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Asquith, Herbert Henry (1852-1928), 1st Earl of Oxford and Asquith, Prime Minister
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Copy letter from J. S. Nicholson to J. G. Frazer

3 Belford Park, Edinburgh. Dated 18 February, 1923 - [James] Gow has died, lived on the same stair in the Bishop's Hostel, wanted to make way at the bar, but was instead forced to become a schoolmaster, about which he 'spoke ... most bitterly'; Adam Sedgwick asked Asquith why he didn't make Cunningham bishop and he said 'I can't make a tariff reformer a bishop'; is an odd world in which Lloyd George is an appointer of bishops and keeper of England's conscience and maker of peace; sends an article on the mark [not transcribed]; is very busy with large classes.

Copy of a letter from Lord Pethick-Lawrence to G. M. Trevelyan

Explains his view of the historical importance of the women’s suffrage movement (in response to views expressed by Trevelyan).

(Carbon-copy, with handwritten alterations.)



3rd. October, 1949.

My dear Master,

You may remember that when I had the honour of dining in Trinity last June {1} I mentioned to you that I should like some day to have a talk with you about the woman’s militant movement for the franchise at the beginning of the century. Thinking it over I have come to the conclusion that it will probably suit you better if I put what I have to say in writing.

I must begin by apologising for troubling you at all about the matter but as you know I have been for a great part of my life a propagandist and I am still incorrigible in my old age. I do not like to think that you, our foremost British historian, should have, as it seems to me, the wrong slant on this movement which I hold to have been of considerable historic importance. The fact that I played a prominent part in it myself entitles me to speak on its behalf though I am free to admit that it also entitles you to charge me with bias. But then you have said (and I agree) that even an historian is none the worse for bias.

My case is:— 1) that any section of the community that has no political rights should endeavour to win them by reason and argument, but that if prolonged peaceful agitation fails to influence those who have the power, then it has no alternative but to use extraordinary and extralegal methods unless it is prepared to acquiesce in its own subjection.

2) that such methods should be designed so as a) to rouse the largest number of the unenfranchised section to a consciousness of their subjection b) to create the greatest difficulties for the Government, and c) to win the support of the bulk of the population by casting odium on the Government for its repressive counter measures.

3) that the militant suffrage agitation acted broadly on these lines (though it naturally made some mistakes), and that it was instrumental—though not exclusively—in creating a situation from which there was no escape except by conferring a measure of enfranchisement on women.

I do not think you will substantially disagree with me on either of the first two points which are borne out by countless examples, the latest of which come from Asia—India and Indonesia, in the former of which I was acting for the Government—but I gather that you do not accept my version of the facts as to the third.

It is to this point therefore that I will specially devote myself.

I was brought up, like you, in the Liberal fold and I still think that we owe much of our national democratic heritage to the great Liberal statesmen of the 19th century. Nevertheless I think that the Liberal Party bungled the case of the women and of the working man and lost its prestige and pre-eminence by so doing. By the time that the militant suffrage movement began women had grown tired of asking politely for the vote and being fobbed off it by discreditable political devices; and some younger spirits had become rebellious.

The militants directed the spear-head of their attack upon the members of the Liberal Government because they were the most vulnerable in that it was contrary to Liberal principles to deny enfranchisement to a section of the community which paid taxes and was subject to the laws made by a parliament in which they were not represented. In the earlier stages of the agitation they abstained from violence and concentrated on questioning Cabinet Ministers, campaigning against Liberal candidates at by-elections and committing technical breaches of the law. As a consequence they were subjected to considerable violence at the hands of stewards at meetings and of the police in the streets and they suffered terms of imprisonment.

