Archive for category Suffrage Stories
Suffrage Stories: House Decorating and Suffrage: Annie Atherton, Kate Thornbury, And The Society of Artists
In Suffrage Stories: ‘Home Art Decorator’ To The Queen – And The ‘Human Letter’ – I told the story of Charlotte Robinson, her sister, Epsey McClelland, and her niece, Elspeth McClelland. I have now been alerted to the existence of another of Charlotte’s sisters, Mrs Anne Atherton, who also worked in the art world – as the co-founder of the Society of Artists. In my rummaging around I had come across mention of this ‘Society’, which operated from premises in New Bond Street, London, but had not made the connection to Charlotte Robinson and Epsey McClelland.
Anne Elizabeth Robinson was born in Settle, Yorkshire, in 1849. Known as ‘Annie’, she was the fourth child of Henry Robinson and his wife, Elspet, two years younger than Epsey and nearly ten years older than Charlotte. I can discover nothing of her life before her marriage in 1870 to Francis Henry Atherton. The son of a solicitor, he had been born in Wiltshire in 1840 and was, therefore, about ten years her elder. I presume that until her marriage Anne had lived at home in Yorkshire, but after their marriage the couple disappear. I cannot find them on the 1871 census and have only caught up again with Annie Atherton in 1881 when she was living at 103 Warwick Road, Paddington, with her sister Epsey McClelland, her brother-in-law (John McClelland, an accountant) and a visitor, Kate Thornbury. Epsey and Anne are each described as ‘Artist (Painter)’ and Kate Thornbury is ‘Secretary’. In fact Kate Thornbury was secretary to the Central Committee of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage from 1877-c. April 1881.
I don’t know when the Atherton marriage broke down. From later evidence I know that Francis Atherton was a mining prospector and it may be that he and Anne were living abroad in 1871, hence their absence from the census. But at some point Annie Atherton returned to England (if she had indeed been away) and entered into a close friendship with Kate Thornbury that was to last the rest of their lives.
According to Annie Atherton’s obituary (The Suffragette, 28 November 1913), she and Kate Thornbury had founded the Society of Artists thirty-two years earlier –that is, in 1881 – perhaps around the time that Kate left her position as secretary to the suffrage society. However in 1887 (in a letter published in the Pall Mall Gazette – see below) Kate dated the formation of the Society to 1883 and it would, perhaps, be sensible to accept this as the correct date. The couple took premises for the business at a very good Mayfair address – 53 New Bond Street – and remained there – and then at no. 52 -until 1914. No. 53 is now occupied by Dolce and Gabbana – and, from the look of it, the façade of the building may well be much the same now as it was in the 1880s. In 1886 Kate Thornbury was also working as secretary to the Froebel Society from no. 53.
It is difficult to discover the exact nature of the Society of Artists. It doesn’t appear to have been a Society in the sense of having members, rather it offered premises in which artists could exhibit. All the reports of exhibitions that I can find are of work by women. Moreover the ‘work’ was usually of a ‘craft’ nature, not fine art. It would also appear that the Society of Artists operated, at some level, as a house decorating business, competing in the same field as Annie’s sisters, Charlotte Robinson and Epsey McClelland.
I sense that the relationship between the two establishments, the Society of Artists and that of Charlotte Robinson, was, for a time at least, not entirely harmonious – for the 27 December 1887 issue of the Pall Mall Gazette carries a letter from Kate Thornbury in response to ‘Ladies as Shopkeepers’, the article by Emily Faithfull that had appeared in the previous week’s issue (for more on this article see Suffrage Stories: ‘Home Art Decorator’ To The Queen – And The ‘Human Letter‘). Kate Thornbury expresses her ’great astonishment [that she found in this article] no mention whatever of Miss Robinson’s elder sister Mrs Atherton, who, as Miss Faithfull is well aware, had started a large business under her own superintendence in New Bond Street, London, under the title of the Society of Artists, for the sale of all kinds of artistic work, house decoration &, in the year 1883. Mrs Atherton it was who first braved ‘that bugbear which terrifies most women – the loss of social status’ and the great success which attended (and still attends) her venue induced Miss Robinson twelve months afterwards to open a similar business in Manchester, under the same name. In Miss Faithfull’s zeal for the prestige of the younger sister with whose success she is identified , she has shown a strange forgetfulness of Mrs Atherton’s claim as the originator of the movement which finds such merit in Miss Faithfull’s eyes.’
Armed with the information that Charlotte Robinson’s business in Manchester traded, at least initially, under the name the ‘Society of Artists’, I have now found corroboration in the form of a report (Manchester Courier, 30 March 1886) which, when referring to the fact that Charlotte Robinson was setting up a type-writing office in the city, mentions that she was ‘well known in connection with the Society of Artists’. One would have thought that there must have been some agreement with Annie Atherton and Kate Thornbury that allowed Charlotte to use their business name, but, three years or so later, the letter betrays a distinct note of rancour, aimed perhaps more at Emily Faithfull than at Annie’s younger sister.
