In 1851 the first women’s suffrage organisation in the country was founded in Sheffield, 50 years before the famous suffragette movement. Anne Knight, an Essex social reformer and pioneer of feminism, was in correspondence with Isaac Ironside – a Sheffield Chartist and councillor who is also buried in the Cemetery. She asked him to suggest women who would be interested in campaigning for female suffrage and he gave her the list of seven politically active women. Eliza Rooke was one of these women. Together Knight and these working-class Sheffield women formed the Sheffield Women’s Political Association.
The first meeting was held on the 26 February 1851 at the Democratic Temperance Hotel, 33 Queen Street, Sheffield. The meeting unanimously adopted an ‘Address to the Women of England’ which constitutes the first manifesto calling for female suffrage in Great Britain.
The Sheffield Women’s Political Association persuaded Lord Carlisle to submit this as a petition to the House of Lords, where it was roundly defeated.
Eliza was born in Brigg, Lincolnshire in 1824 and was married to Thomas Rooke, a confectioner. Thomas was a prominent Chartist – the two movements became strongly linked. Eliza was also a member of the National Chartist Association. (a third of signatories of the Charter were women)
The Association lobbied widely, writing to newspapers, attending meetings throughout the country and encouraging other towns to form their own women’s suffrage groups. The fame of the Association must have been considerable – in a commentary in the London Globe of March 1851 there is a disparaging reference to the ‘spirit of Sheffield gynaeocracy’ and how it might affect a commission of inquiry into divorce law.
The life of the Association seems to have been short – there is no further mention of it in newspapers after 1853, but it was extremely significant in the development of the Suffrage movement.
Eliza died in 1856 aged 32 and is buried in a public grave, G2 126 in the Anglican part of the Cemetery. There are 19 burials in this grave including 3 children who died in the Sheffield flood of 1864.