I think it is indisputable that in this way they succeeded in rousing the sympathy of a very large number of their own sex. Many thousands enrolled themselves in the militant organisations. They included such prominent women as Dr. Garrett Anderson the Mayor of Aldeburgh, Mrs. Saul Solomon widow of the Cape Premier, Lady Constance Lytton, and leading actresses, novelists and others. Funds were contributed running into hundreds of thousands of pounds. The paper Votes for Women the weekly organ of the movement had a circulation of 30,000 to 40,000. About a thousand women served terms of imprisonment. Moreover after militancy began (and in my opinion, and in the publicly expressed opinion of Mrs. Fawcett the leader of the “constitutional” suffragists, largely in consequence of it) the membership of the non-militant suffrage societies showed a marked and rapid increase.

They succeeded also in directing the attention of the general public to the question. At one time from 100 to 200 meetings were being held every week, some of them vast open-air demonstrations, others in the largest halls of the country which were packed to overflowing. I do not suggest that all the members of the audiences were supporters though many were, but there was little or no hostility; and in the street demonstrations the crowds were mostly sympathetic. In fact in the so-called “raids on Parliament” the women counted on the crowd to protect them from the police.

How far electors were influenced at by-elections to vote against Liberal candidates by suffragette orators and canvassers can never be proved one way or the other but the press frequently alleged that they were, and there is no doubt that Cabinet Ministers were greatly embarrassed and hard put to to defend their attitude. Naturally, as is always the case when coercive action is taken by a Government, the British public opinion reacted against the Government.

During this period of the agitation there was a growing feeling among all parties in the House of Commons that the question of woman suffrage ought to be treated seriously and sympathetically and in 1910 an all-party committee devised a compromise proposal which came to be known as the “Conciliation Bill”. In order not to prejudice the chances of this compromise the militant societies were asked to desist from any militant action. They agreed; and for several months they carried out strictly constitutional and non-provocative activities. But in the end the Liberal Government made it quite clear that they would have nothing to do with the Conciliation Bill and Mr. Asquith remained adamant in his opposition. Militancy was therefore resumed in all its forms. Women continued to go to prison in increasing numbers and suffered violence in the streets and at Liberal meetings for their insubordination.

It was then that some militant women decided upon a change of tactics in the direction of actual violence against property. They were influenced to take this course 1) by the preference for being arrested quickly rather than after being knocked about and 2) by the taunts levelled against them by Cabinet Ministers that their rebellion was trumpery and not of the same account as the riots indulged in by men agitators in the 19th century. The form of violence adopted was that of breaking windows. At first the leaders of the militant movement opposed and tried to restrain women from taking this course but later they recognised it and organised it. A great shop-window breaking raid took place in London and created a sensation. The Government took action by arresting the leaders of the militant movement on a charge of conspiracy. I was one of those leaders and I made a speech in the dock at the Old Bailey in my own defence. I enclose with this letter, a verbatim report of it which you may feel disposed to read (not the biographical note which precedes it which has no relevance to the present issue.) It gives a number of further facts which I have not repeated in this letter. The trial, which was given immense prominence in the press, ended in our conviction, the jury appending a sympathetic rider, and we were sentenced to nine months imprisonment. At the same time several hundreds of the rank and file of the movement were also imprisoned. After serving part of our sentence the prisoners adopted the hunger strike. Some of us were forcibly fed and then released.

Subsequently there was a division in the leadership. Mrs. Pankhurst decided on new and more violent tactics which did not appeal to my wife and myself and we parted company. The Government also adopted new tactics and instead of applying forcible feeding the hunger strikers, took powers in a special Act of Parliament—The Cat & Mouse Bill—to release them and to rearrest them when they had recovered their health. The agitation continued with increasing bitterness on both sides up to the outbreak of the first world war.

Meanwhile of the purely political side there had been many developments. Supporters of woman suffrage did not succeed in inducing Mr. Asquith to support a woman suffrage measure. Instead, he promised that the franchise Bill which would be introduced to extend the male franchise would be open to amendment to include women. In the event the Speaker ruled that the Bill could not be so amended. This created an impasse in which it became evident that though the supporters of woman suffrage were not strong enough to insist on the passage of a Bill to enfranchise women they were strong enough to prevent the passage of a Bill to enfranchise more men from which women were excluded.

