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Sproson [née Lloyd], Emma (1867–1936), suffragist and local politician, was born on 13 April 1867 at Pikehelve Street, West Bromwich, one of the seven children of John Lloyd, canal boat builder, and his wife, Ann, née Johnson. Her father drank heavily and she had a childhood of extreme poverty. In the mid-1870s the family settled in Wolverhampton. Emma had little formal schooling and joined the casual labour market at the age of eight: picking coal from the pit mounds and running errands. A year later she left home to enter the household of a local milkwoman where she helped with the cooking, cleaning, and evening delivery, though she did attend school four days a week. In 1880 she obtained a full-time position that combined shop work with domestic service. Later she was dismissed without a reference when she reported that her mistress's brother had made sexual advances towards her. Now unemployed, Emma moved to Lancashire to find work. About that time she began teaching in a Sunday school and was introduced to the church debating society.

Emma Lloyd's first experience of public speaking came at a church debate; her second was during a parliamentary campaign by Lord Curzon. This incident was the defining moment in her conversion to women's suffrage. Curzon refused to answer her question because ‘she was a woman and did not have the vote’ (MS autobiographical notes). By 1895 she had returned to Wolverhampton with enough money to buy a business for herself and her mother. It seems likely that this was a shop in the front room of their house. In this period Emma enrolled in the Independent Labour Party (ILP). On 1 August 1896 she married Frank Sproson, postman and secretary of the Wolverhampton branch of the ILP. The couple had four children, of whom three survived: two sons, Frank (b. 1899) and George (b. 1906), and a daughter, Chloris (b. 1897), who became profoundly deaf.

In 1906 Frank Sproson was instrumental in securing the services of Emmeline Pankhurst, founder of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), to address a meeting of the Wolverhampton ILP on 28 October. On that occasion Mrs Pankhurst stayed at the Sprosons' home and Emma Sproson chaired the meeting. In the first half of 1907 she took part in a series of meetings in London halls and parks. For instance, on 13 February she attended the meeting at Caxton Hall and was among those arrested on the green at Westminster Abbey. Her host in London, Frederick Pethick Lawrence, stood as surety for her and she was bailed to appear before the magistrates on 14 February. From the options of a 20s. fine or fourteen days' imprisonment, she elected to go to prison. The following month she travelled to London to join another suffrage march from Caxton Hall to parliament. In the confusion she was arrested and sentenced to a fine or a one-month prison sentence. While in Holloway, she was visited by Christabel Pankhurst, and on 20 April she participated in a public luncheon organized by the WSPU to celebrate the release of the militants. Press reports of Emma Sproson's activities in the spring and summer of 1907 show that she was in demand as a speaker. For example, shortly after her release from prison she featured alongside Jennie Baines, a working-class organizer for the WSPU, at a meeting in Wolverhampton market place. Later that same year she went on to tour the Black Country on behalf of the WSPU.

Disillusioned with the increasingly autocratic leadership style of the Pankhursts, Emma Sproson subsequently defected from the WSPU to join the Women's Freedom League (WFL). By February 1908 she was a hard-working member of the national executive committee of the league, following an exhausting itinerary of public speaking up and down the country. In 1911 she served two terms of imprisonment in Stafford gaol for the offence of keeping a dog without a licence, carrying out the WFL policy of ‘no taxation without representation’. This time she staged a hunger strike and won the right to be reclassified as a political prisoner. In 1912 she resigned from the WFL, in protest at Charlotte Despard's autocratic style of leadership. Thereafter she devoted herself to local politics. Emma Sproson contested two unsuccessful local elections on behalf of the Labour Party in 1919 and 1920, but in 1921 she was elected councillor for Dunstall ward. The first woman councillor in Wolverhampton, she served on the public health committee and the subcommittees that dealt with mental health and homes for unmarried mothers. In the autumn of 1922 she provoked uproar among her colleagues when she exposed financial irregularities in the administration of the local fever hospital. Yet the official report exonerated the officials involved and Emma was removed from the hospital committee and the health committee. She was also censured by the Labour Party. In retaliation she published her own version of events in a pamphlet entitled Fever Hospital Inquiry—Facts v. Fairy Tales. In November 1924 she fought a successful by-election but she failed to retain her seat when she stood as an independent in 1927. She attended the annual conference of the ILP in 1924 and again in 1926. Latterly her hearing became severely impaired and public work was increasingly difficult. Emma Sproson died at home, 56 Castlecroft Road, Tettenhall, Staffordshire, on 22 December 1936; she was survived by her husband. Emma Sproson's working-class, midlands-based career provides a vivid counterbalance to the view of the women's suffrage movement which portrays it as predominantly bourgeois and London-centred.

Jane Martin

Sources  

S. P. Walters, ‘Emma Sproson (1867–1936): a Black Country suffragist’, MA diss., University of Leicester, 1993 · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert. · MS autobiographical notes, Wolverhampton Archives and Local Studies Library

Archives  

Wolverhampton Archives and Local Studies Library, autobiographical notes |  Women's Library, London, Women's Freedom League


Likenesses  

photocopy (as a young woman; after photograph), Wolverhampton Archives and Local Studies Library · photograph, Women's Library, London, Women's Freedom League · photograph, Wolverhampton Archives and Local Studies Library · postcard, Museum of London, Women's Freedom League archive · two photographs, Museum of London