Archive for category Suffrage Stories
One day last week, while thunder raged outside, I spent some time researching an archive at the William Morris Society premises in Upper Mall, Hammersmith. Just before I left I remembered that close by was the home of Thomas and Anne Cobden Sanderson – the former a renowned Arts and Crafts bookbinder and the latter a campaigner for women’s suffrage, constitutional in the 19th and militant in the 20th century.
The rain had stopped by the time I emerged from the William Morris basement, but the sky was lowering and the Thames was high and rushing fast the other side of the embankment wall as I walked towards the alley onto which the Cobden Sandersons’ house fronts. Passing the Dove – the pub which gave its name to the Doves Bindery and later the Doves Press – I came to 15 Upper Mall and the gate through which so many radical worthies have passed.
Anne Cobden Sanderson was born in 1853 into a leading Liberal family – her father was Richard Cobden, founder of the Anti-Corn Law League – but by the end of the 19th century she had joined the Independent Labour party.
She supported the women’s suffrage cause from an early age but, in 1906, after Annie Kenney and the Women’s Social and Political Union had arrived in London, she joined the militants. She received her first term of imprisonment – two months – in October 1906 after organising a protest meeting in the Lobby of the House of Commons. At her trial she declaimed that ‘I am a law breaker because I want to be a law maker’.
However in 1907, perhaps dismayed by Pankhurst autocracy, Anne joined Charlotte Despard in the breakaway Women’s Freedom League. In January 1909 she and her husband did, however, present Emmeline Pankhurst with an address written on white vellum in purple and green ink and bound by the Doves Bindery to celebrate her release from prison.
Anne Cobden Sanderson proved to be one of the WFL’s most tireless campaigners, speaking at outdoor meetings and continuing to take part in militant protests.
She was arrested in August 1909 while picketing the door of No 10 Downing Street in order to present a petition to Asquith. During the ‘Black Friday’ demonstration in Parliament Square in November 1910 Winston Churchill, who knew Anne Cobden Sanderson well, encountering her during the fracas called a policeman and ordered, ‘Drive that woman away’!’. The structure of society must indeed have seemed perilously close to crumbling when such an action was deemed necessary against a friend of one’s family and erstwhile hostess.
Anne Cobden Sanderson continued to campaign for women’s causes for the rest of her life – and in the 1918 General Election supported Charlotte Despard when she stood as the Labour candidate for North Battersea. In 1926 she was present, a few days before she died, at a dinner given to celebrate the silver wedding anniversary of Frederick and Emmeline Pethick Lawrence.
In May I attended a very interesting seminar – ‘”I am a part of all who I have met”: Why Social Networks Mattered for Suffragette Militancy‘ – given at the Institute of Historical Research by Dr Gemma Edwards of Manchester University. In the course of this Gemma demonstrated how social network theory could be used to re-construct the networks that formed around individual suffragettes and how these networks could then be analysed to demonstrate the subject’s primary relationships and the influences likely to have been exerted on and by them. For an illuminating article by Gemma on the subject see here.
For her paper at the IHR Gemma concentrated on two known suffragettes – Mary Blathwayt and Helen Watts – and related that she had a particular connection with the latter because it was thanks to her own father that papers relating to Helen Watts’ suffragette activities are now held in Nottinghamshire Archives. I little realised when I sat there reading through the Watts’ papers in the late 1990s that they had such a romantic past (or at least romantic to an historical detective).
For, Gemma explained, in the 1980s her father, a Bristol history teacher, had set project work for his class and that one pupil had chosen as her subject the local women’s suffrage movement. She had then been sufficiently enterprising as to place an advertisement in a local paper asking for any new information. Rather amazingly a reply was received from a worker at Avonmouth Docks to say that a quantity of suffrage-related papers were held in a trunk that lay, apparently unclaimed, in a warehouse. The papers related to the suffrage activity of Nottingham-based Helen Kirkpatrick Watts. Gemma’s father was permitted to borrow and photocopy them, subsequently depositing the copies in the Nottinghamshire Archives.
Knowing nothing of this rather bizarre provenance I duly wrote an entry on Helen Watts for The Women’s Suffrage Movement: a reference guide, recounting her suffragette life. I discovered, from an issue of Calling All Women, the newsletter published by the Suffragette Fellowship, that Helen had emigrated to Canada – to Vancouver – in 1965, the wording suggesting that this was a permanent move. I did like to anchor my subjects’ earthly existence with firm birth and death dates but in those pre-internet days I assumed that was as far as I could follow her – having no way then of discovering dates of death in Canada.
However, after Gemma’s seminar I pondered on the mystery of how the trunk could have lain apparently abandoned at Avonmouth. Even though she had flown to Canada and organised for her belonging to have followed her by sea Helen Watts would surely have been on tenterhooks to ensure their safe arrival. Thus it seemed doubtful that the trunk could have failed to leave Avonmouth in 1965.
