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 first name I discussed was Sybil Campion and the second was Miss Susan Cunnington – who each donated 5 shillings to the Cause. The third was Yevonde Cumbers, who turned out to be less hidden from history than most, and when I put the fourth name, ‘Miss S.A. Turle’, into Google I managed straightaway to identify her as Miss Sophia Adelaide Turle, a literary editor and musician whose personal papers are now at Girton.
The Girton archive listing gives brief background information on Sophia and her family – her father was at one time organist at Westminster Abbey -and mentions that she was a supporter of a range of women’s educational institutions and of the suffrage movement. To quote from the archive listing ‘Miss Turle gave a small donation from her dress allowance to Girton in very early days. Though not rich, she was generous and gave money unasked and without ostentation to women’s causes.’
The Girton archive holds her diaries from 1877 to 1889 and the catalogue specifically mentions that Sophia attended numerous women’s suffrage meetings (both public meetings and smaller committee meetings), made regular payments of subscriptions to the Women’s Suffrage Society, and helped with the getting of names for petitions in favour of the franchise for women’.So here was the woman who is listed in the 7 April 1911 issue of Votes for Women as giving £4 3s 6d to the WSPU.
I then had a look at the 1911 census with no very great expectations of finding anything particularly interesting – Sophia was now 70 years old – and when Jill Liddington and I researched the census we did tend to find it was younger women who protested. But there in the listing was ‘S.A. Turle’ – it’s always a hopeful sign for the researcher of census boycotters to see initials rather than a full name. But there would have been no way of identifying her as a census resister without knowing her name to look up – she is what I called an ‘unknown unknown’
But when I clicked on the form I was gratified to find that she had written across it ‘As it has been legally pronounced, so far as the parliamentary vote is concerned, that a woman is not a ‘person’, I decline to fill in this census’. So here was a woman who had been involved with the suffrage campaign throughout the last quarter of the 19th century and was now taking militant action in the 20th. Details for Sophia Turle and her maid had then been filled in by the enumerator.
In the same week her sister, Caroline, who had moved out of London to Dorset, gave £20 to the WSPU – and £2 the following week. She, too, is missing from the 1911 census – and died just over a month later (for short pieces about her see issues of Votes for Women for 2 and 30 June 1911). So behind those brief listings of donations, chosen at random, lies the story of a lifetime of support for women’s causes.