Suffrage Stories: Murder, Suicide, and Dancing: Or What Might Have Brought Mrs Pankhurst to 62 Nelson Street?

60 (on the right) and 62 Nelson Street, Manchester – The Pankhurst Centre

I hope those acquainted with my website will also be aware of the existence of the Pankhurst Centre in Manchester. If so, you will know that the Centre comprises two houses, 60 and 62 Nelson Street, the only buildings from the original early 19th-century street still standing, surrounded by the ever-expanding complex of Manchester Royal Infirmary. That the adjoining villas, built c 1840, are still there is due only to the fact that it was at number 62 in October 1903 that Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst founded the Women’s Social and Political Union. The buildings were listed Grade 2* in 1974 to save them from demolition.

Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst and her children, Christabel, Sylvia, Adela, and Harry moved into 62 Nelson Street, Chorlton-on-Medlock, Manchester, in the autumn of 1898. Her husband, Dr Richard Pankhurst, had died in the summer, on 5 July, leaving very little money, and his family was forced to economise by moving from their home, 4 Buckingham Crescent, Daisy Bank Road, Victoria Park, into a property cheaper to rent.

Mrs Pankhurst could have moved to any area of Manchester, so why was 62 Nelson Street chosen as the new family home?

In 1894 Mrs Pankhurst had been elected to the Chorlton Board of Guardians as a Poor Law Guardian, an unpaid position. Now, in the summer of 1898, she had to earn enough to support herself and her family and so on 30 August she resigned and, instead, accepted the offer made by the Board of Guardians of the post of salaried registrar of births, marriages, and deaths for Chorlton-on-Medlock.

Chorlton had been urbanized in the early 19th c, when streets of terraced houses were built to house the workers required to operate the large mills newly erected alongside the River Irwell. It was an area very much less salubrious than Victoria Park, but Nelson Street, off Oxford Road, was more refined than most surrounding streets. It was also a street that was well-known to the two eldest Pankhurst daughters.

I have never seen any mention in Pankhurst biographies and autobiographies of this apparent coincidence, but it was at number 60 that Christabel and, I think, Sylvia, had been regular visitors, students at the dancing school run by Mrs W. Webster and her brother. Although the name of the dance teachers does appear in Sylvia Pankhurst’s The Suffragette Movement, she makes no mention of the school’s address. Sylvia wrote:

‘We learned dancing from the Websters, an old dancing family in Manchester, and Christabel, who hitherto had never cared much or long for anything, roused herself to unexpected efforts to excel everyone in the class’. Sylvia suggests that Christabel, whom her mother intended should be a dancer, had taken lessons for several years before becoming ‘suddenly tired of the project’ around the time she was 16, that is in 1896.

In the years between 1890 and 1896 the dancing academy was run by Mrs W. Webster and her brother. Until his early death in 1890 the dancing master had been William Hilton Webster and the school had then been continued by his widow. She was Ellen Marianne Webster (née Goodman), who had been a cousin to her husband. For reasons that are unclear, her brother, Archie, changed his name from Goodman to Webster, perhaps to capitalize on the ‘Webster’ name, which, as Sylvia suggests, had long been synonymous in Manchester with ‘dance’, as William Hilton Webster’s father had been a dance teacher there from the 1870s. William Webster had moved to 60 Nelson Street in 1884, taking over the premises and goodwill of another dancing master, ‘Monsieur Paris’.

Christabel would have been taught by either or both Ellen and Archie Webster. The lessons offered were not for ballet dancing, but general classes for ballroom dancing and private classes for waltz, skirt,and serpentine dancing. Although I have no evidence, it strikes me that it must have been the latter types of semi-burlesque dance that, according to Sylvia, Mrs Pankhurst hoped Christabel would – as’ a professional devotee of Terpsichore’ – perform in the great cities of the world. A studio photograph of Christabel posed, with pointed foot, holding up with both hands material from her long, flowing dress, is exactly illustrative of a skirt dance. It was taken in Geneva in the summer of 1898 and is reproduced in June Purvis’ biography of Christabel.

