Women 'banned from Peace banquet'

Banquet ban headline

That was the pre-Peace Day 1919 headline in the Beds and Herts Saturday Telegraph, of July 12th, 1919. It was an article by a V. G. Lewis, not a snubbed ex-serviceman but a member of the Luton Board of Guardians.

Furthermore, it was written by a woman. After all the clamour and controversy surrounding the proposed Peace Celebrations in Luton, history and the history books tend to overlook that it was not only the veterans of the Great War who were slighted by the Town Council, so was an even bigger section of Luton's population - its womenfolk.Banquet advertisement

Despite up to 500 places being available at the Plait Hall for the proposed 15 shillings a ticket subscription banquet, an advertisement in the newspapers said "as the accommodation is very limited, it is regretted that the banquet must be restricted to gentlemen".

Mrs Violet Gwendoline Lewis (wife of Mr Colton Taylor Lewis, of 1 Union Street, Luton) was one of only five members of the Board of Guardians not to be invited to the feast - all of them women. She had  chaired meetings of the Luton Women's Suffrage Society and was presumably well-known locally, having been elected to the Board by the voters of Luton's East Ward.

It is interesting to note that she wrote her scathing attack in the Saturday Telegraph in her own name (rather than as Mrs Colton Lewis). Unusual for its day, too, Mrs Lewis was given space in the newspaper to speak her mind and blast the "mean, petty, discourteous, blundering" male establishment running the town (admittedly it was on a page seven heavily devoted to advertising). This is what she had to say.

The storm of disapproval and indignation that has been raised over the action of the Peace Celebrations Committee, who decided to ban the Women Guardians from attending the Peace Banquet, has doubtless been as disconcerting as it was unexpected, yet none the less deserved by the men who have so discourteously blundered.

It is amazing that anyone could imagine a mean and petty action of this kind should be allowed to pass unchallenged; on the contrary, when it happens, as on this occasion, so great a breach of good manners has been committed, then the correction inevitably must follow - and that in no uncertain voice.

It ought not to be necessary to admonish men who imagine themselves competent to arrange a matter of this kind with tact and sense of fitness of things - yet the very fact that this Committee calmly decided to banquet among themselves speaks more eloquently than words, making clear that evidently all they deemed necessary in order to rid them of their uneasy feeling of selfishness was to call out to the Women Guardians like the Hatter did to Alice at the Mad Tea party: "No room, no room".

When we were told on Monday [July 7th, 1919] that some 400 or 500 men were expected to assemble for this Peace Banquet, but no room could possibly be found for five Women Guardians - that would work out at one woman for every hundred men - we knew well enough, even as they know, their reason was not lack of room, but rather that they want to have the banquet all to themselves, but they have not the courage to say so.

This course of banning the Women Guardians from the Banquet is illegal, inasmuch as the rest of the Board will be eligible to attend as such, and by this time doubtless have all received their invitations.

What I want to know, in common with many others, is by what authority has this action been taken? In whom is invested the right to single out five persons from an elected body such as the Board of Guardians, and say to them: "You are regretfully (doubtless with their tongue in cheek) banned from the Banquet because there is no room. We can seat 500, but not five more.

I maintain with my women colleagues that we are duly elected upon the Board of Guardians by the ratepayers of Luton to do our duty by them and the poor alike. Therefore, if the Board is invited to attend the Peace Banquet as a corporate body, no one has any right to decide that we - the women serving on the Board - shall be banned.

Of course, there will be the usual paltry quibblings such as "No one yet has been invited" or "I am not going as a Guardian" or "I am in favour of including women, but I did not vote" etc, etc, etc. All of this only makes the whole thing more contemptible. The fact remains that those people who thus speciously equivocate are going - it matters not under which cloak - that they, at any rate, will have due recognition given them should they care to attend. The fact also remains that a direct insult has been offered the Women Guardians - an insult we do not intend to look over.

