‘A doughty warrior in the women’s cause’:
by Ryland Wallacern
In April 1912 Miss F. M. Thomas, headmistress of the Ffaldau Girls’ School at Pontycymer in the Garw Valley, rose to address the National Federation of Women Teachers (NFWT) at its annual conference in Hull. This organisation was a pressure group within the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and widely regarded as comprising ‘the militant women members of the profession’. Speaking as the newly-elected president of the federation – the first Welshwoman to hold that position – she ‘unfurled the Red Dragon and waved it aloft in true Cymric fashion’ and then proceeded to vigorously tackle a range of controversial issues relating to women, education and society. ‘A thoughtful and inspiring inaugural address’ was but one of a number of favourable comments in the various teacher journals.
‘The first consideration of education is citizenship’, declared Miss Thomas at the outset, as a prelude to calling for the enfranchisement of women:
Why should we teach girls how to think for themselves, and in explaining citizenship not hold out to them the hope of some day aiding by the vote the ideals they would like to attain? . . . Women teachers have a double responsibility. Our influence, our efforts for the good of the community are hindered and nullified by reason of the disqualification; but no fear of scorn or ridicule should deter us from all lawful means of obtaining our political freedom.
This was followed by passionate advocacy of equal pay for similarly-qualified male and female teachers and then by insistence on the need for more headmistresses in mixed schools, for domestic science as a central element in the girls’ curriculum and for the establishment of not only school clinics but basic food provision (‘small soup kitchens’) in deprived areas to tackle the widespread undernourishment and ill health among children.
As incoming federation president, she simultaneously published a rousing ‘Message to the Women Teachers of the United Kingdom’, which began thus:
Women, awake! And let us help each other. We already have the help of the best men in heart and intellect in our struggle for freedom. Let us support those of our own sex who serve us by advocating equality pertaining to women’s interest – equality in salaries with men, equality of opportunity in any work which women feel they can do, whether in teaching, the Civil Service, or any other walk of life.
Over very many years – as feminist trade unionist, suffrage campaigner, Labour Party activist and urban district councillor – she steadfastly battled to advance the convictions she championed, to fight inequality and injustice, and thoroughly merited the Glamorgan Gazette’s description of her as ‘a doughty warrior in the women’s cause’.
Fannie Margaret Thomas was clearly an exceptional woman, who, like so many others of her ilk, has remained in the shadows of history. This article seeks to examine and acknowledge her life and political activism, and, by adopting a personal, biographical approach, cast new light on central aspects of the women’s movement in the early decades of the twentieth century. The first of these focuses on the early years of feminist trade unionism in the teaching profession in Wales. One aim of this article is to complement and build on the work of Sian Rhiannon Williams in this area and to go beyond appreciation of the much-heralded Swansea headmistress and feminist Emily Phipps – for Fannie Margaret Thomas was the pioneer of the movement in Wales. It is also intended to contribute to the existing body of writing on the origins and development of the National Federation of Women Teachers by concentrating on one of its early stalwarts and looking at its impact on a region well beyond its London base.
In so doing, the article goes on to explore the links between feminist teachers and the women’s suffrage campaign and to highlight the precise nature and extent of Fannie Thomas’ own involvement in the latter, both locally and further afield. Finally, the article seeks to make a significant contribution to our knowledge and understanding of women’s participation in post-war municipal politics in Wales. In particular, it adds to existing work on early female activists in the labour movement, emphasising the role and achievements of another notable individual to rank alongside the familiar names of Elizabeth Andrews, Rose Davies and Beatrice Green.
Fannie Margaret Thomas as President of the NFWT, 1912
Institute of Education, NUWT Archives
Fannie Margaret Thomas was born in Dolgellau in February 1868, the second of the six children of Annie Bridget (nee May) and Robert Parry Thomas, an accountant with the National Provincial Bank. By 1874 her father’s job had taken the family to Aberystwyth, where Fannie attended a local board school. Two years later, she and two brothers enrolled at Cowbridge Board School, the family having now moved to Annie Thomas’s native town and taken up residence at the Ancient Druid Inn, where her father (Francis May, a widower) was now licensee – though Robert Thomas continued to work and live in Aberystwyth, where he died in April 1880, aged thirty-eight. Following her own father’s death in 1885 Annie transferred the license to premises across the road, which was variously called the Druids, the New Druids and the Ancient Druid; she continued as landlady there into her eighties.
It seems that Fannie remained a ‘scholar’ at Cowbridge Board School until she was appointed a ‘pupil teacher’ there in March 1883, a few weeks after her fifteenth birthday. This involved a five-year apprenticeship, teaching for a certain part of the day but also receiving tuition from a serving mistress in the same school. She was now on route to a career and financial independence but the long demanding hours and the range of subjects she was required to teach made it an arduous path. Nevertheless, meeting the requirements of the annual school examinations, she obtained financial rewards for successful progress and at the end of her term of apprenticeship in March 1888 was promoted to assistant teacher. Her ambitions now turned to gaining a place at Swansea Training College. Combining teaching duties with evening study for the entrance examination, she was duly successful and, in January 1889 at the age of twenty, she enrolled on the two-year (unsalaried) college course.
Opened in 1872, Swansea was until the 1890s the only teacher-training college for women in Wales and from its early years the number of applicants far outstripped the accommodation available. In keeping with similar institutions in England, it sought to instil among its women students the prevailing Victorian ideology of femininity, womanhood and domesticity. During Fannie’s time there (1889-90) the very wide-ranging curriculum was largely the same as it had been at its inception – the Bible, school management, penmanship, reading and recitation, English language and literature, arithmetic, geography, English history, domestic economy, vocal music, drawing, needlework and cutting out, calisthenics, French, animal physiology and physiography. Within this, however – under the dictates of the Education Department and Her Majesty’s Inspectors (HMI) – there was a major emphasis on courses in needlework, cookery and domestic economy in order to equip pupils for their probable future roles as housewives and mothers. ‘Domestic matters will form the principal matter for thought in the daily life of almost all the girls in our elementary schools’, insisted a Committee of Council of Education minute in the early 1870s. ‘It would be good for the girls to learn to be useful in the state of life to which it has pleased God to call them’.
