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 the fourth was ‘Miss S.A. Turle’ whose sister, Caroline, was, I saw, also a generous donor.
Two others, grouped together on the 7 April list, appeared to be sisters – Florence and Beatrice Sotheran. Being a bookseller the name ‘Sotheran’ means something to me – Henry Sotheran’s is a very long-established bookshop in Sackville Street – off Piccadilly. And sure enough when I checked I found they were the twin daughters – at least I assume they were twins as they were both born in 1866 – of Henry Sotheran.
At first I thought that they were missing from the 1911 census – but one does have to check – and I found them in the Welsh census – on holiday in Barmouth. A Google search revealed the fact that both sisters were included on the Suffragette Roll of Honour – a list of suffragette prisoners that was compiled in the 1950s by the Suffragette Fellowship.
Armed with that information I then turned to one of the newer sources of information that is now available on Ancestry – the National Archives file that contains police records of suffragettes arrested.
I used to study this on my visits to the National Archives and think how wonderfully useful it was. And now it is available to all of us. Well, five months or so before they gave their April 1911 donations both sisters had been arrested and appeared at Bow Street Magistrates Court. The file gives the date – 19 November 1910– so I turned to look at the relevant copy of Votes for Women – and sure enough in the 25 November 1910 issue the WSPU had included brief biographies of all those arrested. That for the Sotherans tells us that ‘they are two constitutional suffragists who have been morally forced to take up militancy through the utter failure of quiet, Law-abiding methods of agitation’.
They had been arrested in the aftermath of Black Friday – when women went en masse to Downing Street. The Aberdeen Journal – found in the Findmypast collection of British Library newspapers – contains a vivid account of the scene and lists Beatrice and Florence Sotheran amongst those arrested.
So here, again, is an insight into the mindset of a couple of WSPU foot-soldiers. They were reasonably well-off, they neither needed to or – apparently – wanted to work for a living (although they may have devoted themselves to ‘good works’), but they were quite prepared to flout the law in pursuit of the parliamentary vote.
Sadly I see that Florence died in September 1918 and would never have had the opportunity to exercise her parliamentary vote. Beatrice, however, lived for another 20 years and would have been able to vote on numerous occasions.