Descriptions of the actual work exhibited by the Society of Artists are rather scant. This, from The St James’ Gazette, 7 April 1898, is one of the more forthcoming, describing how poker-work photograph frames ‘in straight bands of vivid colours – red, yellow and green – set amidst the dark poker-work..and beaten pewter and copper frames make much pleasanter Easter gifts than the usual flimsy eccentricities sold for such. The society has also the most delightful green ware to match its green furniture. It’s very pleasant to house one’s frocks, one’s candles, one’s flowers and plants all in the same harmonious tone of green.’ Well, there’s not much to choose between this artless prose and that of today’s house magazines (which, incidentally, I love, while laughing at their writing style). A report of an exhibition organised by the Society of Artists in Aberdeen in 1888 described their wares as ‘decorative novelties’, which seems a fair summary.
I have found only two clear indications that the Society of Artists was involved in house decoration. In its issue of 19 December 1904 the Derby Daily Telegraph mentioned that Elspeth McClelland was, most unusually for a young woman, studying architecture at the Polytechnic in London and that ‘she has occupied a post as a designer at a large firm of decorators, known as the Society of Artists.’ So, any rancour that may have existed between the Robinson sisters in the 1880s had long since been forgotten and in the new century the Society of Artists had welcomed Annie Atherton’s niece, Elspeth, as a member of its team.
The second reference comes nine years later when the Pall Mall Gazette (10 November 1913) reported that ‘a well-known Princess who is fitting up a “lordly pleasure-house” for herself in the neighbourhood of the Bois de Boulogne, has given the internal decoration into the hands of the Society of Artists. The society has an excellent habit of collecting ancient beams and panelling, and the Princess’s Parisian mansion is being transformed into an old English manor-house, after the fashion of Haddon House. In the Princess’s house there are to be great open fireplaces, panelled walls, and an entirely new wooden staircase is being put in.’ The next paragraph refers to the work of a woman architect, Mrs Elspeth Spencer (née McClelland), this juxtaposition making me wonder if she could have been involved with the Parisian project. Annie Atherton had just died and Kate Thornbury was 65 years old – was the younger generation now directing the work of the Society of Artists?
For years Annie and Kate had a London address, 12 Horbury Crescent, Kensington, and for a time had a country cottage at Peaslake in Surrey – the 1891 census found them living there in the quaintly named ‘Jottel [??] Hutte’. Annie Atherton is ‘head of household, Kate is ‘Friend’ and they had a young local girl as a servant. However by 1901 they had left arts-and-craftsy Peaslake for a house in Shire Lane, Chorleywood. This house was, rather charmingly, named ‘Chums’, which might speak something of how they saw their relationship. In the 1901 census Anne is given as ‘head of household’ and Kate as ‘joint owner’, while they are both described as ‘artists’. Their next-door-but- one neighbour on one side was Charles Voysey, who lived until 1906 in ‘The Orchard’, the arts-and-crafts house that he had built in 1899 for his family, while on their other side lived another architect, Charles Simmonds. At the very least Annie and Kate must have known Voysey on a social level but I wonder if their ‘decorative novelties’, while ‘craft’, would have appealed to his spare ‘Arts and Crafts’ sensibility.
In 1911 both Annie and Kate boycotted the census. The Registrar completed their form, recording their relationship as ‘sisters’ and knowing enough to describe Annie’s occupation as ‘Society of Artists’. Across the form is written ‘No Votes No Census. When women become citizens they will fulfill the duties of citizens.’
On the 1881 and 1891 censuses Annie Atherton gives her status as ‘married’ and by 1901 as ‘widowed’. However on her death in 1913 the Probate Register describes her as ‘wife of Frank Atherton’ – and that seems to have been her true status for there is no evidence that she was divorced. In fact Francis Henry Atherton appears on the 1911 census, aged 70, mining prospector, living with his ‘wife’ , Julia, and five of the seven children born to them, at Langhurst Manor, Witley, Surrey. [Incidentally, for more about the house, which Atherton presumably leased from the publisher Edward Arnold who had built it in 1908, see here.] The children, who had all been born in Queensland, Australia, ranged in age from 19 to 10 and Atherton stated on the form that he and Julia had been married for 25 years. In fact this was an untruth twice over. Not only was he, apparently, still married to Annie Atherton, but a marriage ceremony between him and Julia had taken place at St Pauls, Covent Garden as recently as 10 September 1907. It seems inconceivable that Annie Atherton did not know that her husband and his family were living in Surrey and that, as it appears, he had committed bigamy. One can read on-line the oath he swore that there was no legal impediment to this marriage and, incidentally, that his bride, Julia Walford, was a widow. This, again, was another untruth as ‘Walford’ was her maiden name; their Australian-born children were registered with Francis Atherton as their father and Julia Walford as their mother. Perhaps it was felt that back in England propriety demanded that the liaison should appear more regular. Had he asked Annie Atherton for a divorce and been refused? I wonder if any reader of this post will know the answer.
