Life story retold by Paul Beecroft
Edith Mary Sutton was born into one of the most well-known families in Reading. Her grandfather, John Sutton (1777-1863) founded Sutton Seeds in 1806. When he started his business, he traded under the name of ‘House of Sutton’ from an office at 16, King Street, Reading. In 1832 John was joined by two of his sons, Martin Hope Sutton and Alfred Sutton. In 1837 the business moved to the Market Place in Reading and the sons persuaded their father to expand into the flower and vegetable seed trade and from then on the firm progressed and expanded becoming known worldwide.
Alfred Sutton married Ellen Stokes, the daughter of a local businessman of Reading on 3rd November 1846 at St. Lawrence’s Church, Reading. Their marriage resulted in twelve children one of which was Edith Mary, who was born in April 1862. Very little is known in relation to her childhood currently. Without doubt she received an excellent education but it is not known where.
She lived with her family at ‘Greenlands’, in Redlands Road, Reading. She enjoyed playing tennis and appears to have been good at it. She was a member of the Whitley Park Lawn Tennis Club. A tournament was held annually. In 1883, after four rounds she took first prize in the ladies’ singles and first prize in the mixed doubles. In 1884, again after four rounds she took first prize in the ladies’ singles. In 1885 she again won the ladies’ singles and in the mixed doubles she was beaten in the final round.
Edith was also known to play the piano. On Saturday 28th January 1882 there was an evening of entertainment at Victoria Hall, Reading for a number of amateurs connected with St. John’s parish. Edith with her sister played a pianoforte duet, entitled The Post and the Peasant. On another occasion she performed a duet at the Albert Road Mission with another lady who played a mandolin. Edith, along with her sister Alice, had an interest in Natural History and were both members of the local Natural History Club and would attend meetings together.
In August 1897, her father Alfred passed away. He had been suffering with heart problems for two or three years. He was 78 years old. The funeral took place on Wednesday 11th August, was attended by many local dignitaries and involved 27 carriages. He was buried in Reading Old Cemetery. Following her father’s death Edith and the other children were left considerably well off.
Less than two years later her mother Ellen passed away on 7th February 1899 after what was described as a long illness. She was 76 years old. She was interned in the family vault at Reading Old Cemetery.
Edith was concerned about children education and welfare. In 1900, Reading College, School of Music advertised a free Scholarship in Pianoforte playing, called The Sutton Scholarship and was given by Edith and tenable for three years. The value was £20.00 per annum which by today’s standards is just over £3,000.00.
Had she wished, Edith could have led a carefree and relaxing life but she was not that type of person. She became involved in local organisations and later in politics. She made the decision to help the people of Reading namely the children, especially the orphans, the unemployed, the destitute and many more. In March 1901 she was the first woman to be voted onto the Reading School Board. The Berkshire Chronicle reported on this:
Miss Edith Sutton, in a neat speech, which was heartily applauded, said her ideas were crystalised in the address to which she intended to be loyal. Perhaps she had some ground for appealing to them, for her interest in children and in education was certainly hereditary. Her father (Mr. Alfred Sutton) not only headed the poll in 1870 by a large majority, but worked on the School Board very hard and conscientiously for twelve years. Miss Sutton also referred to the school which her father supported entirely at his own expense at Newtown for ten years, and said that when her father left the School Board her brother (Mr. Herbert Sutton) came in. Miss Sutton also touched upon her connection with St. John’s School, of which she was justly proud, and said that if she were returned, she would try her very best to do conscientiously such work as her father and brother had done before her. She would honestly and earnestly act up to the standard which they had laid down. She was asked by members of two educational bodies in Reading, quite apart from the Church party to come forward as a candidate. She hoped, that though a woman, she would show herself a practical woman.
She was formally elected a few days later and one of the first items the new School Board had to deal with was a petition to the House of Commons in favour of legislation to prohibit the sale of intoxicating liquors to children under the age of 16 years.
In 1902, the Reading Education Act was established and following this an Education Committee was formed and Edith was co-opted on to it. She would later become Chairman which would last for 20 years.
In 1903 she was a nominee in the Municipal Elections for Redlands Ward for a seat on Reading Town council but on this occasion she was not successful.
In 1904 she is shown as a committee member of the Reading branch of the Christian Social Union. She had become a manager for a special school for children with learning disabilities in Reading. Edith testified to the fact that there was much wrong doing and selfishness going on and that more should be done.
