress Theatre for the night of Friday, June 16th.  Given the movie to be shown, whereby the citizens of Prince Albert would be encouraged to display their patriotism, and the anticipated emotional appeal which Mrs. Pankhurst would provide, no one would willingly miss this event.

Mrs. Pankhurst was to arrive by train a short time prior to her star performance, and would be met by the leading women and men of the City of Prince Albert.  Due to the short lead time, it would not be possible to hold a banquet that evening, but on-going discussions were occurring in an attempt to have her stay overnight in order to hold a luncheon honouring her the next day.

However, it was to no avail.  Mrs. D.J. Rose, the local president of the Equal Franchise League, received a telegram from Mrs. Lawton, the provincial president, on June 16th, the day Mrs. Pankhurst was scheduled to speak in Prince Albert.  Mrs. Pankhurst, it read, had incurred a sudden illness which required that her Prince Albert speech be cancelled.  She would be unable to travel to the city according to the arranged schedule.

So, the excitement of having Mrs. Pankhurst entertain and enlighten the local populace came to nought.  No information has been found as to what her sudden illness was; nor was any indication found of attempts to re-schedule her visit.

As for my attempt to find information on the woman who lived and died in Colleston, we later discovered that the information we had received was inaccurate.  Rather than her death occurring in 1916, we found out that she had died in 1910.