Mary Louise Vellacott was born in Bideford, Devon in 1863, the only daughter of Jane and Henry Vellacott, a master mariner and latterly a shipowner. Mary spent a good part of her childhood in Penarth, near Cardiff, but by the time Mary was 17, she was back in her birthplace, lodging with a widowed uncle who was also a former mariner. At some point after Henry Vellacott died in 1884, Mary and her mother came to live in Leamington where they took rooms at Langton House on Leam Terrace.
It is not known how or why Mary Vellacott became interested in women’s suffrage, but it may have been prompted to some extent by her treatment after the municipal elections in 1909. Forty years before, women had been granted the right to vote in local elections, provided that they fulfilled certain residential requirements. In September 1909, the Leamington Spa Courier recorded that Miss Vellacott had cast her vote, only for it to be queried by the election agents for Liberal and Conservative council members, who attempted to have her vote ( and that of a number of men) invalidated on the grounds of non-compliance with residential qualifications. Miss Vellacott, who described herself as a writer, put up a stout defence, having lived at Langton House, Leam Terrace for the preceding nine years, where she paid a supplement for the sole use of a sitting room, and even had her own gas meter! The agents’ challenge was overturned, and her vote was allowed to stand.
Miss Vellacott joined the Suffragist movement, and became Secretary of the Leamington branch of the National Union for Women’s Suffrage Society (NUWSS), where well-known author Mary Dormer Harris was also an active member. She attended conferences and demonstrations in London, Manchester and Birmingham, and other meetings all over the Midlands. She was an energetic, eloquent supporter of the cause, addressing meetings and writing regularly to the local press on women’s suffrage and the long overdue right to citizenship for all women. In letters to the Leamington Courier, she constantly reiterated the NUWSS aim to achieve enfranchisement by peaceful means, condemning violence in political propaganda and supporting only constitutional means of acquiring the vote. She campaigned long and hard for appropriate recognition of the huge contribution women made to so many institutions, particularly to School Boards, where the work of women volunteers was so indispensable that even though the Education Act of 1902 disqualified women from election to School Boards, Education Committees were bound by the Act to co-opt them as [non-voting] members. At every opportunity, Miss Vellacott emphasized the benefits of enfranchising women, and giving them true equality. At a NUWSS meeting in Stratford, In 1907, to loud applause, Miss Vellacott affirmed “the great educative effect that the franchise had on those who exercised it [ in Australia and new Zealand]”, claiming that granting women the vote would have a great influence on the course of history.
The Leamington branch of NUWSS was a vigorous, active one, keen to promote the cause. Leamington became the venue for a number of well attended public meetings, often fronted by well-known speakers of the day. In 1910, the Midland Federation Organiser, Miss Phillips came to Leamington for a week, and accompanied by Miss Vellacott, made house calls and addressed meetings not only in drawing rooms, but at Westgate School and at the Gas Works in Warwick , at Milverton Goods Station and at the Obelisk in the town centre. The daunting schedule and variety of venues reflects only too clearly the determination to reach as many willing listeners as possible. The following year, the Leamington branch of NUWSS joined forces with the Women’s Social and Political Union to lobby local M P, Mr Pollock, who subsequently affirmed his support for the cause at a meeting in the Winter Hall [now the Library], where Miss Elizabeth Fry was the principal speaker. As she concluded her address, Miss Fry expressed the view that the opponents of women’s suffrage were actuated not by “malice prépensé, but [that] they were more fools than knaves”, – which was greeted by loud laughter and a round of applause. In March of that year, as Hon Secretary of the local branch, Miss Vellacott addressed the Annual Meeting of the NUWSS at Leamington, proudly announcing that since the start of the Suffrage movement in the town, no fewer than four Women’s Suffrage Societies had sprung up, and that the Leamington branch of NUWSS was ably represented on the Midland Federation Committee.
After the death of her mother in February 1912, Miss Vellacott left Leamington for pastures new, to the great regret of her colleagues. The Leamington Courier reported that “The [NUWS] Society noted the absence from its ranks of ………. Miss Vellacott (Hon Secretary for 8 years),” and that she “would be welcomed back with open arms at any time [she] chose to return”. On 20 October 1912, Miss Vellacott was presented with an inscribed writing case, to mark her departure on a voyage round the world. On 24 October, she set sail from Southampton on the Orama, bound for Sydney, Australia.
There the trail goes cold. I have not been able to find out how long Miss Vellacott stayed there, or when she returned, but she resurfaced in the Oxford telephone directory in 1938. She died in Oxford in 1958, at the ripe old age of ninety five.
Click here to see a site which maps women’s suffrage in 1911.