In the days of my Reference Guide research all tracking of births, marriages and deaths had to be done by working through the hefty volumes held in the Family Record Office and its predecessors. Now, however, I can sit at my computer and at a click find dates in a second. So it was that, after Gemma’s talk, I entered details for Helen Watts and discovered that she had not died in Canada but in England – in Chilcompton, Somerset, aged 91 – on 18 August 1972 . Her permanent address at the time was 36 York Avenue, Hove. Her ’emigration’ had clearly not been permanent. However, one of her sisters, Ethelinda, a teacher, does seem to have taken up permanent residence in Canada, and in 1965 it was presumably Helen’s intention to live with her. Ethelinda Watts died in Vancouver three months after Helen – in November 1972.
My suggestion is, therefore, that the trunk had actually completed its return journey from Canada when it lay forgotten at Avonmouth. Possibly by then Helen Watts was too infirm to keep track of her possessions – however treasured. It is not known what has happened to the trunk and the originals of the papers – perhaps Helen Watts’ wider family (Nevile Watts has numerous descendants) were eventually made aware of them. What must have been her most valuable suffragette mementoes – her hunger-strike medal and Holloway brooch – did resurface – for they were sold at auction in London in 1999. However it is more than likely that Helen Watts carried such an iconic item with her on her journey home rather than consigning it to the trunk.
A little more investigation revealed something more of Helen Watts’ life after her brief and dramatic involvement with the Women’s Social and Political Union than was available when I wrote her Reference Guide biography. By 1911 she had left Nottingham and was living with her brother, Nevile, in Chilcompton in Somerset. He had rebelled in his own way against his family’s Anglican tradition (Helen and Nevile’s father was vicar of Lenton, on the outskirts of Nottingham), was now a classics teacher at Downside College, a renowned Roman Catholic school, and later converted to Roman Catholicism. You can read a short autobiographical article by Nevile Watts here.
Nevile Watts married, fathered five sons, published several books and continued to live in Chilcompton. Helen probably remained in the area for some years – possibly joined by her other sister, Alice. Certainly in the 1950s the ‘Misses Watts’ are listed in the phone book as living at Crosslands, Wells Road, Chilcompton.
The moral of this tale is that papers related to the suffrage movement can turn up in the most unexpected places. If you come across any do let me know…
Last week I visited two small exhibitions – both centring on the theme of ‘Campaigning’.
The first was a temporary exhibition (alas, it ends tomorrow, Friday 22 May, so hurry to catch it) – Blackguards in Bonnets – at the impressive Jewish Museum in Camden Town. This tells the story of the involvement of Jewish women and men in the struggle for emancipation. It centres particularly on the 20th-century campaign for women’s suffrage in which many members of the Jewish community took leading roles.
The writer, Israel Zangwill, a noted speaker on behalf of the movement, is represented by this image. In March 1912 Kate Frye attended a meeting addressed by him and wrote of it in her diary:
‘”I turned to Mrs Mansel, just before he finished, saying ‘Doesn’t he make one think of – and isn’t he like – Spring’” That word concluded his speech, and it was like the Spring in its freshness and gaiety, life and hope, and so deliciously witty. I have never heard a large audience laugh so quickly and as gladly as this audience, the response was almost before the spoken word, in fact there was not a dull flash of the eye all the evening.’
Also on display are a number of items that related to the involvement in the WSPU and Jewish League for Women’s Suffrage campaigns of the wealthy Lowy family. Henrietta Lowy and four of her daughters had joined the WSPU in 1908.
Here, too, you can see Gertrude Lowy’s hunger-strike medal. She was imprisoned after taking part in the March 1912 window-smashing raid.
But it wasn’t only wealthy members of the established Jewish community whom suffrage campaigners were keen to convert to their cause. In the autumn of 1913 the New Constitutional Society for Women’s Suffrage took their message down to the sweatshops of Whitechapel.
This leaflet, printed in Yiddish, was saved by Kate Frye from the quantity she delivered and is on display, together with her diary open at the entry for 27 September 1913, in which she describes a tea party the NCS gave for the local woman and girls, writing:
‘I chatted and handed round. The girls were so nice – nearly all Jewesses. The pitiful tales they tell of the sweated work is awful – and they are so intelligent – and quite well dressed. The Jews are an example to the gentile in that way.’
Later in the week I went to the LSE Library to view their new exhibition space – and the first exhibition to be shown in it.
The theme is ‘Campaigning’ – covering the suffrage movement (a slight nod to male enfranchisement with the greater emphasis placed on the women’s campaign), Liberations – Gay and Female – and campaigns for Peace. One wall of the exhibition space allows for the display of images, moving on a loop – with space in front devoted to a static display of CND badges, a couple of 19th-century documents, an Artists’ Suffrage League poster and a ‘Votes for Women’ scarf. These advertise, as it were, the themes of the three types of campaign.
