Emma Sproson, Wolverhampton’s first female Councillor
From 1912 onwards it is difficult to trace the activities of Emma and the Wolverhampton branch of the Women’s Freedom League. She visited Stourbridge Labour Church at least twice on behalf of the WFL and probably spoke at other venues. As war approached the presence of ILP members within the WFL determined that at least some members would oppose the war, most notably Emma. However in 1912 she resigned from the WFL, in protest at Charlotte Despard’s autocratic style of leadership. Thereafter she devoted herself to local politics but after the outbreak of the First World War we have less documentary evidence of what Emma was up to. In 1918 she was involved in setting up a ‘national kitchen’ in Darlington Street, providing food for the poor and needy. She also wrote a series of articles for the Wolverhampton Worker, a Labour magazine, condemning poor housing conditions in the area. With the end of the war in 1918 a small breakthrough was made – some women were allowed to vote if they were aged over 30 and either a householder, married to a householder or paying £5 a year in rent. Women were now also allowed to stand as Councillors on their local council and as Members of Parliament. Emma took up the challenge. She contested two unsuccessful local elections on behalf of the Labour Party in 1919 and 1920, but in 1921 she was elected Councillor for Dunstall ward.
On receiving the news of victory she waved a red flag from the Town Hall balcony – hence the nickname ‘Red Emma’. This naturally caused controversy, given that the Russian Revolution was in recent memory, but Emma wrote a riposte in the Express & Star, commenting that ‘several times it [the flag] has been carried through the public streets on the 1st of May and no insult to the public was assumed on any of these occasions… I stood as a class conscious Socialist, which does not mean that I believe in class hatred… in conveying the inference that the Red Flag stands for a revolution by force alone is trifling with fire. The true meaning of the Red Flag is international brotherhood, which alone will bring international peace’. A letter from a member of the public calling themselves ‘Commonsense’ was also included: ‘I felt my blood boil with indignation to see the red revolutionary flag flaunted before the large and orderly crowd of citizens in front of the Town Hall. The people round me were highly indignant and shouted in protest. The Labour party have again and again declared against Bolshevism but I suppose none of them will have the pluck to call ‘the women of the Red Flag’ to account for this act of defiance to their avowed beliefs’.
In her role as Councillor, Emma served on the public health committee and the subcommittees that dealt with mental health and homes for unmarried mothers. In the autumn of 1922 she provoked uproar among her colleagues when she exposed financial irregularities in the administration of the local fever hospital. Yet the official report exonerated the officials involved and Emma was removed from the hospital committee and the health committee. She was also censured by the Labour Party. In retaliation she published her own version of events in a pamphlet entitled Fever Hospital Inquiry—Facts v. Fairy Tales. Her chief reason for writing the pamphlet was not to prove that certain goods removed from the Fever Hospital were stolen but ‘to give the ratepayers an opportunity of forming their own opinions as to whether I was reasonably performing my duties in the efforts I made to find out the real ownership of the goods removed’.
She also remarks, quite dramatically, that
‘if dictatorship and subterfuge are to dominate the policies of our own councils, then we may as well burn our charters, ballot boxes and voting papers, and hand over the destinies of the town to a caucus of heads of departments and chairmen of committees. But human ideals and aspirations have not sunk so low as to allow this. An intelligent and true democracy will yet emerge as human progress ascends the thorny heights towards its sublimest possibilities’.
Emma had visited the hospital on numerous occasions and found that staff were being underpaid and treated badly and that items like linen and poultry had gone missing, resulting in the sacking of the Matron. According to Emma, as a result of her actions the laundress’s wages were increased by 50% and her hours reduced and the wages of the seamstress were increased by 100%. Her closing remarks in the report are particularly biting:
‘social progress is marked by stages. We have broken down tyrannies of the past, stage by stage. The new tyranny which threatens us is something which is the negation of representative government. It is an official octopus, plus the stupid bumbledom of a coteries better known as chairmen of committees, and they all cling together like the ivy on the old garden wall’.
Despite this controversy, in November 1924 she fought a successful by-election beating her rival by 1,765 votes to 1,600; the Express & Star reported that the news was received with ‘a roar of cheering, mingled with many boos’. She again waved the red flag, ‘the signal for a renewed outburst among the spectators’. Unfortunately she failed to retain her seat when she stood as an independent in 1927. Latterly her hearing became severely impaired and public work was increasingly difficult. Emma Sproson died at home, 56 Castlecroft Road, Tettenhall, on 22 December 1936; she was survived by her husband.
Emma Sproson’s working-class, Midlands-based career provides a vivid counterbalance to the view of the women’s suffrage movement which sometimes portrays it as predominantly bourgeois and London-centred. In a newscutting from the early 1920s a journalist recalls Emma’s previous work for the suffrage movement. Emma replies, with typically sharp humour,
‘I was early faced with poverty and was content to go to prison for women’s emancipation because I knew where one girl survived and overcame the evil conditions of life in which I was placed, thousands went under; and the irony is that the man who committed me to prison twelve years ago for refusing to pay a tax as a protest against women’s political disability was the one appointed to declare me the first woman Councillor for Wolverhampton’.
If you would like to see Emma’s papers then you can do so at Wolverhampton City Archives, Molineux Hotel Building, Wolverhampton, WV1 1SF