Having passed the admission examinations to Swansea in the first division, Fannie was awarded a third-class pass at the end of her first year of study and second class in her final year, thus becoming a ‘certified teacher’ in December 1890. She immediately obtained a post at Redwick, a coastal village near Magor, Monmouthshire, where she was the sole teacher. In her brief period at the school Fannie evidently made a favourable impression on HMI, one of whom wrote thus: ‘There have been two changes of teachers during the year and Miss Thomas has been in charge only about four months, but she has already effected considerable improvement’. Fannie chose to move quickly on, however, for before the end of that academic year she had successfully applied for a new position in a very different part of Wales, being appointed headmistress in the slate-quarrying village of Tan-y-grisiau, near Blaenau Ffestiniog. Her reasons for exchanging the highly-anglicised south-east for the deeply-Welsh north-west are unclear. Certainly the new post was advancing her teaching career and experience, while as a proud Welshwoman she may well have been attracted to living and working in a Welsh-speaking community.
Fannie stayed in Tan-y-grisiau for three and a half years before returning to south-east Wales in January 1895, taking up employment with the Llangeinor School Board, which covered the region north of Bridgend. After short spells at two infant schools in the Ogmore Valley, in November 1895 she was appointed headmistress of the Ffaldau Infants’ School, at Pontycymer – her predecessor having been forced to resign her post upon marriage. Founded in 1888 as a mixed and infants’ institution, over the next twenty years it became ‘so large as to become almost unwieldy’ as it eventually sought to accommodate some 900 pupils that a new boys’ school was opened in 1908; Fannie now became head of the separate girls’ school (which remained in the old building), a position she held until her retirement twenty-three years later, in May 1931, at the age of sixty-three.
Ffaldau Girls’ School, February 1925
Miss Fannie Margaret Thomas, second row, far right [Garw Valley Heritage Society]
Thus ended a long and dedicated career – pupil teacher for five years, assistant teacher for almost a year, college student for two and then full-time schoolmistress (overwhelmingly headmistress) for more than forty. In itself, this was unremarkable – many women of this era devoted their lives to the teaching profession, choosing this to the exclusion of marriage and motherhood (for that was a stipulated choice in many areas). What made Fannie Margaret Thomas distinctive and exceptional was that alongside, and within, her teaching career, she had a passionate commitment to feminist and political activism. Accordingly, in the Garw Valley where she was headmistress at the Ffaldau School for thirty-five years, she was a compelling figure, whose notoriety has endured in popular memory. ‘She is well known in myth and legend’, writes a local historian, ‘having taught relatives of older residents here.’ One contemporary has this recollection:
The Girls’ School in Pontycymer was run by a Miss Thomas, known to everyone as ‘Fanny Bloomers’, who ruled her school with a rod of iron . . . In the old school with the galleries she would take 150 children in English, with the assistance of two other teachers, and she herself would be positioned on a high chair at the centre of proceedings . . . She was stern and fair, she was also very British and made sure her classes remembered such things as Empire Day. When entering her class she would make a grand entrance reminiscent of her performance in the local production of such plays as ‘The Tempest’ in which she acted in a highly mannered style which was fashionable at the time.
Her rather eccentric personality no doubt contributed to her aura. A staunch suffragette, she not only ‘readily put forward her views at public meetings’ but ‘even sold the newspaper Woman [presumably Votes for Women] in school for 2d each’. The first woman in the Garw Valley to wear breeches earned her the nickname ‘Fanny Bloomers’, while her obituary in the Western Mail – supported by local testimony – stated that ‘she was the first woman in South Wales to ride a motor-cycle, and rode to school on it from her home in Cowbridge’. Both of these may be seen as feminist statements, as can the story that Fannie would go into the public bar at the Royal Hotel in Pontycymer and refuse all requests to remove herself to the ladies’ lounge, before drinking a pint of beer and then leaving.
When Fannie began her career as a certified schoolmistress the natural step was to join the National Union of Teachers (NUT), which had been formed in 1870 as the National Union of Elementary Teachers, changing its name in 1888. Having been very much a minority ten years earlier, by 1905 women made up a majority of its membership, their proportion of the total increasing further, from 52 per cent to 60 per cent, over the following decade. The number of full-time teachers in Wales increased from 5,000 in 1891 to over 14,000 in 1911; women outnumbered men, though, as many remained uncertificated, they were often ineligible for NUT membership. In elementary schools in Wales (for 5 to 14 year olds) women made up over 74% of the workforce in 1921 and completely dominated infant departments.
The gender transformation in the NUT’s membership gave greater voice to women’s specific issues and grievances and the organisation’s failure to satisfactorily address these caused growing friction. Despite women’s numerical strength within the NUT, it remained heavily male dominated. The number of female members sent as delegates to annual conferences steadily increased but they remained vastly outnumbered by men, while the proportion of women on the national executive reached only about 10 per cent before the First World War.
By the early years of the century Fannie Thomas was active in NUT affairs in the Bridgend region and from 1907 in the newly-formed Ogmore and Garw Association, at a time when discontent among women about the inequalities within the profession was coming to the fore and it was these, one would presume, that roused her feminist consciousness. A victory over benefit rights in 1903 inspired some members to create the Equal Pay League (EPL) the following year, the first feminist organisation within the NUT. Its first annual report (in1904) listed seventy-three members scattered throughout the country. Two were from Wales, one being ‘Miss F. M. Thomas, Ffaldau Infants, Pontycymmer, Glamorgan’. To signify its broader objectives, the EPL added ‘and the National Federation of Women Teachers’ (NFWT) to its title in 1906, at which point Fannie was one of six committee members. During 1907 and 1908 its secretary, Joseph Tate from Birmingham, regularly raised women’s issues in the NUT newspaper, The Schoolmaster, and NFWT members expressed their views in its correspondence columns and that of The Schoolmistress.