When Annie died in 1913 the executor of her will was, naturally enough, Kate Thornbury. Kate died in 1920 (incidentally leaving £100 to the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship) having appointed Clara Garrett her executor. The latter was the wife of Samuel Garrett, brother of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Millicent Fawcett, and Agnes Garrett – and, guess what, I’ve just put two and two together and realised that Clara was Kate’s sister. Of course it’s a small world but I wonder if this overlap between the Robinson and Garrett family circles extended to an overlap in house decorating taste. Could Annie Atherton and Kate Thornbury have initially been inspired by the example set by the firm of R & A Garrett? Clara Thornbury drew her sister into the Garrett Circle when she married Samuel in 1882. Could conversations with Agnes and Rhoda have given Kate and Annie the idea of launching the Society of Artists a year later? At the very least the two couples must have had many interests in common – suffrage and applied art being the most obvious. Were Annie and Kate entertained at 2 Gower Street by Rhoda and Agnes and, later, by Agnes and Millicent? Were their decorating tastes similar? Did they visit each other’s shops? Buy each other’s wares? Who knows.
It is a pity that for a post concerned with the visual I have no illustrations to use. I know of no likenesses of Annie Atherton or Kate Thornbury, have no images of rooms they decorated, or the goods they sold. Despite the longevity of their business they seem to have left a fainter mark on history than Charlotte Robinson, who had Emily Faithful as her promoter.
I am most grateful to Thamar McIver who is researching suffragettes in Pinner (where Elspeth McClelland lived) and first brought Anne Atherton to my attention. The rest is – a sort – of history.
One of the businesses that over a number of years advertised very regularly in Votes for Women, the newspaper of the Women’s Social and Political Union, was that of the Violet Nurseries run by ‘The Misses Allen-Brown, F.R.H.S.’ at Henfield in Sussex. I was intrigued by the idea of the intensive farming of violets – that most Edwardian of flowers – and the fact that the women apparently also manufactured violet-scented unguents and perfume and thought I’d do a little delving.
When skimreading through Votes for Women I had just assumed that the ‘Misses Allen-Brown’ were sisters but once I began researching I quickly discovered that they were, separately, a ‘Miss Allen’ and a ‘Miss Brown’.
Ada Eugenie Brown (1856-1915) was born in Liverpool, one of the six children of Aaron (1814-1883) and Lydia Brown. Her father was a ‘provision merchant’ – a ship’s store dealer and ship’s chandler -working from premises in Chapel Street, Liverpool. The family lived in ‘Hartfield’, a large Italianate house in Allerton that still stands, now incorporated into Calderstones School. By 1871 the family was sufficiently prosperous to be tended by at least five servants, including a butler and a footman, and probably also kept a coachman. By the time he died in 1883 Aaron Brown had moved from Allerton to the very smart area of Princes Park. He left over £22,000 but I haven’t investigated his will and don’t know what share of this went to Ada. By 1899 she was living in ‘Holmgarth’ (now known as ‘Providence Cottage’) on Henfield Common North Road in Henfield, Sussex.
Decima Mary Katherine Allen (1869 – 1951) was born at Burnham in Somerset, one of the eleven children born to Elizabeth Allen. When the 1871 census was taken her mother was a recent widow and described herself as ‘a farmer’. As her name would suggest, Decima was the tenth child born of her parent’s marriage. However on her 1911 census form Elizabeth Allen states that she had given birth to eleven children (of whom seven were by then dead). Her 11th child, Sybil, would appear to have been born in London in 1873 and, if so, it seems impossible that her late husband, John Allen, could have been the baby’s father. From birth onwards a cloak of mystery covers much of Sybil’s life. She became a writer, known as Sybil Campbell Lethbridge – you can read about her here. In 1871, when Decima was still the youngest child, the Allen family lived on their farm at Charlinch in Somerset, together with five house servants plus a German governess and a farm bailiff. By 1901 Decima was living with Ada Brown at ‘Holmgarth’ – there is no information as to how they met.