In the centre of the space is a single display case in which neatly chosen documents highlight the different ways in which the campaigns were organised – and, most importantly in my eyes, stresses the rifts and divisions that are a sine qua non, it would appear, of all pressure groups.
Although small, the exhibition makes its points very well. They stick in the mind. It’s presumably intended to catch the eye of LSE students as they pass in and out of the Library entrance and is not intended to deliver in-depth information. Small and simple is no bad thing.
But, oh dear, I did wish that some acknowledgement of Millicent Fawcett and the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies had been included in the display. ‘Suffrage’ yet again was only represented by Mrs Pankhurst and the WSPU, whereas the Women’s Library@LSE contains a wealth of material inherited from the NUWSS. As I viewed ‘Campaigning’ it occurred to me that it would be rather a good idea if a future exhibition could, in the same simple manner, by making reference to the NUWSS and the Women’s Freedom League (and, perhaps, some of the smaller societies), demonstrate that the women’s suffrage campaign was more complicated and multifaceted than it is popularly presented.
In a previous post I recorded something of how the 1866 women’s suffrage petition came into being. Comprising 1499 names, it was presented to John Stuart Mill, MP for Westminster, by Emily Davies and Elizabeth Garrett.
Names on the printed form of the petition are listed in alphabetical order, usually accompanied by some form of geographical address. Reading through it one notes that, while some towns have mustered only one or two signatures, others have attracted many more.
That a clutch of signatories to the petition lived in Aldeburgh, a small coastal town (1991 inhabitants in 1871) in Suffolk, had everything to do with the fact that Elizabeth Garrett LSA was one of the principal organizers of the petition. Aldeburgh was home to her family, her father, Newson Garrett, a driving force in its development.
Just a few months earlier Elizabeth Garrett had qualified as a doctor, the first woman to do so in Britain, and signed from her London home, 20 Upper Berkeley Street, the premises of her nascent practice and the headquarters of the petition committee. She ensured that the women of Aldeburgh, her home town, were canvassed. It is likely that it was her younger sisters, Agnes and Millicent, both too young to sign, who took petition forms round to their neighbours.
I have extracted the Aldeburgh names from the petition and below give such details as can now be gleaned of these women, none of whom, as far as I can tell, ever again took part in any political protest.
BEGBIE, MRS HAMILTON
She was Anna Eliza Begbie, née Swiney (1839-1915). She married Mars Hamilton Begbie in Cheltenham in 1858; despite his warlike name he had been ordained. By 1866 they were living in Aldeburgh where, according to the Cambridge Alumni List he was headmaster from 1865 to 1869 of ‘Aldborough School’ – a grammar school. They lived at Crespigny House, a late-18th-century mansion.
Although Anna Eliza Begbie doesn’t appear to have taken any further part in the suffrage campaign, it was surely a subject of discussion among her extended family after her brother, John, married in 1871. His wife, [Rosa] Frances Swiney, who lived in Cheltenham, was an influential campaigner for suffrage – and for Theosophy – in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
CRESY, MRS THEODORE GRANT [or Cressy]
She was born Hannah Jane Spencer (1837 -1896) in Wrotham, Kent. She married Theodore Grant Cresy, a surgeon, in 1859 and by the time she signed the petition was the mother of 4 sons; another was born four months later. The family lived in Aldeburgh from 1860 – 1868. During their time in Aldeburgh (1860-1868) the family lived at The Uplands, the house that had been the Garretts’ first home after they returned from London when Elizabeth was a young girl.
Hannah Cresy’s mother-in-law, Eliza Cresy [or Cressy], who lived at Riverhead in Kent, and her sister-in-law, Mary Cresy, who lived in Norwood, also signed the petition, suggesting that the organizers had asked for names of family members likely to be sympathetic to the petition.
CULVER, MRS HENRY
Probably a misreading of ‘Mrs Henry Calver’. She was Mary Anne (1819-?). who lived with her husband, a plumber, painter and glazier master, in the High Street.
Something of a mystery – I can’t find any trace of a Margaret Dance, whether in Aldeburgh or elsewhere. However the signature may have been that of Mary E Dance, daughter of James Dance, Aldeburgh’s parish clerk. It is entirely possible that her signature was mis-transcribed as ‘Margaret’ and she would have been just old enough to sign.
DOWLER, MRS H.T.
There is, however, no doubt about this signatory. She was Frances Harriett Emma Dowler (1812-1899), wife of Henry Turner Dowler, who for 35 years was Aldeburgh’s vicar. The couple had married in 1838. In her autobiography Millicent Fawcett describes how Newson Garrett frequently engaged in very public quarrels with Dowler who besides being vicar was also the town bailiff and a capital burgess. On these occasions Garrett would insist that his family attended church services at the dissenting chapel rather than at Dowler’s church. Relations with Mrs Dowler were unaffected by these rows.
