On 7 August 2014 ITV will publish an e-book, Kate Parry Frye: The Long Life of an Edwardian Actress and Suffragette. Based on her prodigious diary, this is my account of Kate Frye’s life and is a tie-in with the forthcoming ITV series ‘The Great War: The People’s Story’. For details of the TV series and its accompanying books see here.
As a lead-up to publication I thought I’d share with you some entries from Kate’s diary from the month before the outbreak of war. Through her day-to-day experience we can see how the war stole up on one Everywoman.
Kate was at this time 36 years old, living in a room at 49 Claverton Street in Pimlico and working in the Knightsbridge headquarters of the New Constitutional Society for Women’s Suffrage. It was now nine years since she had become engaged to (minor) actor John Collins. Her father died in March 1914 and her mother and sister, Agnes, now all but penniless, are living in rented rooms in Worthing.
For the previous few weeks Kate’s fiancé, John Collins, had been renting a room in another house in Claverton Street but he has now left for the West Country, to take up a position with a touring repertory company. Kate is feeling rather bereft.
Saturday July 25th 1914
Up and packed – and put my things in order and left with a cardboard Dress Box as my luggage at 12.15. To Victoria by bus and to Praed Street by train – had some lunch at Lyons and then to Paddington for the 2 o’clock train to Wooburn. Met Mr Woodward – he knew me and came up and spoke to me – it is years since we met. He had not heard of Daddie’s death.
I felt so awful going to the old place – I just glued my eyes to the window – I couldn’t help it – when we came to Winter Hill and Cock Marsh and the river and then the train stopped on the Bridge and I saw the dear old ‘Plat’. It was a gorgeous day, but a very high wind and the river was lashing about and the trees swaying and there stood the house. It really seems utterly grotesque that it should be all as it is – that the others live in poky lodging and I exist on £2 per week in a dreary London Bedsitting room – sometimes it seems it cannot be.
I saw Pratt on Bourne End platform and some of the old porters but most of the faces were new and the riff raff on the Platform was the usual holiday season tripper crew. Then on to Wooburn where Constance met me with the Victoria and took me for a lovely drive before going to the Kennels. The country looks too fair for words – and the Harvest is very forward. Aunt Agnes and Constance alone at the Kennels – and Aunt Agnes in bed as she does not feel very well. I went up to see her and she was ever so cheery and bright. Then Constance and I went in the garden and I had a feed of fruit – then a wander through the woods – back and another chat with Aunt Agnes.
Changed for dinner and then a chat to Constance until ten and then bed. She sees less narrow than she did. Of course I could not speak of my work – that is Taboo – but I mentioned one or two facts concerning it – that if, as seems possible, we are in for a General Election I shall not get off next week for my holiday etc and there didn’t seems quite such a stiffening. But perhaps someone she respects has come out for Suffrage – or is it the Bishop of Kensington? I shall be sorry if I can’t get away for a rest – it won’t be a real holiday, not a success I feel sure cooped up with Mother and Agnes at Worthing and all the nagging that goes on between them – but I don’t feel I can go on with this work without a break. I have grown to loathe it.
I suppose if an Election comes I shall go through with it but I shall much fear a collapse – and fought on the Irish Question we shan’t get a look in – shan’t be listened to. Now there seems such European complications – Austria and Servia. Perhaps our domestic parliamentary quarrels will have to take a second place. The papers seem full of rumours of trouble here and elsewhere.
It is rather fitting that Kate should make her first mention of the gathering clouds over Europe – as well as the situation in Ireland – on the day on which she returns to the scene of the ‘gay and reckless’ days of her childhood and youth. When the Fryes were living in The Plat, their house beside the river Thames at Bourne End in Buckinghamshire, it had seemed inconceivable the life should not carry on along the primrose path. But here was Kate looking down on The Plat and its grounds from her train, drawn to a halt on the railway bridge over the Thames, knowing that what had once seemed impossible had happened – her family was homeless and penniless. Perhaps the knowledge that catastrophes like this could happen made her more able to realise that something might occur to push ‘our domestic parliamentary quarrels’ into second place.
These thoughts were going through Kate’s mind as she re-entered the world she had lost – the world of the wealthy Gilbey family. For she was on her way to spend the weekend with her aunt, Agnes Gilbey, and her cousin Constance, who were living at this time at the Kennels – one of the Gilbey homes on their Wooburn estate, a short distance from Bourne End. Here life ticked on as it always had – cocooned and comfortable – fuelled by the income from the extremely successful Gilbey wine and spirits empire.
As Kate says, she knew it didn’t really do to talk about her suffrage work even with Constance, who was her own age and a friend of her youth. Although – in what were to prove the final days of the pre-war suffrage movement – Kate did think she discerned a slight broadening of Constance’s sympathy in this regard. You can see from this how outré the idea of ‘votes for women’ could still seem to some youngish women – despite or perhaps because of – all the campaigning, militant and non-militant, of the last few years. But, whatever her views on this, Constance was throughout her life to prove a good friend to Kate.
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