The life of Margaret Hills, suffragist and the first female councillor on Stroud Urban District Council, is one Stroud’s best kept secrets.

However some meticulous research by Jacqui Stearn and Chas Townley has revealed fascinating details about one of the early activists for women’s rights. Sarah Phaedre Watson reports.

JACQUI and Chas have agreed to share some of Margaret’s extraordinary background with the SNJ in the hope that readers may be able to help them with their continued investigations.

Margaret was born in London to a comfortable middle-class family in 1892.

Her father, Henry Robertson, was a noted painter and member of the Royal Academy.

Well educated, she obtained a first class degree in English at Oxford in 1904 and later became one of the first women to be awarded a bachelors degree by Trinity University, Dublin.

However it was after moving to Yorkshire to teach in 1908 that Margaret became involved with the National Union of Women’s Suffrage.

An excellent public speaker, she was involved in daring caravan propaganda or ‘vanning’ tours, moving from village to village by horse drawn caravan, stopping along the way to give open air talks and peacefully promote the cause of votes for women.

Stroud News and Journal:

Margaret spoke during daring public events called 'vanning' about pay inequality and the right to vote

Newspapers also document her working hard in the West Midlands, a report of a meeting at Warwick compliments her public speaking skills: “…such a voice and personality could not fail first to attract and then to hypnotise. In less than five minutes a large and promiscuous audience … had assembled. It increased rapidly and listened, interested and attentive, to the end of well-delivered address”

As well as championing the case for votes for women, she also highlighted the workplace discrimination of women.

“Miss Robertson cited the case of £160 being offered to a male teacher for a certain post, and £130 to a female, who, in addition to the subjects required of both, would have to teach cooking and domestic economy. Therefore, either the Government were making the man a present of .30, or docking the woman of that amount.”

Her influence was widespread, in 1913 she met with the then Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, who she informed of how public opinion had changed in favour of votes for women, particularly amongst the working class.

In 1914 she was married hours before her husband Harold reported for duty as a doctor in the Royal Army Medical Corps as part of WW1.

During the war the NUWSS called a war-time ‘truce’ to the campaign for the vote and instead focused its attentions on helping women and children, Margaret worked hard up and down the country to improve maternity services.

She was also involved in establishing an organisation branded by Winston Churchill as ‘those dangerous women’, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, as part of which she is credited as the organising secretary of the 1915 Congress at the Hague.

Stroud News and Journal:

Winston Churchill branded Margaret and other activists as 'Dangerous Women'

Margaret and Harold arrived in Stroud after the war in 1922 and lived at 11 Rowcroft which was to serve as Harold’s surgery for the whole of his time as a GP in the town.

While living in Stroud Margaret remained busy, whether as a member of the Women’s Citizens Association or supporting her husband to open one of the first child welfare clinics in the county, and as an elected member of the Stroud UDC and the second woman elected to Gloucestershire County Council in 1939.

She is credited with focusing the town council’s attention on 1930s slum clearance which was achieved around Middle Hill, as well as driving force behind the building of council housing in Summer Street, and the first older people’s bungalows at Highfields Stroud.

Stroud has much to thank Margaret for, she was even involved in the purchase of Stratford Park as a public space followed by the speedy provision of the outdoor pool and the laying of the bowling green and tennis courts.

Stroud News and Journal:

Cllr Hills was also involved in the purchase of Stratford Park, and the provision of tennis courts, bowling greens and the open air pool

Margaret died in Rodborough in 1967 and was survived by her husband Harold who remained in their family home, Cotsmoor, which is now known as Lotus, until his death in 1979.

As an elected councillor, district and county, Margaret improved the lives of many families and individuals, and Chas and Jacqui will be celebrating her life throughout the year and hope to have a plaque erected in her honour.

Jacqui and Chas will be sharing their research about Margaret at Counter Heritage: Stroud’s Alternative Histories on Saturday, February 3, at The Centre for Science and Art, Lansdown, Stroud.

Tickets are £8 from Trading Post Records.

See Facebook.com/wildboarginlounge

Anyone who can help Jacqui and Chas to research and celebrate Margaret’s life should contact sarah.watson@newsquest.co.uk