The ‘South Wales’ (or ‘Glamorgan’) branch of the NFWT was formed in April 1907 with Fannie at the forefront: ‘Miss F. M. Thomas is the pioneer of the Federation movement in South Wales, founding, with Miss Gelder, the important Glamorgan Association, of which she is president’, recorded Joseph Tate. Helen Gelder (1867-1957), a Yorkshire woman, was also a teacher in the Garw Valley – for thirty-seven years headmistress at Blaengarw infants’ school, scarcely a mile from Pontycymer. These two women were not only central to developments in south Wales but, it seems, to the very survival of the NFWT in its infancy. Years later, recounting his memories of that period, Tate wrote thus to another pioneer:
Now whatever mention is made in the N.U.W.T. of the beginnings of the movement, the names of the following women must not be omitted. Mrs Chester, the Misses Tebay of S. Annes who did remarkable work for us in Lancashire, Miss Hall, Miss Thomas & Miss Gelder of S Wales. With regard to two last. We had a com. meeting in London – Mrs Chester, Miss Williams, you and others & it was resolved to disband & give the names of the members we had to hand to Lond. Wom Teachers Assoc, who would look after their interests. We had only 80 members all told after 3 years of heavy work. When I reached home, I thought it over & wrote up to com. saying I was going on & we must not give up. Just then after that Miss Thomas & Miss Gelder wrote to say they had formed an Association in Glamorganshire of 114 members & they sent the subscriptions. They paid this out of their own pockets but we did not know this at the time. I can tell you the money was very acceptable as I had to have money from Mrs Tate which she could ill afford, & had 5 boys to keep. You may guess how grateful I was, and that I shall always remember them. [They] helped me when the weight was heaviest & the fortune of the movement was at its lowest ebb.
The ‘Glamorganshire Association’ initially covered a wide area, its fourteen group secretaries and eighteen committee members stretching from Llandybie in the west to Cardiff in the east. Among its published aims were several focused on equal pay issues but also others urging separate boys’ and girls’ departments in all large schools, a lower optional retirement age, a more adequate government pension and the return of more women representatives on all educational bodies.
As secretary of the branch, Helen Gelder was very much its mouthpiece in its early years. ‘It [the NFWT] is an association formed to watch women’s rights and women’s questions, and to protect their interests’, she wrote in the branch’s first public appeal in May 1907. ‘While inside the Union [the NUT] we are yet outside’. At the same time, she frequently vented the deep sense of injustice and frustration felt by herself and other south Wales activists towards the NUT in the columns of the Schoolmistress, exhorting women teachers to ‘wake from your torpor . . . lassitude and apathy’ and join the NFWT fight. Fannie’s own exasperation is manifest in a (rather poorly written) letter to Mary Macarthur, secretary of the Women’s Trade Union League and founder of the National Federation of Women Workers. In the course of asking Macarthur to write an article for the Woman Worker, Labour Leader, Clarion and Schoolmistress, she was fiercely critical of the conduct and attitude of the NUT:
Dear Mrs McArthur (sic),
We Women of S Wales Federation ask your advice & help for our Federation – We know you believe in mixed Unions as do we where benefits are equal – subscriptions are equal but benefits not – We are at present writing in the School Mistress our organ threatening to leave the N.U.T. & form a quite separate one women only – We do not at present mean this but the sex policy of the N.U.T. must ultimately lead to its undoing . . . An exceedingly useful thing to us just now would be if you would write advocating a Woman’s Union alone . . . If you took it up Men Teachers would believe we were in earnest . . .
We pay 12/- a year here as do the Men Teachers / no more towards the N.U.T. The Woman’s Federation is 1/- a year & has nothing to do with N.U.T. at present but outside it to demand concessions . . . We have generally to fight against the encroachments (through selfishness) of the men & often against their unkindness & unfairness though fellow members of the N.U.T.
I see no hope but to leave the Union if things go on as at present –
Please write us or for us to School Mistress if you can possibly see fit.
I should be greatly obliged if you could find time to do this for us –
Yours (in the cause) Sincerely
(Miss) F. M. Thomas Hd Mistress
So concerned were the NUT by this time about the growing dissatisfaction among female teachers that a conference of women teachers was convened in London in December 1907, comprising selected delegates from around the country and also male members of the national executive. The NFWT had few representatives. Nevertheless, they made their presence felt by forcefully voicing their concerns. One centred on opposition to the tendency of local education authorities (often for reasons of economy) to combine departments or schools under a male head, an issue on which Fannie was able to draw upon her knowledge of Glamorgan and Ffestiniog for supporting evidence. The Schoolmaster reported ‘a drastic amendment from Miss Thomas’, who unsuccessfully proposed that: ‘Any master taking over a girls’ or infants’ department previously under the charge of a mistress should be considered guilty of a breach of professional etiquette and be suspended from membership of the Union’. The conference was probably counterproductive in that it seemed as if the NUT was paying but lip service to discussion of long-standing grievances. Thus, south Wales members poured scorn on ‘the so-called representative women’s conference’, citing in particular the NUT’s attempts to control proceedings: ‘the men of the executive were present in numbers almost equal to the women selected, voting and speaking on all questions discussed’. Their reaction was ‘to recommend that the subscription to the Union should be pro rata to the salary received by individual members’.
‘South Wales to the front again! More power to Misses Gelder and Thomas’, wrote Joseph Tate in praise of campaigning efforts in the region in 1907. Helen Gelder went on to become federation president during 1909-10 and Fannie Thomas during 1912-13. Both were members of the annually-elected executive committee (later ‘Central Council’), the former until 1913, the latter until 1916. Other women from south Wales also emerged prominently in these years, most strikingly Emily Phipps of Swansea (council member, 1913-37; federation president, 1915-18) and Alice Bale of Cardiff (council member, 1913-23; president 1922-3).
