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Priestman, Anna Marialocked

  • Sandra Stanley Holton

Priestman, Anna Maria (1828–1914), social reformer and campaigner for women's rights, was born on 23 March 1828, the seventh of the nine children of Jonathan Priestman (d. 1863), a prosperous Quaker tanner of Newcastle, and Rachel Bragg (1791–1854), a travelling minister in the Society of Friends, the daughter of Margaret Wilson Bragg, another noted Quaker minister. Her family home was Summerhill, in Newcastle.

During Anna Maria Priestman's childhood her family took an active part in the temperance movement, the campaign to abolish slavery, the Reform Bill agitation, and the Anti-Corn Law League. Her eldest sister, Elizabeth, became the first wife of the radical statesman John Bright, and lifetime friendships were formed between the Priestman and Bright sisters that survived Elizabeth Bright's early death and were further strengthened in the shared care of the infant child of this marriage, Helen Priestman Bright. This circle was to prove of considerable importance in the formation of an ongoing national women's rights movement from the 1860s.

As a young woman Anna Maria Priestman lived largely the life of a daughter at home, caring for her father in his widowhood. After his death she and her younger sister, Mary, eventually moved to Clifton, Bristol, in 1869. Here they settled for the remainder of their lives—near to both their eldest surviving sister, Margaret Tanner, and their niece Helen, who had married the shoe manufacturer William Stephens Clark—moving in circles of like-minded radicals that included their close friend the abolitionist Mary Estlin.

The mid-1860s saw the beginnings of an organized demand for women's suffrage, and Anna Maria Priestman, together with other members of the Bright kinship circle, helped form some of the first women's suffrage societies, in London, Bristol, and Bath. She also supported the Ladies' National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts, formed by Josephine Butler in 1870 to protest legislation that undermined the civil rights of those designated prostitutes by the authorities in specified naval and military towns. Mary Priestman acted as the secretary of this organization and Margaret Tanner as its treasurer. All three sisters also supported the international campaigns against state regulation of prostitution, and maintained their family's close association with the cause of temperance.

In the early 1870s Anna Maria Priestman helped form the National Union of Women Workers in Bristol, a trade union and benefit society for women workers that became part of the Women's Protective and Provident League. She was especially concerned with the effect of protective labour legislation on limiting economic opportunities for women, and gave evidence as to these concerns to the royal commission on the Factory and Workshop Acts (1876). In 1881 she helped establish the Bristol Women's Liberal Association, which was then emulated in other towns and cities, resulting in 1887 in the establishment of a national organization, the Women's Liberal Federation (WLF). One of her motives appears to have been a certain frustration with the central leadership of the suffrage movement, and a wish more effectively to mobilize Liberal rank-and-file support for the demand for the vote. She also advocated a closer alliance between women's suffragists and working-class radicals like Joseph Arch. Renewing her friendship with the Priestman sisters after forty years, the visiting United States suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton commented on her pleasure at finding 'three women on the shady side of sixty, so bright, so liberal, so ready for new thought on all subjects' (Stanton to Priestman sisters, 13 Oct [1890], Priestman MSS).

In the 1890s Anna Maria Priestman became increasingly dissatisfied by the refusal of the Liberal Party to make women's suffrage part of its programme, and of the WLF to make it a test question for Liberal candidates seeking support in elections. She established the Union of Practical Suffragists (UPS) with the support of other disaffected women Liberals to act as a ginger group within the WLF. Her strategy appeared to have met with success in 1903, when the WLF at last made votes for women a test question, and the UPS was, in consequence, wound up. Her opponents regained the upper hand, however, and the WLF policy was subsequently reversed. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, in their last active years Anna Maria and Mary Priestman became vocal supporters of the militant Women's Social and Political Union. This suffrage body, under the leadership of Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, sought to pressure the Liberal government into adopting women's suffrage by campaigning against its candidates in parliamentary elections.

Anna Maria Priestman upheld the peace testimony of her religious society throughout her life. The outbreak of the First World War was said to have been too much for either herself or Mary Priestman to bear; she died at their Bristol home, 37 Durdham Park, on 9 October 1914 within five days of her sister.


  • S. J. Tanner, How the women's suffrage movement began in Bristol 50 years ago (1918)
  • K. Robbins, John Bright (1979)
  • S. S. Holton, Suffrage days: stories from the women's suffrage movement (1996)
  • J. T. Mills, John Bright and the Quakers, 2 vols. (1935)
  • H. Blackburn, Women's suffrage: a record of the women's suffrage movement in the British Isles (1902)
  • G. M. Trevelyan, The life of John Bright (1913)
  • R. S. Benson, Photographic pedigree of the descendants of Isaac and Rachel Wilson (1912)
  • J. Somervell, Isaac and Rachel Wilson, Quakers, of Kendal, 1714–1785 [1924]
  • ‘Dictionary of Quaker biography’, RS Friends, Lond. [card index]
  • d. cert.
  • Priestman MSS, C. and J. Clark Ltd, Street, Somerset, Clark family archive


  • C. and J. Clark Ltd, Street, Somerset, Clark family archive
  • Women's Library, London, Butler MSS
  • Women's Library, London, McIlquham MSS


  • group portrait, photograph (with her sisters), repro. in P. Lovell, Quaker inheritance: a portrait of Roger Clark of Street… (1970), facing p. 32
  • photograph, repro. in Tanner, How the women's suffrage movement began, facing p. 10

Wealth at Death

£10,675 19s. 5d.: probate, 5 May 1915, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Religious Society of Friends, London