Initially Ada and Decima ran a small general plant nursery but around 1905 sold this and, instead, began farming violets on an acre of land around their house. An April 1907 article in The Graphic headlined ‘A ladies’ violet farm’, reported that: ‘The two ladies who farm the Henfield acre will tell you that no manner of earning a living, or of adding to a slender income, is more delightful than theirs. They work all the year round, planting, transplanting, rearing, tending, weeding, picking, doing all the skilled labour themselves. A little hard digging, only a fortnight’s in the twelvemonth, is done by men…
Here at Henfield are no stream-margins, no banks whereon the violets grow to please themselves. They have to be made to grow to please others. Picking and sending to the English markets goes on from October to April ..All this means the two ladies have to spend long hours in the open air. They are up at five every summer morning, and at seven in the winter. The morning’s harvest is taken to the house for packing and despatch to all parts of the world. You can see violets from Henfield in Egypt and India. The demand for the beautiful long-stemmed Henfield violets is increasing, though all the old blue china pots in England might be filled from there already.’
Other reports make clear that, apart from the short-term hired male labour, Ada Brown and Decima Allen did not do all this work alone but that throughout the year they employed other women to whom they gave a training in horticulture. They even gave some thought as to the best outfit to be worn by these young women while working out-of-doors: ‘We think our students have accomplished the feat of clothing themselves both suitably and picturesquely. A short, straight skirt of some stout material, a green baize or brown leather apron with capacious pocket , a woollen jersey and waterproof Wellington boots; add to this a sou’-wester and a sailor’s mackintosh, and the worst winter weather may be defied.’
Readers will not be surprised to learn that there is no trace of Ada Brown and Decima Allen in the 1911 census. This would suggest that they were willing to support the Women’s Social and Political Union by committing an act of civil disobedience as well as by placing regular advertisements in Votes for Women. The women were friends with the actress and novelist Elizabeth Robins, to whom they dedicated their Violet Book. A prominent WSPU supporter and activist, she lived nearby at Backset (sometimes Backsett) Farm, Henfield. She, too, boycotted the census – it has been possible to track down the census form on which she refused to give information. However I have not yet found a form for ‘Holmgarth’. Elizabeth Robins’ 1923 novel, Time is Whispering features an estate that is devoted to the training of women horticulturalists, a theme that Angela Johns, Elizabeth’s biographer, suggests was inspired by the way of life led by the ‘Misses Allen-Brown’.
That way of life encompassed both visits from royalty, for Ada Brown and Decima Allen prided themselves on their royal patrons such as Queen Alexandra and Queen Mary, and from the less exalted – such as Alfred Carpenter who wrote to his brother, Edward, from Henfield on 3 July 1916 that ‘It is interesting to learn that Kate & Lina were here on the Violet-farm working hard – Miss Allen is still going strong & has many happy pupils – many of them are worshippers of yours & hailed my arrival (before they met me!) with joy – Their carnations are certainly a wonder & they seem to have a great demand for them notwithstanding the War.’ It is good to have evidence that the workers amongst the violets and carnations were followers of Edward Carpenter, socialist poet, philosopher, and advocate of sexual freedom.
The violets were packed and soaps and perfumes were manufactured in Lavender Cottage, an ancient building adjacent to Homgarth, although I am no further forward as to how they actually made soap and perfume in these presumably somewhat primitive premises.
After Ada Brown died in 1915 Decima Allen went into partnership with Ellen Rachel Dyce Sharp. The Violet Nurseries expanded and around 1929 the women bought another 3.5 acres which lay a short distance away from the main plot. You can watch a short 1935 Pathé film about the Violet Nurseries here. It looks as though by then they were giving employment to more men.
The nursery was eventually sold to Allwood Brothers of Wivelsfield, a nursery that had long specialised in growing carnations. Ellen Sharp died in 1950 aged 64 and Decima Allen in 1951 aged 81.
I expect most of my readers will be familiar with pictures such as this, showing Emily Wilding Davison’s flower-laden hearse, accompanied by WSPU members carrying wreaths and lilies, that made its way through London, from Victoria Station to Kings Cross Station on 14 June 1913. I wonder, however, who else has ever wondered who supplied all those flowers and wreaths? This is the kind of prosaic question that appeals to me – so I thought I’d try and find out.
The answer is that some, if not all, were supplied by Robert Green Ltd, florists, of 28-29 Crawford Street, Marylebone. I know this because the firm capitalised on this commission by subsequently advertising its involvement in that most spectacular of funerals in The Suffragette, the WSPU paper. They also described their firm as ‘London’s Cheapest Florist’. Perhaps that was the reason they received the order – certainly a vast quantity of flowers were required.
Robert Green Ltd was owned by Harry Ernest Green (1872-1940), who was born on the firm’s Crawford Street premises and eventually inherited the business from his father, the eponymous Robert Green. One might deduce that Harry Green was a modern businessman – his family’s 1911 census form is the only one I’ve come across that is typed. He had been married in 1898 and had a son, but his wife and died and in 1909 he had married for a second time – so that in 1911 he was living with his new wife and his nine-year-old son, together with one servant, at 28 Crawford Street.
