Eva Gore-Booth champion of the barmaids
Published 01/07/2012 | 06:00
In 1908, the British Liberal Government introduced a Licensing Bill aimed at overhauling licensing arrangements across the UK. At the centre of the legislation was a recommendation to abolish barmaids.
The mere suggestion of forcing thousands of women out of work propelled Eva Gore-Booth into action.
She launched a campaign which would turn the streets of Manchester into a political battlefield and oust Winston Churchill from his constituency.
The dramatic episode was later described by author Ronald Blythe as "the most brilliant, entertaining and hilarious electoral fight of the century".
During the industrial revolution people moved from rural areas into confined urban spaces to secure work in factories and shops. As populations in cities swelled, so too did the number of public houses. This inevitably brought with it a rise in crime and violence.
In Ireland, laws were introduced to help alleviate the many social problems caused by drunkenness. In 1906, new legislation offered legal protection for husbands or wives of drunkards who squandered the family income on alcohol.
Opening hours of licensed premises were reduced and a complete closure of pubs on election days was suggested.
In 1908, the Liberal Government in the UK attempted to introduce even tighter controls. At the core of this legislation was a proposal to ban women from working in bars.
Women, it was suggested, were luring men to drink. The alcohol industry was accused of exploiting attractive females in order to sell liquor.
Ultimately the occupation of barmaid was seen as a path towards prostitution and eventual moral ruin.
Religious and temperance organisations welcomed the proposal. Senior members of the Labour Party were quick to agree. Ramsay MacDonald wrote frequently about the evils of bar work for women.
Labour MPs published a testimony that the lives of barmaids often ended in "drunkenness, immorality, misery and frequently suicide".
Eva Gore-Booth promptly organised a high-profile campaign to protect the employment of barmaids. Gore-Booth was a respected author and a member of a privileged Anglo-Irish family from Lissadell House in County Sligo.
She had moved to the working-class district of Manchester in 1897 where she established trade unions for women workers.
Barmaids were not unionised as many trade unionists viewed bar work as an unsuitable occupation for women. Barmaids were generally regarded as fickle and difficult to organise as a group.
'The Washington Post', reporting on Gore-Booth's efforts suggested, condescendingly, that women of "the barmaid type, have not learned the fine art of expressing approval or disapproval at a public meeting".
Gore-Booth was not deterred. She established the Barmaids' Political Defence League. Nine barmaids volunteered to accompany her to a meeting with the Home Secretary, Herbert Gladstone MP.
Gladstone described public houses as the "sources of evil and danger" and not a suitable place for women to work.
Gore-Booth insisted that bar work did not lead women into an immoral life.
She cautioned Gladstone that if he drove thousands of women out of work, 'unemployment, absence of wages and starvation' would send them in that direction.
The debate surrounding the Licensing Bill reached an all-time high after a dramatic cabinet re-shuffle. Due to ill health, Prime Minister Campbell-Bannerman resigned in April 1908. Henry Asquith took over as Prime Minister. Asquith immediately promoted a young MP, Winston Churchill, to President of the Board of Trade.
Under the laws of the day a newly appointed cabinet minister had to resign his seat and stand for re-election. On his appointment, Churchill was forced to resign as MP for Manchester North-West and stand for re-election in the same constituency.
It was common practice that a newly appointed cabinet minister would be returned unopposed at such by-elections.
The election was viewed by many as a mere formality. However, by then Churchill had become a central figure in the barmaid issue. He supported the proposed ban on barmaids and if elected, promised to consider further restrictions on working women.
Churchill expected an easy victory in the by-election. Only two years before he had secured a majority of 62pc over the Conservative candidate, William Joynson-Hicks, in the same constituency.
Churchill arrived in Manchester two days before polling day to make a public address at the Coal Exchange.
The Exchange building had a capacity for hundreds, and an unexpected crowd of thousands arrived. People lined the street outside the building as a cortege of black cars with the red rosettes of the Liberal Party arrived.
Gore-Booth's political skills were remarkable. She organised intense opposition to Churchill, and invited her older sister, Countess Markievicz, to Manchester to help with the campaign. The sisters supported the Conservative candidate, Joynson-Hicks, in the by-election.
This was Markievicz's first serious political venture. However, her debut into political life, through her sister, had a lasting impact.
After becoming involved with Eva's labour and trade union campaigns, Markievicz remained devoted to this cause. She was later appointed the first Minister for Labour in Dáil Éireann.
Gore-Booth arranged for Markievicz to drive a coach, drawn by four eye-catching white horses, through the streets of Manchester. The coach stopped at regular intervals and the two sisters took to the roof of the carriage making rousing speeches.
Gore-Booth exclaimed that a vote against Churchill would prove to the Government that "it was not a minor matter to take away the livelihood of 100,000 respectable, hard-working women".
Two beautiful women driving a coach with four white horses through the dull grey streets of Manchester created a great spectacle. The sisters received much attention as well as heckling from men as they passed. In the midst of a jeering crowd, one man shouted at Markievicz, "Can you cook a dinner?" "Certainly" she responded quickly, cracking her whip in his direction. "Can you drive a coach-and-four?" she asked.
The public responded positively to the dramatic displays and quick wit of Gore-Booth and Markievicz. The day before the by-election they arranged a meeting in the Coal Exchange building. Huge numbers attended.
On the morning of Friday, April 24, 1908, the polling stations opened. Oddly for the time of year, Manchester was covered in snow and a bitter wind cut through the city. Churchill remained confident of victory.
He spent the day driving through the streets of Manchester in an open-topped car accompanied by his mother, Jennie.
At 9.30pm that evening a flag flying outside Manchester Town Hall signalled the end of the vote count. The flag was blue.
Blue meant victory for the Conservative candidate, Joynson-Hicks. Churchill had been defeated by a decent margin.
The future Prime Minister had been forced out of his own constituency, largely due to the efforts of the Gore-Booth sisters. This was a remarkable accomplishment considering women had not yet even achieved the right to vote at such elections.
The Liberal party was shocked by the defeat. The party was forced to seek another route for Churchill to enter cabinet.
Weeks later he stood in a by-election in Dundee. Churchill was returned as an MP in May and remained until 1922.
Gore-Booth continued lobbying against the Licensing Bill. On June 13, 1908, she held a demonstration in Trafalgar Square in London. The event was attended by more than two thousand people.
Gore-Booth delivered a passionate speech on the plinth, at the foot of the Nelson column, facing the fountains.
Markievicz later rose to the plinth telling the crowd that we are "told the bar is a bad place for a woman, so it is, but the Thames Embankment at night is far worse".
Within months, the Barmaids' Political Defence League overwhelmingly won its campaign.
Two-hundred and ninety-four out of 355 MPs rejected the Bill. During an intense debate in the House of Commons, Conservative MP Wilfrid Ashley, questioned whether "a body of men elected entirely by men had any moral right to prohibit the employment of women in a certain trade purely on sentimental grounds".
The barmaids' campaign was an unqualified success.
Sonja Tiernan's new book 'Eva Gore-Booth: An image of such politics' is published by Manchester University Press