American tennis, coconut shies and Millicent Fawcett – a garden party I’d like to have attended.

90 years ago this week, Nancy Astor, the first female British MP to take her seat, held a garden party at Cliveden House to celebrate the passing of the Act of Parliament that granted equal voting rights for men and women. Rachel Newton has been delving into the University’s Astor archive and tells us what she’s discovered.

This summer, I have a research internship working with Dr Jacqui Turner on the undergraduate research opportunities programme (UROP) within the Department of History and in collaboration with Special Collections here at the University of Reading.

We are preparing a digital exhibition curating archive material to tell the story of the political career and legacy of Nancy Astor, the first sitting female MP in Britain. While I was researching, I came across some fascinating documents relating to a garden party that Astor held at her riverside country home, Cliveden House, almost exactly 90 years ago.

The party was organised by the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship (NUSEC) to celebrate the passing of the Equal Franchise Act of 1928, which gave equal voting rights to men AND women over the age of 21. It was a significant development from the 1918 Representation of the People Act that gave some women the vote for the first time, but on restricted terms. This was a huge achievement and an important occasion that deserved a celebration!


NUSEC Garden Party Leaflet 1928, MS1416/1/1/264

Attendees were welcomed to the great house by either ‘all-weather motor coaches’ from London or by train – timetables were provided to make travelling more convenient. Look at how regular the trains were! Once arriving at the party they could expect ‘attractions’, outlined in the source below; activities such as hoopla, coconut shies and an American tennis tournament – what a treat!

The ‘character reading’ attraction might also have been illuminating considering the inspiring and determined group of women who attended.

Letter regarding details of the Garden Party, from K Hancock General Secretary of NUSEC to Miss Goddard, MS1416/1/1/264.

Yet more exciting for guests was the opportunity to meet honoured guest Dame Millicent Fawcett, leader of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) – also known as the suffragists – and avid campaigner for women’s rights more broadly. Her acceptance letter, below, describes it as a “treat day”, although she had lost the RSVP address.

Letter from Dame M. Fawcett, 25/05/1928, MS1416/1/1/264.

Unfortunately, Lady Astor could not be present herself as she was in Plymouth on constituency duty. However, the party was a great success and her hosting of the occasion at Cliveden is an example of her ongoing support for the equal franchise.

Astor’s work and support for the suffrage movement often goes unnoticed. She acted as a conduit between NUSEC and other women’s organisations and an often reluctant Conservative Party. She frequently held meetings for various women’s groups at her London home, 4 St James’s Square, to which she would also invite senior politicians and influencers. This provided a unique opportunity for campaigners to interact with influential people (most often men) helping establish communications that may otherwise have been difficult to facilitate.

This is not the only example of Astor supporting causes directly related to women. Through this internship I have been able to discover many instances where she devoted herself to the development of women’s rights. Let’s remember she was MP for Plymouth Sutton for 26 years – an incredible achievement for a female MP during the interwar period.

Through this project, with Dr Jacqui Turner and postgraduate researcher Melanie Khuddro, we are researching and curating a digital exhibition to prepare for the centenary celebrations surrounding Astor’s election in 1919, and these documents are just a taster of what’s to come. Make sure you keep an eye out for the ASTOR100 celebrations next year.

A version of this post was first published on the University of Reading history blog. Dr Jacqui Turner is the UK’s expert on Nancy Astor.  This year her research has played a significant role in the development of VOTE100, the UK’s programme of events to commemorate the centenary of women over 30 getting the vote . Dr Turner’s mission is to ‘disrupt the male narrative of Parliament’ and encourage a more balanced view of women’s contribution to politics and power throughout history – a theme she explores as a member of the University of Reading’s gender history research cluster.