The external war brought a truce to the domestic militant campaign and during the war women rendered great services to the nation. When in the middle of the war a new registration and franchise reform measure became necessary a Speaker’s conference was constituted to frame the basis of its provisions and a partial enfranchisement of women was included among them and was accepted as a reasonable compromise and as such was enacted.

I am in no doubt that the women’s war service reconciled a large number of doubters to the inclusion of women in the future lists of electors. But I equally have no doubt that the prominence given to the question by the pre-war agitation made it impossible to ignore their claims and that, without it, gratitude to women for their help in critical hours might easily have fizzled out without the accordance of any tangible recognition of their right to participate in the future governance of their common country.


{1} 21st. See PETH 6/279.

Copy of a letter from Winston Churchill to H. H. Asquith, 5 Jan. 1915

(Place of writing not indicated.)—Urges the need to develop ‘special mechanical devices for taking trenches’, drawing attention to recent changes in the nature of warfare. Suggests the use of steam-tractors with armoured shelters, mounted on caterpillar tracks [i.e. tanks], shields on wheels, and artificially-produced smoke.

(Typed transcript, sent by Churchill to Edwin Montagu about 18 Oct. 1916.)

Letter from —— to Lord Pethick-Lawrence

The British Broadcasting Corporation, Broadcastinh House, London, W.1.—Invites him (retrospectively) to prepare and deliver, on stated terms, a radio talk on H. H. Asquith for the series ‘British Prime Ministers since 1900’ (cf. 5/123a–b, 5/124a).

(A printed form, with details typed in. Signed p.p. the Talks Booking Manager (the name is indistinct, but is probably Ronald Boswell).)

Letter from Edwin Montagu to Venetia Stanley

Ewelme Down, Wallingford.—Is sorry he couldn't go to Penrhôs. Refers to his companions at Ewelme. Discusses Asquith’s speech on Home Rule, as well as the general political climate, and asks for Venetia’s views. Sends her a present.



Ewelme Down, Wallingford
April 14th 1912

My dear Venetia

I was so sorry that I could not come to Penrhos this week. It was most kind of your mother to ask me and even though I was engaged here, I believe I should have rushed to Wales if I had not had to be in London yesterday.

I like this place tremendously but I am not calling this a very good weekend. The Prime is not in the best of form yet, I’m afraid and it makes poor Margot just a little —. Violet has Cys and Bongie and I want to talk to you. So beware of next time we meet.

Home Rule (I wish you’d been there) was a great day. The Prime expounded with great vigour and often with a first class phrase a really good bill. It was delightful to find his voice was very strong and that he lasted without visible effort for two hours.

I dont think he was quite appealing enough, if I may make criticism.

It was not merely a licensing bill or a budget it was a transcendent constitutional reform, great than the Parliament Bill because irrevocable and final. It had been attacked in the abstract by a large number of people whose alternative was nothing, so it wanted commending not only in its provisions but in its principles. I suspect because he did not want to speak too long, and also because he was determined not to try to bend the bow of Ulysses he was determined in his conciseness. And of course of its kind it was wonderful, never faltering in its strength, never lacking in its courage and above all never flickering in its dignity.

And there was the usual display of Conservative littleness, of meanness, of caddishness and rather a poor performance of Carsons. Both Redmund and Macdonald were good and so in his sincere stupid way was Capt. Craig.

For myself I feel that Home Rule is the most unarguable proposition in politics. For Imperial and for Irish reasons its not only inevitable but its opposition cannot be based on logic. Nevertheless in application like so many other unarguable axioms its very very difficult and all sorts of criticisms will be levelled at the workmanship.

So that what with an overloaded programme and no signs of House of Lords reform, the political horizon is by no means rosy. Edward Grey is very gloomily prophesying opposition before the end of the year because he predicts more strikes.

Dear Venetia, if you will do me the great favour of answering them, I should like you to tell me what you think about these things. You have a wonderful faculty of producing from me frank expression of views without qualification. You have a power even at this most damnable distance of convincing me of clear vision and and† thought. But you are most frighteningly reserved about yourself. All self contained people are and the greater they are the more frightening it is. And asking isnt much good but I sometimes feel rather mournful when I reflect that the inner you is as hidden from me (except at moments oh so rare) as it was a year ago.

