Suffrage Stories: ‘Laura Grey’: Suffragettes, Sex-Poison And Suicide

Lavendar Guthrie's Hunger Strike Medal and Votes for Women brooch, photo courtesy of Christie's

Lavendar Guthrie’s Hunger Strike Medal and Votes for Women brooch, photo courtesy of Christie’s.

On the morning of Monday 8 June 1914 – a year to the day after the death of Emily Wilding Davison – a young woman was found lying unconscious on the floor of her flat at 111 Jermyn Street, close to Piccadilly Circus. She was discovered by her charwoman, Mrs Spicer,who called the police. They in turn called a doctor, who spent some time attempting resuscitation. But the young woman could not be revived. She had taken an overdose of veronal, a barbiturate to which she had apparently become addicted. Around her were scattered seven empty veronal bottles and by the side of one of them were 23 loose tablets. She had left a suicide note, dated 5 June, addressed to her mother and signed with the initials ‘J.L.G.’, although the young woman was known to her landlord, charwoman and a circle of relatively recently acquired friends as ‘Laura Grey’.

The story revealed by the inquest was one that might be thought too contrived if one read it in a novel, or watched it unfold on stage or film. In it we find all the tropes that concerned British society at that most febrile of times in the summer of 1914.

Laura Grey’s death. caused a brief but spectacular newspaper sensation. In this case the ‘ruin’ of a well-brought-up young woman was associated not only with the familiar evils of drugs, the stage and night clubs but also with the exotic addition of the very topical phenomenon of window-smashing, imprisonment and hunger striking – all that denoted involvement in the militant suffragette movement. On the day that her death was first reported the newspapers were full of reports of police raids on suffragette hide-outs and of suffragette bombing, arson and a hatchet attack on a painting by Romney in the Birmingham Art Gallery.

‘Laura Grey”s real name was Joan Lavender Baillie Guthrie. She had been born in 1889 to a well-off young couple – her father doesn’t appear to have had employment as such, but was involved with the Volunteers, the territorial army of its day. He was Cambridge-educated but had been born in South Africa. During the Boer War he returned there as an officer in the Imperial Yeomanry, dying of enteric fever on 16 May 1900. His wife must have been alerted to his condition because she set sail for Cape Town on 5 May. I don’t know if she arrived before he died, but she returned to Southampton on 14 June having, presumably, seen him to this grave.

In December 1900 Mrs Baillie Guthrie with her two daughters (Lavender and Lilias, as they were known) set off for the Continent. I don’t know how long they spent abroad, but there is no trace of any of them in the 1901 UK census. Lavender apparently received a good education – she was reported to be a proficient student of Latin and Greek – but where and how this was acquired I don’t know.

Mrs Baillie Guthrie first appears on the London local electoral register in 1909 which may indicate that the family had only recently returned from living abroad. It was, anyway, about this time that Lavender Guthrie first joined the Women’s Social and Political Union. As her mother remarked at the inquest, ‘She was not quite a normal girl. She studied very hard, and had ideas of Socialism and of giving her life and her all to her more unfortunate sisters.’ A picture was being painted at the inquest of an unbalanced mind – that Lavender, when about 16 years old, had damaged her face with a chemical. Indeed, the doctor who tended to her when she was dying remarked on a scarring to her face. However, as set out in the inquest report, this episode is directly linked by her mother to Lavender’s desire to do good in the world.

Her mother also said that Lavender was an obedient daughter and, although a member of the WSPU from the age of 18, did not take part in any militant activity until 1911 when she was 21 and had reached the age of majority.

One other aspect of Lavender Guthrie’s character that was considered by her mother as not quite normal was that ‘she thought we were too luxurious in our life. All her life she had been a very good and spiritual-minded girl, and had not cared for any of the ordinary pleasures of life or enjoyments of life. All her ideal was to work, and work very hard.’ She said that Lavender had tried hard to find work to support herself but ‘she found that the wages of unskilled women labour would not support life.’ It was only when she was successful in getting employment on the stage that she was able to earn sufficient to enable her to leave home, apparently, at the end of 1912.

However, for some months in the early part of 1912 Lavender had had no need to seek work as she was  a prisoner in Holloway Gaol  She had taken part in the March 1912 WSPU-organised window-smashing campaign. and was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment for wilful damage. The window she had broken was that of Garrards, the famous jewellers, perhaps targeted it as a protest against the luxurious lifestyle that she abhorred.

