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Spotlight on...Mabel Harriette Cross, Suffragist

Usually referred to as Mrs W C H Cross, she was born Mabel Harriette Duncan in Bristol in 1872. Her mother was Adelaide, and her father, Edward Duncan, was a tea wholesaler. In the 1880s the family were living in Westbury-on-Trym near Bristol. By the time of the 1901 Census the family had moved to Clifton. Mabel does not appear with them on the Census however, and it is possible that at this time she was training or working as a nurse. A Mabel Duncan is recorded on the 1901 Census as a “sick nurse” in Weston-Super-Mare. At some point Mabel was a district nurse in London.

She was back in Bristol in the early 1900s when she was honorary secretary of the Women’s Reform Union (WRU). The WRU had been formed by Quaker sisters and suffragists Anna Maria and Mary Priestman. In 1908 Mabel Duncan and Sarah Jane Tanner organised a Bristol WRU contingent to join the NUWSS procession on 13 June which culminated in a meeting in the Albert Hall in London. 

Mrs Millicent Garrett Fawcett (second woman from left) and other leaders at the NUWSS procession 13 June 1908

In 1908 Mabel Duncan married William Charles Henry Cross (1855-1936). William was born in Merriott, Somerset (near Crewkerne). His father was rector of Merriott, but by 1881 his mother, Caroline Mary, was a widow. At this time the Cross family was living in Westbury-on-Trym, as were the Duncans. Both families were reasonably well off, each employing two servants. Ten years later, William had qualified as a solicitor and lived in Clifton, where he and Mabel settled after their marriage.

Mabel and William were active in the Liberal party, and prominent in the local women’s suffrage campaign. The WRU and the Bristol branch of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) amalgamated in 1909. They had been working jointly for some time previously, holding outdoor meetings on the Downs and the Horsefair, as well as in the Victoria Rooms. Mabel Cross became joint honorary secretary of the Bristol suffrage society with Sarah Tanner until 1913, after which she held the post alone. Her sister, Maud, was also active in the NUWSS.

In 1909 Mabel was stage manager for the performance in Keynsham of a suffrage play called Man and Woman by suffragist Mary Jane Ward (1851-1933). She also continued to speak at meetings in and around Bristol, including at a large demonstration on Durdham Down in 1910.

In 1913 she was a member of the executive committee of the West of England Federation of Suffrage Societies, and organising secretary for the West of England section of the Women’s Suffrage Pilgrimage. As pilgrims, she and Sarah Jane Tanner were attacked by an anti-suffrage mob in Twerton, Bath. Sarah Jane Tanner was knocked down and badly bruised. Mabel Cross hid in a nearby house and escaped from the back disguised as a man.

During the First World War she was superintendent of a maternity centre and mothers’ school in Bedminster, Bristol. She gave talks at Co-operative meetings, Patriotic Societies and Bristol Women’s Liberal Society meetings on health, infant welfare and the need for women police and magistrates. In 1915 she interviewed nurses from the west of England and Wales for the Scottish Women’s Hospital Unit, and organised the seeing off of nurses, transports and supplies. She was also chair of a committee formed to set up a hostel in Bristol for women workers. 

Scottish Women's Hospitals unit in Rumania

In 1918 the Bristol NUWSS recognised her contribution to women’s suffrage by presenting her with an attaché case and an antique limerick lace scarf and collar. Perhaps this is the train of limerick lace she lent to her daughter, Mary, when she married Robert George Randall of Guernsey in 1929. When the NUWSS changed its name to the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship in 1919 Mabel Cross was appointed secretary of the Bristol branch. She was president of the Bristol Women’s Liberal Association in 1921, and a founder member of the Bristol Venture Club: the Venture Club went on to become the Soroptimists.

William Cross died in 1936. After his death, Mabel went to live in Guernsey. She died there in 1940. 


Picture Credits:-

Mrs Millicent Garrett Fawcett and others at NUWSS Procession 13 June 1908 - Women's Library on Flickr, No Known Copyright Restrictions

Scottish Women's Hospitals Unit in Rumania - Women's Library on Flickr, No Known Copyright Restrictions




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