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A hundred years ago, Vashti signed for peace

29 Jun 2024 4 minute read
Vashti, Fred, Hilda, Connie, and Henry on a visit home c.1917/8. Tom is still at the front. ©Diane Dowding, not to be used without permission.

Today, as world conflicts escalate, many of us unable to get directly involved, sign numerous petitions for peace hoping somehow our collective voice will influence the world. And a hundred years ago, nearly 400,000 women in Wales did the same.

This was, as explained in the Nation Cymru article A century ago, the women of Wales made an audacious appeal for world peace – this is their story the ‘monster petition’ which ‘reputedly would have stretched for seven miles if its pages of signatures had been placed end to end,’ a global appeal for peace from the women of Wales to the women of America.

Now, after years in America, the petition has returned home and dedicated volunteers are transcribing names and addresses, and attempting to bring to light as many of the signatories as possible.

As Jennifer Evans, Swyddog Allgymorth Cymunedol/Communty Outreach Officer, Hawlio Heddwch: Women’s Peace Petition Project explained: “The project is a year-long celebration of the 390,296 Welsh women who signed the petition, and presented it to the women of America in New York in 1924.

“The petition manifesto asks the Women of America to use their influence on the American government to work towards preventing another war after the horrors of WWI.

“During 2023/24, we have been running events and activities across Wales to Remember their story, Rejoice, in the centenary and Realise their wishes by inspiring future peace activists. The petition was originally accessioned into the collection of the Smithsonian Museum, Washington but on the 5th of April, 2023, it was returned to Wales, gifted by the Museum to mark the centenary.”

Genealogical record

Tracing individuals through the genealogical record is so much easier with unusual names and one that leapt out of the page is a bold signature from Abergavenny, ‘V. Dowding.’

This is Vashti Dowding, born on 15 August 1869 in Abergavenny, to Hannah Hopkins, 36, and Thomas Smith, 36. Thomas predominantly from a Somerset family, and Hannah from a Newport one.

When Vashti was 29, she married Henry John Dowding on 2 November 1898, described in the 1901 Census as a coachman/domestic and the 1911 Census as a gardener. They had five children, and in the 1911 Census are living at 47 Union Road but later moved to 39 Union Road where Vashti signed the petition aged 53.

There is only so much that can ever be gleaned from archival records, so an appeal was launched on the Abergavenny Local History Society and we were delighted to be contacted by Diane Dowding, Vashti’s granddaughter-in-law and I spent an enjoyable couple of hours with Diane looking at photos and talking about the family.

Diane’s late husband Jeremy was the grandson of Fred, the last child who apparently was very small when he was born at 39 Union Street, so his mother would get him to suck raw meat to build up his strength.

Vashti and Henry at 39 Union Road c.1920s. ©Diane Dowding, not to be used without permission

Vashti (a Cornish name it is believed), like many women, had been left at home to bring up the family as Henry and her eldest boy, Tom, joined WWI. Tom having lied about his age to enlist.

Chocolate pudding

Tom was a rank above his father meaning, when they met by accident, Henry had to salute his son.

One night, Henry returned on leave in the middle of the night and Vashti got the children out of bed and cooked them all a meal, complete with chocolate pudding Henry had brought back with him. On a visit like this, the above photo was taken.

Vashti was apparently quite a character, a strong Christian, who liked playing cards, anti-drink, and anti-Lloyd George with his disestablishment of the church. In later life she had several strokes and after Henry died in 1938, she went to live with her daughter Hilda and died on 12 May 1946 aged 77 at 88 Park Crescent, Abergavenny.

Despite the Women’s Peace Petition a mere fifteen years later the world descended into WWII.

Today at the click of a button we can sign a petition from the comfort of our homes, but the staggering organisation and dedication of those behind the Welsh Women’s Peace Petition should never be forgotten.

And, through researching these names it allows us a window into the ordinary lives of ordinary women who did an extraordinary thing.

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Stephen John Owen
Stephen John Owen
15 days ago

I don’t know if the name Vashti is also Cornish but it is a Persian name and found in the Biblical Book of Esther

14 days ago

A quick look on FreeBMD shows the name Vashti spread all over the UK in the 19th c but it appears to become unpopular in the early 20th. There are hardly any records of the name for Cornwall so I would say there is no obvious Cornish connection.

Shân Morgain
Shân Morgain
14 days ago

The author finds this event inspiring. I do not. 400,000 people created a gigantic petition with enormous labour. It represented the voice of the people in no uncertain terms. Yet it achieved nothing except to make a fascinating historical resource about those women. Our masters ground on their warlike way just as they do now – and millions and millions died, again and again and again. Just like now. Even the remembrance Poppy has been warped from its original intent to say ‘Never again’. But it happened again and the Poppy is now a celebration of war heroism. The young… Read more »

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