Presumably they lived above the shop and workshop in which the Robert Green Ltd business was conducted. We know how this ground floor was arranged because it was described in some detail in a court case, Hoare v Robert Green Ltd. In fact it was as a result of this case that a ‘workshop’ under the terms of the Factory and Workshop Act (1901) was defined. The report in The Times , 29 April 1907, reveals that the firm was prosecuted for not displaying a relevant notice from the Factory and Workshop Act 1901. Their defence, that the room behind the shop was not a ‘workshop’ under the terms of the Act, necessitated a description of the room and the women who worked in it.
The firm employed ten young women (aged 17-23) as florist’s assistants, who were selected for their artistic taste, and eight girls (15-17) as beginners. The firm was at pains to point out that the women were paid throughout the year although it was only in May-July that there was sufficient work to occupy them fully. That, of course, was the period known as ‘The Season’ when business did, indeed, boom. And business could be good – The Portsmouth Evening News, 18 January 1904, reporting that ‘Mr Harry Green, manager of Robert Green Ltd the well-known society florists, states that £1000 is quite an ordinary price for West End Society people to lay out for the embellishment of their rooms on the night of a ball.’
During the 1907 seminal court case it was explained that the assistants, and beginners attended retail customers in the shop, went to private homes and hotels to arrange flowers, and were also engaged in the workroom’, producing bouquets, wreaths and crosses and arranging floral decorations. The firm contended that such work was not ‘manual labour’ and that the room in which the women worked was not, therefore, a workshop.
The artistic assistants and the beginners must have been hard at work in the day or two before Emily Davison’s funeral, preparing the wreaths and the decorations that were draped over the hearse.
And perhaps the ‘Madonna Lily’ carried at Emily Wilding Davison’s funeral – and now held in the Women’s Library@ LSE collection ( 7EWD/M/28) – passed through that workshop, to be made ready for its appearance in the hand of one of those women in white escorting the coffin.
Those of you who might happen to be passing through the Atrium of Parliament’s Portcullis House between now and early November can view a compact display that I have curated there. The subject is Millicent Garrett Fawcett and the Early Women’s Suffrage Movement: 1867-1897.
There is also an online version of the exhibition – which you can view here.
Suffrage Stories/Kate Frye’s Diary: Farewell to Kate Parry Frye: Diarist, Suffragist, Actress, Playwright – And Friend
Today is the day that I part company with Kate Frye – at least in a physical sense.
Waiting collection in the hall are the 18 boxes that hold her extensive diary that runs from the late 1890s to 1958, her notebooks containing lists of all the plays she saw and concerts she attended (at least from the 1890s to 1914), the books in which, as a teenager, she wrote at length her critique of books read, her notebook listing the names of all her dolls – and there were very many – and who had given each one to her, her photographs – covering the 1880s to the 1950s – her family letters, flyers relating to her father’s parliamentary career, and the numerous plays she wrote.
After 7 years in my care Kate is finding a new – and, I hope, permanent – home in the Archive of Royal Holloway College. There her diaries and associated archive will be available to anyone who wants to understand what it was like to be a woman living through the last couple of decades of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th. I am sure Kate would be delighted to rest in a seat of higher learning. One of her great regrets was that she did not receive a decent education: ‘I do not understand why I was born if I wasn’t to be educated’ she wrote in her diary in 1914.
When I brought home a carload of dripping wet boxes packed with Kate’s life-long diary and laid them out on the kitchen floor to dry (for they had been stored in an extremely damp cellar) I had no idea that she would take over my life. From associated ephemera I could see that this diarist, Kate Parry Frye, had had some association with the suffrage campaign but it was only once I started reading that I realised what a unique view she gave. Unsullied by hindsight this was a contemporary account like no other of what it was like to work as an organiser for the constitutional suffrage campaign.
And out of this came a book Campaigning for the Vote: Kate Parry Frye’s Suffrage Diary (see here for details). It is a salutary corrective to a popularly-held idea that the suffrage campaign was all chaining oneself to railings, throwing stones, falling under horses, or being forcibly fed. Kate’s account is equally heroic in its way – travelling from town to town with no cheerful companion to share the adventure, having to find yet another set of digs and then fitting in with the peculiarities of each, braving the locals to find a chairman/woman for a meeting, organizing a printer, a bill poster, possibly the police if the meeting was likely to be rowdy. And then worrying if the speaker would turn up, would be heard if she did, if an audience would turn out, and worrying what to do if the local youth disrupted the meeting. And so it went on, month after month. Kate relates it all, day by day. We can be there with her.
