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Patti Mayor, women’s activist and Preston artist

Posted on - 27th March, 2022 - 7:00pm | Author - | Posted in - Arts, History, People, Preston City Centre, Preston News, Proud Preston, Winckley Square
Self Portrait in a Sun Hat by Patti Mayor Pic: Patti Mayor Estate
Self Portrait in a Sun Hat by Patti Mayor Pic: Patti Mayor Estate

By the early 20th century women still had few rights, let alone the vote, and as a result they began to resort to more extreme tactics to get recognition.

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In June 1908 women’s organisations were becoming more militant. Women’s Sunday was organised as an event in London. It was attended by women from all around the country.

The Preston branch of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) procession was led by Patti Mayor, a Preston-born artist. She held a banner of a portrait she had painted in 1906. This was The Half Timer, a romantic image of a young girl mill worker wearing a shawl and carrying a tea can.

The Half Timer by Patti Mayor Pic: Patti Mayor Estate
The Half Timer by Patti Mayor Pic: Patti Mayor Estate

Early women’s rights

The first women’s suffrage bill came before Parliament as early as 1832. In 1867 John Stuart Mill led a debate that would have given women property holders the vote. This would have been an amendment to the existing reform bill. However, none of these reforms became law. In 1897 The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) was formed to campaign for women’s rights.

Frustration at the lack of progress led to more militant action. As a result the WSPU was formed in 1908. Preston women began to lead the campaign in the north west.

Women’s Social and Political Union

A posed photo of direct action Pic: Alpha Rail
A rather posed photo of ‘direct action’ Pic: Alpha Rail

The WSPU encouraged what was then called ‘direct action. This involved disruptive events, such as women chaining themselves to railings and setting fire to property. Public meetings and speeches in the house of commons were also disrupted. Demonstrations were organised in London and other major cities.

A suffragette being arrested after being chained to the Buckingham Palace railings in 1914 Pic: Getty Images
A suffragette being arrested after being chained to the Buckingham Palace railings in 1914 Pic: Getty Images

Art and the suffragettes

Art was often used to raise awareness of women’s rights. Patti Mayor used The Half Timer to ‘show London what was happening in Lancashire’. The painting depicted ‘youth and beauty in a background of industry’.

Opponents of women’s suffrage also used art as propaganda. Sometimes this was in the form of posters or postcards, but, as mentioned earlier, Mayor also used paintings as propaganda, by showing the lives of working class women.

At the turn of the 20th century, postcards were very popular and were used as propaganda by both sides.

This postcard has a patronising message, implying that women should stay in the home. However, all this was to change during World War I Pic: The Society Pages
This postcard has a patronising message, implying that women should stay in the home. However, all this was to change during World War I Pic: The Society Pages
Hunger strikes led to the horror of forced feeding and this poster pulls no punches Pic: The Lancet
Hunger strikes led to the horror of forced feeding and this poster pulls no punches Pic: The Lancet
The Sewing Maid by Patti Mayor - working class women often featured in Mayor's work Pic: Patti Mayor Estate
The Sewing Maid by Patti Mayor – working class women often featured in Mayor’s work Pic: Patti Mayor Estate

The Preston branch of the WSPU

The first act of militancy by the fledging WSPU began in Manchester when Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney disrupted a meeting of Liberal Party speakers at the Free Trade Hall. They refused to pay any fines and were sent to prison.

By this time, Edith Rigby of Winckley Square was a prominent women’s activist. To support the movement, she placed an advert in The Lancashire Daily Post headed ‘Votes for Women’. The letter stated that Kenney would visit Preston, and would speak on the market square along with Rigby.

The publicity from this meeting led to the setting up of the Preston branch of the WSPU. Mayor was an early member. Regular meetings were held in a room above a tea merchants premises in Glovers Court.

The art and life of Patti Mayor

Patti Mayor paintings Pic: Patti Mayor Estate
The genteel life of a middle class Edwardian is here contrasted with the pinched look, of overwork and poverty, depicted by a mill worker in a shawl Pic: Patti Mayor Estate

Mayor was primarily a portrait artist with a social conscience. Born in 1872, she had a long life and worked from the late Victorian era, through both world wars and into the 1950s.

Mayor also painted some local views, such as this one of Freckleton Pool Pic: Patti Mayor Estate
Mayor also painted some local views, such as this one of Freckleton Pool Pic: Patti Mayor Estate

Mayor was ahead of her time earning a living as a female artist by selling through gallery exhibitions, teaching and taking on commissions. She died in 1962 at the age of 90. Some of her work can be seen in the Harris, when it re-opens in 2024.



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