President and Honorary Secretary of the Rochester, Kent, branch of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), author and dedicated campaigner for women’s rights.
Vera came from a very privileged background: she was born in Multan, India, (now Pakistan) on 21st August 1874 to Colonel Lewis Conway-Gordon C.I.E. R.E. (late Bengal) and Mary Grace (nee Cubitt, daughter of Joseph Cubitt, civil engineer, whose projects included the London, Chatham and Dover Railway). Vera was the youngest of four children and only surviving daughter of the marriage. Her maternal great-grandfather was Sir William Cubitt, also a civil engineer, who was responsible for the cast-iron replacement to the medieval bridge over the Medway at Rochester which opened in 1856 and the piers of that bridge still carry Rochester’s ‘Old Bridge’ to this day.
After three years serving with the Bengal Engineers, her father entered the service of the Public Works Department of the Government of India in 1860. He enjoyed a long and successful career culminating in his appointment as Director General of the Railways in India from 1887. In 1890, having damaged his eyes through overwork, Col. Conway-Gordon took two years leave of absence bringing his wife and daughter to England where they took up residence in Longley House, overlooking the Esplanade Gardens, Rochester. Col. Conway-Gordon retired on 23 May 1892 and was invited to stand for Rochester as a Liberal candidate in 1895 but was killed in a sailing accident in June, just a few weeks before the election.
Little is known of Vera’s early life, but in 1881, aged six, she is staying with her grandmother Ellen Cubitt, her mother, a butler, a cook, a ladies maid and a housekeeper at 16 Hyde Park Gate London. Vera was enrolled at Rochester Grammar School for Girls by her father in January 1891 when she was 16. She is recorded on the census in the same year as living with her parents at Longley House together with her cousin, also aged 16, a visitor and three female servants.
At the start of the twentieth century, women were still considered subservient to men and the best most wealthy women could hope for was to get married, whilst less privileged women were only seen as cheap labour. In those days there were virtually no openings into the professions as women were not allowed to take university degrees. It’s hardly surprising that in 1901, when she was 26, Vera is recorded on the census has having no occupation. She is still at Longley House with her mother who was ’Living on own Means’ and, as she still manages to employ two servants, there is no doubt that she was in receipt of a very handsome pension courtesy of her late husband. Because of her mother’s situation, Vera was in the unusual position for the time of not actually needing to marry or to work in any paid employment.
Although the Suffrage movement in Medway began as early as 1870, with the first suffrage meeting being held in the Rochester Corn Exchange in 1875, it did not become a large scale movement until after 1910 when the first Conciliation Bill, which was to grant suffrage to one million women who owned property over the value of £10, was passed in the House of Commons but failed to become law. Later that year, 300 members of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) marched on Parliament where they were met with unprecedented police brutality, assaults and arrest. Over a period of six hours on 18th November, a day which became known as ‘Black Friday’, women were battered with truncheons, punched and thrown to the ground by the police or had their faces rubbed against the railings outside the House of Commons. There were also widespread reports of police sexually abusing the women: pinching their breasts, lifting their skirts and groping them.
115 women and 4 men were arrested during the course of the day but, the following morning, when those arrested were brought to Bow Street Magistrate’s Court, the prosecution stated that the Home Secretary, a young Winston Churchill, had decided that “on this occasion no public advantage would be gained by proceeding with the prosecution” so all charges were dropped and all prisoners were released.
The Rochester WSPU was founded in 1911 and the Rochester NUWSS was formed shortly after in January 1912, initially with 43 members. Supporters of the Suffrage campaign generally joined both organisations but, as the WSPU tactics became more militant, the NUWSS received increased support. This was certainly the case in Rochester, a Liberal stronghold, where local Suffragists were mostly middle class women often married to respectable businessmen. The Rochester NUWSS branch grew until by 1914 had 159 members and was the fourth largest group in Kent, after Maidstone, Sevenoaks and Tunbridge Wells.