Obviously I read far more of the diary than the suffrage years in order to get the background to Kate’s campaigning years and was then delighted to be given the opportunity by ITV to write the story of Kate’s entire life. For Kate, played by Romola Garai (whose voice I now hear as I read Kate’s words), had played a small part in an ITV feature to mark the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War – The Great War: The People’s Story. The result was Kate Parry Frye: the long life of an Edwardian actress and suffragette (see here for details – you can read Kate’s life for a mere £1.19 – what good value!). For, yes, in her ’20s Kate had fulfilled her ambition and taken to the stage.. ..another story to be told among so many others packed into one life…the cradle to grave story. Indeed I’ve stalked Kate’s life and seen the place where she was born, the the house where she grew up, the digs she stayed in, and have stood by her grave.
Way back in the 1960s, while I was at university studying history and politics, there was no kind of book I liked better than an autobiography whose subject had had a Victorian or Edwardian upbringing. Books such as Gwen Raverat’s Period Piece, or Emily Lutyens’ Blessed Girl, or Mary Clive, Christmas with the Savages, or Molly Hughes, A London Child of the 1870s. It’s extraordinary to think that we are as far away – or as close – now to the 1960s as the 1960s were to the Edwardian period. For surely there is less difference between a 1960s and a 2010s childhood (apart from electronic gadgetry) than there was between 1910 and 1960?
Anyway, Kate’s diary gives a peephole into a late-Victorian childhood – in a family that was hoping to be upwardly socially mobile. Kate, even as a young girl, innocently comments on what we can see as gradations of the class system within her extended family. The Fryes finances proved to be desperately insecure – and so Kate experienced both what appears to be careless wealth and then grinding poverty – all the while having to keep up appearances. As the years go by, the lines harden. As an elderly woman she returns to All Saints Road in north Kensington and marvels that as a child she lived there, in a flat above her father’s shop.
And so it goes on ….I hope Kate’s life will provide a wealth of interest to some fortunate researchers. And, by the way, her published play, Cease Fire! – is set on the Western Front in the hour before the Armistice on 11 November 1918. Wouldn’t it be just the thing to include in a centenary commemoration?
Suffrage Stories: Fawcett Society Wreath-Laying Service for Millicent Garrett Fawcett, St George’s Chapel, Westminster Abbey, 2 July 2016
Each year on 2 July the Fawcett Society holds a short service and lays a red, white, and green wreath in remembrance of Millicent Fawcett in St George’s Chapel, Westminster Abbey.
For it is in this small chapel, which now also holds the Coronation Chair, that the joint memorial to Henry and Millicent Fawcett is sited.
It was originally erected in 1887 in memory of Henry Fawcett, who had died in 1884, and was the work of the sculptor Alfred Gilbert. Ironically Gilbert’s daughter, Caprina Fahey, was later a very active member of the Women’s Social and Political Union, rather than of Mrs Fawcett’s National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. For after Millicent Fawcett’s death a commemoration of her life and work was in 1932 added to her husband’s memorial – in the shape of two roundels, one of which contains the insignia of the NUWSS.
This year I was honoured to have been asked to speak a few words about Millicent Fawcett during the Service – and below is the text of my address.
I imagine I’ve been asked to give the address today because over the last 20 years I’ve researched and written about the various enterprises and campaigns that Millicent Fawcett – and her immediate circle – conducted through the second half of the 19th century and the first two decades of the 20th. But I first made direct physical contact – as it were – with Millicent Fawcett some years before I began my research –back in the mid-1980s – when, as a book dealer – because I sell books about women as well as write them, I braved the closing-down sale of a Bloomsbury bookshop. I say ‘braved’ because it was owned by an elderly irascible gentlemen who barked at any potential customer ‘what do you want’? Well the joy of such bookshops is that you don’t know what you want until you find it – so after one such encounter I’d never been back. But closing down was different and customers were given the run of the shop.
Down in the cellar I found the floor covered with a heap of books – splayed open, piled on top of each other – and – serendipity – when I picked out one I found it to be a short popular biography of Henry Fawcett –not, actually, very interesting in itself – but – and my heart leapt – with Millicent Fawcett’s bookplate pasted inside the front cover. I believe this book had lain in the bookshop ever since Philippa Fawcett finally gave up the family home at 2 Gower Street to move to a more manageable flat just before the Second World War. It is only too likely that books surplus to her requirements had been sent to this nearby bookseller. There seemed a very thin veil separating me from the past when I held that book in my hand.
So this bookplate is the first of four images I want to recreate for you this evening. It probably dates from the 1880s – it has very much the flavour of the Aesthetic movement. Millicent’s full name – Millicent Garrett Fawcett – takes centre place. To the right is a woman in a loose fitting gown, with bare feet, head turned towards the rising sun. To the left rises a lily, so much of its period, and beneath the name are scattered books and an inkwell and quill pen. The caption is ‘Truth is the Light’.