In May 1867 the Rev Dowler performed the wedding service at marriage of Millicent Garrett and Henry Fawcett.
GARRARD, MRS WILLIAM
She was Mary Anne (née Knights) (1819-1870), wife of William Garrard, brewer, maltster and secretary to the Aldeburgh gas company – one of Newson Garrett’s pet projects. In the 1840s William Garrard had been known as ‘the Ipswich Chartist’ and was one of the founders of the Ipswich Working Men’s Association. In the 1860s the couple lived on Church Hill in Aldeburgh.
GARRETT, MRS NEWSON
She was Louisa Garrett (nee Dunnell) ( 1814-1903), wife to Newson Garrett and mother to Louisa (later Smith), Elizabeth (later Garrett Anderson), Newson, Edmund, Alice (later Cowell), Agnes, Millicent (later Fawcett), Samuel, Josephine (later Salmon), and George (another son died in infancy). Although Louisa Garrett was of a far more conservative temperament than her husband she was always supportive of her daughters’ enterprises. She had initially opposed Elizabeth’s desire to become a doctor but, having come round to the idea, was the weekly recipient of letters telling of, at first, the difficulties encountered and later of the success in the medical world achieved as her daughter developed her practice and set up her hospital. Louisa would have signed the petition in the family home, Alde House.
GARRETT, MRS E. Snape Bridge
She was Gertrude Mary Littlewood (c1840-1924) who had married Elizabeth Garrett’s brother, Edmund, in 1862. Unlike his brother, Samuel, Edmund Garrett was not supportive of women’s advancement. In fact he opposed the suggestion that his sister Alice might work in the family business’s counting house. Edmund Garrett and his wife were then living in a house built by Newson Garret next to his maltings at Snape. At the moment (May 2015) it’s for sale – see here for details.
GARRETT, MRS N.D. Calcutta
She was Kate Bruff, who in 1860 had married Elizabeth’s brother, Newson. He was the black sheep of the Garrett family – at this time he was serving with the army in India – a man whose enterprises (unlike those of his sisters) always went awry. Kate’s father, Peter Bruff, was a civil engineer who was involved in several of Newson Garrett (senior)’s plans for improving Aldeburgh. Newson (junior’s) sisters were always rather sorry for Kate.
Despite being so close to Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Millicent Fawcett, none of this clutch of Aldeburgh-based Garrett women took any further part in the suffrage campaign.
She was probably Harriet Green (b 1824) a widow living at Beach Cottage. She is listed in the 1869 Aldeburgh trade directory as being a lodging house keeper.
HAWKESWORTH, MRS WALTER
She was Florence, the daughter of the Rev Dowler, who in 1865 had married John Walter Hawkesworth.
HELE, MRS FENWICK
She was Harriet Shute (1838-1907) who had married Nicholas Fenwick Hele in 1859. She gave birth to her third daughter, Ida, a couple of months after signing the petition. Her husband was a surgeon and the author of Notes and Jottings About Aldeburgh, In 1866 the family lived in Aldeburgh’s High Street. Harriet continued to live in the town after her husband’s death in 1892 – but died in 1907 at St Johns, Newfoundland.
She could have been either Harriet Hunt (1806- 1884), wife of William Hunt, or Cecilia Hunt (1824- 1868), wife of Edward Hunt. Both men were boat builders. Perhaps the younger woman is the more likely candidate.
JAMES, MRS RHODES
She was Caroline James, a widow by the time she signed the petition. She lived with several servants in a large late-18th-century house in Victoria Road – Wyndham House. She was the grandmother of M.R. James, the author of many Suffolk-based ghost stories.
KERSEY, SARAH, ELIZABETH AND MARIA
Sarah Kersey (1811-1886) in 1865 had a lodging house in the High Street. Maria and Elizabeth were her younger sisters. All three were unmarried.
Sarah Mannall (1797-1869) was the wife of John Mannall. He had run the Crown and Castle Hotel in Orford for many years before eventually handing it over to his daughter and son-in-law
She was probably Mrs Mary Anne Martin, who in 1865 ran a ladies’ school in a house in Brudenell Terrace.
She was Henrietta Vernon-Wentworth who in 1859 had married Arthur Bethell Thellusson. She died in 1873 – on the same day as one of her young daughters. She had seven children and by the time she signed the petition she had already lost two infant daughters and was to lose another three months before her own death. The family lived at Thellusson Lodge. I seem to remember that Millicent Fawcett described the Thellussons as the ‘aristocracy of Aldeburgh’; for the local canvassers for the petition it must have been something of a coup to have Henrietta Thellusson’s signature on the petition.
Alas, I can find no clue at all as to who this final Aldeburgh signatory to the petition could have been.
