The Dalkeith By-Election and Scottish women’s suffrage Sept 1912

I chose this topic because:
We had explored Dalkeith on one of our WEA History on the Hoof walks
There were some photos of the campaign in Leah Leneman’s book
I live in the constituency ( as it then was)

Significance of the Midlothian By-Election 1912

It’s notable for the history of Scottish suffrage because it was the first election in which the Scottish Federation of Women’s Suffrage Societies supported the Labour candidate against the Liberals…a bold and difficult step for many middle class suffragists including Chrystal MacMillan in Edinburgh. They established an Election Fighting Fund to carry out this policy and this was administered by Annot Robinson (nee Wilkie) a former WSPU member. This policy cost the Women’s Liberal Federation 1800 members 1912 -1914, one leaver declaring “We have been hewers of wood and drawers of water for the Liberal party too long” (

The Background

Midlothian was a large and mixed constituency stretching from to Stow and West Calder to Slateford and Newcraighall. It had mining; mill working and agricultural voters as well as city commuters.

The Liberals had already lost a by-election in Manchester earlier in the year and were feeling the unpopularity of their Home Rule policy. Moreover many working class electors were suspicious of the Liberals’ National Insurance Act 1911 which allowed the bosses to take fourpence (4d) from their pay-packets and whose benefits of sick pay, medical treatment for employees and unemployment pay had yet to be experienced. The election was reported nationally by the Scotsman and also by the Edinburgh Evening Dispatch.

The campaign “It goes with such a swing…….!”

The Scotsman reported that the NUWSS set up campaign offices in Dalkeith, West Calder and Edinburgh (24/8) with Mrs Annot Robinson and Mrs Ada Neild Chew (a working class activist from Rochdale) leading the activity

Women spoke at over 100 meetings in the constituency, at an average of twelve meetings a day (Scotsman 10/9) concentrating on the populous mining districts (Scotsman 4/9) where Brown, Provost of Dalkeith and the Labour candidate, was well–known.

On the Saturday before the poll Miss Margaret Robertson from London spoke at a Labour meeting in a marquee in Dalkeith High Street and Mrs McArthur also from London spoke to 1600 at a Labour meeting on the eve of poll in Dalkeith Corn Exchange. They pointed out that Labour would support the women’s cause but also praised them for promising better housing conditions, the abolition of sweating, “ a chance for every child” and every sort of social reform!

Brown restricted his comments to “If women had the vote then men would get better pay!!”(Scotsman 11/9)

Polling Day

In West Calder on polling day Labour had the assistance of a car supplied by one of the Women’s suffrage societies (whereas the Liberals had two and the Unionists three!)


As a result the safe Liberal seat (won by Gladstone in the notable Midlothian campaign of 1880) was lost to the Unionists’ Major John Hope (6021) with a margin of 32 votes on an 81% poll. Provost Brown for Labour polled 2,413 and the Liberal, Shaw (a son of Lord Dunfermline) 5989


Before the poll the Edinburgh Evening Dispatch (6/9 quoted in Leah Leneman) commended the women’s campaign “Their work is thorough, orderly and methodical, yet it goes with such a swing and is carried out with enthusiasm and devotion that it has entirely caught the appreciation and approval of the electorate”

Mrs Chew observed in Common Cause(5/9) that women in Midlothian were “tradition-bound and house-bound” and that “Our view of the inevitability of the alliance of women and labour is new to men and women alike here! “ quoted in Leah Leneman

A coda to the story

Early the following year the Scottish activists began their campaign of acid attacks on the mail in post boxes escalating into violence against property. On 17/5/13 the Scotsman reported that between 12-15 lbs of gunpowder had been left in a box in a cellar beneath St Mary’s, the private chapel of the Buccleuch family ( the powerful Tory family of Dalkeith, hostile to women’s suffrage). The fuse had failed to ignite the powder. It was assumed that a woman had scaled the fourteen foot wall and planted the home-made bomb. There was no damage and no arrests were ever made.


Scotsman online (free at Central library)
Letters of Margot Asquith to Baron Murray of Elibank MS 8803 ff4-9 in the National Library of Scotland
A Guid Cause Leah Leneman 1995 revised edition

Liz Beevers
WEA student December 2008


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