In Holloway she went on hunger strike, was forcibly fed and was released after serving about four months. During this time Holloway was packed with suffragette prisoners – among them Emily Wilding Davison – and Lavender Guthrie would have known and been known to these most committed members of the WSPU.

While in Holloway Lavender Guthrie wrote the following poem that was subsequently published in Holloway Jingles, an anthology collected and published by the Glasgow branch of the WSPU. The dedicatee, ‘D.R.’ is thought to be Dorothea Rock. The poem has been singled out by literary critics as having more merit than most of the other ‘Jingles’. (Another poem in the anthology is by Emily Wilding Davison.)

To D.R.

Beyond the bars I see her move,

A mystery of blue and green,

As though across the prison yard

The spirit of the spring had been.

And as she lifts her hands to press

The happy sunshine of her hair,

From the grey ground the pigeons rise,

And rustle upwards in the air,

As though her two hands held a key

To set the imprisoned spirits free.

Listen here to an atmospheric setting by Eva Kendrick of this poem sung by the Northern Arizona University Women’s Choir. (I love it.)

To this suffragette’s autograph album Lavender Guthrie contributed a few lines from Robert Louis Stevenson – ‘The conditions of conquest are easy; we have only to hope a while, endure a while, believe always and never turn back’. Below her given name she added in brackets her stage and suffragette name – Laura Grey. It was the name she used when arrested. Like some other women – particularly of the middle class – she did not want her real name to appear in the papers in order not to embarrass her family. It is likely, therefore, that it was first as a suffragette soubriquet that Lavender adopted the name ‘Laura Grey’, which then gave her a ready-made stage name.

It seems that Lavender Guthrie suffered  from the after effects of forcible feeding and there is the suggestion that it was after her release that she discovered that veronal could ease the ‘neuralgia’ from which she now suffered. Her mother said that Lavender was ‘very ill’ after her release from prison.

Lyceum Theatre

Lyceum Theatre

Lavender’s first stage engagement was in the Lyceum Theatre’s Christmas 1912 pantomime – The Forty Thieves – doubtless an excellent vehicle for displaying the thinly-veiled flesh of the ‘pantomime girls’. At the time the Lyceum was renowned for staging the best pantomimes in London.

Now able to leave the comfort of her Kensington home,  ‘Laura Grey’ lived at first in rooms in Handel Mansions, Brunswick Square, Bloomsbury. Bloomsbury then had a rather louche reputation. However it was not long before she moved to the flat in Jermyn Street, close to the bright lights of Piccadilly. A couple of years earlier (when the 1911 census was taken) the tenant of the flat was a 24-year-old American ‘dancer (artistic) not in work’, who declared that she was married with one child. However neither husband or child was living with her and I feel that here, too, is a story of quiet desperation waiting to be uncovered.

There is no indication in the inquest report of the other shows in which Laura Grey was engaged (although there must have been at least one or two because the Lyceum was described as the first).  The coroner did not disguise the curl of his lip when he referred to her as a ‘pantomime girl’. As such she represented all that was meretricious and sleazy in the eyes of right-thinking people. Pantomime Girl, a novel by Annie Louise Daniells published in 1913 ,did not allow the central figure a happy ending – even if she was not actually forced, unlike poor Laura Grey, to suffer the ultimate wages of sin.

For not only did Laura Grey die, but she died pregnant. How much further could a young middle-class woman fall? The coroner had no trouble at all in revealing the cause  – her involvement with the suffragettes. He read in full the letter that accompanied the award of her hunger-strike medal, sent to Lavender Guthrie by Mrs Mabel Tuke of the WSPU,  and commented ‘Could anything be more calculated to upset the mind of a young girl than receiving this document and this travesty of a medal. The effect was quite clear. She leaves her home, her sister, her mother, for a garret in order to earn her own living and probably devote herself to this cause. She is next on the stage as a pantomime girl. Next we find her in the company of men frequenting night clubs and taking money from them. There is no more about the suffragist movement. The girl seems to have been absolutely degraded, and from then her whole history is one of drink, drugs, immorality, and death from her own hand.’