After having made this initial bid for emancipation it doesn’t appear that the women of Aldeburgh could be tempted to join the suffrage campaign that followed. During the remainder of the 19th century there is no record of a suffrage meeting being held in the town – described by one contemporary Suffolk author as lying in this ‘quiet, grave, sleepy, Conservative region’.
You can read much more about Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Millicent Fawcett in Elizabeth Crawford, Enterprising Women: the Garretts and their circle, published by Francis Boutle.
Elizabeth Crawford, The Women’s Suffrage Movement: a regional survey, published by Routledge, surveys the entire suffrage campaign in Suffolk – and in the rest of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland.
In a previous post that I wrote about the 1866 women’s suffrage petition I recorded something of how the petition came into being and investigated the connections that had led an erstwhile near neighbour of mine, Fanny Maughan of Goswell Road, to be a signatory. I deduced that Fanny – or I suppose more especially her husband – were members of a working-class circle supportive of John Stuart Mill who, as MP for Westminster, was to present the petition in Parliament.
Over the years I have researched many of the names on the petition – and thought I’d bring to your attention three other women who caught my eye simply because they lived in another place I know well – south Hackney.
For instance, why was Mrs John Plummer of 4 Homer Terrace, Hackney Wick a signatory to the petition? And who was she?
Mary Ann Jenkinson had been born in Kettering c 1839 and as a young woman earned her living as a milliner. In 1860 she married John Plummer, who worked in a staymaking factory in the town. He had been born in London, an illness in infancy rendering him deaf and lame. His family had been too poor to provide him with any education; he had educated himself. After moving with his family to Kettering he made a name locally as a labourr campaigner and versifier and in 1859 published his first book, Freedom of Labour.
By 1866 the Plummers had moved to London, to Homer Terrace in south Hackney, at the east end of Victoria Park, close to Hackney Wick. In the 1871 census John Plummer described himself as a ‘newspaper editor’; he worked on a wide range of magazines, almanacs, and trade journals and founded the London Figaro.
Political economy was John Plummer’s principal interest and for some years he had been in touch with John Stuart Mill, who in 1862 described him as one of the ‘most inspiring examples of mental cultivation and high principle in a self-instructed working man.’
Therefore it is not at all surprising that in June 1866 Mary Ann Plummer was approached by Mill’s step-daughter, Helen Taylor, and asked to add her signature to the petition – as well as any she could obtain from her friends. (See LSE Archive Mill/Taylor Papers/13 ff 242 for a letter from Mary Ann Plummer to Helen Taylor, 5 June 1866).
At this time – as well as involvement with the suffrage – John Plummer was leading a campaign, supported by Mill, to preserve and extend Victoria Park – in particular to prevent the erection of a large gas works at the Hackney Wick end.
Working alongside Plummer on the Victoria Park Preservation Committee was George Dornbusch, of 11 Grove Villas, South Hackney, whose wife and daughter also signed the suffrage petition.
George Dornbusch was a native of Trieste and had been described by George Holyoake as ‘a fugitive German communist’. He had arrived in England from Hamburg in 1845 and became a leading figure in the early vegetarian movement in London, naming his house in Malvern Road, Dalston – ‘Vegetarian Cottage’. He lived there with his first wife, Amalie, who was also involved with the vegetarian movement (see Gregory Of Victorians and Vegetarians: The Victorian Movement in Victorian Britain). Dornbusch, who was described by Richard Cobden as ‘a most unsafe and excitable person’ was also an activist in the anti-vaccination and the peace movements.
In 1863 Dornbusch was a member of the general committee of the Emancipation Society – along with John Stuart Mill, P.A. Taylor, Dr Richard Pankhurst and many others who were shortly to support the emancipation of women – as well as of slaves.
By 1866 Dornbusch had moved from Dalston to Grove Villas, Hackney Wick and by 1870 he was a vestryman in Homerton Ward.
The Mrs George Dornbusch who signed the 1866 petition was not Amalie but Emma, 20 years Dornbusch’s junior, who in 1861 had been his housekeeper. I presume that Amalie had died although I haven’t found a record of her death – nor can I find any trace of his marriage to Emma. Ada, who also signed the petition, was Dornbusch’s daughter by Amalie.
Although there is no evidence that Emma or Ada Dornbusch continued to be active in the suffrage movement after 1866, George Dornbusch did give his support – as a member of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage in 1867 and 1868 and of the Central Committee of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage in 1871/72 shortly before his death in 1873.He is buried in Abney Park Cemetery.
In 1880 Emma Dornbusch remarried. Her new husband, George Tompsitt, was an Australian shipper ten years her junior and in 1881 they sailed to Australia, together with their young son, George, and Ernest and Conrad Dornbusch, the sons from Emma’s first marriage. Emma kept a delightful diary of the voyage which was published as a pamphlet in Melbourne on their arrival. She died in 1890, in Queanbeyan, New South Wales.