In 1906 Edith was asked to become a committee member in respect of the Mayor’s Fund for the relief of the unemployed poor of Reading. She was also shown as a committee member of Reading Elementary Schools Football Association. It was also in 1906 that Reading formed a local branch of the Women’s Suffrage Society. This was part of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). The members known as Suffragettes were part of the Votes for Women campaign that had long fought for the right of women to vote in the UK. A meeting was held in December 1906 at Reading Town Hall. It was well attended. It had been announced that Edith was to take the chair but she was unable to do so and sent the following letter of apology:
Please apologise for my absence tomorrow. I am sure if you tell the meeting that I am unable to be present they will believe that it is through no half-heartedness that I have failed to keep my word. I must confess that at first I did shrink from taking any definite step in this matter of women’s suffrage until I realised the cowardice of letting others fight for a position one would be ready enough to step into when the fighting was over.
Although she was unable to attend she was elected as Vice President of the Reading branch. Following this event, Edith would give speeches during the forthcoming years. There was often disruption with what was described as a rowdy element of young men shouting out or making noises with hooters. On one occasion in Tilehurst, Edith and the suffragette speakers were heckled by young men creating a commotion with musical instruments, shouting and someone also released a mouse into the crowd (The Berkshire Chronicle, 27 November 1909).
A similar incident happened when Edith attended the Small Town Hall in November 1907 to speak in favour of women’s suffrage. A large group of men attempted to get inside, with many being held back by police. Apparently, no sooner had the speakers mounted the platform, the men began a “hurricane” of noise. (Berkshire Live, 14th May 2021).
Edith headed a group of 70 suffragists from Reading. They joined the London NUWSS Suffrage March to the Albert Hall on 13 June 1908. Around 10,000 people took part in the march. A picture was taken of the suffragette group as they set off by train. It was reported that the Reading banner was one of the largest, decorated with the five female heads from Reading Coat of Arms (The Reading Standard, 20 June 1908).
1907 was to be a major turning point for Edith. Once again she was a nominee in the Municipal Election, this time for Battle Ward. The local papers were very positive about Edith:
LADY FOR BATTLE WARD
Preparations for the Municipal Elections in Reading are fast being pushed forward, and several contests are promised in the town. We have good authority for stating that Miss Edith Sutton is to seek the suffrages of the electors in Battle Ward. It would be very fitting that this well-known and esteemed lady, whose residence is Southernmead, Northcourt Avenue, should become the first lady Councillor for the Borough. As a co-opted member of the Education Committee, Miss Sutton has rendered active and valuable assistance to the ratepayers, and we are sure she will be cordially welcomed by the burgesses whose votes she is seeking.
Prior to any election all nominees would submit a written report via the newspapers and Edith submitted the following:
TO THE BURGESSES OF BATTLE WARD.
LADIES AND GENTLEMEN.-
The creation of a new situation as regards the position of women in civic affairs makes it for the first time possible for me to offer myself to my fellow ratepayers as a Candidate for the Town Council, and I do this with t more confidence because I am taking the step in response to the expressed wishes of many burgesses, both men and women, with whom I have been associated in work for some years past.
I would point out that my candidature for your ward involves no attempt on my part to displace any other worker, the vacancy having occurred though Mr. Councillor Brinn’s well-deserved promotion to the position of Alderman.
My reason for coming forward is simply this – that I may use to the full, so far as in me lies, the wider opportunities for helpfulness now offered to a woman, especially, though not solely, as those opportunities relate to, the education of the children and young people of our town, a matter of the deepest importance, and one in which both my father and grandfather took a personal and practical interest in our Borough in days gone by.
Should you do me the honour of electing me as one of the first women Councillors, it will be my endeavour in the future, as it has been in the past, to serve the best interests of the town to the best of my ability.
EDITH M. SUTTON
October 17, 1907.
Edith was duly elected and became the first woman Councillor for Reading after the Qualification of Women (County and Borough Councils) Act came into force. This act allowed widows and unmarried women the right to stand anywhere in local government and Edith stood in the Battle Ward and won! She held this seat until 1931. It is thought that she was the first woman Councillor in England. Following her election she once again wrote to the newspapers:
TO THE BURGESSES OF BATTLE WARD
LADIES AND GENTLEMEN,-
It is my pleasant duty to thank you most warmly for the confidence you have placed in me by accepting me without opposition as one of your representatives on the Town Council. There is no need for me to assure you that I will spare no effort to justify that confidence.
EDITH M. SUTTON.