And now do you remember that I could not find a Xmas present for you and you were generous enough to say that I might give you one when I found one.

Well I couldnt so I had one made and its rather a failure in colour and weight. Nevertheless in principle it fulfilled all the conditions I postulated and if its not turned out as I had imagined it, its there and will reach you—together with the drawing from which it was designed tomorrow.

Yrs ever
Edwin S. Montagu

Please forgive this letter being hypercritical, boring and I fear a little impertinent.


† Sic.

Letter from Edwin Montagu to Venetia Stanley

India Office, London.—Accepts her invitation to Alderley. The Government have decided to break up Parliament early, and he is uncertain what to in the interval before the day on which he had expected his holidays to begin. Is satisfied with his Budget speech. Everything is going well [with the Parliament Bill], though Balfour is to move a vote of censure on Monday.

Letter from Edwin Montagu to Venetia Stanley

Archerfield House, Dirleton.—Is disappointed that he just missed her and wishes she were there, though it is a good party. Is concerned by the dangers that women’s suffrage presents for the Prime Minister. Discusses his planned movements.

Letter from Edwin Montagu to Venetia Stanley

Maid’s Head Hotel, Norwich.—Beb and Bongie have arrived. Refers to the the news from Belfast [of Churchill’s speech there], and reflects on his own oratorical skills. Praises Churchill’s demeanour. The Home Rule Bill will, he thinks, be ‘all right’, but it may cause trouble in Ulster. He enjoyed their lunch together yesterday.

Letter from George Macaulay Trevelyan to R. C. Trevelyan

2, Cheyne Gardens, S.W. - Apologises for writing Bob 'argumentative letter, not a very good one' [14/204]. Restates his position in brief: thinks [Edward] Grey and [Herbert] Asquith secretly committing Britain years ago to support of France 'was very bad indeed', but that the German invasion of Belgium made it 'both just and necessary' to fight; the destruction of Louvain [Leuven] 'greatly increases [his] desire to prevent the Germans becoming the overlords of Western Europe'. Is not now going to Serbia, as the route against France is now dangerous, and another Balkan war is threatened, may go later if things improve.

Julian looks 'well and jolly'; envies children, as they think very little about the war, which is ''the shipwreck of civilisation'.

Letter from H. H. Asquith

Accompanied by a copy of the Grant of the Dignity of a Member of the Order of Merit to Professor Henry Jackson, D. Litt. with a stamp in the bottom left corner Certified True Copy dated 26 Aug. 1948.

Letter from Margot Asquith to Edwin Montagu

10 Downing Street, Whitehall, S.W.—Encloses a letter from Henry [Asquith] in immediate reply to her own. Asks to have it back, as she values it deeply. Discusses Henry’s relationships with Venetia, herself, and other members of his family. On arriving at the Castle on Tuesday he told her how much her letter had touched him. He said had lunched with Venetia and spoke of her ‘with great sweetness’.

(Misdated March.)

Letter from R. C. Trevelyan to Caroline Trevelyan

Trinity:- Hopes his mother is 'satisfied with the political outlook': they do not know much of what is going on here. The last thing he heard was 'that [H. H.] Asquith was engaged to Dodo [Margot Tennant, given the name of E. F. Benson's character said to be based on her]' but does not know if that is true; hope 'she will not treat him as badly as she treated Lord Chesterford [also in Benson's Dodo]'.

Asks if his father is well; supposes he is 'not put out by the fate of his bill' but rather looks on it as 'a grievance', which is 'always acceptable, especially when it can be well-turned to account'. George is 'quite well and happy'; Robert went for a walk with him and 'his erratic friend Baring' this afternoon. Baring's 'last performance' was sending a 'telegram to his patron Edmund Goss[e], purporting to be from his tutor Boughey, saying - "Poor Baring passed away quietly this afternoon Boughey"'. Boughey does 'not seem to have resented the trick' when he discovered it from Gosse's 'anxious enquiries'. Is going to tea with the Sidgwicks tomorrow 'at their new house'.