Local bodies developed out of the original south Wales branch. Swansea became separate in February 1908 and Cardiff early the following year. All three had healthy memberships, Swansea being the largest in the country in 1911. Two years later it had been overtaken by Birmingham (141 members) but the next three biggest were Swansea (134), Cardiff (126) and Glamorgan (107). By now the federation was paying more attention to local organisation, having initiated a scheme of supervisors allocated to ‘a definite district for visiting associations and stimulating interest’, increasing memberships and helping form new branches being key tasks. Twelve were initially appointed, north and south Wales comprising two of the districts. Thereafter, the number of supervisors assigned to each of the districts increased; by 1913 there were twenty in total, including four for Wales (more than anywhere else). Fannie Thomas served as a supervisor until at least 1916. Wales’ importance in the formative years of the NFWT can also be seen in the growth of local associations. By 1912, it had four out of the total of twenty-three, Penmaenmawr having become the first in the north. By 1916, of the total of sixty-four federation branches, ten were in Wales.
Hull Daily Mail, 8 April 1912
During Fannie Thomas’ term as president (1912-13), the NFWT developed an itemised programme of ‘objects’: to secure better pensions and earlier optional retirement for women teachers; to secure equal pay and equal increments for men and women teachers of the same professional status; to secure the maintenance of each girls’ and infants’ department under its own head mistress; to bring all women teachers into the NUT and secure more women on the NUT executive; to secure representation of women on all education authorities; and to secure for women teachers the Parliamentary franchise. Time and again, activists insisted that the federation was intent on ‘converting’ the NUT on these issues, whose influence would then be brought to bear on governments and local education authorities to support equal suffrage, equal pay and equal opportunities for women teachers. Whatever doubts Fannie Thomas may have privately harboured about its efficacy, she was clear in her inaugural speech on becoming president in 1912: ‘They did not wish to capture the National Union of Teachers . . . they wished their men folk to recognize their equality and joint rulership’.
But, in reality, this proved a deeply frustrating – and ultimately fruitless – aspiration, as most cogently explained by Emily Phipps in a series of five pamphlets entitled, Why we do not work through the NUT. Over the years federation members made strategic advances in getting resolutions on specific issues passed by local NUT associations and thereby debated at annual conferences but were then unable to translate this into union policy by winning majority support. They also secured greater female representation in official positions but again encountered its limitations; as Phipps explained, ‘seeing that the most strenuous efforts resulted in putting no more than 9 women on the Executive, out of 37 members, and these 9 were by no means all feminists, this [method of changing NUT policy] is outside the realm of practical politics’. Activists found that, although forming a majority within the union, women were far from united – some did not believe in equality, others were apathetic, others lacked the resolve to stand up to male opposition, which might well extend to abuse and misrepresentation. Creating, sustaining and advancing combined action among female teachers thus required great commitment, persistence, energy and courage on the part of many women like Fannie Thomas.
According to Emily Phipps, ‘the first thing that made us realise that we must have our own union’ was the question of votes for women, which emerged as the most controversial and emotive issue within the NUT in the immediate pre-war years. It was first discussed at the annual conference of 1911, at Aberystwyth, shortly after Isabel Cleghorn of Sheffield had been installed as the union’s first woman president. When a male supporter rose to propose a suffrage resolution the result was uproar, as Emily Phipps vividly recorded:
The little band of women delegates sat quietly in the front rows of hall when Miss Cleghorn in the chair endeavoured to secure for Mr Allen Croft an opportunity to speak in favour of the Motion. He was supposed to have ten minutes for his speech, but so long, so continuous, and so violent were the interruptions that half-an-hour had passed before he had managed to get in ten minutes’ speaking.
Never had the writer been present at such a violent assembly. It was Pandemonium. Hundreds of opposing men formed a solid block at the end of the room. They stamped and howled, and hurled insults at the women. And all because they were asked to express sympathy with those fellow-members who did not possess an elementary right of citizenship which they themselves did enjoy!
Croft’s speech was punctuated by shouts of ‘no politics’ from the floor, reflecting the objection that women’s suffrage was a political not an educational question and therefore not a legitimate part of union business. It was upon this basis that the motion was defeated, as it was at successive annual conferences, where, amid similar hostility and disorder, the subject became even more intense and acrimonious. Emily Phipps expressed the frustration of suffragist teachers thus:
We tried for many years, when we were in the N.U.T., to obtain support from that union in the struggle for votes. We did not ask, so modest were our claims, for the union’s money, though the N.U.T. had spent money in helping to secure votes for village schoolmasters. We did not ask that the N.U.T. should use its organisation to press the women’s claims on the Government, or to convert the electorate by means of public meetings or articles in the Press. All we asked was that the Annual Conference of the N.U.T. should pass a Vote of Sympathy with those of its members who were debarred from the exercise of the vote because they were women! This vote of sympathy we never secured!
As ‘an ardent suffragist’, Fannie Thomas was in the thick of this struggle, pressing the issue both at national conferences and at a local level. Her election platform for her successful bid to become federation vice president in 1911 specifically emphasised her commitment to women’s suffrage, while it was also foremost in her address when accepting the presidency the following year. At times, she advocated a more radical stance than her colleagues were prepared to accept. Thus, at the NFWT conference in Aberystwyth in 1911, she unsuccessfully proposed that ‘until some measure of Parliamentary franchise was granted to women, the 2/- subscription to the Parliamentary fund of the NUT be not required of women teachers’. Locally, activists sought to rouse fellow schoolmistresses into action and to press NUT branches into passing suffrage motions.
It was with the intention of forcing the NUT to campaign on the issue that the Women Teachers’ Franchise Union (WTFU) was formed in August 1912. Accordingly, while essentially a London-based organisation, it was particularly active at annual conferences, as were the principal suffrage societies of the day. ‘A stranger to the town might have thought that a Suffrage Campaign and not a Teachers’ Conference was taking place’, reported The Vote from Weston in 1913. ‘The Great Campaign at Lowestoft’, pronounced The Suffragette the following year. Women teachers paraded the streets with placards advertising their meetings and stating their demands, while different organisations hired rooms, disseminated literature, displayed posters and held daily indoor and open-air meetings. NFWT activists led by Emily Phipps were prominent speakers.
