Suffrage Stories: Mrs Alice Singer, Miss Edith New And The Suffragette Doll

Feature on Edith New in Swindon Heritage magazine

Feature on Edith New in Swindon Heritage magazine

The arrival of the first issue of the admirable Swindon Heritage  magazine has reminded me of a slight connection I had some years ago with an interesting object created by Edith New – the subject of one of its articles.

It was in 2006 that I was approached by a BBC TV producer planning a spin-off of the Antiques Roadshow -to be called the  Antiques Roadshow Greatest Finds. The idea was that they would take a few of the more intriguing items that had been brought to Roadshows in the previous year and research and discuss them in greater depth. The item that was brought to my attention was a Suffragette Doll. My research into its history and that of the woman who had owned it proved utterly fascinating. In addition I had a most enjoyable couple of days making the film that developed from the research.

I am only sorry that I do not have a photograph of the doll, which was dressed as a suffragette in prison uniform. Items such as this may occasionally appear on ebay or at auction but it is not that difficult to ‘forge’ a Suffragette Doll and what one needs is provenance, linking it to its original owner. This ‘Roadshow’ doll was just such a treasure – handed down through a family. What is more to my great pleasure I was able to discover more of the original owner, Mrs Alice Singer, than, when given the commission, I thought would be possible.  For, like Kate Frye (the subject of my latest book, Campaigning for the Vote).   Mrs Singer had kept a diary which, although a very much more sketchy affair than Kate’s, did reveal a good deal of her involvement with the Women’s Social and Political Union. The diary is now held in Israel by a branch of the family, but they were kind enough to let me have a look at it for the purpose of researching the programme.

Mrs Alice Singer (1873-1955) was born Alice Emma Isabel Isaac, the eldest of three daughters of Stephen Hart Isaac (1850-1877) and his wife Sime Seruya Isaac. Sime Seruya was of Portuguese extraction, although she was living in London when they married in 1872 at Bayswater Synagogue. At this time, and presumably later, when Alice was born, Stephen Isaac was working as the assistant manager of a coal mine at Colwick in Nottinghamshire. When he married he was living at Colwick Hall with his uncle, Saul Isaac, who was the lessee of the mine. Saul Isaac, was at this time MP for Nottingham (1874-80).

When Stephen Isaac died, aged 26, (at 31 Warrington Crescent, Paddington) on 2 January 1877, he was a widower. His death certificate shows that he had been ill for c. 9 months, probably with TB. His wife had died in Lisbon on 4 September 1876, a week after the birth of her third child. It is possible that they were in Lisbon for the sake of Stephen’s health. Lisbon was a place favoured by those suffering from TB. The fact that Sime had family there would have been an obvious attraction.

The three young girls, Alice, Daisy and Sime Seruya Isaac (who was now more than 6 months old) were left under the guardianship of their grandfather, Samuel Isaac, although Sime was brought up by her Portuguese grandparents. Alice, therefore, was orphaned by the time she was 4 years old.  She lived at Warrington Crescent until her marriage, I think. [NB across the road, at no 2 Warrington Crescent, there is a plaque to Alan Turing.  Interestingly –  and the ghosts pile up in London – that was also the address in 1866 of  Louisa Garrett Smith (eldest sister of Millicent Garrett Fawcett and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson) the very first secretary of the first London women’s suffrage society.]

Samuel Isaac was an army contractor – his firm was the largest European supporter of the southern (Confederate) states during the American Civil War – and failed on the fall of the Confederacy. After a while he became the main promoter of the Mersey Tunnel, which he was responsible for building.

Samuel (1812-86) and his wife, Emma (nee Hart), with the 2 elder girls, continued living at 31 Warrington Crescent until at least 1881. By 1886, when Samuel died, they were living at 29 Warrington Crescent. [Warrington Crescent, north of Paddington, was a smart address – houses were then new, large and italianate]. In 1891 Sime Seruya Isaac was boarding at a school at Kew. She went on to become an actress – a leading member of the Actresses’ Franchise League and one of the founders of the International Suffrage Shop.

Alice was educated at home by a governess and in 1895 married Julius Singer (1870-1926), son of Simeon and Charlotte Singer. In 1899 her sister, Daisy, married Julius’ brother, David.