Around that time, Suffrage campaigning in Medway generally consisted of the distribution of literature, meetings – sometimes with national speakers – and joining in with national activities, including the 1911 census boycott. In Gillingham, WSPU organiser for North Kent, Laura Ainsworth, hired the Dancing Academy at Jezreel’s Hall for the night of 2 April as a place of shelter for women to gather to avoid being counted. According to the Chatham, Rochester and Gillingham News a few days later, the exuberance of the party caused so much noise that the police came to investigate. The police then alerted the census enumerator who recorded “Party of Suffragettes assembled in Dancing Academy – 40 in number, 1 male and 39 females”.
Vera did not take part in the boycott as she is recorded on the census, still at Longley House, again with no occupation listed. Her mother, now aged 67, completed the census and stated that the house has fourteen rooms which seems quite large for just two single women and their two servants. By this time, Vera was trying her hand at writing and her enthusiastic testimony to the wonders of Owbridge’s Lung Tonic appeared in newspapers up and down the country. Her first novel “Ordeal by Marriage”, a denunciation of loveless and arranged marriages, was published, but did not receive any mention in the local papers at the time.
By March 1912, the Rochester Strood, Frindsbury and District branch of the NUWSS had grown to close to 60 members and Lady Frances Balfour, President of the NUWSS and one of the highest-ranking members of the British aristocracy to lead the women’s suffrage movement, spoke at a meeting in the Corn Exchange and Vera was appointed Hon. Secretary. The NUWSS always stressed that their group was non-militant and tried to distance themselves from the arson and window smashing campaign of the WSPU.
That same month in 1912, the Labour Party became the first political party to include female suffrage in their manifesto and the NUWSS launched the Election Fighting Fund policy, which promised support to any party officially supporting suffrage in an election where the candidate would challenge an anti-suffrage Liberal. The effect of this was a declaration of support to the Labour Party
Vera was Rochester’s delegate to the 1912 NUWSS Annual Council and the following year, carrying a banner headed ‘Law Abiding Suffragists’, she led a procession to Rochester Cathedral to take part in a service held for the NUWSS Pilgrims before joining a mass march to London starting from seventeen cities across the country. The aim of the Great Pilgrimage was to draw attention to the suffrage cause and particularly to the constitutional aims of the NUWSS.
The NUWSS believed that the public, who were by now becoming accustomed to repeated sensationalist stories about militant tactics, should be reminded that the women’s suffrage movement had a much larger constitutional and non-militant wing and that what was described by one of the organisers as ‘the enormous educational work that is being done by many thousands of peaceful, law-abiding Suffragists’ should be promoted.
Women assembled from all over the country to take part in the march, following eight routes through the towns and villages of pre-war England to converge at a rally in Hyde Park on 26 July 1913, with a service at St. Paul’s Cathedral the following day. The Times newspaper commented “On Saturday the “pilgrimage” of the law abiding advocates of votes for women ended in a great gathering in Hyde Park attended by some 50,000 persons. The proceedings were quite orderly and devoid of any untoward incident.” “The proceedings, indeed, were as much a demonstration against militancy as one in favour of woman suffrage. The entire absence of disorder and the unquestioned success of the demonstration are the reward of the great body of women suffragists who seek to convince the country that the taint of militancy is not upon them. Many bitter things were said of the militant women.” About £8,000 was collected during the pilgrimage – the equivalent of about £625,000 today!
Vera was elected as President of the Rochester branch of the NUWSS and organised many public meetings and protest marches in the area which were reported upon regularly in both the Chatham News and Chatham Observer. Group meetings sometimes took place in the gardens of Satis House, next door to her home at Longley House, and her second novel “The Celibacy of Maurice Kane” was published in London by Holden & Hardingham in 1913. This book, although tantalisingly promoted in suffrage journals such as ‘Common Cause, ’The Suffragette’ and ‘Votes for Women’, together with other publications, received very mixed reviews generally.