‘Light’ – the image of the rising sun, of hope, of the New Dawn – was one that permeated all the campaigns for women’s rights – not just for the vote – but for emancipation in all spheres of life. ‘Truth’ was the leitmotif running through Millicent Fawcett’s life. In an article her cousin Edmund Garrett, a boy she had helped bring up after the early death of his parents, wrote: ‘More even than by her writings or her speeches, she has helped the cause by her influence, her tone, her personality. The impression which she has made upon public men who have come in contact with her has been, perhaps, her most valuable service to it. The one thing that she cannot be doing with is doubleness. Anything the least ‘shady’ in quite small matters of money or of conduct damns a man at once.’ Edmund Garrett goes on to mention the Ibsen-esque quality of Millicent’s novel Janet Doncaster which, as well as giving a delightful portrait of a thinly-disguised Aldeburgh, does, I think, reveal more of her character than she disclosed in her autobiography. It is well worth a read.
So – Millicent Fawcett was guided by her principles. These at times, especially in attempts to effect an equal moral standard between men and women, could put her at odds with other campaigners, even members of her family. For instance, she and her sister Elizabeth held opposite views as to whether the Contagious Diseases Acts should be repealed – Millicent for and Elizabeth against.
But strong principles – an adherence to Truth –and being true to oneself – don’t necessarily make for any easy life. My second image recreates a scene that is not one you’ll find in either Millicent’s autobiography or in Ray Strachey’s fond biography – it is very trivial, but I think, revealing. One summer afternoon Millicent was taking tea in Lady Maude Parry’s garden in Rustington in Sussex. Lady Maude was the wife of Hubert Parry, whose music has, of course, echoed so often within this Abbey –and it was Hubert, rather than his wife, who was a close friend of Agnes Garrett and Millicent Fawcett. Indeed he’d built a house in Rustington to be close to one that Agnes Garrett had rented there for years.
Anyway, as they were taking tea Lady Maude was stung by a wasp and that evening confided to her diary that Millicent hadn’t been very sympathetic – penning the immortal phrase ‘There’s something hard about the Garretts’. Perhaps I’m perverse but I like that comment. I think it is true – the Garretts were hard – in that they had enjoyed a robust upbringing – encouraged to think for themselves and be self-reliant – Lady Maude was very much more conventional – and although Lady Maude may have meant the comment pejoratively – we shouldn’t take it as such. In her biography Ray Strachey felt compelled to dispute the notion that Millicent was ‘compounded only of “thrift, industry and self-control without any of the gentler virtues”’, stressing that it was Millicent’s great ability for practical friendship that made her such a popular and effective leader. She didn’t wear her heart on her sleeve, she didn’t waste time on emoting; she did things. I’m sure Millicent would have ensured that Maude was treated with a blue bag or whatever was the current remedy for a wasp sting, but wouldn’t have seen it as an occasion for high drama. As Edmund Garrettt wrote ‘She is, above everything, ‘sensible’. She never stickles for unessentials’. The success of a principled, disciplined woman such as Millicent Fawcett was due to her ability to focus on what was important, dismissing the setbacks – the wasp stings –that punctuated all the various campaigns with which she was associated during a career of over 60 years.
Above all Millicent Fawcett was – in her conduct of the constitutional suffrage campaign – calm and diplomatic. As Ray Strachey wrote, ‘Her task was to provide convenient ladders down which opponents might climb, and to help them to save their faces while they changed their minds.’ It was this skill that finally allowed women over 30 to be given the vote in 1918. Although Millicent Fawcett recognised that this age discrimination was quite logically indefensible she knew that once they’d won this measure – full equality would follow. By letting anti-suffrage MPs appear to have retained some control, she had at last manoeuvred women onto the electoral register. As she said, ‘We should greatly prefer an imperfect scheme that can pass, to the most perfect scheme in the world that could not pass.’
The third image takes us into Millicent’s home, 2 Gower Street. From standing in that Bloomsbury bookshop basement, holding a book that had once been on a shelf in the house, fast forward about 30 years to 2014 when I spent some happy hours with a colleague inside the house as we tried to work out how it was used when Millicent, her daughter Philippa, and her sister Agnes lived there. Agnes and her cousin Rhoda had taken on the lease in 1875 –running their pioneering interior design business from the house –Rhoda had died in 1882 and Millicent and Philippa had moved there after the death of Henry Fawcett in 1884. So Garretts had lived in 2 Gower Street for roughly 65 years. We know that Millicent conducted her campaigns from the first floor drawing room – which runs across the front overlooking Gower Street – sitting under a lovely ceiling, painted by Rhoda and Agnes – pale green, pink and yellow prettiness – featuring hummingbirds and swags and flowers, with portraits of four great artists in the corners. Do look up and give her a thought if you go past. The National Portrait Gallery holds a photograph of Millicent (see here) working at her desk in that room in 1910.