Simeon Singer (1846-1906) was a leading light in the Jewish establishment in England, minister of the New West End Synagogue, St Petersburgh Place, Bayswater, from 1878 until his death. He was the translator and editor of the Authorized Daily Prayer Book, still the standard prayer book of Orthodox Jews in Britain. He is clearly still, a hundred years after his death, a strongly felt presence in the synagogue. Julius had four brothers and a sister and the family was clearly at the heart of Anglo-Jewry. Julius died in 1926 (18 Reynolds Close, Golders Green). During the course of the diary Alice is definitely anti-religion – of any kind.

When the census was taken in 1901 Alice and Julius Singer were living at Darby Green Farm, Darby Green, Yateley, Hampshire, which Alice had bought in 1900. Julius was described as a ‘wine and spirit merchant’. However, around 1908 his work seems to have involved the tea industry in some way –probably Lyons – and by then the family had moved to London. In 1911 they were living at 18 Reynolds Close, Golders Green where, on the day of the census, only two servants were at home. There is no trace elsewhere of the Singers – were they evading the enumerator to join in the suffragette boycott of the census?

In 1906 Alice and Julius appear to have been Conservative supporters. In later life Alice lamented that she wished she had been brought up in Fabian circles and, like her sister, Sime, moved dramatically to the Left. She visited Russia in the 1930s. She was keen to use women doctors (Dr Honor Bone) and opticians (Amy Sheppard – who worked at the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital for Women). She was keen on passing fads – such as vegetarianism, psychology etc – which clearly infuriated her children!

Alice Singer joined the WSPU after attending one of their meetings on 18 February 1907 and by November was prepared to give some time to the cause, addressing envelopes in the office at Clement’s Inn. A week later, when she and her husband attended a WSPU rally in the Queen’s Hall, Julius bought a copy of the new card game – ‘Suffragette’. for my post about this game click here.  At the end of the month the Singers took the momentous decision to adopt a child – being themselves still childless. In the casual fashion typical of the time a girl, Mary, was found for them by Mrs Ernestine Mills, a fellow suffragist.  (For an example of Ernestine’s work as a jeweller, see here).  The Singers were on very friendly terms with the Ernestine and her husband, on occasion staying with them at their Dorset home at Studland.

The Singers continued to be involved members of the WSPU, Alice’s activities only briefly curtailed in 1909 by a long-awaited pregnancy. Emmeline Christabel Kenney Singer (known as ‘Christabel) was born on 10 December. A studio photograph, taken by Lena Connell, is still held by the family, showing Alice with Mary and Christabel. Baby Christabel has a WSPU badge pinned to the hem of her frock.

It was in 1908/9 that Alice Singer bought the Suffragette Doll – presumably at a WSPU fund-raising event. Remarkably in a diary entry of 1931 she reveals that she had met again, at a Suffragette party, the maker of the doll – Miss Edith New. It was such luck that she chose to put this connection on paper – such an ephemeral link but one that gives the doll such an excellent provenance.  On 22 August 1908 Alice Singer had attended the WSPU breakfast honouring Edith New and Mary Leigh on their release from Holloway. For much more about Edith New do read the Spring 2013 edition of ‘Swindon Heritage’ – a lively and well-produced model of a local history magazine – click here for details.

There is a strong Antiques Roadshow connection linking Edith New and Alice Singer’s Suffragette Doll – for in 2011 a quantity of Edith’s suffragette memorabilia, now held in the Swindon Heritage Centre (see http://www.swindonheritage.com),  was brought to the Roadshow when it visited Swindon. Coincidentally it was the Roadshow expert Hilary Kay who discussed this collection, as she had the Suffragette Doll a few years earlier.

In March 1912 Alice Singer was arrested after taking part in the WSPU window-smashing campaign. When arrested she had a hammer in her hand and when charged said of the windows, ‘I thought it was only one, they seemed like marble, not going to break.’ Alice had chosen to break three windows in the West Strand Telegraph Office, close to Trafalgar Square. Her family thought it appropriate that she, essentially law abiding and a respecter of property, should have chosen quasi-official premises, rather than privately-owned property.

