On 4 April 2016 I gave a talk in the House of Commons at the Regional Suffrage Conference – one of the activities organised by Vote100 in the lead up to the 100th anniversary of (partial) women’s enfranchisement in 2018. I had been asked to speak on the methods that we can all use to recover something of the lives of hitherto unknown suffrage campaigners – the foot soldiers of the movement. I called the talk ‘Hidden from History?: using genealogical data to recover the lives of suffragettes’.
As a demonstration of what can be done – and the techniques used – I picked at random a few names from those who appeared in the Contributors’ List in Votes for Women, the newspaper published by the Women’s Social and Political Union, in the weeks of 7 and 14 April 1911. Over the next few days I will post their stories.
The next name on the list that I selected is one of the kind I like to come across – ‘Yevonde Cumbers’ –there can’t have been too many of women of that name around.
I looked for her on the 1911 census – nothing. I then looked on the 1901 census and there she was – born in 1893, living with her parents and younger sister, Verena, in Margate. He father was a manufacturer of printing ink. It’s interesting that she’s missing from the 1911 census. Did she evade? I found her mother and father on the 1911 census – by now they were living in a house with two servants in Bromley. But there is no trace anywhere in the country of Yevonde and Verena. At 18 and 16 they were quite young to be taking part in a census party – but I think we can probably add them to our list of census boycotters.
I discovered that Yevonde Cumbers married in 1920. From the Ancestry website I discovered that when she travelled back from the US after a visit in the mid-1930s the ship’s manifest revealed her occupation as that of ‘press photographer’ – and that is when the penny dropped.
I realised that she was none other than the one and only ‘Madame Yevonde’ – a starry portrait photographer whose autobiography, In Camera, published by the Woman’s Book Club in 1940, I once sold. I don’t know why I didn’t think of her as soon as I saw her name – but ‘Yevonde Cumbers’ really didn’t ring any bells.
Well ‘Madame Yevonde’ most certainly is not ‘hidden from history’ – here is a website all about her and her work. Sure enough it stresses that in her teens ‘Madame Yevonde’ had ‘discovered the suffragette movement and had devoted her efforts to the cause’. The article mentions that she was very strong and determined and was only 21 when she opened her own photographic studio.
The 1939 Register finds Yevonde Middleton, as she now is, in Frobisher House, Dolphin Square, a widow – and a ‘Portrait Photographer’. There are masses of references to Yevonde in the Findmypast newspaper search facility.
But here in the 7 April 1911 issue of Votes for Women we have young Yevonde Cumbers – freeze-framed, as it were – handing over money she had collected – 4s 9d – to the WSPU. She didn’t yet know how famous she would become, but she did know that ‘Votes for Women’ was in her interest.