Widowed Ellen Webster had four young children, two boys and two girls, and in 1893 remarried, her second husband being Charles Joseph Rourke, a cotton waste merchant. It was presumably during the next couple of years or so that Christabel and, perhaps, Sylvia were attending classes. They may still have been doing so when, in October 1895, 60 Nelson Street hit the headlines in newspapers around the country. Ellen Webster had committed suicide, murdering the elder of her sons at the same time. She had poisoned herself and both sons, but the younger recovered. Her daughters were at a boarding school in Sale, Cheshire, and although she had sent a servant to bring them home, apparently with the idea of killing them as well, their arrival was delayed, and they were saved. The inquest returned a verdict of murder and suicide, due to temporary insanity. The funeral of poor Ellen Webster and her son was held at St Aloysius Church, Ardwick, where she had been married a couple of years earlier.

Thus, in 1898, when Emmeline Pankhurst was looking for a house to rent, she would have been well acquainted with Nelson Street, not only as the address of the dancing school that her daughters had attended but as the site of a very recent Manchester tragedy.   

Concert at Schiller Anstalt Institute, 1895 (courtesy of Manchester Central Library Collection)

Besides the dancing school Nelson Street contained another cultural centre at number 66 – the Schiller Anstalt Institute – a centre for the large Manchester German community. The Institute was housed in a building that had been converted from domestic use in 1886 and now offered a concert hall and gymnasium, holding a regular programme of lectures and musical activities [For more information about the Institute see here.] The Institute did not close until 1911 and it may well be that, as it was so close by, members of the Pankhurst family did occasionally attend an event there.

Between number 62 Nelson Street and the Schiller Anstalt Institute, number 64 was a large, detached house, once the home of a mayor of Manchester, but now, known as Nelson House, run as a private nursing home. This may explain why, when, previously, number 62 had been advertised for rent it was deemed ‘suitable for a medical man’.

Number 62 was described as offering ‘Three entertaining rooms, five bedrooms, dressing room, bath, w.c. and well-appointed domestic offices’, large enough for Emmeline to devote one room (presumably one of the ‘entertaining rooms’), as her registry office. The bedrooms were under pressure on the night of the 1901 census, for sleeping in the house were Emmeline and her four children, together with her two brothers, Walter and Herbert Goulden, the latter’s son, and the family’s two servants, the cook, Ellen Coyle (of whom Sylvia speaks very fondly) and Mary Leaver, the housemaid. I imagine that the Pankhurst children were made to share rooms, but presumably that was unusual and, now ranging in age from 20 to 11, they normally had a little more space to themselves. It’s difficult to imagine Christabel and Sylvia being happy to share, but doubtless on occasion they were forced to.

The situation only eased in the autumn 1904. Mrs Pankhurst placed an advertisement in the Daily News, ’Wanted, for art student. One or two Rooms, furnished or unfurnished. Near South Kensington Museum. Terms Moderate.’ The reply address was ‘Pankhurst, 62 Nelson Street, Manchester.’ Sylvia was off to London, to study at the Royal College of Art, freeing up a bed in the family home.

In October 1907 advertisements for 62 Nelson Street once more appeared in the press, in the Manchester Courier, indicating that the house was again to let. Emmeline Pankhurst, who had formed the Women’s Social and Political Union in the kitchen just four years earlier, had already left for London to join her daughters, Sylvia and Christabel, who had brought the fight for the vote to the capital.

Copyright

All the articles on Woman and Her Sphere are my copyright. An article may not be reproduced in any medium without my permission and full acknowledgement. You are welcome to cite or quote from an article provided you give full acknowledgement

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  1. #1 by Jane Kirby on March 31, 2021 - 5:29 pm

    I love the fact that No 62 was deemed suitable for a medical man – my father and a number of colleagues had consulting rooms at No 52 from the 1960s to the 1990s.

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