In March 1914, with the threat of war looming, a letter appeared in the Chatham Observer signed by “Non-Militant” (but most likely penned by Vera herself) which considered the counter-argument that women should not have the vote because they had less physical strength than men. The writer comments “if men urge their power to wound and slay as a reason for giving them votes, surely the power of women to nurse the sick and wounded and dying, and heal and restore to health again is even greater. May we not also consider that it is a nobler calling to bear children than it is to bear arms?”.
In June the same year, Vera wrote in the Chatham Observer that she wanted the bestowal of the vote to “express the whole significance of the woman’s movement, the right of women to her freedom, the widening of her horizon, her entry into a fuller and greater life. I take it as the symbol of that true equality, and co-operation between the sexes by which the interests of our common humanity can truly be served.” She points out that although in those modern times any man could achieve greatness, no matter his start in life, however, although a woman could become a queen or be elected a local mayor, “no person born a woman can achieve by virtue of merit any position of power in the State. Every man can but no woman.”
War was declared on 28 July 1914 and the NUWSS, realising suffrage propaganda was not currently appropriate, threw the whole of the organisation into schemes for the relief and assistance of women. That October, Vera contacted the Chatham Observer appealing for the (rent free) use of a large room in Rochester or Strood and gifts of games, magazines and cups, saucers, urns, etc., so light refreshments could be provided. She wrote, “We feel that we could not, at the present time, be more usefully employed that in brightening the lives of the wives and dependents of our fighting men, and helping them to bear their part worthily in the great national effort and this is pre-eminently the work of a Suffrage Society, since the National Union has always worked consistently and untiringly for the welfare of women.”
Fortunately Vera and her fellow members were successful, hiring a hall in Strood High Street at a cost of just 3/- a night. The hall was described as bright and cheerful where wives and mothers of servicemen away at war were offered a cup of coffee with a bun for a penny with entertainment and activities, including reading, games, music and talks on subjects of domestic and national interest organised by local Suffragists.
The Representation of the People Act 1918 was passed by a coalition government, which allowed all men, as well as all women over the age of 30 who met minimum property qualifications to vote. The Act was given Royal Assent on 6 February 1918, the War ended on 11 November and ten days later the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act was passed, allowing women to be elected into Parliament for the first time. It was not until 1928, that the Conservative government of the day passed the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act giving the vote to all women over the age of 21 on equal terms with men.
“The Crown of Humanity”, Vera’s third and final novel was published in 1921, but didn’t seem to have met with much success. The British Library’s only copy was unfortunately destroyed during World War II.
Following the death of her mother in 1928, Vera left Rochester, moving to a small cottage in Tankerton where she spent the rest of her life. The 1939 Register, taken just after the outbreak of the Second World War, shows her living at 32 Strangford Road, Tankerton, with Miss Rose Carter, a Retired Governess, some 15 years her senior. Vera, who never married, is now described as a ‘Shopkeeper Corn Seed & Grocery’. Presumably, any pension from her late father had now dried up and from her late 50s, without any other source of regular income, had to find a way of supporting herself.
As a member of the Dickens Fellowship and Rochester Dickens Players, Vera gave lectures, directed and appeared in numerous productions over the years, often playing the principal character such as Uriah Heep, Barnaby Rudge and David Copperfield. Indeed in a review of an “excellently staged” Sir Walter Scott epic, she was hailed as “a striking figure in armour” and of giving “a masterly interpretation of the leading role”. She was also a great animal lover and enjoyed a little success at Kent shows with her African Grey parrots and Cocker Spaniel dog as well as lecturing on animals and their characters in the works of Charles Dickens. In her later years Vera served on numerous committees, was greatly involved in fundraising for the RSPCA, Poppy Appeal and other charities, and was founder member of the Whitstable branch of the United Nations Association.
Vera died of heart failure a few days before her 82nd birthday on 12 August 1955 in Whitstable Hospital and was buried in Whitstable Cemetery in grave 5 – D – 65. Despite a lifetime’s campaigning for women’s rights, having published three novels, beginning a career running a shop in her late 50s and having always been extremely active within her local community, Vera’s occupation is simply recorded on her Death Certificate as: