While undertaking some research for a talk I gave a couple of weeks ago at the Royal College of Nursing I encountered an intriguing mystery. What happened to Nurse Pine’s ‘suffragette medal’.
Nurse Catherine Pine (1864-1941) was the Pankhurst family’s special nursing attendant – she had cared for Mrs Pankhurst’s son, Harry, who died in her nursing home in 1910. She ran the nursing home at 9 Pembridge Gardens, Notting Hill, and it was here that many suffragettes were taken after release from prison after hunger striking.
Mrs Pankhurst was among the many who recovered from imprisonment in the care of Nurse Pine. Although the authorities never dared force feed Mrs Pankhurst, she was desperately weakened by successive hunger strikes. See here for a photograph of Nurse Pine tending Mrs Pankhurst.
In her will Nurse Pine left what she described as her ‘suffragette medal’ to ‘the History Section of the British College of Nursing.’. Now the term ‘suffragette medal’ is usually used to describe a medal given by the WSPU to those who went on hunger strike – and I knew that there was no evidence that Nurse Pine was ever imprisoned – so began to wonder ‘what did she mean by her “suffragette medal”?’
Delving a little further I came across a note in a March 1942 issue of the British Journal of Nursing that tells us that ‘A few months ago we announced that the late Sister Catherine Pine had bequeathed to the British College of Nurses the priceless historic Medal and Bars bestowed upon her by the late Mrs. Emmeline Pankhurst, for her devoted services to her when released from durance vile. As time goes on this gift we may hope will be valued at its true worth by women all over the world.’
Could this have been a medal specially struck for Nurse Pine? Perhaps it was. If so, I wonder what the ‘Bars’ represented? Did they commemorate the number of times she admitted to Mrs Pankhurst to her nursing home? That really does seem very fanciful.
In terms of the suffragette campaign, the description ‘Medal and bars’ usually refers to a ‘hunger strike medal’, with bars added for each subsequent hunger strike.
The only explanation I could think of was that it was Mrs Pankhurst’s own medal – given to Nurse Pine in thanks. Noting that the British College of Nurses (an organisation that was not the Royal College of Nursing) closed in 1956, I wondered what had happened to Nurse Pine’s bequest.
Now, in the same 1942 issue, the British Journal of Nursing recorded that:
Miss Mary Hilliard, a gentle, very valiant suffragette, has bestowed as a gift to the College the fine linen handkerchief, signed by and embroidered by all the gallant women who suffered imprisonment for conscience sake, in support of the enfranchisement of women in Holloway prison in March 1912. It displays 67 signatures embroidered in various colours, and all that remains is to offer a warm vote of thanks to Miss Mary Hilliard, R.B.N.A., and to await the time when this historic gift can he suitably framed and placed in the History Section of the British College of Nurses, where its unique value will be appreciated.’
In fact I know that that embroidered handkerchief is now housed in Priest House, the museum of the Sussex Archaeological Society in West Hoathly, Sussex, and so I emailed the Custodian to enquire how it had arrived with them. He was able to tell me that it had surfaced at a West Hoathly jumble sale around 1970 where, in fact, nobody had bought it and it was rescued off a bonfire at the last minute. I must say I can’t see such an artefact being a jumble sale wallflower nowadays. However, nobody knows by what means the handkerchief ended up in West Hoathly after the closure of the British College of Nurses.
The archive of the British College of Nurses is held by King’s College University of London and their archivist has kindly checked for me and nothing resembling Nurse Pine’s’ suffragette medal’ is held by them.
So were the contents of its ‘History Section’ scattered when the British College of Nurses closed? What happened to Nurse Pine’s medal? Is it, in fact, one of the two medals presented to Mrs Pankhurst that are now held in public collections – one in the Houses of Parliament and one in the Museum of London?
This also doesn’t seem to be the answer. Neither of the medals has added ‘bars’. The one held by the Museum of London was given to Mrs Pankhurst in recognition of her hunger strike in Holloway beginning on 1 March 1912 and Beverley Cook, the Museum’s curator, tells me that, although the provenance is a little unclear, it is likely to have arrived at the Museum in 1950 along with the rest of the Suffragette Fellowship archive.
The other medal awarded to Mrs Pankhurst is not a ‘hunger strike’ medal – it predates the employment of the hunger strike – but commemorates her imprisonment in Holloway in October 1908 after being convicted for inciting crowds to ‘Rush the House of Commons’. It is now held by the Parliamentary Art Collection in the House of Commons – see here.
Could there have been a third medal awarded by the WSPU to Mrs Pankhurst? She certainly went on more than one hunger strike and would have merited ‘bars’, which the Museum of London medal doesn’t have. Could she then have ‘bestowed’ this on Nurse Pine? Or did she, indeed, have a medal made specially for Nurse Pine? As I said, it’s all a bit of a mystery. If anyone knows the answer I shall be delighted to hear from them.
Whatever the truth, it is rather sad that the British College of Nurses does not seem, in the event, to have taken care of the gift that they hoped ‘will be valued at its true worth by women all over the world.’ However, Nurse Pine’s collection of photographs, now held in the Museum of London, most definitely is treasured.
You can read more about Nurse Pine in her entry in my The Women’s Suffrage Movement: a reference guide, Routledge.