Ada Dornbusch married in 1878 and continued to live in south Hackney with her husband, William Beurle, a dealer in precious stones. She had three children and died in 1909.
There are two other women from Grove Villas whose names are on the petiton – Mrs C.A. Dawson and Mrs A. Young, who both give number 4 as their address. The latter was probably Mary, the wife of Alexander Young, a retired baker and confectioner, who the 1871 census shows living at number 7.
Mary Ann Plummer had taken Helen Taylor’s request seriously and had approached likely signatories amongst her friends in her immediate south Hackney neighbourhood. There were other Hackney women who also signed the petition – but the little group of working-class women, living at the east end of Victoria Park, are linked by their close association with John Stuart Mill.
In 1879 John and Mary Ann Plummer and their family emigrated to Australia, where he enjoyed a successful career as a journalist, continuing to support labour reform. He died in 1914, survived by Mary Ann.
Pretend you are taking a GCSE paper. One of questions states that this picture shows Christabel Pankhurst casting her first parliamentary vote. You have to decide whether this statement is true or false.
What clues might you find to point you in the right direction?
Actually there is one so glaring that I am amazed that it can be overlooked. Have a look at her attire.
Q.When were women of Christabel’s age able to vote for the first time?
A. December 1918.
Q. Does that dress and hat look like an outfit suitable for going to the ballot in December of any year?
Q. Are the hat and dress of a style worn in 1918?
A. Most definitely not.
Q. So – if not 1918 when might that flowing gown and flower-bedecked bonnet have been in the mainstream of fashion?
A. Spring 1909.
Yes, that is the correct answer.
In fact the photograph shows Christabel casting a vote in a ballot box that was one of the main features of the WSPU Fair at the Prince’s Skating Rink, Knightsbridge, that ran between 13-26 May 1909. As Votes for Women, 23 April 1909, stated ‘A unique feature of the Exhibition.. will be the polling booth which will occupy one of the corners of the great hall. At this booth women as well as men will cast their votes upon many of the most interesting questions of the day.’ And that is what we see Christabel doing.
And as for that hat? It does strike one as a little incongruous. She isn’t usually seen in anything so maidenly frivolous. And so it is interesting to know that the hat was a gift to her from Frederick Pethick-Lawrence. Moreover when, in the late 1950s, after Christabel’s death, he came to prepare her autobiographical manuscript for publication (Unshackled:the story of how we won the vote) it was a photograph of her wearing his hat that he used for the frontispiece.
I have been amazed how this photograph, described as Christabel casting her first parliamentary vote, has been tweeted and retweeted. It was even used in Amanda Vickery’s ‘Suffragettes Forever’ BBC 2 programme to accompany the voice over telling us that women first voted in December 1918. How this thoughtless use of an incorrect image (by no means the only one) jarred.
Click here to see what Christabel looked like as she campaigned in Smethwick in late 1918 – for she was, of course, both a candidate and a voter. She is centre left in the photo – and you’ll be relieved to see that she is sensibly dressed – complete with muff – to combat the winter chill.
For some time I have been meaning to investigate Charlotte Robinson, ‘Home Art Decorator’ to Queen Victoria, mention of whom I came across years ago while researching the interior design career of Rhoda and Agnes Garrett. Now that I have done so, I’ve discovered, as an added bonus, her family link with one of the WSPU’s more imaginative publicity stunts.
Charlotte Robinson was born c 1859 in Settle in Yorkshire, one of the younger children in the large family of a Yorkshire solicitor. He died in 1870, leaving an estate of c £20,000. A later biographical piece about Charlotte noted that she (as presumably were all the children) was left a share of his property and it was this that gave her the freedom to develop a career.
By 1871 Charlotte had been sent as a boarder to a small school in Bolton but was later moved to the rather more prestigious Queen’s College in London. Education complete she returned home for a time – the 1881 census finds her living with her brother, William, a solicitor, in Keighley. She then spent some time travelling abroad.
For some of that time, certainly in 1883, Charlotte was travelling in America with Emily Faithfull – described on the manifest of the ship on which they travelled to New York as ‘Secretary’. You can read a very interesting article about Emily Faithfull here. It would seem, from remarks recorded by Emily that she had met Charlotte when the latter was still a pupil at Queen’s College.
Emily Faithfull was, of course, a fierce advocate of work for middle-class women so it’s unsurprising that, when interviewed in the 1890s for Manchester Faces and Places, Charlotte described how on her return from her travels ‘she resolved to invest her money in a business which she could control herself instead of returning to the usual round of gaieties, varied by intermittent charitable enterprises.’ The journalist then elaborated – ‘Having always been interested in decorative art, friends who knew her marvellous deftness of touch and infallible sense of colour, strongly advised her to turn these special gifts to account.’
