By Harry Orr
After the war some women did return to their domestic lives or drudgery as many would have seen it. Women who had worked as postmen and on the farms were laid off in large numbers. But not all women were ready to turn their back on the new opportunities that they had experienced during the war. Many women became involved in political and social movements, and in the Shrewsbury area in 1919 to 1921 one woman was to stand out above the others, the remarkable Mabel Billson, a sort of radical whose views would not be out of place today.
Mabel came from a long line of radicals. She described herself as a ‘born and bred liberal.’ Her father, Alfred Billson, had been an MP himself. Representing various constituencies, he had become a tenant of Rowton Castle, west of Shrewsbury. An upmarket hotel today. He was well-respected but would be remembered for his death that took place in 1907 in the House of Commons, literally as he passed through the ‘aye’ division.
Mabel’s work must have already made an impact on local liberals because by late 1919 she was being put forward to stand in the next General election on the Liberal platform. Her selection is described in detail in the media. It took place at the Granville Club at the executive meeting of the Shrewsbury Women’s Liberal Association and in front of some members of the 1919 Club and the Finance committee. Percival Wigley, chair of the meeting, addressed the audience. He hoped, ‘that Miss Billson might be induced to take up the fight on behalf of Liberalism. This meeting’, he continued, ‘views with great pleasure the prospect of Miss Billson becoming the radical candidate. The time is opportune for her adoption as the prospective councillor’, added councillor Gladstone.
So, in 1919, only one year after the vote was given to women over 30 and only a year after women were allowed to sit in the Commons, here was Shrewsbury pinning their hopes on Mabel Billson. In reply Miss Billson is quoted as saying, ‘it was a great honour’ and she referred to the fact that ‘there were twenty-eight female candidates at the last election and the fact that none of them were returned was she thought because the Act entitling women to sit in the Commons had only been passed a few days before the election. The prospect of fighting the cause appealed to her more than the prospect of winning, she would spare no effort’.
Mabel was true to her word. She threw herself into public meeting after public meeting. She had already been president of the Women’s Liberal Association, and was used to public speaking. In 1920 at Wyle Cop School in Shrewsbury she addressed an audience of women. Thanking them for her invitation, she went on to say that it was a ‘new departure to ask a woman to represent a constituency but there was real definite work for women to do in government. She was born and bred in liberalism which stood first and foremost for the freedom of the people’. She criticised the coalition government of Lloyd George, describing him ‘as an opportunist who might spring an election at any time and so it was important that liberals be ready at once. The finances of the country were going from bad to worse’. She condemned government interference in Russia, on which much money had been wasted and she called for an industrial council to settle disputes, referencing the issues with miners and railwaymen. In response the meeting described her as a fighter.
Her more radical views were later expressed at a series of meetings in Meole Brace School. She felt the government did not represent the feelings of the country as a whole and she condemned the government’s plan to issue premium bonds and state lotteries as immoral, inducing men to flutter away their money. She advocated the increase in taxes on large incomes and introduction of death duties.
In a speech at Kingland House at the Women’s Citizen Association, a large meeting of women heard an introduction from Ella Hills of Cadogan House. Ella was the sister of a VAD who had died in 1919 from the flu and was from a prominent Shrewsbury family. Despite not sharing all Mabel’s beliefs, Ella told the meeting that ‘the women were glad to know that a woman is standing as a parliamentary candidate and wished to place on record an appreciation of her courage and public spiritness, a woman candidate broke the ground in Shrewsbury’.
A little later at the Abbeygate congregational schoolroom several hundred women from the locality, the Midlands and Wales attended a meeting presided over by Mabel. She opened the conference telling the audience that ‘liberalism was classless and whilst the conservatives stood for capitalism, labour stood for labour only the liberals stood for the community and all classes of that community’.
At another meeting at Shrewsbury Miss Billson stated how essential it was that a number of women should be returned, to use their influence directly in the framing of various measures, for instance, the issue of pensions for widowed mothers. Miss Billson had sat on a bench in London thinking over the problem of low attendance at school by many poor children. The solution she was sure was the introduction of pensions in the same way as war widows had received pensions. At the moment too many widowed mothers were neglecting their children’s needs as they were preoccupied with working. A mother’s first duty was to bring up children. Anyway, she added, the qualities of a statesman were possessed as much by women as men.
