Half a century ago, the philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) was a household name in Britain as a standard bearer for nuclear disarmament. But 50 years earlier he had made history in Wimbledon on behalf of a very different cause.

Exactly 106 years ago yesterday on 2 May 1907, Russell threw his hat into the ring as unofficial Liberal and Suffragist candidate in the Wimbledon parliamentary by-election. With 23,705 electors this was the third largest constituency in the country. 

A safe Conservative seat, its MP, Eric Hambro, had resigned and Henry Chaplin, a former member of Lord Salisbury’s Cabinet, was selected to succeed him. The Liberal Party opted not to oppose him but Russell was persuaded by his wife to stand unofficially in order to promote the cause of votes for women.

He was familiar with the area. His parents had both died when he was a small child and he had been placed in the care of his grandparents, the former Prime Minister Lord John Russell and his wife, who lived at Pembroke Lodge in Richmond Park.

But he found the whole business of the by-election an annoying distraction from his mathematical and philosophical writings.

His marriage was stormy and would later end in separation and then divorce but in 1907 he agreed to his wife’s demands that he stand, knowing full well he would lose. Chaplin, an old fashioned type known as “The Squire”, was firmly against women’s suffrage.

So were most of the electors but the campaign made national history as it was the first election ever in which votes for women was made a principle issue by one of the candidates.

It was a short campaign, accompanied by rowdy disturbances at every one of Russell’s meetings.

The two local newspapers, the Wimbledon and District Gazette and the Wimbledon Borough News supported Chaplin and Russell respectively. Those causing the disturbances were described as “Larrikins and Hooligans” and “Cowardly Cads”.

At a meeting in Worple Hall on 4 May a rat was said to have been let loose – although the Gazette said the hall was full of rats anyway. The uproar made the speeches inaudible except to those next to the platform.

At Raynes Park the following week an egg was thrown, hitting Mrs Russell on the cheek. The Borough News called this a “ruffianly assault” and even Chaplin publicly disapproved of such behaviour.

Russell was backed by the non-militant Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies and drew supporters from as far away as Newcastle and northeast Lancashire, their representatives being admired by the Borough News for their composure during the noisy meetings. The paper summed up the campaign as “one of the great landmarks in the Women’s Suffrage movement”.

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Bertrand Russell in later life

But the poll produced no surprises. Russell got just 3298 votes to Chaplin’s 10,262, a record majority of 6964. There was no rise in the Conservative vote, simply mass abstentions by Liberals who were then in government but unwilling to extend the franchise to women.

It was another 11 years before women over the age of 30 finally got the vote and ten more after that before they could do so at 21 like men.

Russell chalked the Wimbledon campaign down to experience and moved on to other bigger causes, enduring imprisonment for pacifism during World War One, later opposing both Nazism and Stalinist communism, and by the 1960s opposing the US involvement in the Vietnam war. Above all, he demanded nuclear disarmament during the Cold War.

In 1950 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature “in recognition of his varied and significant writings in which he champions humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought”. It was one of many honours bestowed on him during a lifetime of nearly a century.

The Wimbledon by-election failure was a distant memory.

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