Phillips, Mrs Juanita

Phillips, Mrs Juanita, Sudbury Lawn, High Street, Honiton

Juanita Maxwell Phillips née Comber[1] (1880 -1965) was born on 23 Jun 1880 in Valparaiso, Chile, the daughter of Thomas Denison and Margarita Maxwell Comber, formerly King. Both were members of British families with strong South American connections. Thomas Comber was a director of Gibbs and Co, working in nitrate extraction, from which he made a great deal of money. Juanita and her twin sister, Alice, were the youngest of a family of fourteen children, which included three sets of twins. In 1890 Thomas Comber retired and the family returned to England. They lived first in Ealing and later in Sudbury Lodge,  Wembley. At the 1891 census the household include a governess, showing that Juanita was educated at home.

Juanita married Thomas Phillips, a solicitor who had recently joined a practice in Honiton, in 1906. Phillips had been a student at Pembroke College, Cambridge, where Juanita’s eldest brother, Henry, was a don. The Philllipses bought a house on Honiton High Street, which they called Sudbury Lawn,[2] and lived there till 1950. They appear always to have retained a flat in London as well.

Phillips was a member of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), to which it seems likely that she was introduced by her older sisters Mary and Edith, serious-minded women who worked with girls’ clubs in east London and were strong supporters of the campaign for women’s suffrage. Little is known about Phillips’s London-based pro-suffrage activity, except that she later recalled taking part in ‘abortive deputations to the House of Commons.’[3]  Her 1930s scrapbooks suggest she had also been involved with the Women’s Freedom League and the Actresses’ Franchise League.[4]

In Honiton she set up a public meeting to discuss women’s suffrage in January 1910, over which she presided and at which Amy Montague (q.v.) and Edith Clarence (q.v.) spoke.[5] This led to a ‘large show of hands’ in favour of women’s suffrage. Later that year she arranged a further meeting in the Dolphin Assembly Rooms, this time presided over by Amy Montague. This time ‘[s]everal of those present joined the Union’.[6] She supported Mrs Amy Montague (q.v.) at a meeting in Axminster in 1911 at which Miss Joachim spoke.[7] She also refused to be listed on the census, being absent from her house on census night in 1911. In spite of the apparently successful meetings in Honiton and Axminster, no separate East Devon branch of the WSPU was formed, and Phillips later related how she became chair of the Exeter branch, and sold suffrage papers in the streets of Exeter ‘every week for months’.[8]

Phillips was present at the tea given by local WSPU supporters for Mrs Pankhurst in the Royal Clarence Hotel when Mrs Pankhurst came to address a public meeting in Exeter in  October 1910.[9] In 1939 she recalled her involvement in the picketing of Exeter prison when Mrs Pankhurst was briefly imprisoned there in 1913.[10] She was sufficiently involved with leading members of the movement to be one of the people who attended Mrs Pankhurst’s funeral at St John’s Westminster in 1929.[11]

During the First World War Phillips returned to London, as her husband was away from Honiton serving in the Officers’ Training Corps. She worked at the War Office handling accounts for the officers who had been killed. She described the effect the war had on her: ‘When she came back to Honiton she could not come back to play. The playground was just as nice, but the zest for play had gone.’[12] She decided to go into local politics. In 1920 she became Honiton’s first woman councillor, then first woman JP, first woman mayor (she was mayor eleven times in all), first woman alderman in 1928 and first woman Devon County Councillor in 1931. She was made a freeman of the borough of Honiton in 1938, first woman chair of a county council committee in 1941 and first woman county alderman in 1946. During the Second World War she served as Devon County Director of the Women’s Voluntary Service.

Phillips retained her commitment to women’s rights. She was an early member after 1918 of the Exeter and District branch of the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship and became branch chair. She continued to campaign for women to have the Parliamentary vote on equal terms with men, attending for example, the 1928 United Franchise Demonstration.[13] She was a member of the Open Door Council and the National Council for Women, advocated the appointment of women police locally, and supported the establishment of the first contraceptive clinic in Exeter.

The Phillipses retired from Honiton to Awliscombe in 1950, in which year Juanita was awarded the OBE for ‘public services in Honiton and District.’[14] Juanita remained active on Devon County Council as an alderman and served as a member of various National Health Service Committees Tom Phillips died in 1957 and Juanita on 14 November1966. They are buried in the churchyard at Awliscombe.

In 2018 she was named as one of the Women’s Local Government Society’s national list of 100 Suffrage Pioneers. More information about Phillips’ life and career after the First World War has been published by Julia Neville in ‘Viva Juanita! Juanita Phillips, Champion for Change in East Devon between the wars,[15]and in ‘Challenge, Conformity and Casework in Interwar England: the first women councillors in Devon’, a Women’s History Review article.[16]


Entry created by Julia Neville, November 2018

[1] Family and census information from and by personal communication from Phillips’s great-niece, Caroline Merry de ssBayer, which is acknowledged with thanks.

[2] The house still exists, with a blue plaque commemorating it as the place Juanita Phillips lived. The plaque refers to Juanita having been arrested six times for her suffragette activities. This is not corroborated in any other source and is possibly due to a confusion between Mrs Phillips and Miss Mary Phillips, a well-known suffragette who did work in Exeter and was indeed imprisoned for her militant activities.

[3] Express and Echo (E&E), 18 Mar 1939.

[4] Devon Heritage Centre (not yet catalogued) Mrs Phillips’ Scrapbooks, Preliminary Scrapbook, 28, 38 (Women’s Franchise League); 43, 68 (Actresses’ Franchise League).

[5] DEG, 24 Jan 1910.

[6] DEG 31 Oct 1910; WT, 1 Nov 1910.

[7] DEG, 9 Mar 1911.

[8] E&E, 18 Mar 1939.

[9] WT, 29 Oct 1910.

[10] E&E, 18 Mar 1939.

[11] Scrapbooks, Preliminary, 26.

[12] East Devon County Press, 12 Feb 1938.

[13] Scrapbooks, Preliminary, 2.

[14] London Gazette, 2 Jan 1950.

[15] Julia Neville (2012) Viva Juanita! Juanita Phillips, Champion for Change in East Devon between the wars,, Exeter, Julia Neville and Tony Simpson.

[16] Julia Neville (2013) Challenge, Conformity and Casework in Interwar England: the first women councillors in Devon, Women’s History Review, 22:6, 971-994, DOI: 10.1080/09612025.2013.780846.


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