Achieving equity: celebrating the life and work of Madge Turner, suffragist and campaigner

By Nichola Court, Archivist

This International Women’s Day 2023, we celebrate the achievements of the Chichester-born suffrage campaigner, Ethel Margaret ‘Madge’ Turner, a woman who spent her adult life campaigning for equity and whose efforts to achieve this have recently been recognised in the city of her birth.

Logo of International Women's Day in Purple text against a White background
The front of the Butter Market with bicycles and a car outside, shows signs for the Chichester School of Art and the Technical Institute on the building
The Market House (Butter Market) in North Street, Chichester, home to the Chichester School of Art and Technical Institute from 1900. Image from the Chichester Quarterly, Vol I, No 3, Spring 1949 (WSRO, Lib 16550)

Born in Chichester on 24th July 1884, Madge was the oldest surviving child of Edwin and Minnie Turner. Her parents ran the long-established grocery business, Turner & Son, at 27 South Street, alongside Madge’s paternal grandmother, Jane; her mother’s family – the Lights – ran a successful stationery and hardware shop in Eastgate Square. Little is known of Madge’s childhood but newspaper reports show that she enrolled in Chichester’s School of Art in around 1898, which moved from ‘wretched’ conditions on Crane Street to bespoke premises on the new first floor of Chichester’s Market House on North Street (popularly known as the Butter Market) in 1900. Madge enjoyed some success at the School of Art’s exhibition of June 1900, where her design and sgraffito skills were noted and she was awarded a certificate for drawing; national newspaper reports indicate that some of her work was entered in the National Art Competition held in London a month later.

Madge appears to have been born into a politically active family and both the Turners and the Lights were involved with local Liberal politics. In June 1905, a Liberal meeting in Chichester resulted in the organisation of a women’s group, with Madge elected to the position of Assistant Honorary Treasurer, with another Miss Turner being elected Honorary Treasurer, a Miss Light elected President and a second Miss Light elected to the Committee. Madge became increasingly politically active as the new century progressed and she is referred to by the Bognor Observer as ‘the lively young Liberal orator of Chichester’ in its edition of 17 January 1906. At a meeting about women’s suffrage held in Fishbourne that month, she told the assembled audience ‘Only a woman understands how nice it is to be a man’: unfortunately, the audience’s reaction is not noted!

The Women’s Social and Political Union [WSPU] was one of the country’s two largest organisations campaigning for women’s suffrage. Founded in 1903, it was known for its controversial militant tactics, such as breaking windows and damaging artworks. In 1907, a new group – the Women’s Freedom League [WFL] – broke away from the WSPU due to concerns over the leadership of the WSPU. In the summer of 1908, in order to raise awareness of its campaign and take its message to the country’s more inaccessible rural towns and villages, the WFL embarked upon a caravan campaign, led by the bold and charismatic Muriel Matters, who was becoming something of a celebrity campaigner due to her eye catching methods. (You can find out more about the WFL’s Caravan Campaign in West Sussex by reading our previous blog, The WFL’s caravan arrived in Chichester at the beginning of June and Madge and her sister, Winifred, supported Muriel throughout her stay in the city, which saw her speak to largely hostile and rowdy audiences at Eastgate Square, the Cattle Market and the Corn Exchange.

Captioned 'A Halt Near Chichester'. Shows the suffrage caravan in a yard with two women standing on the back step. A third woman is sitting on the step. 'Women's suffrage' and 'Women's Freedom League' are stencilled along the side of the caravan. 'Votes for Women' has been stencilled twice onto the back of the caravan.
Postcard issued by the Women’s Freedom League promoting the Caravan Campaign of 1908, showing Muriel Matters (left); the woman on the right is probably Madge Turner. The photograph was taken by Madge’s sister, Winifred. Held at the Women’s Library, London School of Economics (LSW TWL.2002.327).

Despite the apparently marked indifference of Chichester’s population, the caravan campaign enjoyed some success and a local branch of the WFL was established at Easebourne; as a result, Madge became more involved with the WFL and the campaign for women’s suffrage. In February 1909, elected to carry the branch’s banner at a march on Downing Street, Madge was arrested and charged with obstructing the police in the course of their duty and sentenced to 14 days imprisonment at Holloway.