Men who can thus meanly decide to ask the help of women when there is plenty of work to be done, and then banquet by themselves when they know there will not be probably quite so much needed to call in their aid as in the past few anxious years - thinking to rudely dismiss that matter at that - are not large minded or public spirited enough to have in their charge the affairs of a town such as Luton.Mayor Impey and macebearer Frederick Ringall (Thurston)

One can only judge people by their actions, and anything like this unprecedented act of selfishness and blundering discourtesy only goes to prove their minds are archaic and their outlook and thoughts beclouded by ignorance of the signs of the times - a darkness more reminiscent of the Middle Ages than the Twentieth Century.

Why were we not banned from attending the State Service last Sunday? I believe we each received an invitation to be present, and those of us who were able to do so were in attendance. We did not hear there was no room for us at the Thanksgiving Service. I wonder why!

And now I come to the last hoary argument that this self-appointed committee cling on to with limpet-like tenacity, namely that if they invited the Women Guardians they would be bound to include all other representatives of women who worked so hard for their town during the war.

If there is not room in the existing accommodation, it is the business of those people who imagine they are competent to arrange these matters to devise a plan by means of which there would be sufficient room to contain a body of guests which should consist of representatives - men and women - of all those various organisations that have rendered signal service to their town and country in its grave crisis.

But splendid as has been the work of the women of Luton, and I am the first to realise it and pay humble tribute to them, their case is not quite on all fours with this singling out of the five members of an elected body - which is tantamount to the committee saying the Board as such shall be invited "but we will keep the women members out".

In conclusion, for the benefit of the committee that has so grievously blundered, I cannot do better than quote a paragraph from the London Evening News of Tuesday last: "The day has gone by when the nation could afford to treat the half of its population - the better half, in fact - as useless ornaments."

Luton, like the rest of Britain, can no longer keep woman outside on the doormat while man monopolises business and banquets.


At the Board of Guardians meeting referred to by Mrs Lewis, the women's spokeswoman, Mrs Haith, expressed their great indignation at not being invited to the banquet. It was not that she or the other ladies were particularly anxious to actually attend but they felt they ought to have the right of acceptance or refusal.Lady Guardians revolt

Mayor Henry Impey, who was presiding at the meeting, said the fact that the committee felt they wanted a representative gathering of the commercial men of the town caused them to decide to have gentlemen only. There was no reflection on the lady members of the Board, it was simply a matter of restricted accommodation.

The Mayor refused to be drawn on whether invites had been sent to the male members of the Board, and inflamed the situation further by ruling further discussion out of order. Mrs Lewis refused to be ruled out of order and said that as a Guardian she had a right to speak, and moved adjournment of the Board because no member should be cried down.

The Mayor continued to call for next business, and the ladies, with murmurs of disapproval, finally gave way.


Due to the large numbers expected to be involved, the proposed banquet was originally planned to be held at the Plait Hall on Monday, July 21st, 1919. The Beds & Herts Saturday Telegraph of July 5th reported that Webdales, of Wellington Street, were to be asked to undertake the decorating of the hall, and a sub-committee comprising the Mayor (Councillor Henry Impey), Deputy Mayor (Councillor C. Dillingham), Alderman Staddon and Alderman Oakley had been appointed to oversee the event.

It seems that the "no women" restriction resulted in far fewer invitations than expected being accepted. For example, Mr Milner Gray, whose wife was also a member of the Board of Guardians, turned down the Mayor's invitation by quoting Scripture. He wrote: "Dear Mr Mayor, Thank you very much for your invitation but 'I have married a wife and cannot come'."

Another male writer said: "I heartily agree with the ladies (of the Board of Guardians), and it would indeed be a sad mistake if this took place without our noble army of women workers being represented. Has the Mayor so soon forgotten the splendid part taken by the women of the Empire during the late war? Are not the Peace celebrations to be participated in by all?

"We must never forget that the women - the magnificent women - made this glorious victory possible, and that without their help, both on the home and war fronts, we might have never had any victory celebrations."


By July 17th, The Luton News reported that the event was by then "an invitation Mayoral banquet to be held at the Town Hall" - an obviously much small feast in the much smaller Assembly Room.

And after the Town Hall was burned down it never happened at all.

[Picture: Mayor Henry Impey and macebearer Frederick Ringall (photo by Fredk Thurston)]