Archive for category Suffrage Stories
When the film ‘The Suffragette’ was released in 2015 there was a minor furore over the fact that no black and minority ethnic women were represented in the story. As one of the consultants on the film, I was asked to comment on this and, indeed, at the event held at LSE at which the director and one of the producers talked about the film, the first question from the floor was on this point. For a podcast of this event click here.
My message then was that the film was indeed a true representation of the ethnic demographic of the British women’s suffrage movement, which overwhelmimgly was comprised of white women. However, finding the subject so interesting, over the last couple of years I’ve done more research on the subject and, although I have nothing startlingly new to report, thought it might be interesting to set out my findings.
There’s no doubt that the birth of the women’s suffrage campaign is closely linked with the anti-slavery campaign, and hence with race. The first spark that ignited the American suffrage campaign, which pre-dated the British one, was actually struck in London, in the entrance hall of the British Museum. For more information on this aspect of the campaign, do read an article I wrote for the BBC website – From Abolition to the Vote. For my extended article on the subject see here.
When the British suffrage campaign was launched in 1866, as far as we know only one woman of colour signed the first suffrage petition. She was Sarah Remond, an African-American who lectured on anti-slavery and women’s rights. There is, however, little evidence of the subsequent involvement of black and minority ethnic women in the suffrage campaign. This is really not surprising since, although people of colour had long settled in Britain, they constituted a very small percentage of the population until after the end of the Second World War. Moreover during the period of the suffrage campaign men were disproportionately represented in this community, by, in particular, Chinese, West Indian, and African seamen who settled in London and other port cities and were then absorbed into British society. Women of their families tended not to travel with them.
It may be that black and minority ethnic men and women did support the women’s suffrage campaign but, because it is difficult to discover an individual’s ethnic origin, they are now ‘hidden from history’. At the time of the suffrage campaign census records only documented a person’s place of birth and this is no guide to ethnic origin because so many white British men and women were born in Africa, India, or the West Indies. It is necessary to search for other clues, such as the form of a person’s name. However no suffrage campaigner with, say, an obviously African or Chinese name has been noted and research is complicated because migrants from the Caribbean had, for reasons associated with the unhappy history of the islands, acquired surnames that made them indistinguishable from white British men and women. Only in newspaper reports might an individual’s ethnic origin be mentioned and, although the suffrage campaign occupied so much newsprint over the years, no such comments have been uncovered.
The only individuals of (part) Caribbean heritage whom one could say were to some degree supportive of the suffrage campaign were two men, Donald Adolphus Knight and John Richard Archer. Both were born in England to black sailor fathers and white British mothers.
In 1906 Knight stood by his wife, Adelaide, when she went to prison for demonstrating outside a politician’s house. Adelaide was white British and a member of the Canning Town branch of the WSPU. See here for a photograph of Donald and Adelaide Knight.
Twelve years later Archer, elected mayor of Battersea in 1913, the first black person to hold such a position in London, acted as election agent for Charlotte Despard, the leader of the WFL, when she stood as the Labour candidate for North Battersea in the 1918 general election. Actually I’m pretty certain that his support was more for Mrs Despard as a Labour party member than for her as a suffrage campaigner. I can find no evidence of Archer or his wife, Bertha (who was a Canadian of African descent) attending any suffrage meeting in Battersea nor is Archer mentioned in either of Mrs Despard’s biographies. It may be, however, that close scrutiny of local papers around Battersea just might uncover some direct connection between Archer and the suffrage campaign. I understand that a researcher, commissioned relatively recently to comb through Despard’s diaries by an author interested in Archer, found no mention of him. What a pity.
It is likely that Archer did come into contact with another suffragette – Mrs Beatrice Sanders, the WSPU’s financial secretary. She lived with her husband at 18 Brynmaer Road, Battersea; Archer at no 55. Beatrice’s husband, William Sanders, was a LCC radical alderman and would surely have known Archer, with whom he worked closely in the Battersea Labour party many years later.