The desk, a tall bureau, is tucked into the alcove to the side of the fireplace and Millicent is sitting there working through a pile of letters, looking up for a moment to turn to the photographer. This domestic scene was the power house that fuelled the 20th-century constitutional suffrage campaign. In addition – from that desk Millicent Fawcett involved herself in a wide range of disparate, though interconnected campaigns – for instance, the international women’s suffrage campaign, the campaigns for opening up university education to women, for raising the age of consent, for opening up horticulture as an employment for women, for criminalising incest, for providing homes for middle-class working women, and even for offering a new German ‘open-air treatment’ to men and women suffering from TB. This last was prompted by the fate of her cousin Edmund who had contracted the disease – but rather than wringing her hands Millicent, with her friend Dr Jane Walker, just went ahead and built a sanatorium in Suffolk where the new treatment might be carried out.
Sitting at that desk Millicent is neat in a tailored costume, but my last image is of her standing in the St John’s Wood studio of a very well-known photographer – Lena Connell – dressed for a more formal portrait. She is posing, but, as ever, conveys an air of subtle reticence. I think we can be pretty certain she didn’t make her appointment with Lena Connell because she wanted more photographs for her own album – but, rather, was prepared to endure the process for the sake of the Cause. For, thanks to a lucky discovery a few weeks ago – in a locked drawer in a Fawcett Society desk – we are now able to deconstruct that photograph and realise that she is presenting herself as the president of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies.
For on her breast she is wearing a beautiful pendant given to her by the NUWSS in 1913. Presumably after Millicent’s death Philippa Fawcett had returned the pendant to the London Society for Women’s Service, the precursor of the Fawcett Society, and as time went by its existence and meaning had been forgotten. But that photograph speaks to us now – for engraved on the reverse of the pendant are the words that sum up the values that her co-workers appreciated in Millicent Fawcett – ‘Steadfastness and Courage’.
Here is the podcast of the ‘Endless Endeavours’ talks that Ann Dingsdale, Jane Grant and I gave at LSE on 21 June 2016
Last year I was delighted when The Women’s Library@LSE asked if I would help to shape an exhibition planned to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the presentation of the first women’s suffrage petition on 7 June 1866. Ever since discovering a printed copy of that petition on a stall in the Portobello Road over 25 years ago I have been very fond of all it represented and of the treasury of names it contains, so it was a particular pleasure to be asked to suggest ways of highlighting its importance.
The LSE team (Indy Bhullar, Heather Dawson, Gillian Murphy and Eleanor Payne) and I had several very enjoyable and productive meetings during which we selected items to include in the exhibition and brainstormed ideas for the moving background to the main showcase and for wallboards. It is a real pleasure to be able to show items of what we now know to call ‘material culture’ – such as Lydia Becker’s dress and Millicent Fawcett’s gladstone bag – alongside the very letters in which the idea for the petition developed. The personal adds particularity to the political.
In addition, the descendants of the couple to whom I sold that printed copy of the petition have been kind enough to lend it to the exhibition. It is the only known copy other than that held in Girton Archives. The latter was Emily Davies’ own copy and it was she who had organised its printing. What became of the hundreds of others that Miss Davies arranged to be sent to all newspaper editiors, MPs and members of the House of Lords? Straight into the wastepaper basket I shouldn’t wonder.
The LSE designer has done an excellent job of translating our ideas for demonstrating the range both geographically and socially of the women who signed the petition and of giving a clear rendering of the complicated ‘family tree’ of suffrage societies that carried the campaign from 1866 to 1928 and then, in the shape of the Fawcett Society, on into 2016.
For the ‘1866 petition’ part of the exhibition morphs into a celebration of the Fawcett Society, which traces its foundation back to 1866 and is, therefore, this year celebrating its 150th anniversary. To mark the occasion Jane Grant has written a history of the Fawcett Society, In the Steps of Exceptional Women – for full details see here.
To accompany ‘Endless Endeavours’ The Women’s Library@LSE has launched a Flickr Album, which includes scans of many of the letters that flew backwards and forwards as the idea for the petition gathered momentum, as well as of the personalities attracted to the campaign and artefacts produced over the years.
One of the most beautiful of the latter is a brooch that recently surfaced in the Fawcett Society office. It was presented to Millicent Fawcett in 1913 and is rendered in the NUWSS colours of red, white and green. For a lively account of why, where and how the brooch was presented see here. This is a real piece of ‘suffrage jewellery’ – to put all the spurious examples so catalogued by auction houses, Ebay etc in the shade. [For my gripe about the mis-cataloguing of suffragette jewellery see here.]
For full details of the ‘Endless Endeavours’ exhibition see here.
STOP PRESS 7 June 2016 I have just discovered a studio photograph by the celebrated photograper Lena Connell that shows Millicent Fawcett wearing the Fawcett Society ‘brooch’ as a pendant. She was making her ass ociation with the NUWSS visible.