It was also during 1907 that she was appointed to a Sub Committee of the Education Department to look into the underfeeding of children and in 1909 she is shown as the Chairman.
Another first attributed to Edith was in 1908, when following her confirmation as a Town Councillor, that she was the first woman to be appointed on to the Watch Committee. The Watch Committee were responsible for policing matters although other matters were also dealt with. This then led to her being appointed to a new sub-committee set up to look into suitable detention places for children and young people. By 1914 her role expanded when she became a Visitor of the Place of Detention as provided in the 1908 Children’s Act. Edith also served on the Sanitary Committee and sub-committees dealing with the Housing of the Working Classes Act, the Children’s Act and the First Offenders’ Act. “Sweated labour and the ‘grinding of the faces of the poor’” was the subject of a talk she gave to the Christian Social Union in Reading (1908).
In November of 1911, an interesting article was published in the local newspaper about Edith under the heading of ‘The Stress of Affairs’. It seems clear that the newspaper was informing the public on how much time and effort Edith was giving them.
The Reading Education Committee exhibits the somewhat rare spectacle of a woman chairman of the School Management Committee, which, as it concerns the thousands of elementary scholars in the borough, has naturally a busy time. Miss Sutton supplies a bright example of the usefulness of women’s work on town councils and their subsidiary committees, and it is somewhat surprising, in view of the great attention given to women’s demands just now, that no lady came forward in either Tilehurst or Caversham to seek election to the enlarged town council and to relieve Miss Sutton, to some extent of the onerous labours cast upon her. In addition to the membership of the Education committee and chairmanship of one of the largest sub-committees, Miss Sutton is a member of the Watch, Theatres Licensing, Art Gallery and Sanitary committees of the Reading Town Council, so that when, as in the case of Miss Sutton, social and religious work occupies much of her time, it is obvious that the strain of public duty is at times severe.
During the war years of 1914-1918 she continued to be very busy. As President of the Reading branch of the NUWSS the society did a lot of charitable work for a day nursery and women’s war hospitals. At the annual meeting of the Reading Women’s Suffrage Society in 1915 she reported on the popularity of the organisation’s nursery provision and that 1,314 meals were provided to hungry children is association with the National Relief Fund. In 1916 she gave a lecture in Oxford on the work of the Police and Watch Committee and outlined the long history of such committees but also noted only three women in the whole country were currently appointed to serve. She ended by praising very highly the work of women police. 1916 also saw the Tuberculosis Dispensary Care Association formed in Reading. Edith became the first chairman and remained in the chair until 1933. In 1918, she was appointed vice chair of the Reading Education Committee and was also the chairman of the Special Needs Committee of the Royal Berkshire Hospital which raised money to provide equipment for the hospital. Edith was one of the people who made monetary donations.
Edith joined the Labour Party in the early 1920s.
1920 saw another first for Edith. On Monday 9th August she took an oath, made the customary declaration, signed the roll of the Commission for the Borough and then took her seat on the Magisterial Bench at the Reading Borough Police Court as the town’s first woman magistrate. The local newspaper reported the following:-
The Mayor (Dr. G. S. Abram), who was presiding, expressed the delight of himself and the other magistrates at Miss Sutton’s appointment. It was his unique duty to welcome her as their first woman Justice on that Bench. There were many spheres of usefulness in which the work of a woman had been proved to be particularly adapted, as had been shown during the recent war, and he did not hesitate to say that Mis Sutton would be a real help to the magistrates in the discharge of their duties. She had an honoured name and she had abundantly proved herself to be of determined ideas, broad outlook, great experience, and of a keen desire to do justice and to see justice done in all things.
In 1928 Edith was appointed a representative manager on the governing body of the Greycoat Foundation (Queen Anne’s School, Reading) and by 1930 she was chairman of the board of governors at Kendrick Girls’ School. In September 1928 a Reading Branch of the Nursery Schools Association was set up. Edith was the chairman.
In August 1931 Edith claimed yet again, another first. Following a meeting of the Reading Town Council, Edith was elevated to the Aldermanic bench becoming the towns first woman Alderman. The local newspaper reported:-
Miss Edith Sutton was elected to that position at Tuesday’s meeting of the Town Council, and her elevation to the Aldermanic bench will, we feel sure, be regarded by every impartial burgess who is acquainted with her long record of disinterested civic service as a deserved recognition of her untiring and unselfish efforts to promote the well-being of the community, particularly in the closely allied spheres of educational activity and social endeavour.
