Mother Miller - Chesterfield’s pioneer suffragist

PUBLISHED: 18:00 07 January 2020

Portrait of Mrs Emma Miller, suffragette (photo State Library of Queensland)

Portrait of Mrs Emma Miller, suffragette (photo State Library of Queensland)

state library of queensland

John Wright uncovers the tale of Chesterfield’s Emma Miller, pioneer trade union organiser and suffragist who helped Australian women be first in the world to win the right to vote.

Statue of Emma Miller and other legendary Australians Steele Rudd and Charles Lilley in King George Square, Brisbane, Australia Photo: Kgbo, courtesy Wikimedia CommonsStatue of Emma Miller and other legendary Australians Steele Rudd and Charles Lilley in King George Square, Brisbane, Australia Photo: Kgbo, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

If bystanders thought Queensland's Police Commissioner William Geoffrey Cahill looked formidable they hadn't yet spotted 'Mother Miller', the 73-year-old protestor who was about to walk past him during the 1912 Brisbane General Strike in support of striking tram workers and who - although evidence of it is a bit thin on the ground - 'reputedly stuck a hatpin' into his horse, causing him to be 'thrown and injured,' according to Pam Young in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

Was this a press 'beat-up' somewhere to discredit those with the impudence to question the establishment, mischievously suggesting that a woman of Miller's character would feel the need to hurt an animal to make a point? After all, Mrs Miller had right on her side, not to mention all the other women in the 10,000-strong crowd who, despite being confronted by policemen with batons, marched alongside her to Parliament House with appeals that had been a long time coming for the right to join a union and equal rights in the workforce.

Emma had always been a fighter. Born on 26th June 1839 in Chesterfield, the eldest of four children of shoemaker Daniel Holmes and Martha, née Hollingworth, as a child she would walk 10 miles with her father to political meetings to rebel against a society heavily balanced in favour of the rich. Emma would one day take up this fight herself, the only difference being that she would extend the precious right to vote to include women. When she was 18 she married a bookkeeper, Jabez Silcock, with whom she'd eloped, and started a family. They had four children, later moving to Manchester where she supported them by sewing for 12 hours a day, six days a week.

Emma's father was a strong supporter of the Chartists who fought for political power to be extended to the working classes. 'The Chartist movement grew following the failure of the 1832 Reform Act to extend the vote beyond those owning property,' a British Government Living Heritage article explains. The year before Emma was born, 'in 1838, a People's Charter was drawn up for the London Working Men's Association for all men to have the vote… In June 1839 the Chartists' petition was presented to the House of Commons with over 1.25 million signatures. It was rejected by Parliament. This provoked unrest that the authorities swiftly crushed.

Women marching in a strike procession in Brisbane in 1912 Photo: State Library of QueenslandWomen marching in a strike procession in Brisbane in 1912 Photo: State Library of Queensland

'A second petition was presented in May 1842, signed by over 3 million people but again it was rejected and further unrest and arrests followed. By the 1850s Members of Parliament accepted that further reform was inevitable. Further Reform Acts were passed in 1867 and 1884, and by 1918 all men had won this right to vote… but it was not until the Equal Franchise Act of 1928 that women over 21 finally achieved the same voting rights as men.' In Australia, thanks to restless immigrants like Emma, things would move less slowly.

By 1874, at 35, she was widowed and had married stonemason William Calderwood. In 1878 the couple migrated to Brisbane with her children. In 1886 she married her third husband, Andrew Miller, and worked as a gentlemen's shirt maker and seamstress. In 1890 she helped start a female workers' union, mainly of tailoresses. In 1891 she gave evidence to Australia's Royal Commission into Shops, Factories and Workshops to expose the fact that 'sweat shops' were exploiting women.

She then helped form the Workers' Political Organisation, which later grew into the Australian Labour Party, and was now one of the most famous women in Queensland. Pushing for women's suffrage, too, some saw her Labour connection as a hindrance to change. 'A plural voting system existed at the time,' a Queensland Government's Office for Women biography explains. 'This enabled a man who owned land to vote in as many electorates as he had property. It also meant that itinerant workers who did not own a home could not cast a vote. Adopting plural voting for women would mean 60,000 of Queensland's 80,000 women still would not get a vote. In April 1894, a meeting of the Women's Equal Franchise Association saw Emma Miller elected president and "one person, one vote" adopted as its platform.' Her persistence paid off because on 9th April 1902 the Federal Electoral Act made Australian women the first in the world to win the right to vote for a national parliament.

Women could finally vote for the Queensland parliament in 1905, but were still unable to stand for parliament. When war loomed in 1914 she travelled south to Melbourne and set up her soapbox on the banks of the Yarra River from where she called loudly and successfully for an end to conscription, the NO campaign against the first conscription ballot winning in October 1916, many observers attributing the result to the strength of the women campaigners involved.

Emma Miller died on 22nd January 1917 at the age of 77. A state funeral was offered but refused by her one surviving son. However, Australians were not ready to forget her. That August The Worker magazine published a poem in her memory and in 1922 a marble bust of her by James Laurence Watts was unveiled at the Queensland Council of Unions. Today there is a statue of her in King George Square in Brisbane and a street named after her, Emma Miller Place. In 1987 the Queensland Council of Unions established the Emma Miller Awards, presented each year to women who have contributed a lot to their trade union. And the praise goes on. In 2003, Miller's life story was featured in the exhibition A Lot on Her Hands, presented by the Australian Workers' Heritage Centre, and in 2017 the electoral district of Miller was created in her honour in the Queensland state electoral redistribution that year.

Three days after Emma Miller died, The Worker newspaper wrote this about her: 'She was only a little handful - so frail in body - but she had the courage of a lion and her energy was marvellous… Her keen intellect, her magnetic personality and above all her wonderful devotion to the cause were a continual source of inspiration… as a champion of the rights of women she was without equal.'

The truth about the supposed hatpin incident was revealed, thankfully, in an article published in the Sydney Morning Herald immediately after Emma's so-called 'clash' with police: 'The funny side of the morning fray was the attempt of a score of tradeswomen to rush the bayonets… The attacks were led by Mrs Miller, an aged spare little lady, who could almost be blown over in a puff of wind.

'They came along in a kind of sectional rush, and doubtless a little disconcerted the armed men who expected at least to have their faces scratched. The police squad might have been dead for all the notice they took. They simply stood "eyes front" as the ladies could make no impression either with fierce glances or physical efforts, they beat a slow retreat.' No mention of a hatpin, simply more evidence of indomitable spirit - something that was doubtless part of her Derbyshire heritage!

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