The emergence of women’s suffrage as the principal demand of feminist teachers by the end of the first decade of the twentieth century reflected developments in the country at large, where three campaigning organisations spearheaded an intense and multifaceted agitation. Many women teachers were members of the oldest and largest of these, the emphatically law-abiding National Union of Women’s Societies (NUWSS). For the feminists of the NFWT, however, the two militant societies – the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) and the Women’s Freedom League (WFL) – often held far greater appeal. Fannie Thomas joined both.
Women’s suffrage first made a significant impact in the Garw valley in autumn 1906 when campaigners descended upon the Mid Glamorgan constituency in order to oppose the sitting Liberal candidate, the strongly ant-suffragist Samuel Evans, who was seeking re-election following acceptance of a minor government office, as was then the legal requirement. The WSPU leader Emmeline Pankhurst spoke at Pontycymer and elsewhere, while several of Evans’s meetings descended into chaos as a result of interruptions by her suffragette supporters.
It was this by-election which first brought Fannie Thomas into close contact with prominent activists. The following April – on her return from an educational tour of the United States – she invited and arranged for Adela Pankhurst, Emmeline’s youngest daughter, to lecture in Pontycymer on behalf of the National Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC). Arguing that social problems lay at the heart of child welfare, the speaker insisted that slum housing, lack of education, low wages and unemployment ‘would not be solved by one sex, but by both’ and thus ‘women must have votes’. Over the following years a stream of ‘celebrity’ visitors came – as Fannie’s guests – to address meetings in Pontycymer, including not only suffragettes but pioneers of the labour movement like Keir Hardie, George Lansbury and Ethel Snowdon and feminist educationalists like Elizabeth Phillips Hughes, all reflecting her social conscience and growing political commitment on several fronts.
Fannie Thomas made her first public speech on women’s suffrage in January 1909, sporting the purple, green and white colours of the WSPU, as one of main protagonists at the Pontycymer Debating Society. In time, she became a confident, forceful and amusing platform speaker, able enough to address some of the large London demonstrations. Locally, she took every opportunity to promote the cause. Thus, it was Fannie who induced the Australian suffragette, Muriel Matters, to convene the first suffrage meeting ever held in her home town in August 1909. ‘The quaint old borough of Cowbridge held its annual fair at St Mary’s Hill on Thursday, and thither we went’, wrote Miss Matters. ‘In the Town Hall that night I addressed a crowded meeting. Everything had been arranged by Miss F. M. Thomas, who also paid all expenses connected with the meeting.’
At the time Muriel Matters was one of the principal speakers of the Women’s Freedom League (WFL), founded in late 1907 following a split in the WSPU, largely over the Pankhursts’s dictatorial style of leadership. In Wales, the organisation was particularly strong in Swansea, where a vigorous and enduring branch was established in 1909 and thereafter spearheaded the women’s suffrage campaign in the area. The teaching profession, comprising local schoolteachers and lecturers at Swansea Training College – who were also active in the NFWT – were amongst its most prominent figures. In keeping with this characteristic, Fannie was one of the early members of the branch.
Another by-election in Mid Glamorgan in March 1910 provided an opportunity for women’s suffrage advocates of all shades to hold meetings, question politicians and distribute literature. ‘Miss F. M. Thomas has kindly placed her house in Pontycymmer at our disposal’, reported one WFL representative, while the WSPU (through Emmeline Pankhurst, Emily Davison and others) and the NUWSS were also active in the same locality.
In terms of methods of protest, the WFL pursued a militant but non-violent path, thereby locating itself between WSPU extremism and NUWSS constitutionalism. Its strategy centred on civil disobedience, adopting tactics such as boycott of the 1911 census. Supporters were encouraged to either openly resist the census by refusing to fill in the schedule or evade by staying away from their homes for the night. Thus, most strikingly, Swansea WFL and NFWT activists Emily Phipps and Clara Neal and three others spent the night in a cave on the Gower coast, while former teacher and WSPU organiser Rachel Barrett coordinated evasion by several dozen suffragettes in Cardiff.
Boycotting the census, however, as the national leadership of the WFL and WSPU strongly urged, was no straight-forward matter for individuals. Evaders were liable to prosecution and for teachers this could mean dismissal. Faced with this fear, some women opted for a more modest form of protest. Thus, Fannie Thomas filled in her census return but in the ‘Infirmity Column’ – where the head of the household was expected to note whether a person was ‘deaf, dumb, blind, lunatic, imbecile or feeble-minded’ – she wrote the word ‘unenfranchised’ for the four women residing in the household. Her NFWT ally in the Garw valley, Helen Gelder, was more forthright, commenting thus in the same column: ‘No vote. I am intelligent enough to fill up this census form – but I cannot make a X on a Ballot paper.’
As well as being a member of the WFL, Fannie Thomas subscribed and made donations to the WSPU. ‘Miss F. Thomas, Pontycymmer, gets rid of 2 dozen copies [of The Suffragette newspaper] every week’, reported the literature secretary of the Cardiff branch in late 1913. ‘Will other members follow her splendid example?’ She also spoke in support of the organisation on a number of occasions, vehemently defending its policy of wide-ranging attacks on property. Chairing a meeting in Pontycymer in November 1912, for example, she began by welcoming the opportunity ‘to publicly state her views on the woman’s question’ and then, as reported by the local newspaper, ‘openly advocated militancy, declaring that the end justified the means. She admired the pluck of the militant women and felt that she was not fit to wipe their boots. She herself had not the pluck to break windows, for fear of losing her post’. At another meeting in the same town a few months later, she similarly declared that ‘although she would not take part in militant tactics herself, she had the greatest admiration for the noble women who were even prepared to die for the cause’. ‘Tearing the Liberal Government to rags’, continued the report, ‘the speaker declared that women would not obey laws which they had no voice in framing’. She also regularly propounded another stock suffragette contention, as expressed thus in Porthcawl: ‘The militant tactics of the last two or three years had done more to bring the cause of women’s suffrage to a successful issue than all the 50 years’ strenuous striving along peaceful lines that preceded it’. Fannie Thomas was one of many members of local WSPU branches who, while not herself being prepared to undertake destructive acts, nevertheless mounted a vigorous and consistent defence of those who did. In this respect, we should perhaps distinguish between ‘suffragettes’ (such as Fannie) and ‘militant suffragettes’ (who were prepared to break the law and face arrest and imprisonment).
