Saturday 10 March 2018

A Suffrage Search

A letter in the Kirkwall Town Council Minutes from 1914 sent me on an interesting search through the archives.

Extract from ref: K1/1/17
It reads: "Orcadian Women's Suffrage Society Daisybank, Kirkwall, 13th January, 1914. To the Provost, Magistrates and Town Council of the Royal Burgh of Kirkwall, Sirs, As Secretary of the Society, I have been deputed to approach you and ask if any of your body would go to London and act as representatives of the Royal Burgh at the big demonstration being held by the National Union of Women's S.S. at the Albert Hall on February 14 and form part of the proposed deputation to Mr Asquith* at the same time.
From enclosed circular you will see that Glasgow is sending as its representatives the Lord Provost and Chief Magistrate of the City and from enclosed cutting you will observe Hawick is sending as representatives two Bailies. Cheap fares are to be arranged, and hospitality given, and in cases where expense is the only obstacle a little help may be given. I am, Sirs, Yours respectfully (s[I]g[ne]d) Bina W. Cursiter, Hon. Sec."
The circular and the cutting referred to were also produced.

After reading this letter, I instantly wanted to know all about the Orkney Women's Suffrage Society and in particular Bina Cursiter. In the Orkney Archive Catalogue I found two references to women's Suffrage and some photographs. A mention of "suffrage" in a letter to J.W. Cursiter and a Fereday Prize local history project called, "Was there an Orcadian Suffragette Movement?" By Maya Tams-Gray. Maya's project covers the subject really well and is worth a look, if you visit the Archive. It gave me a newspaper reference to an article written by Emile Flett in 1993 for the 75th Anniversary of women winning the right to vote. The opening paragraphs of Emile's article gives a good overview of the Society and its connection to the Cursiter family.

"The Orkney Women's Suffrage Society was formed on September 25, 1909. A meeting was held in the house of a Mr James Cursiter, Kirkwall where 'all the ladies present joined the association'. The following month a constitution was formally adopted and office bearers were elected.
The president of the new organisation was Mrs Baikie of Tankerness and Mrs McEwan of Kirkwall was elected vice-president. The secretary was Mrs Bina Cursiter who offered to 'supply information and pamphlets on the subject'. Also present were a Miss Cromarty of West End House in St Margaret's Hope. Annual subscription was set at one shilling."

The photographs are part of the Robertson collection and are wonderful to see but unfortunately do not give any names of the people in them. Here is one classic picture of a little girl in a street in Stromness:

Ref: RHR4866

At the end of Emile's article, he acknowledges the help of archivist Alison Fraser of the Orkney Archive "whose help in providing sources was invaluable in writing this article." Which means, there must be more information than I originally found. After further digging in the archive, I found a reference list of 82 newspaper articles from The Orkney Herald and The Orcadian from 1871-1913. The articles report the national information as well as the local news. This list was possibly created by a customer or member of staff who painstakingly trawled through all the newspapers on microfilm and found relevant articles. Thank you to whoever this was!

This list led me to an article in the Orkney Herald from 24th April 1912 when Dr Elsie Inglis, Hon. Secretary of the Scottish Federation of Women's Suffrage Societies visited Orkney to address the local Society. The event took place in the Temperance Hall, Kirkwall and..

"The platform was tastefully decorated with flags, most prominent among which was the banner of the Orcadian Society, the work of Mr Stanley Cursiter."

Many men attended the meetings. Provost Slater chaired this one and "on the platform were a number of ladies and gentlemen who are leading local supporters of the movement"

At the meeting Dr Inglis said, "Women were just as proud of the country as men, and why should they be deprived of the right of taking part in the legislation of the country? She appealed to all to join the Orcadian Women's Suffrage Society - a society which had most enthusiastic officers."

Here they are campaigning in Stromness:

Ref: RHR5171
In the Orkney Herald of 22nd June 1910, Miss Lamond from Edinburgh addressed local residents in St Marys: "The weather being fine the meeting was held at the pierhead, so that many of the men and women engaged in the herring industry were enabled to be present."

Emile's article explains the two organisations, "The WSPU (Women's Social and Political Union) motto was 'Deeds not Words' and they felt that only direct action would achieve results. The NUWSS (National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies) favoured education through pamphlets and meetings, etc. to change public opinion. The Orcadian Society adopted the tactics of peaceful and moral persuasion in line with the NUWSS."

As for the Cursiter family. Bina Cursiter was married to J. W. Cursiter (full name James Walls Cursiter). James is listed in the book Who was Who in Orkney by W.S. Hewison, "Banker, businessman, antiquarian, archaeologist; son of John Cursiter who after a sojourn in Edinburgh returned to his native Orkney to set up his own wholesale and general merchant business in partnership with his 3 brothers; uncle of Stanley Cursiter RSA."

As Bina became secretary to the Society in 1909, I looked her up in the Orkney Census of 1911. The couple were living at Daisybank in Kirkwall. By this time James is aged 59 and Bina is aged 56. They have been married for 18 years and have one child. This census entry also says they were both born in Edinburgh. The child is not living with them at this time.

I cannot find any pictures of James or Bina in the Orkney Archive. So here is another one of the campaigners in Stromness:

Ref: RHR5172
Using the information from the 1911 census, I searched the online family history site Scotlands People for information outwith Orkney. Bina Cursiter was christened Jacobina Watt on the 15th November 1854 in St Andrews Parish in Edinburgh. Her parents were Philip Butler Watt and Elizabeth Paterson. She was born on 15th October. She married J W Cursiter on 29th June 1892 in Glasgow at the age of 37. She was living with her family in Dowanhill, Glasgow at the time. Her father was a Commission Agent. James and Bina were together in the 1901 census in Kirkwall with their daughter Lizzie who was born in Kirkwall and was aged 7. In the 1911 census, Lizzie was 17 and at school in Brooklyn, Clackmannanshire.

The last piece of personal information I have found about Bina Cursiter was in a letter dated 1925 from James Shand, Broughty Ferry to her husband.

Ref: D8/4/2/5
"My wife hopes to meet Mrs Cursiter some day and discuss the Suffrage question for women."

And do you want to know the result of the letter sent to the Kirkwall Town Council? Would they attend the demonstration in London? Well, no...

Extract from ref: K1/1/17

Despite all the enthusiasm at local meetings, "It was unanimously agreed to take no action in the matter."

There is so much more information to learn about the movement and Orkney's local society. I hope you have enjoyed my brief search and findings.

References used: K1/1/17 Kirkwall Town Council Minute Book, 1912-1920; D70/20/26 Fereday Prize by Maya Tams-Gray, 2016; article by Emile Flett, The Orcadian newspaper 18th November 1993, page 16; article in the Orkney Herald newspaper, 24th April 1912 p6; two articles in the Orkney Herald, 22nd June 1910, page 8; book Who was Who in Orkney by W.S. Hewison, 1998; D8/4/2/5 - Letter to J W Cursiter, 1925; and three photos from the Robertson collection - RHR4866, 5171, 5172.

I continued my research into Bina Cursiter's life and wrote an article for the Orkney Heritage Society newsletter in 2018. The article can be found here .