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1897: Controversy leads to Cuckfield Parliament failure

House of Commons 1834 (colourised)

February 1897

Cuckfield’s societies included one known as the 'Local Parliament' or as it was otherwise called, ‘Cuckfield House of Commons’. This was a debating forum which met regularly during the winter season to debate motions put down by members. Other towns such as Brighton and Haywards Heath had their local parliaments and from time to time there would be meetings between them. Cuckfield’s ‘Palace of Westminster’ was the Talbot. The members adopted aliases, the Treasurer being the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

On Monday February 1st’s meeting the Rt. Hon. Member for Cheltenham proposed that “the Parliamentary Franchise be extended to Women”. The motion was seconded by Somerset and opposed by Dundee and Battersea. The debate was lively and included:

‘If women were capable of running political societies they were capable of exercising a discriminating power at the polls’, and ‘Laws would be more equable and just if made with the aid of women’

Further supported by Mid-Bucks and Leicester the motion was carried by one vote. It seems that Cuckfield was well ahead of its time in 1897.

Parliament closes

Starting on Tuesday November 9th 1897 correspondence to the Mid Sussex Times was published regretting the demise of the Debating Society, the ‘Cuckfield Parliament’. This began a series of letters expressing opinion and blame for the situation. The newspaper would accept a letter for publication under a pseudonym providing that the actual contributor’s name and address was available. Such was the volume of correspondence that the extracts that follow give but an indication of the strength of feeling on this subject.

F S Lewin wrote from his home in Southampton mourning the loss as he was an eager member in his days in Cuckfield.

‘West Clare’ however laid the blame for the closure at the feet of the Church. He claimed that the Church authorities showed lack of interest in the ‘reasonable amusements of the place’. Further that the Vicar actually attended the opening of the ‘Haywards Heath Parliament’ but did not come to Cuckfield’s. He went on to suggest a prime reason was that Non-Conformists and Radicals attended. Then a prominent resident of the town resigned following his suggestion that the Debating Society should cease to exist as such but meet to be lectured on the ‘Licensing Question etc’. The opposition had triumphed.

‘Halifax’ wrote that an undercurrent of opposition in some quarters which had existed since the beginning of the Society had finally won the day. He claimed that the beginning of the end came when the Reverend W G Irvine, the Curate, resigned as Speaker.

From A Century Ago Cuckfield in 1897, the Dawn of the Queen’s Hall by Alan Miller 1997

Etching: House of Commons 1834 (colourised), Wikimedia public domain image.

Contributed by Malcolm Davison.


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