The jury duly returned a verdict of suicide during temporary insanity. However, this is just what Lavender Guthrie had anticipated. In the note she left for her mother she wrote ‘Of course the kindly Coroner will call it temporary insanity, but as a matter of fact I think this is about the sanest thing I have yet done. I am simply very, very tired of things in general.’ In fact her mother had been so worried about her that she had called in two women doctors – Dr Helen Boyle, who specialised in mental disorders, and Dr Louisa Garrett Anderson, who had actually been imprisoned in Holloway at the same time as Lavender – hoping that they would be able to certify her as insane. Their visit to Jermyn Street, accompanied by two nurses  -so certain were they, from what they had been told by Mrs Guthrie, that they would need to remove Lavender – had taken place on 26 May. The doctors, however, had not found Lavender suffering from any delusions that warranted restraint.

It is difficult to know exactly what Laura Grey’s  Jermyn Street life had been like. She left over £1000 in her will, although this money might not have been easily accessible. According to her mother, although she had initially refused to accept an allowance, by the time of her death she had agreed to receive an annual allowance of £100. Was she receiving money from men, as the Coroner suggested – or assumed? Who knows? Her mother noted at the inquest that she ‘lived in a very self-sacrificing manner, denying herself everything.’ However, it would appear that she must have spent at least some of her money on drink and drugs. When asked by the Coroner if she knew that her daughter ‘had taken to drink’, Mrs Guthrie gave the immortal reply, ‘I had heard of absinthe: I do not know whether that is drink’. Laura Grey’s regular consumption of veronal was evident from the bottles found in the flat. In the touching letter she left for her mother she wrote, ‘I have been taking veronal for the last six months practically every night. I only lied to you about it because I knew you would worry if I told you the truth’.

In this letter Laura Grey also writes, ‘During this last year I have met some very dear souls, both men and women. If you ever come across them and they speak to you of me give them a welcome for my sake, even though I may have met them in bad and immoral ways’. In July Mrs Guthrie wrote a short letter in the Daily Mail, in which she thanked those who had got in touch to sympathise at her loss – and there is a hint that among these may have been some of the ‘dear souls’ to whom Lavender refers. In which case it appears a rather generous letter.

The night clubs frequented by Laura Grey were named as the Astor Club (already defunct by 1914), the Mimosa, the Leicester and the Albert Rooms. They were all doubtless of a transient nature and have vanished leaving no discernible trace.  newspaper reported that ‘she generally wore evening dress at these resorts, but lately she appeared in costumes of the futurist fashion

Betty May (courtesy of Kirsty McKenzie Design Facebook Page)

Betty May (courtesy of Kirsty McKenzie Design Facebook Page)

Betty May, exotic dancer, good-time girl and another frequenter of Soho haunts, in her racy memoir – Tiger-Woman – published in 1929, places Laura Grey in the bohemian Cafe Royal, alongside many better known figures, such as the futurist painter C.R.W. Nevinson. ‘I knew her well’, Betty May writes, ‘and the night before she was found dead she came over to me in the Café and gave me a book she had promised to lend me. We had a long chat and she seemed quite cheerful. She was tall and slim, with a very fine forehead. At one time she had been a militant suffragette.’ Whether or not this charming scene actually did take place I don’t know. Betty May’s memoir doesn’t strike me as totally reliable, but the fact that she chooses to mention Laura Grey at all 15 years after her death is interesting. If Laura Grey was in the Cafe Royal the night before she died, that fact was not mentioned at the inquest. Indeed there was a suggestion in the press that she may have taken the veronal on the Friday night and lain undiscovered all weekend until Mrs Spicer arrived on Monday morning.

Cafe Royal, by Willian Orpen, 1912

Cafe Royal, by Willian Orpen, 1912

Betty May also mentions, as another of the bohemian haunters of the Cafe Royal, both William Orpen, the painter of the above picture, and the poet, Anna Wickham who’ always dressed very severely, and had a deep voice that used to frighten me a great deal’.

Anna Wickham

Anna Wickham

Whether or not Anna Wickham actually knew Laura Grey she was sufficiently moved by her fate to write a poem, Laura Grey, that was published in the Daily Herald (a left-wing newspaper) on 16 June 1914.

And Anna Wickham was not the only member of the literati to be inspired to poetry by Laura Grey’s death. On 14 June 1914 Gilbert Cannan, poet and essayist, wrote to Lady Ottoline Morrell,  ‘these last days I have been haunted and most passionately moved the story of the girl, Laura Grey. Her unassailable spirit thrust deliberately through the worst of life has shone splendidly for me and I wrote this poem which I send to you now..’His biographer, Diana Farr, commented ‘ Here was a girl that Gilbert would have loved to cherish and the poem he sent to Ottoline called simply Laura Grey was his response to a story which moved him deeply.’