In an interview that appeared in the Women’s Penny Paper, 9 February 1889, Charlotte went into more detail. ‘The idea of house decoration as a profession came to me while travelling through America. I was much struck with the interiors of some of the magnificent houses to which I was invited in some of the principal cities between New York and San Francisco, and on my return to England began to supplement previous artistic study. My first professional business was in furnishing houses, now I decorate them through, as well as working in conjunction with my sister, Mrs McClelland, who presides over the studio from which come the beautiful friezes you have just been admiring.’ So that is how Charlotte Robinson came to become a ‘house decorator.
She was setting up in the house decoration business ten years after the trail had been blazed for women by Agnes and Rhoda Garrett and, like them, she stressed the necessity of undergoing a training. However, although we know that the Garretts were pupils of the architect John Brydon, I’ve been unable to discover where or with whom Charlotte Robinson trained. All that is revealed in the Manchester Faces interview is that she ‘went through the necessary course of study and thoroughly qualified herself for the work.’ As Emily Faithfull put it in a later article Charlotte studied ‘house decoration from hearth tiles to frieze painting’.
According to Emily Faithfull, Charlotte Robinson first went into business in London. This must, I think, have been immediately on their return from America – and was probably by way of dipping a toe in the water. But very soon – probably in late 1884/early 1885 – the two women moved to Manchester and, as Emily wrote, ‘regardless of that bugbear which terrifies most women – she [Charlotte] put up her own name over the door.’
That door gave entrance to 20 South King Street, in the central Manchester shopping district, the premises serving primarily as a shop. It would seem from other remarks that Charlotte’s design work was done at home – 10 Plymouth Grove – the house she shared with Emily Faithfull. By 1886 a part of 20 South King Street had been given over to a ‘Typewriting Office’, run by a Miss Giles. As the Manchester Courier remarked when reporting this ‘Doubtless the typewriter will soon become as popular here as in America’. One can imagine that this was a development of which Emily Faithfull was fully supportive.
It is clear from every description that Charlotte Robinson’s ideas of interior design were the antithesis of those of Rhoda and Agnes Garrett. It is impossible to imagine the latter displaying mirrors such as one to be found in Charlotte Robinson’s establishment – for on it was painted ‘a pool fringed with rushes in which a wild duck and her brood were swimming, while the old mallard was taking wing to enjoy the pleasures of the world beyond – after his kind – leaving to the mother the care of the little fluffy yellow ducks, whose very feathers seemed to move with the passing wind’. (Manchester Courier, 6 February 1885).
Items such as this were produced not in Manchester but in London, in the studio of Charlotte’s sister, Mrs McClelland (33 Warwick Avenue, Paddington). Epsey McClelland was twelve years older than Charlotte – in the 1891 census she is described as a widow, a ‘decorative artist’, living with her daughter at the Warwick Avenue address. In an article on ‘Ladies as Shopkeepers’, reprinted in Pall Mall Gazette, (23 December 1887), Emily Faithfull extolled Charlotte’s taste – ‘Her furniture designs are simple and unique; she has dainty and quaint arrangements for cosy nooks and odd corners, and has good reason to be proud of the work of the artists employed in in the studio over which her clever sister, Mrs McClelland is the presiding genius.’
In 1887 Charlotte Robinson took stands at two exhibitions. In Saltaire in June she showed ‘..beautiful painted screens, brackets, plaques, a corner cabinet richly decorated with painted flowers and an excellently painted frieze.’ (Leeds Mercury 3 June 1887).
Of the Manchester Jubilee Exhibition, June/July 1887, the Cabinet Maker and Art Furnisher wrote:- ‘Miss Charlotte Robinson showed a frieze, corner sideboard, overmantel, draught screen, fire screens, Tuckaway tables, and other knickknacks, all, more or less decorated with the light and fanciful painting for which she had made a name. It is in some aspects too “pretty” for our taste, but it is none the less skilful. This lady is happy in the sprightly woodwork forming the foundation of her paintings. The corner sideboard is particularly pleasing.’
We can get a clearer picture of the ‘light and fanciful painting’ from a description given of Charlotte’s stand at the Glasgow Exhibition the following year. ‘Visitors to this stand ought to note the billet-doux writing table, a facsimile of that purchased by the Princess of Wales, and invented and patented by Miss Robinson. Beside this is the ‘Interloper’ chair purchased by the Countess of Rosebery. Both are painted with white French enamel, and decorated with blue tom tits. There are two friezes, specially designed for drawing rooms bearing groups of roses and chrysanthemums and one for a smoking room, with a design of wild ducks in flight.’ (Glasgow Herald 25 May 1888).