Then, two years later, Edith is elected as Mayor. She was the second Labour and first female Mayor of Reading. She also was the third Sutton to be made a Freeman of the Borough (Kemp, 1996). A full report of her election appeared in the local paper:-
READING’S NEXT MAYOR
Alderman Miss Sutton to Succeed Councillor Tudor
FIRST WOMAN CHIEF MAGISTRATE
For the first time in its history Reading is to have a woman Mayor, the recommendation of the Selection Committee that Alderman Miss E.M. Sutton be appointed to fill the distinguished office of Chief Magistrate of the County Borough having been accepted by the Town Council at a private meeting held on Monday.
The decision of the private meeting remains to be ratified at the statutory meeting of the Council on November 9th and there is every reason to believe that it will be enthusiastically endorsed. The bearer of an honoured name and the member of a family which for generations has been closely identified with the public and commercial life of Reading, the mayor-designate has for many years been a familiar and active worker in the sphere of municipal and social activity and her record of service for the promotion of the welfare of the community is fairly well known to the majority of the burgesses of the borough. . . .During the whole of her long association with the Corporation of Reading Miss Sutton has evinced the keenest interest in its varied activities and her election to many of the most important committees of the Council is a testimony to the high regard entertained by her municipal colleagues for her sound judgment and understanding of municipal problems. . . .
Ever a firm believer in all forms of outdoor recreation, Miss Sutton still retains an interest in sport, although as regards the more strenuous games her role is restricted to that of an appreciative observer. She is a vice-president of the Reading Ladies’ Athletic Club, the G.W.R. Cricket Club and the Labour Party Sports Club. . . .
A great lover of music, she is a member of the Reading Music Club.
In November 1933 Edith gave a speech as the Mayor at a meeting of the Town Council:-
Members of the Council. I have to thank you all for the unanimous choice which you have made to-day, and especially you Mr. Alderman Dryland, and you, Mr. Councillor Bishop, for the very kind words with which you have nominated and seconded me. All here will believe me when I say that without such goodwill as has been expressed from the day it became known that the Council had chosen me as the Mayor for this year, up to the present time, I should have undertaken this responsible task with a heavy heart. But I seem before me a clear vision of willing co-operation from within the Council, from the Town Clerk and the staff, as well as from beyond the Council, which is nothing less than an inspiration so that with the assurance of such co-operation and with God’s help, I gladly enter upon the duties and responsibilities which you have entrusted to me as the Mayor of our ancient and beloved borough. In so doing you have indeed honoured me.
Following her year of being Mayor of Reading which finished in November 1934 the following was reported in the local newspaper:-
To-day Reading’s first woman Mayor completes her year of office. . . . There are no to opinions as to the manner in which Alderman Miss Edith Sutton has fulfilled the exacting duties of her position. By general consent she has been an admirable Chief Magistrate, filling the chair with dignity and efficiency and giving of her very best in the service of the community. Her long and intimate experience of the Corporation and its work fitted her for presiding over its meetings with ability, but apart from this he has entered thoroughly into the manifold activities of the borough and has not spared herself in her endeavours to further good causes and help those concerned with particular organisations. The bearer of an honoured name, it can truly be said her Mayoralty has added fresh lustre to it.
As was expected, Edith then took on the role of Deputy Mayor until November 1935.
Edith remained on the Town Council for another ten years and finally retired in 1945 at the age of 83.
In March 1954, Edith received the honour of Freedom of the Borough of Reading. Due to her advanced age she was unable to attend the ceremony and instead the Mayor and senior members of the council visited her at home so that she could subscribe her name to the roll of Honorary Freeman. She was presented with an oak casket containing an illuminated copy of the resolution admitting her as an Honorary Freeman.
Edith lived at 12 Northcourt Avenue (which was built for the Sutton family) until she moved to number 24 Northcourt Avenue where she lived until her death.
Edith died on Saturday 30th March 1957 at her home of ‘Southernmead’, Northcourt Avenue where she had lived for many years. She was 95 years old. Her funeral took place the following Wednesday and she was buried in Reading Old Cemetery with two of her sisters. Her grave has the following inscription:-
Sacred to the memory of ALICE SUTTON died March 25th 1921 aged 73.
I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come
Also of ELLEN SUTTON died November 2nd 1928 aged 77 and of
EDITH MARY SUTTON Justice of the Peace died March 30th 1957 aged 95.
Section 67, Row E, Plot 13