WATCH: Relive the unveiling of Congleton's Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy statue

By Alex Greensmith

22nd Mar 2022 | Local News

Congleton has been put on the map with the new women's suffrage statue on Bridge Street.

There was an ecstatic atmosphere in Congleton on International Women's Day, when a bronze statue of the town's most famous daughter was unveiled after a four-year campaign.

Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy was a nationally-recognised campaigner for women's rights who lived in Congleton for 54 years.

Her bronze likeness, created by Marsh Award-winning sculptor Hazel Reeves, was officially unveiled by The Baroness Lady Hale of Richmond.

Elizabeth, a mentor to the famous Pankhursts suffragettes, campaigned successfully for women's emancipation including the right to education, property and enfranchisement.

Emmeline Pankhurst referred to the Congletonian as 'the brains behind the women's suffrage movement'.

Six years before her death in 1912, the newspaper of the Women's Social and Political Union said "If the women of England ever realise what they owe to Mrs Elmy, they will put up to her memory a national monument".

112 years later, crowds Congleton have witnessed the 'fulfilment of that prophecy' in the words of Susan Munro, Chair of Elizabeth's Group, the local charity that organised the project.

Mrs Munro continued "In 2018 a small group of women realised what they owed to Mrs Elmy and have fought a four-year campaign to raise the money for Our Elizabeth to stand in her hometown and to raise her presence in the public consciousness.

"It has been a roller-coaster of a project, we have known tremendous highs and some devastating lows, but the driving force that has kept us going is the knowledge that Elizabeth never gave up.

For over 50 years she stared down the patriarchy and battled against the establishment of her day to bring women the right to an education, to own property and ultimately to vote.

"So, drawing on Elizabeth's strength and remembering the things she achieved, we set our faces like flint, changed tactics and ultimately triumphed."

Born in 1833, Wolstenholme Elmy, like many change-makers, was a controversial character.

She renounced religion as an instrument of the patriarchy and she and her equally-feminist partner Ben lived together unmarried in Congleton for years because they rejected the marriage vow that a woman should 'obey' her husband, and the disempowerment that marriage imposed on Victorian women.

They eventually married for the sake of their son, Frank, but at one point they were stoned in the streets of Congleton for inviting radical anti-religious campaigners Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant to speak at a meeting in the town.

Even 100 years after her death, Wolstenholme Elmy continued to stoke debate. The statue project enjoyed huge public support but Congleton Town Council was divided in terms of where it should be placed.

Some Councillors wanted the statue set in a quiet location outside the town centre, but Elizabeth's Group were determined that she should stand in a prominent central position.

Eventually the Council voted to leave the location to the Group, and the central spot gained the support of Cheshire East Planning officers under the weight of public opinion.

At the unveiling Susan Munro reflected "I hope, that if the roller-coaster of life has pitched you down to a dark place, if you have a mountain to climb or an insurmountable problem, if your enemies are many and more powerful then you, then I hope you will look at Our Elizabeth and remember this small group of women who refused to give up, who drew on Elizabeth's strength and battled on against the odds to fulfil that 100-year-old prophecy on International women's day 2022."

Addressing the crowds, Baroness Hale said "The more I found out about Elizabeth, the more I thought what a wonderful woman she was. She was way ahead of her time, and Congleton should be very proud of this remarkable woman, a small woman with a big brain, a big heart and a big constitution."

Kay Wesley, a Trustee of Elizabeth's group, became the first elected Women's Equality Party Councillor in 2019, a moment which led a media pundit to call the town 'The Feminist Republic of Congleton'.

"I think Our Elizabeth would approve of that, don't you?" said Cllr Wesley. "So yes, modern Congleton is a town of feminists, in other words, people who believe in equality for all, regardless of sex, but also age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.

"I'm proud to be part of today's Congleton, and Our Elizabeth will stand here proudly to remind us, and future generations, that we must continue to strive for equality, and must never take our hard-won freedoms for granted."