Asks how Charlie is, and whether he 'has begun to make any close and more personal acquaintance with his constituents yet'.

Letter from R. C. Trevelyan to Edward Marsh

A subscription is being got up to pay for Bertie [Russell]'s appeal [against a prison sentence for publicly lecturing against inviting the US to enter the First World War]. He is being defended by [Edmund] Tindal Atkinson K.C.; a hundred and fifty pounds of the approximate four hundred and twenty pounds total costs is required at once; Bertie will not be able to pay anything himself as he is 'very hard up'. His friends are afraid that if the six months hard labour is confirmed, he may 'break down mentally'. Gilbert Murray has talked to Asquith about it, who is 'very strong that kind of offence is properly punished by a fine, and not imprisonment'. They hope at least for a reduction of the sentence. Eddie should send any contributions to F. W. Hirst at "Common Sense", who is organising the subscription; Bob and Goldie [Dickinson] are writing to friends of Bertie.

Letter from R. C. Trevelyan to Sir George Trevelyan

The Shiffolds, Holmbury St. Mary, Dorking. - The hot weather has returned, here the thermometer reads over 80 [degrees Fahrenheit] in the shade; hopes it is less hot for his parents. Was in London on Wednesday, which he thinks was the worst day, and saw at a distance 'the column of smoke from the Carlton Hotel' as he was on the way to see Fanny's First Play [by George Bernard Shaw]. Afterwards he went to see what was happening, but only saw a 'moderate crowd', and at least ten fire-engines preparing to leave. The fire did not seem to have done any external damage, but more may be visible by day. The 'Revolution [the passing of the Parliament Act] seems to have accomplished itself very quietly', and everyone now seems 'very grateful to Asquith for his management of affairs'.

Julian and Bessie are well. Tovey is at the Shiffolds, working on the score of the opera [The Bride of Dionysus]. Saw Charles on Monday, and had lunch with him 'just before the Censure Debate'; he 'gave a good account of Molly, and seemed quite cheerful'. Robert and Bessie are looking forward to their visit to Wallington in September.

Encloses, as a present for his mother, a poem from a 'young friend [Lascelles Abercrombie]... a descendant of Sir Ralph Abercromby, though he spells himself differently'. Thinks he has 'some real genius' and 'will do finer things before long'.

Letter from R. C. Trevelyan to Sir George Trevelyan

c/o A. Waterfield, La Fortezza, Aulla, Lunigiana. - Thanks his father for his 'very kind letter' [12/93], and for the 'most generous arrangement on making good the income tax' on his allowance, which the previous arrangement was enough to cover; he and Bessie wish to thank his parents 'for this and other constant kindnesses of the same kind'. Wonders whether the Chancellor [Asquith] will 'introduce a graduated tax of some kind': the debate would 'give Charles an opportunity, as it is one of his subjects'. Thinks Theodore [Llewelyn Davies] 'was in favour of graduation in principle, though admitting the practical difficulties'; it is at times like this that he will be much missed. Robert used to get him to 'discuss politics at great length' about once a year, usually at their Cambridge Easter parties.

There has been 'thick snow' which has kept them in for several days, but it is beginning to disappear today and they are all going out: Robert by himself, the others [Bessie and the Waterfields] visiting the country villa of the Admiral who is 'the head of the arsenals at Spezzia [La Spezia]'. Last week they went to Lerici and saw Shelley's villa; the outside has recently been 'spoiled with hideous decorations' but the interior is 'very interesting and even beautiful'; some of the furniture is quite old and might well be from Shelley's time.

Today news has come in the Italian newspapers that Balfour has '"surprised the world by surrendering himself con armi e bagagli to his great amico nemico [friend enemy] Chamberlain'". It is a pretty end to the whole story'. Hopes a few of the 'late Balfourians will have the courage to stand out and... form the nucleus of a Conservative free-trade party'. Discusses the Pervergilium Veneris, a 'curious poem' for which he has 'always had a weakness'.

