In the following diary entry Kate describes the pandemonium that occurred at a December 1907 suffrage meeting organised by the North Kensington Local Committee of the Central Society for Women’s Suffrage – the non-militant London NUWSS society – chaired by Mrs Millicent Fawcett. From Kate’s account the main culprits were medical students from nearby St Mary’s Hospital and from University College Hospital in Bloomsbury, such student having had, through the ages, a reputation for unruly behaviour. From Kate’s observation, the stories of stinkbombs and the release of mice, specifically intended to upset the genteel female audience at suffrage meetings, were all too true.
Lady Grove (1862 -1926) was a leading Liberal suffragist and author of The Human Woman, 1908. The Paddington Baths, in Queen’s Road, Bayswater, were soon to be demolished to make way for an enlarged Whiteley’s department store.
Thursday 5th December 1907 [25 Arundel Gardens, North Kensington]
‘At 2 o’clock Agnes and I started off to Linden Gardens and called for Alexandra Wright and several of her helpers and we all walked to the Paddington Baths to help arrange the room for the meeting in the evening. There was a good bit to do – numbering the chairs – partitioning them off and hanging up banners and posters etc. Left [home again] just before 7 o’clock in a bus to Royal Oak and went to the Paddington Baths for the London (Central) Society’s meeting for Women’s Suffrage. Gladys and Alexandra have been weeks getting it up and I did no end of clerical work for it at Bourne End. We were the first Stewards to arrive after Gladys and Alexandra and were decorated with rosettes and given our directions. Lots of the women were very nervous of a row. My department was the gallery, to look after people up there and give invitations for a private meeting next week.
The people came in thick and fast and the doors were opened at 7.30 and with the first group of young men below in the free seats I knew what would happen. The place was soon hot, bubbling over with excitement, and I had my work cut out keeping gangways clear and looking after people and telling them they would be safe. We had expected an exciting evening but this realised our worst expectations. It was Bedlam let loose. A couple of hundred students from St Mary’s and University College Hospitals arrived and insisted on sitting together and never ceased all the evening singing, shouting, blowing tin trumpets, letting off crackers, letting loose mice and, what is worse, scenting the floor with a most terrible-smelling chemical.
From the very start they never gave a single speaker a moments hearing. Mrs Fawcett was in the Chair and Lady Groveand others spoke and they went on with the meeting to the bitter end – and bitter it must have been to the speakers. I never heard a word. I felt too angry to be frightened though I must own I did not like the fireworks and saw the most appalling possibilities in that frantic howling mob of mad animals. Agnes owns to being terrified – all the more credit to her for sticking to her place amongst them and she was with them all the evening. I felt mad at not being there in the midst of them. When I could leave I just went down and spoke to John, who I saw standing near Agnes. She had decorated him as a Steward to help in case the worst happened.
I went back to my post until I was no longer any good there and then I went into the very midst of the seething mass and talked to any of them I could get at. Just to silence them, as I did for a few minutes at a time, was a triumph. Cries of ‘Oh I think I like Suffragettes’ as I went amongst them and, then, ‘He is flirting with a Suffragette’ taken up and sung by them all. I spoke like a Mother to several and smiled at them. If they had only known my true feelings I don’t think they would have been so polite to me. Great credit to all the women in the building is due – not only the Stewards – but the audience there. There was never any excitement or panic amongst them and only one Stewardess failed us. She, poor thing, was so terrified she bolted without waiting for hat or coat – but of course we keep that dark. The men Stewards were very good but quite powerless to stop the noise and hubbub. And what could four policemen do? It was an organised ‘Rag’ and nothing but a force of police to outnumber them could have stopped them. They longed for a fight and said so – and no end of them had most terrible looking clubbed sticks which they brandished. We did the only possible thing, I consider. Kept as much order as we could and tried to avoid bloodshed. We had a little unfortunately when, after the meeting was over, they charged for the Platform, sweeping everyone before them. Very fortunately there were large exit doors each side of the platform and most of the people got out of them. I was flung aside and then followed them up. They tore down as many banners as they could and stole one and tore down all the posters. They were like wild cats. The policemen chased them round a little but we would not allow any arrests to be made. The firework ringleader was caught but allowed to go. I spoke to Mrs Wright – red with rage. Poor things, we were all either red or white. Mr Willis, Mrs and Miss Doake and several others. Mr Percy Harris was Stewarding. One man Steward got a most awful crack on the ear and was considerably blooded – he looked awful. Several of the boys had their collars torn off and became very proud in consequence. It was a great wonder and a still greater mercy that more damage was not done. I felt so responsible for the ordinary public who had paid their money. I could only hope to get over the evening safely for their sakes. Personally I wished and still wish to smash the Boys, though at times I could not help laughing. They were not nice boys – all plain and common looking – mostly undersized and no gentlemanly looking one amongst them. I was glad to notice that as I hope they are not the best we can show in our hospitals.
After the general public had gone the police sent word that it was impossible to clear the hall while there was a woman left in it so we left with Mrs and Miss Doake and all came back in the bus with Mrs Willis. Miss Doake said she had never enjoyed a night so much in her life before. I cannot say the same. It was a terrible experience. We could not lose that terrible smell from our noses and mouths. I could taste it through everything at supper. John came home with us and did not leave till after 12o’clock. Agnes and I were too excited to go to bed and sat talking of our experiences. Lots of people will be made all the keener through it, but a great many will be very disgusted I fear.’
Campaigning for the Vote: Kate Parry Frye’s Suffrage Diary edited by Elizabeth Crawford
For a full description of the book click here
Wrap-around paper covers, 226 pp, over 70 illustrations, all drawn from Kate Frye’s personal archive.
ISBN 978 1903427 75 0
Copies available from Francis Boutle Publishers, or from Elizabeth Crawford – firstname.lastname@example.org (£14.99 +UK postage £3. Please ask for international postage cost), or from all good bookshops. In stock at London Review of Books Bookshop, Foyles, National Archives Bookshop.