A society much in sympathy with the WSPU was a specifically Welsh one, the Forward Cymric Suffrage Union (FCSU), founded in July 1912 in the wake of the ‘Women’s Coronation Procession’ in London when all the suffrage societies came together in a spectacular display. In part, this demonstration drew on the theme of national identity within the British Empire and thereby inspired a Welsh contingent wearing traditional dress and carrying red dragons on poles. Formed initially as the Cymric Suffrage Union and led by London suffragists, the organisation sought to appeal to Welshwomen in other parts of England and in Wales itself. Fannie Thomas had marched in the procession and enthusiastically supported the initiative. Within a few months she had set up a branch at Pontycymer with herself as secretary, which went on to hold local public meetings and conduct propaganda. The society’s change of name in October 1912 was the result of its leaders’ decision to adopt a more combative approach to agitation, a path certainly favoured by Fannie. Campaigns were periodically conducted in Wales but essentially the FCSU operated as a London organisation, which, in 1913 and 1914 and during the First World War years, featured prominently in the metropolitan suffrage agitation.
‘Women’s Coronation Procession’, London, 17 June 1911
Fannie Thomas is in the forefront, second from the right
South Wales Daily News, 19 June 1911
The outbreak of the war in August 1914 dramatically altered the political climate, the issue of votes for women now inevitably relegated to the periphery, though some organisations remained determined to ‘keep the flag flying’. In particular, WFL speakers carried on touring the country. Thus, Nina Boyle addressed two meetings in Pontycymer in February 1915 – both chaired by Fannie Thomas – where she defended the League’s continued political agitation, while also ‘doing whatever was possible to do to help the country in its extremity’, such as alleviating the hardship faced by women and children and providing hospital care for wounded soldiers. In line with the latter objective, Fannie was prominent in community action during the war years, organising fund-raising school concerts and acting as secretary for local committees concerned with infants’ welfare and providing ‘comforts’ for troops at the front.
The enfranchisement of 8.4 million women over the age of thirty in February 1918 was a triumph for campaigners of all persuasions, though a further ten-year agitation was necessary to attain equal voting rights with men. Fannie Thomas herself is a good example of the kind of activist who was prepared to support several suffrage societies in an effort to do all she could to advance the campaign. She also sought to do so through any other available channel, which in her case specifically meant her trade union and Labour Party connections. It was as an elected representative of the latter which was to be the focus of much of the next twenty years of her life.
Relatively small numbers of women had served on public bodies since the 1870s but the Representation of the People Act of 1918 opened up greater possibilities by extending the local government franchise to include women on the same terms as men – aged 21 and over. Fannie Thomas was a strong advocate of women taking part in public affairs ‘in order to get into touch with people and make their views and influence felt’. She herself first sought local office in November 1914, standing for the Pontycymer ward of the Bridgend and Cowbridge Board of Guardians in November 1914. She did so with the support of prominent local trade unionists and members of the Labour Party but was unsuccessful, losing in a straight contest with another female candidate. It is unclear when exactly she became involved in party politics but she was certainly reading newspapers such as the Labour Leader, Clarion and Woman Worker by 1906 and in all likelihood, she was a member of the Garw Independent Labour Party (ILP) by the time the socialist writer and lecturer Isabella Ford of Leeds spoke to this organisation on women’s suffrage at Pontycymer in June of that year. In 1912, she and other local activists displayed their own fervour for the cause by supporting the Labour politician, George Lansbury, whose vehemence for women’s suffrage had led to a clash with his own party and resignation of his parliamentary seat in order to fight a by-election as an independent socialist specifically on this issue – he subsequently lost. ‘Hearty thanks to Pontycymmer ILP members’, declared the WSPU newspaper, ‘for arranging public meeting on Nov. 22nd. Miss F. Thomas presided, and Lansbury resolution was passed without a dissentient’.
The Labour movement was split both nationally and locally during the war. In Pontycymer, the ILP stood in opposition but there is no evidence whether Fannie herself adopted this position or, alternatively, whether she was present when Mrs Pankhurst addressed one of her rousing patriotic meetings in the town in September 1915. Certainly, it was her work as a Labour Party activist that dominated her public life in the post-war period. She was no longer prominent in the NFWT – which formally adopted the name NUWT in 1920, in confirmation of its secession from the NUT – while partial enfranchisement in 1918 did much to defuse, though by no means conclude, the women’s suffrage campaign.
At the general election immediately following the armistice, Fannie was a prominent supporter of the successful Labour candidate, Vernon Hartshorn, in the newly-created Ogmore constituency. She herself had already been adopted as one of the party’s official candidates for the local urban district council (UDC), which she successfully contested in April 1919, when she also had the backing of the NFWT, its president-elect, Agnes Dawson, coming to the Garw valley to campaign on her behalf.
As a teacher living and working in a rapidly industrialised mining valley, where the principal communities of Pontycymer and Blaengarw consisted of rows of terraced cottages which had been hurriedly built to accommodate the huge influx of workers from the 1880s, Fannie had long expressed deep concern about the home conditions of her pupils. In her inaugural address as president of the NFWT, she had spoken of ‘the demoralising effects of one or two roomed houses and the undesirable tendencies inherited from several generations’ and insisted that the teaching of domestic science to girls could play an important role in educating future mothers in parental responsibility and ‘in what a home might be’. Now, in putting herself forward for public office, she made a direct appeal to working-class women, advocating their involvement in local government-led social reform. Her election address focussed heavily on ‘the all-important and urgent matter of Housing’ and making use of impending legislation piloted by Dr Christopher Addison, the Minister of Health, which gave government subsidies to local authorities for the building of houses and thereby effectively signalled the beginning of council housing. Here she was portraying the ideal of the miner’s wife but the features and amenities she listed did reflect the demands of the advisory Women’s Housing Sub-Committee which had been set up by the government in 1918 and included representatives of organisations such as the Women’s Co-operative Guild and the Women’s Labour League:
In the past Men have built houses, but now the opportunity is given by an Act of Parliament, for Women to have a voice in their construction, position and aspect.
