Suffrage Stories: The British Museum’s Hunger-Strike Medal And The 1911 Census Boycott

Rather belatedly you might think, I’ve just realised that the British Museum holds a hunger-strike medal.  It, together with a Holloway brooch (which rather oddly is the main image used to illustrate the item online), was awarded to ‘Joan Cather’. Her’s was not a name I recognised from previous suffrage research, so I immediately set about finding out something about her.

The first trace I came across for a woman of that name were a few entries on the London Electoral Register in the 1920s and ’30s. Thus, I discovered that a Joan Cather had been living in London, at 23 Upper Montagu Street, sharing the house with John Leonard Cather. Rather oddly, apart from her death in 1967, this Joan Cather hadn’t left any other trace.

So I turned to John Leonard Cather – looking first at his entry on the 1911 census. And, lo and behold, on his census form he had written ‘Conscientious scruples prevent me from rendering a return of the female occupants of this house for the purpose of assisting statistical tables which will be used as the basis for further vexatious legislation affecting women, & in which they have no voice. Should the Conciliation Committee bill be passed into law this session the additional details will be forthcoming.’

A note has been added ‘Two Females inserted in Summary Books by the Registrar being the probable number.’ One of these would doubtless have been his wife, Joan, and the other a female servant.

Clearly I had the right Cathers.

At this time they were living at ‘Red Cottage, Cavendish Road, Redhill’ and John Cather gave his occupation as ‘Motor Body Builder. Lieut Royal Navy (Retired)’. He had married Joan Waller (1882-1967) in 1908 and was clearly fully supportive of her involvement in the suffrage cause. Indeed, when the militant ‘Men’s Society for Women’s Rights’  was formed in 1912,’ Lieutenant Cather’, as he clearly liked to be known, was its honorary secretary. Ge was also by 1914 (and probably earlier) chairman of the Finance Committee of the Church League for Women’s Suffrage.

Joan Cather’s Hunger-strike Medal gives the date of the imprisonment that related to her hunger-strike as 4 March 1912 – which would indicate that she had taken part in that month’s WSPU window-smashing campaign. However, despite trawling through the relevant issues of Votes for Women, I haven’t yet managed to find a report of the damage she caused to merit this custodial sentence. Nor does her name appear on the Roll of Honour compiled by Suffragette Fellowship c 1960. It is possible that she was using an alias when she was sentenced. It would seem that the British Museum acquired the medal and brooch in 1975, seven years after the death of Joan Cather, but I’m not sure if it was given to the Museum by a family member or whether it was purchased. Perhaps I shall find out!

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  1. #1 by artandarchitecturemainly on January 13, 2014 - 9:53 am

    It is not surprising that many husbands were supportive of their wives’ beliefs and commitments. I have read of some amazingly wonderful husbands.

    But I have not heard of boycotting the census data, at least about women, as part of the movement towards universal suffrage. Go Mr Cather!

  2. #2 by chloemason@bigpond.com on January 13, 2014 - 10:26 am

    Thanks. Where is Votes for Women held? Is this a good source to look for names? Best wishes Chloe Mason

    Sent from my HTC One XL on the Telstra 4G network

  3. #3 by Hazel on January 14, 2014 - 5:03 pm

    What a lovely piece of history. Thank you for sharing these “orphan” stories.

  4. #4 by Alex Scott on May 3, 2015 - 8:16 pm

    Very interesting. In 1925 my (unmarried) grandmother gave birth to my father, giving Joan Cather’s address at Upmeads, Bexhill as her address (https://www.thegazette.co.uk/London/issue/44336/page/6419/data.pdf). The family tradition was that on her return (pregnant) from Canada my grandmother had been helped by suffragettes.

  5. #5 by Ivor Llewelyn on January 22, 2017 - 9:55 pm

    I have just come across this. (John)Leonard Cather was my great-uncle.I was always told that Joan had gone to prison, but as she was not on the list of imprisoned suffragettes, thought this must have been a mistake. I am delighted to find out that it is true. I have no idea how the medal ended up in the BM. I have a collection of suffragette material, including WSPU badges, from my grandmother (Leonard’s sister) who I believe. met my grandfather through the women’s suffrage movement. Joan lived in Upmeads until she died.

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