Letter from R. C. Trevelyan to Sir George Trevelyan

Trinity:- Is glad that his father's 'Committee has not miscarried', and hopes it 'will not be unproductive and without issue'. Has not had time to 'follow political developments closely', but read Asquith's speech 'with great interest and approval'. Harry [Yates] Thompson and Dolly were at Trinity yesterday to stay with the Master. Thompson 'turned up' in Robert's room at 10 a.m. as he 'was dressing for a late Sunday breakfast', and found him 'covered by just that amount of clothing in which Nelson's sailors fought at the Nile and Trafalgar'.

Robert also saw Thompson at [Henry?] Jackson's after hall. There was discussion of the [Apostle's?] dinner, which will be on 20 June: they are 'for obvious reasons, very anxious to get a good attendance this time' and will try to get infrequent participants to come. Asks his father to 'use [his] powers of persuasion' if he meets anyone in the House of Commons or elsewhere 'who might perhaps come without it'. They are 'anxious to know [C. H.] Tawney's address'; asks his father to send it to him if he knows it, or 'tell [James] Parker Smith, the president'. Welldon has been asked, and Robert hopes he will 'turn up'. Asks whether Lord Carlisle every comes. The 'Chancellor [of the Exchequer] is for various reasons we fear impossible'.

Asks whether all is well at home. Chanced to see 'an energetic counter-attack of C[harles] upon [Edward?] Stanley', but has not 'seen the provocation'; supposes Charles will keep it so Robert will be able to see it in London. Is staying inside all today with 'a cold in the head of the kind that makes one very stupid', but is otherwise well. George is speaking tomorrow 'on Disestablishment'; he 'must speak at least once a term, as he is now on the committee'; he is well, and 'thoroughly engrossed in his work'. Robert sends his love to his mother, whom he proposes to call 'Matuschka' in future. Harry Thompson says the Master 'ate something that did not agree with him at the Saturday dinner, and has to keep to his bed all Sunday from indigestion'.

Letter from Roger Cary to Lord Pethick-Lawrence

The British Broadcasting Corporation, 200 Oxford Street, London, W.1.—Encloses the script of a programme about Asquith (5/125c). Some cuts have had to be made, but he hopes that Pethick-Lawrence will like the programme.

(Signed as Producer, Overseas Talks.)

Letter from Sir George Trevelyan to R. C. Trevelyan

Wallington, Cambo, Morpeth. - Has given the poem to Caroline. Glad to hear that Julian is all right. Thinks the garden here is currently 'as splendid as any garden [he has] ever seen'; Keith 'takes an artist's pleasure in it'. Will not be able to send game for a while, as Sir George can only manage two or three hours grouse shooting now and Charles will not be here this week. Asquith has 'done magnificently'. Future dangers are 'national bankruptcy and disorder'. He and Lord Kinross once got through a long coal strike in the West of Scotland without one breach of order, though it drove the Chief Constable to suicide. Disorder should 'never be allowed'.

Letter from Sir George Trevelyan to R. C. Trevelyan

Welcombe, Stratford on Avon. - Caroline received a most interesting letter from Bessy this morning; he has ordered Drummond [his banker] to pay thirty five pounds into Robert's account for Julian's 'little affair' [an operation on an umbilical hernia]; 'quod optime eveniat!' [Latin: may this turn out well]. Sends George's account of their 'little ceremony of Boxing Day'; asks for it back. Has been reading Herodotus, 'with a play of Plautus between each book'; has reached the last book and wishes there were nine more; Plautus grows on him more with each reading, as also happened to Macaulay when he read and re-read him in India. Is now going to read Thucydides, again with a Plautus play between each book. Sir John Simon stayed last week, and mentioned that he had shown Thucydides 2.71-74 to Asquith as 'a curious parable to the story of Belgium'. Was glad to find the narrative easy to read.

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