Sophie Patteson and the Primrose League
Sophie Elizabeth Patteson (1840 - aft. 1911) was a rector's daughter and a member of the Cobbold family. She lived in Berners Street for much of the 1880s and is recorded as living at Holywells Mansion in the 1891 census. In her later years, she moved away from Ipswich. This photo appeared in the local press in April 1887.
One of the first branches of the Primrose League to promote the Conservative cause was established in Ipswich . The League had been founded in London in 1883 by Winston Churchill’s father and other grandees. In Suffolk, with the majority of the county’s agricultural labourers about to be enfranchised, landowners and their wives were keen to spread the Tory message to their workers. Both men and women could join. Ipswich meetings were held at the Conservative Club in St Stephen’s Lane. The League had two classes of members paying different annual subscriptions: full members, who were usually charged half a crown, and associate members who paid a few pence.
At a meeting in August 1885, thirteen female members decided to set up their own ladies’ branch, known in the League’s rather arcane parlance as a ‘dames’ habitation’. Mrs Packard (grande dame of the fertiliser family) presided and Miss Sophia Patteson of Berners Street became its effective and active secretary. Just a few months later, she wrote to the Ipswich Journal to say:
‘We now number 760 members, much the largest Dames’ branch in England ... and I have been received by every house and by all classes whether they were blues or yellows’. (Tory supporters were known as 'blues' and Liberals as 'yellows')
The Ipswich Dames continued to attract a phenomenal number of members and was frequently reported in the press as being the largest such habitation in England, rising to 1,600 members in 1896. They held their own political meetings as well as attending full Knights and Dames events at which their leaders even sat with the men on the platform and made speeches. In 1891, for example, Miss Patteson addressed a crowd of 1,200 faithful men and women, and two years later spoke at a similar size gathering at the Public Hall which was thought to be one of the largest ‘assemblies of ladies’ Ipswich had ever seen. This was at a time when it was still unusual for women to speak from the platform at large public meetings - although increasing numbers of votes-for-women campaigners were doing so.
Miss Patteson was a good organiser, inveterate letter-writer and very effective electioneer. For example, in the April1886 by-election, Dames turned out in force to get the Tory vote in:
‘Dames of the Primrose League vied with members of the Liberal Ladies’ Committee in piloting their smart equipages through the streets, picking up that interesting class of voters who highly appreciate the attention with which the fair sex, in their zeal to further the cause which they so warmly espouse, are ready upon such occasions.’ (Ipswich Journal, 15 April 1886)
This was a key election for local Tories. They had recently been successful in unseating the two sitting MPs, both Liberals, by petition and then won the Ipswich seats in the ensuing by-election. One of these new MPs was Sir Charles Dalrymple who sat for the town for the next 20 years. Later that year, a speaker from London HQ publicly thanked her and the other hundred or so Dames who had been out canvassing and added:
‘The Primrose League is the first institution to recognise the value of ladies … and they worked harder than men who professed to be ardent politicians.’
In the late 1880s, Miss Patteson became President of the local habitation.
Nationally, nearly half of all full members of the Primrose League were Dames. It was the first political organisation to give women the same status and responsibilities as men. By the late Victorian and Edwardian periods, the League was the largest and one of the most influential groups affiliated to any political party at the time. However, after the First World War their activities and influence waned and towards the end of the twentieth century the Primrose League’s role was superseded by the Conservative Central Office. It was officially disbanded in 2004.
Conversation with Tracy Hickey