Why should not the Working man, as well as the rich, have his home beautifully lighted, aired, dry, with abundance of cupboards, fixed dressers, good larder, up-to-date fire grates or ranges, cold and hot water system, bath, large and roomy kitchen (and not a box) scullery, and coal “cwtch” conveniences under cover and easily getatable, in the house or attached to the house, with flushing tanks and up-to-date pans. A well paved backyard, no more than two houses in one block, so as to have a side as well as a front entrance. Who knows the necessity of these things and many others that might be mentioned better than the woman?
‘Who’, she went on, ‘are the more capable or fit persons, men or women, to attend to the matters pertaining to maternity and child welfare? . . . the work belongs pre-eminently to Women. Insist, then, that one of the sex should have a voice in this matter on the Council.’ In addition, pit-head baths, municipal laundries and canteens should be established to supplement ‘the comforts of the home’, while she also advocated improved refuse collection, with rubbish deposited or burnt at an out-of-town council amenity site and ‘converted into a useful and profitable asset’. Finally, she urged the creation of not just one, but two, recreation grounds in Pontycymer – one at either end of the town. ‘My public life and work in the past is well-known to you’, she concluded, ‘and I promise, that if elected, I will spare neither time nor effort to faithfully represent you on the Council’. She proved as good as her word.
When she topped the poll (of seven candidates) in the Pontycymer ward in April 1919 Fannie Thomas became not only the first woman to serve on the Ogmore and Garw UDC but also the first elected Labour woman councillor in Wales. ‘There were some surprises in the local elections’, reported the Glamorgan Gazette, ‘the most outstanding being the clear-cut victory of Miss F. M. Thomas. Here’s to our first lady Councillor! The ladies turned out in force . . . Miss Thomas is one of the pioneers in the women’s movement, and the result of the poll is an indication of this new force in public affairs.’ She was to be returned at the next five triennial elections, retiring in 1937, having served for eighteen years and been ‘Madame Chairman’ during the year 1928-9, the first woman to hold that position on the council (and the first Labour woman to be elected chair of a council in Wales).
Fannie was a committed and conscientious representative, assiduous in her attendance at full council, committee and sub-committee meetings. Over the years she sat on all the council’s various committees but her principal involvement was with the ‘Maternity and Child Welfare’ (CWC) and the ‘Hospital’ (HC) ones. The former was not constituted as a separate entity until 1922, whereupon Fannie was elected as its first annual ‘chairman’ and subsequently reappointed to this position on eleven further occasions during her remaining fifteen years as a councillor. She also chaired the HC for six; in some years she led both.
In 1924 Fannie was joined on the council by another Labour woman, Florence Dobbins (née Trew) from Ogmore Vale, who had already been serving as a co-opted member of the CWC. Formerly a schoolteacher (before marriage to a carpenter), she had held official positions in a number of local organisations – the Women’s Labour League, the Labour Party Women’s Section, the infant welfare centre and the NSPCC. As a councillor until 1929, she chaired the CWC for three years and the HC for one, as well as serving as a school governor. In 1932, another Labour activist, Winifred Thomas (née Cadogan), won one of the Blaengarw seats on the council. The daughter of a coal miner, she was a pupil teacher and then assistant teacher at Pontycymer school (under Fannie Thomas), before marrying a colliery engine driver in 1914. Again, she took on a similar role, leading the HC for five consecutive years and succeeding Fannie Thomas as chair of the CW for a year, before becoming the second ‘Madame Chairman’ of the council in 1938. The priorities of all three representatives were thus very much in line with what contemporaries perceived as women’s causes and clearly male councillors took the view that women could give help and advice on certain subjects with which they were inexperienced. Indeed, from the outset, the constitution of the CWC allowed for the co-option of ten representatives nominated by local committees and women’s organisations; thereafter, the overwhelmingly majority of those attending meetings were women (though voting powers were limited).
The function of the HC was a limited one, largely confined to management of the council’s ‘Isolation Hospital’ (for the treatment of infectious diseases) at Blackmill in the Ogmore Valley. Maternity and child welfare responsibilities were wide ranging. Much of the committee’s regular business dealt with the supply of free milk to the needy, overseeing the local welfare centres, supporting and monitoring the efforts of the health visitors, and offering health and hygiene education to expectant mothers and to the public at large (which included organising an annual ‘health week’). But it also had to consider the regular reports and recommendations of the council’s medical officer of health and keep abreast of current legislation and developments, which entailed the chair attending national and regional conferences. As the principal figure in the CWC over many years, Fannie was naturally staunch in defence of its efforts. Thus, for example, in 1932, she led the opposition to reducing the number of health visitors in the district from three to two. ‘It would be a tremendous mistake to attempt to economise in any way on health issues’, she asserted in the council chamber debate, forcefully reminding a fellow party representative that ‘we are a Labour Council’. Her opposition carried the day (by a single vote) but confronting the perennial issues of infantile death rates, maternal mortality, diseases like influenza, diphtheria and tuberculosis, and sanitation presented a huge challenge, while financial constraints often prevented the provision of additional facilities and services.
The majority of women who were involved in the labour movement in Wales in the inter-war years did so through the party’s women’s sections, which developed rapidly from 1918. Fannie Thomas had some involvement here, supporting the campaigns and social activities of the Ogmore Vale Women’s Section and being active in the East Glamorgan Labour Women’s Advisory Council as a periodic speaker and as a committee member from 1930 until 1932. But above all – at a time when women were rarely elected to public office – she made her mark as a diligent, efficient and long-serving councillor, for much of the time combining this role with her full-time teaching responsibilities.
Most significantly, she concentrated on improving maternity and child welfare services and indeed when a new clinic was opened in Pontycymer in July 1939, some two years after Fannie’s retirement, she was chosen to open it (and presented with a replica silver key) in recognition of her major contribution in this sphere. In her speech, she reflected on the tremendous advances in maternity and child welfare provision in the district during the past twenty years. In 1919, she said, ‘they had one nurse at the most for the valley, now they had a number’. With the opening of the clinic (with its modern equipment and facilities), ‘nearly all her life’s ambitions had been realised’, she extravagently stated, ‘and all her proposals on her first election address had come to pass, except for the erection of a refuse destructor’.