Alice  was remanded in Holloway  until she appeared in court on 13 March. By now the Singers were living in Golders Green and a solicitor was organised by Mrs Lilian Hicks to represent the Hampstead women. Alice was charged under the Malicious Damage to Property Act and in court declared, ‘I only did it as a political protest. I admit I did it, but not for malice. I plead not guilty to malice.’ She agreed to be bound over – that is, not to commit any other such acts – for 12 months. Only one other woman also agreed to be bound over – all the other women (over 100 had been arrested) were sentenced to prison – their sentences varying but some repeat offenders getting as long as six months. Most of the other women were either single or with older families. Christabel was only 2 years old and I imagine Alice could not contemplate being away from home – in prison – for any length of time. The diary does not reveal any guilt at not opting for imprisonment.

Julius was very supportive while Alice was in prison – he visited her – but was kept waiting for 2 hours before seeing her for a short time ‘We forgot all we really wished to say in the fluster of the time limit and presence of wardresses..’

Alice Singer continued to work actively for the WSPU, in 1913 becoming treasurer of the Hendon and Golders Green branch. In November 1918 she was at last able to cast  her first  parliamentary vote – ‘I recorded for Mrs Edith How-Martyn for the new constituency of Hendon’. Edith How-Martyn, who had been a leader of the Women’s Freedom League, was standing as a Labour candidate but was unsuccessful.

The Suffragette Doll, treasured by Alice’s descendants, is silent testimony to her involvement in the ‘votes for women’ campaign and her indirect connection to Edith New, Swindon’s own suffragette.

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All the articles on Woman and Her Sphere are my copyright. An article may not be reproduced in any medium without my permission and full acknowledgement. You are welcome to cite or quote from an article provided you give full acknowledgement.
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  1. #1 by Good Gentlewoman on May 2, 2013 - 10:21 am

    Elizabeth, thank you so very much for your reference to the magazine Swindon Heritage. I have been extremely fortunate in making contact with Edith New’s great niece Tamara Dugdale. Tamara brought her aunt’s suffragette memorabilia to the Antiques Roadshow when it visited Swindon and has been incredibly supportive of my research into the life and times of Edith New. Tamara was guest of honour at our magazine launch in January and can be viewed on http://www.swindonweb.com speaking about her great aunt. Again, many thanks.

    • #2 by womanandhersphere on May 2, 2013 - 11:04 am

      Interestingly the Doll had been brought to a Roadshow at Wilton House by the youngish descendant of Alice Singer. So a complete coincidence that the descendants of the maker and owner of the Doll should live in relative proximity. Am v impressed by your – and Swindon’s – energy!
      Best wishes
      Elizabeth

  2. #3 by Tamara Dugdale on May 3, 2013 - 1:34 pm

    I was so pleased to read your article about Alice Singer and the doll made by my Great Aunt Edith New, which Frances Bevan forwarded to me. It was only by chance, several years ago, that I saw a repeat of the programme you made with the Antiques Roadshow and heard my Aunt’s name mentioned. I was spellbound and amazed by all the details as I had recently been to the Women’s Library in London to find out more about my Aunt from their archives. As time has permitted I have been piecing together the jigsaw of her life and involvement with the WSPU. I have started writing a short biography with encouragement from Frances but I’m sure there are more avenues of research that I should follow to find out more – particularly newspaper reports. Perhaps you could suggest other sources that might be useful. I contacted the Antiques Roadshow as I would have liked to have spoken to the lady who now owns the doll, but that has not been possible. Many thanks for your inspiration. Tamara

    • #4 by womanandhersphere on May 3, 2013 - 6:44 pm

      Tamara ~ good to hear from you. I was amused at the Antiques Roadshow link between Alice and Edith – and it was such fun to film the show. There was a scene filmed in Bow St Magistrate’s Court -where Alice certainly appeared – and, though I haven’t checked, I daresay Edith did on an earlier occasion -just before the court vacated the building – it is now an hotel. So felt we were experiencing a final chapter in suffragette history.
      Best wishes
      Elizabeth

  3. #5 by March of women on November 17, 2015 - 6:16 pm

    Wonderful! I have a suffragette doll that belonged to my Great Grandmother – I’ve put some photos on my blog: https://marchofwomen.wordpress.com/2015/11/14/suffragette-dolls/
    I’d love to know more about the dolls!

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