*Main image: Edith Rigby being arrested in London. Photo credit: LEP.
Preston's advocate for women's rights...
We take many of our modern liberties for granted, not least free education and the right to vote, but these both began with political activism and the work of social reformers like Preston’s champion of women’s suffrage, Edith Rigby.
Edith was born as Edith Rayner in 1872, the second of seven children to surgeon Alexander Rayner. Many of her father's patients were from Preston's working classes, sparking Edith’s early awareness of social and economic inequalities.
She married doctor Charles Rigby just before her 21st birthday, moving to 28 Winckley Square. However, she was determined to become involved in working for social reform, initially improving the lives of women and girls in local mills.
During her time living in Winckley Square, Edith became critical of how her neighbours treated their servants. Though the Rigbys had servants themselves, they allowed them to eat in the dining room and they were not required to wear a uniform. This became a passionate issue for Edith and saw her going to London and disguising herself as a servant to find out how they were treated. She did this for two weeks before her husband and a private investigator tracked her down and brought her home.
In 1899 Edith founded St Peter's School, allowing girls to meet and continue education beyond the age of 11. In 1905 she joined the Independent Labour Party, forming a branch of the Women's Labour League in Preston a year later.
In early 1907, Edith formed Preston’s branch of the Women's Social and Political Union; a militant suffragette organisation which adopted radical methods to bring about change for women. Her militant activity led to her arrest at least seven times.
Edith made many headlines; joining the Pankhurst sisters’ hunger strikes and window breaking campaigns, protesting at a 1909 Preston meeting addressed by Winston Churchill, throwing a black pudding at an MP, and setting fire to soap powder magnate at Lord Leverhulme’s holiday home.
The most notorious of Edith's campaigns took place in 1913 and saw her planting a pipe bomb in the Liverpool Corn Exchange. After forgetting to put the Suffragette banner on the bomb, she turned herself in two days later so everyone would know the Suffragettes were behind it. The pipe bomb campaign led to Edith being incarcerated, sentenced to nine months imprisonment with hard labour.
During the Great War the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) decided not to campaign on suffrage issues. Edith disagreed with this and joined the Independent Women's Social and Political Union (IWSPU), forming a branch in Preston, as well as joining the Women's Land Army. She continued to remain devoted to a life rejecting conventional beliefs about women, being determined to express her independence of mind and courage in her own convictions, with many of the ideals she championed becoming accepted over time
In Edith's later life she refused to wear clothes and footwear considered appropriate for women in her era. She was also one of the first Preston women to ride a bike. She moved to a cottage, named 'Marigold Cottage', just outside of Preston with her husband and they adopted a son called Sandy. In the 1920s Edith was a founding member and the president of the Hutton and Howick Women's Institute. After the death of her husband she moved to North Wales and, following the work of Rudolph Steiner, she enjoyed a healthy and relaxed lifestyle before passing away in 1950.
Due to her radical views and actions Edith wasn't approved of in her own time, however, many people have now come to respect her passion and contributions to her cause.
Edith Rigby sights and tours
The home where Edith lived with her husband Charles can be visited on Winckley Square and makes up part of the self-guided Blue Plaque Trail. You can also take a Winckley Square Guided Walk, run by the Friends of Winckley Square, who specialise in Edith Rigby tours.
For an added bit of history make sure to visit the Earl of Derby Statue in Avenham & Miller Parks; a statue Edith was known for daubing with tar and a "Votes for Women" poster. If you look closely, the marks from the tar can still be seen today.