Tax Resistance at Wolverhampton
by Frank Sproson.
The position in Wolverhampton in regard to tax resistance is certainly of interest to the supporters of militancy.
We do meet occasionally in the Suffrage movement, the woman with the pitiful tale: I should like to help you, but I dare not; my husband is against me. But it is, indeed, a revelation to meet an enthusiastic supporter with an equally sympathetic husband, who finds herself hampered, through the decisions of magistrates who hold the husband liable for the deeds of his wife.
Ever since I began to take a serious interest in politics I have believed in sex equality, and have never denied my wife the freedom that I myself claim, and, as I shall endeavour to show, it [is] because of this that I was convicted.
The humiliating position of the married woman, especially the working woman, is admitted by all Suffragists; but I never realised that she was such an abject slave so clearly as when I stood in the Wolverhampton Police Court, side by side with my wife, charged with aiding and abetting her to keep a dog without a license. The only evidence submitted by the prosecution (the police) that I actually did anything was that I presided at two meetings in support of the “No Vote, No Tax” policy of the Women’s Freedom League. That I said anything that was not fair comment on the general policy of militancy there was no evidence to show; if, then, on this point I was liable, then all supporters of militancy are equally so. But I do not believe it was on this evidence that I was convicted. No. The dog was at my house, and cared for by my children during my wife’s absence. In the eyes of the law, I was lord and master, so that my offence, therefore, was not that I did anything, but rather that I did not do anything.
I did not assert my authority, I did not force my wife into subjection, and however legal the magistrate’s decision may have been, it certainly was not just.
It was the spirit of rebellion against injustice displayed by Mrs. [Emma] Sproson that first won for her my admiration. This admiration is far too deep rooted to be suppressed by the decision of magistrates.
I admire the rebel against injustice, man or woman, because I know that it is to them that all real progress is due. A friend once said to me, when criticising my wife, “But what would happen if all other women did as she is doing?” I replied: “They would get the vote to-morrow”; and he saw it. The pity is that others do not.
Mr. Churchill Questioned.
As no answer was received to our letter addressed to Mr. Churchill, steps were taken to get the matter raised in the House of Commons, and Mr. H[enry]. G[eorge]. Chancellor very kindly undertook to draft and put the questions. As originally drafted they were as follows:—
Mr. Chancellor: To ask the Home Secretary whether he is aware that after serving in Stafford Gaol a sentence of one week’s imprisonment in the third division passed upon her on last for refusing to pay a dog license, as a protest against her political disenfranchisement, Mrs. Sproson was on tried a second time for the same offence and sentenced to one month’s imprisonment in the first division; whether two trials and two sentences for one offence are lawful, and what steps he proposes to take in the matter.
Mr. Chancellor: To ask the Home Secretary whether he is aware that in addition to a sentence of one month’s imprisonment passed upon Mrs. Sproson for passive resistance to taxation her husband was sentenced to one week’s imprisonment for aiding and abetting her, and leave to appeal refused to him, and whether, as his wife was held by the court to be sufficiently responsible to suffer the punishment named, he can see his way to prevent such manufacture of criminals and multiplication of punishments for single offences of a political character.
All questions have to be passed by the Speaker, and the first one was modified to read: “And whether he can see his way to take steps to avoid, in future, the infliction of two sentences for one offence.” The second one was censored. In doing this the Clerk at the Table was merely upholding the traditions followed in all Government Departments in their treatment of married women. Married women are treated as individuals so long as there are penalties to be inflicted, but to curtail their liberty or hamper their activities the Law of Coverture is brought into force.
Mrs. Sproson may be treated as the owner of a dog, be liable for the fine, and for non-payment of it serve first a week and then a month’s imprisonment. But Mrs. Sproson is a married woman under coverture, so the law secures a second victim in proceeding against her husband. If Mrs. Sproson happened to possess an income of her own she would not be treated as the owner of that, the amount must be added to her husband’s and he is held liable for income-tax.
This provides only another illustration that the whole Law of Coverture must be abolished in order to make it possible to improve the legal position of married women.
To the first question Mr. Churchill replied:—
The offence of which Mrs. Sproson was convicted on was not the same as that of which she was convicted on . It is an offence against the law to keep a dog without a license, and after her conviction of Mrs. Sproson continued deliberately to break the law. The punishment was a fine which she was well able to pay if she had wished.
I may add that the dog she kept was a dangerous one and had bitten three children, and that in spite of a friendly warning from a neighbor, whose little girl had been bitten by it, she allowed him to run at large. As the law stands no person can be punished twice for the same offence, but where an offence is repeated the penalty is usually increased, and in this particular case the law imposes an increased penalty for the second offence.
As usual, the Home Secretary entirely overlooks the political motive for Mrs. Sproson’s action. He repeats the charge brought at the trial which was by no means proved, and omits altogether to say that the dog was dead before the trial came on. As the dog for which the tax was refused was the same dog, it is difficult to see where the one offence ended and the other began. In reply to our letter the following has at last been received:—
Madam,— The Secretary of State, having carefully considered your application on behalf of Emma Sproson, who is now undergoing a sentence of imprisonment, I am directed to express to you his regret that he can find no sufficient ground to justify him, consistently with his public duty, in advising His Majesty to interfere in this case.
I am, madam, your obedient servant,
We are now making efforts to get the sentences made to run concurrently. All friends who approach Members of Parliament should urge them to put this request before Mr. Churchill, as in this way Mrs. Sproson would have one week’s remission of her excessive sentence of five weeks.
Edith How Martyn.
N.B.— Mr. Sproson writes on Monday, :— “I have just left Mrs. Sproson. I am glad to say she seems well, and is determined to do the full time which expires on . I was only allowed to see her through a grating for fifteen minutes.” — E.H.M.
Women’s Tax Resistance League.
On Mrs. [Margaret] Kineton Parkes addressed the members of the Brighton and Hove Suffrage Society, and also delegates from Worthing and Shoreham, on the subject of “Tax Resistance” in the Hove Town Hall. Miss [Maria?] Merrifield presided, and there was a long and animated debate at the conclusion of the lecture, led by Colonel Kensington, as to whether the National Union should or should not adopt the policy of tax resistance. A meeting was held on evening in the drawing-room at Warren House, Guildford, by the kind invitation of Mr. and Mrs. Baker, and Mrs. Kineton Parkes spoke at a garden party at Farnham.
The last of these meetings was held on at Tunbridge Wells at the rooms of the Suffrage Society and presided over by Mrs. [Edith Kate] Lelacheur. Mrs. Kineton Parkes’ address was followed by a most animated and instructive discussion led by Madame Sarah Grand.
The council meetings to decide this question will be held at Edinburgh next week.
On , also, a most successful protest against taxation without representation was made by Mrs. Muir, of Broadstairs, whose goods were sold at the Auction Rooms, 120, High-street, Margate. The protest was conducted by Mrs. [Emily] Juson Kerr; and Miss Ethel Fennings, of the W.F.L., went down to speak. The auctioneer, Mr. Holness, was most courteous, and not only allowed Mrs. Muir to explain in a few words why she resisted taxation, but also gave permission to hold meeting in his rooms after the sale was over. Prior to the sale a well-attended meeting was held in the Cecil-square, and Miss Fennings sold some copies of The Vote.
A short note in the same issue read:
…On we had the pleasure of a visit from Mrs. [Edith] How Martyn, who spoke upon Tax Resistance, and explained Mrs. Sproson’s refusal to pay her dog tax, and the undue and seemingly vindictive sentence of five weeks’ imprisonment that she is now undergoing.…