Blue tom tits for the ladies and wild ducks for the gentlemen – an aesthetic very different from that of the Garretts, whom Sir Hubert Parry commended – writing in his diary while staying in their house – ‘The quiet and soothing colour of the walls and decoration and the admirable taste of all things acts upon the mind in the most comforting manner. I was quite excised of the vulgar idea that everything ought to be light & gaudy & covered with gilt in London.‘
In late 1888 Charlotte received the accolade of being appointed ‘Home Art Decorator’ to Queen Victoria. Over 20 years earlier Emily Faithfull had been appointed publisher and printer in ordinary to the Queen, her brushes with scandal having apparently done nothing to dent her reputation in the eyes of the royal family. On 9 October 1889 the Leeds Mercury reported that ‘Miss Charlotte Robinson has had the honour of submitting to her Majesty some dessert d’oyleys painted on silk, from sketches taken near Palé as mementoes of Her Majesty’s visit to Wales’ and, as we have seen the Princess of Wales had already bought one of her writing tables’.
By October 1888 business was sufficiently prosperous for Charlotte to open a London showroom – in Mayfair – at 20 Brook Street – and in the same month was appointed as editor of ‘the decorative department’ on the magazine, The Queen, in succession to Mrs Talbot Coke. She was now in a position both to dictate taste and to supply the means of achieving it. She held her position on The Queen for the rest of her life. A small measure of this power was the fact that in an advertisement a Gloucester furnishing store, Messrs Matthews, regularly mentioned that their stock was approved by the leading Art Critics of the Day – such as Charlotte Robinson, Mrs Talbot Coke and Mrs Panton.
The interview given to the journalist from the Women’s Penny Paper took place in the Brook Street showroom, among the ‘cream coloured music racks, dainty billet doux tables, LouisSeize screens etc which provide an artistic public with useful as well as beautiful wedding and birthday gifts’. Charlotte commented that ‘I spend a great deal of time in Manchester, where I have a large business to control, and much is taken up in travelling “back and forth” as we say in the north, between the various houses I have to decorate and furnish in London and the country.Through The Queen I have to advise about houses in every part of the world.’
However for all the reports of how busy she was with her commissions – ‘She can drape a room in less time than it takes most people to think of it’ – there is no information now available to tell us who her clients were or which were the houses she decorated. In the case of the Garretts I was able, from a variety of sources, to piece together a short list of their clients, but I can find no trace at all of Charlotte Robinson’s private clients. There is mention that in in June 1892 she was commissioned to decorate a hotel being erected in Manchester for the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway, that she did some work for Cunard, and that she was called upon to redecorate the Lord Mayor’s Parlour in Manchester Town Hall. The latter is a superbly Gothic creation and certainly no place for tom tits and wild ducks.
Emily Faithfull died in 1895, leaving all her property to Charlotte. In her will, which had been written in 1893, she wrote that’ I feel sure that any loving members of my family, who may survive me, will appreciate my desire that the few possessions I have should be retained for the exclusive use, and as the absolute property, of my beloved friend Charlotte Robinson, as some little indication of my gratitude for the countless services for which I am indebted to her, as well as for the affectionate tenderness and care which made the last five years of my life the happiest I ever spent.’
After Emily’s death Charlotte Robinson continued to cut a dash in Manchester society. The local newspapers record her attendance at numerous balls and conversaziones – for instance, in July 1899 dressed in white brocaded silk and heliotrope velvet. On these occasions she is often in the company of Julia Dux, who lived close by in Plymouth Grove.
Charlotte Robinson’s career was brought to a premature end, however, by her death at home, in October 1901. She left £3100 – and the executors of her will were her sister, Epsey, and her niece Elspeth McClelland.
The latter, then aged 22, continued along the path that her aunt had, to a degree, forged and, with the changing times, was able to become more fully a professional and practise as an architect. You can read an account of her career here. She, like her aunt Charlotte, was clearly a woman of independent thinking and, not unsurprisingly, was swept into the Edwardian suffragette movement, achieving a certain notoriety in 1909 when she was one of the ‘Human Letters’ sent as a publicity stunt to 10 Downing Street. You can see a photograph here of Elspeth posing for the camera – with Daisy Solomon, her fellow ‘Letter’, on the left and Annie Kenney in support on the right. Under her married name – Mrs Elspeth Douglas Spencer – she has an entry in the Suffrage Annual and Woman’s Who’s Who.
Thus, by way of Charlotte Robinson’s ‘home art decoration’ , we can trace a line of endeavour that stretches from Emily Faithfull’s involvement in the 1860s with the Langham Place Group (middle-class women intent on improving work opportunities for their sisters) to a woman architect who, in her short life, managed to design and build several houses – as well as giving birth to three children. It was, apparently, that third birth that in 1920 killed her – putting an end to another interesting career.
For more about the interior design work of Rhoda and Agnes Garrett see Enterprising Women: the Garretts and their circle, published by Francis Boutle.