But there were many others who were moved in a different direction. The novelist, E. W. Hornung, the author of Raffles, a brother-in-law of Arthur Conan Doyle, and a Kensington friend of the Guthrie family, wrote a letter to The Times, published on 13 June as an Appreciation of ‘Laura Grey’. Referring to her throughout as Lavender Guthrie, he described her as ‘a beautiful and gentle creature: one both gracious and unaffected, indeed as great-hearted and noble-minded and sweet-tempered a girl as ever looked like a Greek goddess and carried herself like a queen.’

This paragon, this icon of young British womanhood, did however have one fault – ‘Erratic and wilful she no doubt had always been.’ It was this fault, ‘observable outside her family circle’, that had caused her to associate with the militant suffragettes, whose ‘methods and practices both inside and outside prison’ oozed ‘slow and subtle sex-poison.’ It was this that had robbed Lavender Guthrie of her ‘bloom’ – ‘the thirst for sensation had become a passion and the craze for revolt had become a disease’. For this he laid the blame firmly on the leaders of the WSPU.

All the newspapers were awash with letters about the case. A few were sympathetic to Laura Grey’s fate but most, like a correspondent to the Daily Express, saw her as the ‘Victim of the Furies’. And you will have no difficulty in guessing who these were.

For their part, the WSPU put its own particular spin on the sad story, declaring that Laura Grey had long left their ranks and it was because she was no longer a suffragette that she had fallen in with the wrong sort of people. Why were the names of the men which whom she had associated – particularly the father of the child she was expecting – not publicised? It was the Government and the attitudes of society that were responsible for Laura Grey’s death. In fact her ‘ruin’  ideally illustrated Christabel Pankhurst’s slogan of the last couple of years – ‘Votes for Women and Chastity for Men’.

It was certainly not a good moment for the WSPU to be associated with drug-taking, for at this very time – amongst all the other newspaper reports of suffragette mayhem – was the story – sensationalised in the popular press – that a solicitor’s clerk had been discovered attempting to smuggle a drug to Grace Roe, one of the WSPU leaders, now on hunger strike in Holloway. The drug was actually an emetic – enabling her to be sick after forcible feeding – not a barbiturate – but the man and, indeed, woman in the street, could now even more easily associate ‘drugs’ with ‘suffragettes’.

If only Laura Grey/Lavender Guthrie had been able to hold out for a couple more months might the war have made a difference to her situation? With the great change that British society was about to undergo, the birth of baby to yet another unmarried young woman might have felt of little less consequence in general, although doubtless still fraught in the particular. In her farewell letter to her mother she sent ‘My love to Lilias, and I hope she will be very happy and marry some decent man whose children you could be proud of’. This strikes me as the saddest sentence in a long, sad letter. Lilias never married. If Mrs Baillie Guthrie had wanted only grandchildren of which she could be proud, she was to be disappointed.

Nearly 100 years after the sad event, Lavender Guthrie’s suicide still has the power to shock. Although I had known of the case in a general way it was only a week ago, when going through cuttings accumulated by my diarist, Kate Parry Frye for all about Kate Frye’s diary click here), that I came across a copy of Hornung’s letter to The Times. Kate had clipped it and neatly folded it and I doubt anybody else had looked at it until I opened it out last week. I have checked and, although she was in London at the time, Kate makes no mention of the case of Laura Grey in her diary – but it had obviously not gone unremarked.

In another neat leap through the century, Lavender Guthrie’s hunger-strike medal that I illustrate at the head of this post is now held in the collection of Ken Florey, who illustrates it beautifully in his  Women’s Suffrage Memorabilia: An Illustrated Historical Study. So, the very hunger-strike medal that in 1914 was in the Jermyn Street room as poor Lavender Guthrie took her overdose of veronal, was taken away by the police and then held up to such contempt and ridicule by the Coroner, is, a century later, the prized and treasured possession of a dedicated collector of suffragette memorabilia.

 

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  1. #1 by Andrea on August 5, 2013 - 10:36 am

    What a heartbreaking story. Thank you for telling it.

  2. #2 by mark steinhardt on March 15, 2014 - 8:13 pm

    Excellent piece of work – thank you. I was looking for material on Anna Wickham -second rate poet but interesting subject matter – and stumbled on this. I run a retirement education poetry class and I’ll share your piece with my class. Mark

    • #3 by womanandhersphere on March 15, 2014 - 8:51 pm

      Many thanks for your comment. I am delighted that you found the piece interesting.
      Elizabeth

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