Sculptor Hazel Reeves, who also created the award-winning Emmeline Pankhurst statue in Manchester, spoke directly to her new work: "I hope you realise, Elizabeth, how fussy I am about who I sculpt. Only if I am truly inspired to tell someone's story will I be able to summon up the physical and mental energy required.

"But within a few moments of being told about you, I realised I had to tell your story. I wanted to sculpt you in full flow, showing how powerfully persuasive your words were."

"We need to have more role models on our streets, reminding us that women have always done extraordinary things, inspiring the next generation to continue your work for women's rights".

Lily Smith of Congleton High School read a poem she had written about Elizabeth.

This was followed by a reading from Helen Banks of Eaton Bank High School, who said "Elizabeth Wolstenholme-Elmy and her life's work are an inspiration to me.

"Thanks to the work of this brilliant woman, and many others, myself and other British women have the right to vote and the right to a comprehensive education which will have a profoundly positive effect on my life...I hope that the statue and this event will raise her profile and that her life and work will go on to inspire many more for generations to come."

Town Mayor Denis Murphy said "We all owe Elizabeth an enormous debt and it is fitting that she should be commemorated in our town in this important year".

Congleton is celebrating 750 years since the granting of its charter as a market town in 1272, and the unveiling of the statue, named 'Our Elizabeth', is the first of a number of celebratory events throughout 2022.

The event in Congleton was led by Beartown Stompers Jazz Band, who fronted a parade through the town centre to the statue. Children from ten local schools dressed up and waved banners they had made as they marched along.

They were joined by the Girl Guides, Women's Institutes, Congleton Choral Society, Cheshire Fire Service, and many more community groups in the bursting procession and packed into the busy town centre for the unveiling.

Residents and visitors enjoyed the blue skies and soaked up the Victorian atmosphere at the side stalls featuring traditional games and a Punch and Judy show with a twist, as Punch saw the error of his ways and made his White Ribbon Promise to stop violence against women.

Significant sponsors such as the Inclosure Trust, the Heritage Lottery Fund, Congleton Partnership and Kanga Health were invited. Another donor was the Denise Coates Foundation - the charity of betting agents bet365 - and being associated with a strong and local (Stoke) female businesswoman.

Members of Congleton Writer's Forum read poems and the recently-formed 'Elmy Mill Girls' performed songs they composed for the occasion.

Elizabeth's Group Patron and Wolstenholme Elmy's biographer, Dr Maureen Wright, reflected that Elizabeth and Ben Wolstenholme Elmy were both "prophets who were not listened to in their own town.

"Ben was barred from using this Town Hall for meetings on occasions and Elizabet - who folks admitted knew more about education than almost anyone else - tried and failed to be elected to the Congleton School Board in 1870.

She blamed her failure on the fact that she had "no Church or Chapel affiliation" to help secure the necessary votes.

"What some of you may not know is the size of Elizabeth's daily post-bag. Congleton delivery men would struggle up to their modest home with over 200 letters a day during important dates in the parliamentary suffrage calendar and, until the arrival of her typewriter in the 1900s (previously owned by Oscar Wilde), Elizabeth answered each by hand.

"Historians have often been less than kind, or indeed accurate, in their interpretation of Elizabeth's role in the narrative of women's suffragism, but thanks to her recent rehabilitation as a prime mover of the British narrative of social reform we can celebrate her return to Congleton today with pride.

"When I began my research, now nearly two decades ago, I hoped I would one day have the opportunity to speak in this Town Hall in honour of Congleton's remarkable pioneer for women's emancipation. Today that wish has been fulfilled."

It is the second honouring of the great Congleton resident in eleven months.

A Congleton link road opened in her honour in April 2021, and plans for the statue began swiftly after.

Initially, placing the statue on the High Street, outside B&M near to one of the bollards was proposed.

You can watch a three minute video of the day at the top of this article.

Congleton: Who would you like to see get a statue in our town next?

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