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The Story of Emma Miller - Rebel With A Cause!

Posted Monday, June 4, 2007

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The Story of Emma Miller - Proud to be A Rebel!

Derbyshire’s history shows that the county has had it’s fair share of famous and indomitable female characters, from tribal leaders like Cartamandua, Queen of the Brigantes, to Bess of Hardwick, the richest woman in Tudor England, historic house builder and virtually Queen of all she surveyed.

`famous and indomitable female characters'

The town of Chesterfield too has contributed such public spirited females as Miss Mary Swanwick, the late Mary Turner MBE – and Emma Miller.

I can almost hear you asking, “Emma who”? – but Emma Miller, born Emma Holmes on 26th June 1839, the daughter of a Chesterfield boot and shoe maker went on to become a staunch and tireless campaigner for social justice and a leading political figure who fought the battles of social emancipation for women and helped lay the foundations which shaped the future of an entire nation.

Emma was born at Parker’s Yard off Holywell Street, although at the time the Holmes family lived in Packers Row where her father Daniel Holmes was a bootmaker (or cordwainer). The Victorian era had just begun and the Industrial Revolution was in full swing. Derbyshire was economically dependent on coal mining and Chesterfield was surrounded by mines. Many miners lived in the town itself and walked miles to work each day and Daniel and Martha Holmes were filled with compassion at the sight of boys less than eight years old being led home from the pits by family members because their “legs, arms and back ached so bad”. Collier boys examined by Dr.Walker of Chesterfield during the Childrens Employment Commission of 1842 were found to have “deformities, bow legs and crookedness of the back”, all legacies of working in the mines. One of the worst pits was in Brampton where boys of eight had to drag carts of coal along a tunnel only two feet high, working for twelve hours at a time without stretching their backs for fear of injury from falling coal. The contrast between the luxurious lives of the rich landowners and the deprived lives of the common folk was constantly visible; while men were being fined and sent to prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed starving families, the local newspaper described the lavish banquets of the Duke of Devonshire, the local Lord of the Manor. Chesterfield’s open air markets were among the largest in Britain and manorial rights were still exercised causing much local dissatisfaction amongst farmers and it was not until 1842 that the Duke of Devonshire finally surrendered his right to take corn and cattle tolls.

In the same year that Emma was born, the New Poor Law Amendement Act led to the erection of the Workhouse of the Chesterfield Poor Law Union which held three hundred people, including children, many of whom were born there. Wherever men, women and children toiled they suffered remoreseless exploitation, had no recourse to any representative body and were conditioned to believe that they were inferior to their masters. In effect the feudal system still operated and mass misery accompanied the poverty that prevailed in the exploitation of the poor.

Bitter at the exclusion of the working class from the suffrage in the 1832 Reform Bill and seeing the solution to the social and economic inequalities as a political one, the Chartist movement - a political forerunner of the Labour Party - grew quickly into a mass organisation with a ‘People’s Charter’ calling for universal suffrage. Daniel Holmes, Emma’s father became a well known local campaigner and was a leading member of Elder Yard Unitarian Chapel where the family had worshipped for several generations and where Emma was baptized on 28th July 1839. Later she learned to read and write at the Unitarian Schoolrooms on Saltergate – now the premises known as the ‘Douglas Robson Bar’.

Thus encouraged by her father, Chartism became the greatest influence on her young life and Emma became familiar with extracts from the works of the revolutionary philosopher Thomas Paine, and was to live her life by a creed from his book, “The Rights of Man” – “The world is my country: to do good is my religion” and throughout her life she delighted in being called a rebel.

In the 1840’s the family moved to Saltergate where Martha and the chldren – Emma was the eldest of four – helped to run Daniels shoemaking business. In 1857 when she was eighteen Emma married Jabez Mycroft Silcock, a book-keeper, with whom she had two sons and two daughters.

The family lived first in Bank Yard off Low Pavement, and later in New Road, Brampton. In 1865 they moved to Salford where Jabez found work as a clerk in a shipping office and Emma trained as a seamstress.

Disaster struck on June 1st 1870 when Jabez, aged only 37, died of tuberculosis and Emma was left widowed with four young children to support. In those days there was no such thing as social welfare and Tom, the eldest aged thirteen, brought in a few pennies working as an errand boy and Emma’s parents moved to Manchester to help support the family. Emma became a ‘gentleman’s white shirt maker’, working twelve hours a day, six days a week and became a campaigner for political and social reform.

On August 30th 1874, after four years of widowhood Emma married William Calderwood, a 34 year-old Salford stonemason. Four years later on 14th November 1878, along with 399 other emigrants, the family boarded the barque ‘Selkirkshire’ and emigrated to Australia on an ‘assisted passage’, and settled in Brisbane, Queensland.

Disaster struck again when Emma’s second husband died on June 6th 1880 and her character and resolve were tested to the limit. She threw herself into her work and became increasingly politically active, campaigning to improve conditions for all working people and fought particularly for the emancipation of working women.

In 1886, aged 47 she got married again – to a Custom’s House agent, Andrew Miller, a Scotsman who was 30 years her senior and as Emma Miller she became famous as a campaigner for social justice and a prominent figure in the Labour Movement. She became a founder member of the Australian Labour Federation in 1891 and travelled the continent rallying support for the cause, becoming a good friend of Prime Minister Andrew Fisher and his wife.

In the 1890’s she became President of the Women’s Equal Franchise Association of Queensland and won a tremendous landmark victory over oppression when Queensland women gained the right to vote in 1902, a full sixteen years before any women in Britain.

Besides being elected President of a number of other political organisations over the next 25 years, she remained an active campaigner, organising petitions, canvassing and speaking at public meeting when up to 10,000 people gathered to hear ‘Old Mother Miller – the Grand Old Lady of the Labour Movement’. She achieved worldwide fame – and some notoriety during the General Stike of 1912 when the infamous ‘Black Friday’ riots took place in the centre of Brisbane. Leading a march on Parliament House, Emma found her way blocked by a large contingent of armed mounted police who charged the women with batons drawn. The women unleashed their umbrellas and drew their hatpins and in the ensuing battle, Emma Miller, at the grand old age of 73, “thrust her hatpin into the flank of Police Commissioner Cahill’s horse. Startled, the horse reared and Major Cahill was thrown and injured”. Emma became a national hero.

As an international socialist she spoke out against the First World War and was President of the Australian Women’s Peace Army.

Unlike her father, Emma Miller had lived to see the People’s Charter become a reality, and this “steadfast apostle of humanity” made her last public speech on January 20th 1917, only two days before she died of cancer aged 78.

All Australia mourned the passing of “The Mother of the Australian Labour Party” and thousands attended her funeral in Brisbane.

A public subscription paid for a white marble bust to stand permanently on display in the Trades Hall, Brisbane. It still stands today as tribute to the Chesterfield shoemakers daughter who helped to shape the future of Australia. Beneath is carved the slogan by which she lived:-

“The World is My Country – To Do Good is My Religion”.

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The Story of Emma Miller - Rebel With A Cause!

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