Most tellingly was a speech in support of Mabel. The speaker looked forward to the time when Miss Billson would be sitting in the House of Commons opposite the great Nancy Astor.
So, what a woman! What a prospect for Mabel, to be elected as the Liberal candidate for Shrewsbury, to travel to London to take her place at the House of Commons, outnumbered but not unfazed by the sea of male MPs. How wonderful for the women of Shrewsbury to cast a vote probably for the first time, and for one of their own, a woman who had fought and spoken so well. How exciting for Mabel to tread the same steps as her late father, to vote to change the country that she and so many other women had done so much to serve during and after the War.
But Shrewsbury would not have a female MP and indeed never has. Nor indeed would there be a female candidate representing the Liberal party at the next general election. Instead a man would win the election, a Liberal, by just over 500 votes. We will never know if Mabel would have won that election but it is likely, given the respect that so many women had for her and the chance to put a woman into Parliament. She would surely have had a statue erected for her somewhere in Shrewsbury or a plaque? Would Shrewsbury schoolgirls know her name? Would there be a Billson scholarship? All speculation but what we do know is that by 192,2 when Asquith came to the area, the prospective Liberal candidate was one Joseph Sunlight.
Joseph Sunlight was a renowned architect. His most lasting monument is Sunlight House in Manchester. He was also responsible for the design of thousands of homes. When he died in Manchester in 1978 he was the richest man of that city. He would go on to have one son, Ben, an artist of highly valued if rather risqué work. We hear little if anything about Joseph before 1922 when Asquith visited but we know he won the seat for the Liberals with a small majority. He would only be their MP from December 1923 till October 1924 when he would then lose his slim majority and a Unionist would be returned with a majority of over 5000. He fought one more election in 1929, again losing heavily. His one minor attempt, as a Liberal, to change society was a bill he failed to see through to standardise building bricks. I am sure that Miss Billson would have made that her priority too!!
So, why was Mabel not the Liberal candidate in 1922? Did the grandees of the Liberal party get cold feet and panic that Mabel would not be good enough or strong enough? Like all political parties, then and now, there was a history of backing well-known and prosperous candidates. There had already been a case in South Shropshire where a candidate was removed from the post in favour of a richer landed candidate. Edward Wakeman wrote to one W.C.B. ‘That they could not ignore the claims of Frederick, son of Lord Boyne, as Boyne is a large landowner in the division’.
Sadly, perhaps, the truth is rather less romantic. In July 1921, the editorial of the Border Counties Advertiser ran a long section on ‘Women in Parliament’. Referring to a speech she had made in Shrewsbury, it stated that Miss Billson ‘made as a good a case as is possible to put up in favour of extending the number of women of the house of Commons. The chief difficulty was getting local associations to have the courage to adopt a woman. The Shrewsbury Division of liberals had proved an exception to the rule, but then Miss Billson is a very exceptional candidate, being well versed in political science and gifted with rare power to express her views, to command the confidence of the electorate of which about half are now members of her own sex.’
However, by October 12th, another editorial was to record Mabel’s decision to withdraw from the candidature due to indifferent health. ‘It has been known to her friends,’ it continued, ‘that for some time her health was causing concern, but it was only when having to submit to the loss of her left arm that she reluctantly and with the greatest disappointment withdrew. The loss was not only to the liberals but to the ‘even larger cause of women’s question in the country’. So, ill-health was the reason she was the not the liberal candidate in 1922.
Sadly, Mabel’s operation in Liverpool did not go well. After making a good recovery, she relapsed and died suddenly in November at the age of 56. She had written only ten days before her death that she hoped to have recovered enough to visit her brother in Hoylake. Her friends were shocked and grieved that she had passed away.
In a letter to the secretary of the Shrewsbury Liberal Association, her brother, Edgar Billson, wrote, ‘it is no exaggeration to say that my sister’s association with the Liberals of Shrewsbury and Shropshire was the dearest event of her life. She was extremely happy in her prospective candidature and I assure you, her loss of her arm was nothing compared to the severance of her connection with Shrewsbury politics.’
Mabel was not to realise her and other women’s hopes. She was laid to rest with her father in their grave at Kensal Rise cemetery, with beautiful flower tributes from her Liberal friends in Shrewsbury.