On stepping down from the council in April 1937, one of Fannie’s colleagues had remarked that ‘she had always been most active and generous in all social movements and ready to help those in distress’. In her response, she inevitably highlighted her contribution to the advance of general public health services over the years and her (dogged but unsuccessful) attempts to secure a refuse destructor. Ever defiant, her parting words were: ‘I am very sorry to leave you, but I can say that I have never done anything in this Council that I have been sorry for’. She was always ‘fearless in her convictions’.
At the age of sixty-nine Fannie’s campaigning days were now largely behind her. Over the decades the focus of her political activities had shifted significantly. The inequalities she experienced and observed in her early teaching career led her into feminist trade unionism. Frustration at lack of progress in the face of male intransigence further fuelled her radicalism and convinced her that women’s enfranchisement was not only just in principle but a necessary prerequisite to the removal of the injustices in the teaching profession and much beyond; she thus became a passionate suffrage campaigner. The transition to Labour councillor in the post-war years was a similarly natural progression. Following the major triumph of partial women’s franchise in 1918, increased female representation in public affairs was seen by many activists as an obvious and fundamental next step for the women’s movement. Given that throughout most of this period she was in full-time employment is vivid testimony to a remarkable individual.
For many women, it was the vibrant suffrage agitation of the immediate pre-war years which awoke their political consciousness and brought them into the public arena. Fannie’s activism – via the local labour movement and involvement in the very first steps towards national organisation by women teachers – pre-dated this. As an ardent suffrage campaigner, she sought to promote the cause through an array of organisations avenues. Like many others, she found her own level and brand of militancy relative to individual circumstances, in her own case within the confines of employment as a headmistress. She was never imprisoned or arrested but she vigorously and publicly defended those who did choose to break the law, which itself demanded courage. Fannie’s contribution to the campaign indicates the complexity of suffrage activism and of militancy at a local level.
Her response to the First World War was twofold, helping to continue local suffrage propaganda work on the one hand, while trying to minimise the suffering of those in the community most in need on the other. Her post-war career underlines a trait she had always portrayed, that her campaigning zeal extended far beyond the vote itself and her election as a councillor represented the grasping of the opportunity offered by municipal politics to obtain power and influence and then promote issues of most concern to her – public health, housing and the welfare of women and children. The many years of political activism required enormous energy, commitment and determination, for so often she was fighting against injustice, for what she believed to be just and right, and battling for her sex in the face of major obstacles.
After retiring from teaching in May 1931, Fannie moved between homes in Pontycymer and Porthcawl, some fifteen miles away, before settling in the latter in 1934. As well as remaining an urban district councillor in Ogmore and Garw, she carried on as a governor of the University College, Cardiff, of Maesteg Secondary School and of Bridgend County School. She also continued her work as chair of the women’s section of the British Legion and on the committee of the miners’ convalescent home (‘The Rest’) at Porthcawl.
Fannie’s retirement from her teaching post in 1931 had been marked in Pontycymer by a formal presentation of cheques and gifts by ‘old pupils’ and by ‘the past and present members of the staff and scholars’. Seven years later, after stepping down as a councillor, another presentation recognised ‘her 40 years’ public and educational services’ to the community. She died – as a result of a brain haemorrhage and heart failure – fourteen years later, aged eighty-four, at her Porthcawl home (2 Picton Avenue) on 15 July 1952. She was cremated at Glyntaff, Pontypridd, in a ‘strictly private’ service with ‘no flowers’ and her ashes deposited in her mother’s grave in Cowbridge churchyard.
Her death went seemingly unnoticed in the Garw Valley where she had once been such a significant figure for almost four decades, neither of the two local newpapers, the Glamorgan Gazette nor the Glamorgan Advertiser, recording her passing. There were short obituaries in the Western Mail, the Porthcawl Guardian and the Porthcawl Advertiser. No reference was made in the NUWT Annual Report (which commonly mentioned the deaths of former officials) nor in its organ, the Woman Teacher, nor in the minutes of the Ogmore and Garw Urban District Council, nor in the Labour Woman. Like so many local pioneer feminists, she had deserved greater recognition, her many years of dedicated campaigning and public office now apparently long forgotten.
It fell to a much later Garw Valley teacher and councillor, Vernon Chilcott, to provide an authentic testimonial in his 1994 autobiographical memoir. Born in Pontycymer in 1916, he wrote thus in a chapter entitled ‘She Helped To Lead The Way’:
‘I used to pass her house on the Ffaldau Hill, Pontycymer, almost every day when I was a boy and held it with almost the same awe as I held the lady who lived there.
I had never spoken to her, nor she to me, as far as I can recall, but whenever she came down the steps from her front door, I was impressed that I had seen her.
My knowledge of her was vague and limited truth to tell, so why did Miss Fannie M. Thomas, for that was her name, cause me to have such awe and respect for her.
It wasn’t because she was a headmistress, exalted though I esteemed that position . . . Ffaldau Boys’ School, which I attended, was some distance from hers, and anyway we had a headmaster, so our educational paths would never cross.
So there was no apparent need, nor advantage to be gained, in my awe and esteem of the Headmistress of the Ffaldau Girls’ School.
On reflection in later life, I realised that my awe of her came because she was an important woman in the community, in a day and generation when, with a few notable exceptions, men seemed to be far more prominent in local affairs and in the day to day conduct of business and commerce.
Most streets seemed to have a quota of important men: sporting, social, political, cultural, religious, trade union; but there were no women doctors, bankers, preachers, police, solicitors, business leaders.
Most women in the Garw were far too involved in bringing up large families on meagre wages, or on the dole, to be active in public life, and at the same time maintain a high standard of cleanliness of home and family, with little or no facilities to ease the burden.
Miss Thomas was a torch-bearer for her sex in the days when you needed courage to do so. She was a woman before her time, intent on blazing the trail for women’s rights and opportunities.’