Madge’s arrest caused something of a sensation in the local area and reactions were decidedly mixed. At Midhurst, where Madge gave her first return speech, she was ‘dragged through the streets in a decorated carriage amid dancing torches and to the strains of lively music’ – yet was simultaneously pelted with ‘rotten vegetables, elderly eggs, noisy jeers and cat calls’ by less-sympathetic members of the crowd (Chichester Observer, 17 March 1909). At Chichester, however, a much smaller and more appreciative audience gathered at St Martin’s Hall (now the site of Marks and Spencer’s East Street shop) to hear Madge speak of the build up to her arrest, her experience in prison, and her determination to go on and fight for equity (see Chichester Observer, 7 April 1909 for a detailed report of this meeting).

Banner made up of three horizontal stripes with white at the top, yellow in the middle and dark green at the bottom. WFL DARE TO BE FREE is stencilled at the bottom, along the green stripe.
A Women’s Freedom League banner held at the Women’s Library, London School of Economics (LSE TWL.1998.05)

Following her arrest and imprisonment, Madge became even more involved with the WFL, speaking at meetings across the county before becoming one of its paid organisers. This saw her work in Gloucestershire, London and Scotland, where she coordinated at least two touring campaigns in the Clyde Valley. In the 1911 census she is – somewhat reluctantly, since the WFL encouraged its members to boycott the census – recorded as living at 65 Gloucester Crescent, Regent’s Park (London) with Alison Neilans, a prominent campaigner for women’s suffrage. It is not clear when Madge and Alison met but it was likely through their work for the WFL, with Alison serving on its National Executive Council.

Madge and Alison would spend the rest of their lives together, going on to share a house at Asmun’s Place in Hampstead and working alongside each other at the Association for Moral and Social Hygiene, a gender equality pressure group formed in 1915 whose main aim was ‘to promote a high and equal standard of morality and sexual responsibility for men and women in public opinion, law and practice’, both within Britain and internationally. Appointed Assistant Secretary and Librarian in 1919, Madge also edited the Association’s journal, The Shield, and was made Secretary in 1941 after Alison was forced to resign from the post she’d held since 1915 due to her poor health; as well as nursing Alison until her death in July 1942, Madge held the post of Secretary until her own retirement in 1945, after which she enjoyed three years of a quieter life until her own death in February 1948. She is buried in Kennardington, Kent, where she and Alison spent many happy weekends tending the garden at their weekend cottage.   

Blue circular plaque. Reads City of Chichester; followed by the coat of arms of the city; Ethel Margaret 'Madge' Turner, 1884-1948. Chichester's most prominent campaigner for women's suffrage, studied here at the Technical Institute and School of Art, 1900.
The Blue Plaque awarded to Madge Turner in February 2023. It will be placed on the Market House (Butter Market) in North Street, Chichester. (Photograph taken by Francesca Tambling and reproduced by permission.)

In February 2023, Chichester City Council awarded a Blue Plaque to Madge, in recognition of her work to achieve equality and equity for women. The Plaque will be placed on the Market House in North Street, marking Madge’s enrolment at the School of Art, where she studied for several years, and will pay tribute directly to Madge’s efforts to ensure that women were given the opportunity to make their voices heard, through the ability to cast their vote. The plaque’s inscription reads as follows:
Ethel Margaret ‘Madge’ Turner (1884-1948), Chichester’s most prominent campaigner for women’s suffrage, studied here at the Technical Institute and School of Art, 1900.

You can find out more about Madge Turner’s life and work by watching a short presentation, available on our YouTube channel, by clicking on the link

An illustrated talk about Madge Turner (‘Living a Life Less Ordinary’: The Story of Madge Turner, Suffragist and Campaigner) can be booked for external groups. Please contact West Sussex Record Office for further information using the email address

The following articles also provide further information about Madge:
The Chichester Martyr, Chichester History No 35, Summer 2019;
Women’s Suffrage in Chichester, The Chichester Society Newsletter, Issue Number 212, June 2022 – this can be found by clicking on the link

The Mapping Women’s Suffrage website also includes an entry for Madge Turner, this can be found by clicking on the link  

The archives of the Women’s Freedom League and the Association for Moral and Social Hygiene are held at the Women’s Library, London School of Economics. To find out more, click on the link  

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