Historians have searched for visual evidence of the presence of black or minority ethnic men and women in the many hundreds of photographs that chronicle the suffrage campaign. Of these only a handful, featuring a few Indian women, demonstrate such an involvement. Of the women whose names we know all were of high social status. One, Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, was an active member of the WSPU, and is now the subject of a biography. The others, who were probably members of the WFL, include Mrs P.L. Roy (Lolita Roy), the wife of Piera Lal Roy, the director of public prosecutions in Calcutta, and her daughter, Mrs Leila Mukerjea.
Mrs Roy had come to London with her six children in 1901, apparently for the sake of their education, and lived at 77 Brook Green, Hammersmith, close to St Paul’s School, where her sons were pupils. Her eldest daughter, Leilavati, married Satya W. Mukerjea in 1910. Both women, along with Mrs Bhagwati Bhola Nauth, are definitely known to have taken part in the Indian section of the 1911 ‘Coronation Procession’. Indeed Mrs Roy was one of its organisers. It is likely that the other two young women in the photograph are Mrs Roy’s younger daughters, Miravati (aged 21) and Hiravati (aged 15).
In 1910 Mrs Roy was president of the London Indian Union Society (an Indian Nationalist organisation) and ‘Mrs Mukerjea’, presumably, Leilavati, succeeded her in 1911. Mrs Jane Cobden Unwin, who was a co-organiser with Mrs Roy of the Indian section of the ‘Coronation Procession, also attended Indian Union Society functions.
At the end of the 19th century another Indian, Dadabhai Naoroji, elected in 1892 as Britain’s first ethnic minority MP, had been wholly supportive of women’s suffrage and was a member of the council of the Women’s Franchise League. Conversely, many British suffrage campaigners, like Jane Cobden Unwin, supported the nationalist movements in India and Africa.
Apart from this photograph and those in which Princess Sophia Duleep Singh appears I have seen no evidence of the presence of BAME women in attendance at any suffrage event – either as protagonists or as onlookers. However, I hope that, as the spotlight is shone more intensely on local histories of the suffrage campaign, something more of the involvement of BAME women and men will be revealed. Do let me know of anything you uncover.
‘Hunger Striking For The Vote’: An Afterword to ‘There Are Five Ways Out Of This Room’ by Michelle Green
PUBLISHED TODAY – 6 JULY 2017
A few months ago I was pleased to be asked by Comma Press to provide an Afterword to a short story by Michelle Green to be published in this most interesting collection of short stories. The premise behind the book is that each story highlights an episode of protest in Britain’s history and that each story is then, in an Afterword, set in its historical context. The result is a most satisfying volume – fuelling the imagination while also throwing light on the circumstances that led the characters, both real and fictional, to act in the way that they did.
For instance, Michelle Green’s story, There Are Five Ways Out of this Room, has as its central character a hunger-striking suffragette based, to a degree, on the figure of Annie Kenney. Michelle’s lyrical prose enters so perceptively the suffragette’s mind, capturing the surreal atmosphere produced by starving incarceration. I was bowled over by it. My task was merely to provide the historical backdrop – setting out the sequence of events that led such women to undergo such terrible suffering.
The historians include Prof Sally Alexande, on ‘Women’s Liberation in the 1970s’, an Afterword to Maggie Gee’s story on ‘May Hobbs’, leader of the Night Cleaners’ Strike; Lyn Barlow on Greenham Common, an Afterword to Joanna Quinn’s Story The Stars are in the Sky; Prof David Waddington on The Battle of Orgreave, an Afterword to Withen by Martyn Bedford; Dr Gordon Pentland on The Scottish Insurrection, April 1820, as an Afterword to Laura Hiind’s story Spun; Dr Katrina Navickas on The Pentrich Rising, 1871, an Afterword to Trying Lydia by Andy Hedgecock; Dr Ariel Hessayon on Venner’s Rising, 1817, as an Afterword to A Fiery Flag Unfurled on Coleman Street by Frank Cottrell-Boyce; Russ Hickman on The Grosvenor Square Demo, 1968, an Afterword to Banner Bright, by Alexei Sayle; Dr John Drury on The Poll Tax Riot, 1990 as an Afterword to That Right to Be There by Courtia Newland, and Prof Laleh Khalili on The Anti-Iraq War Demo, 2003 as an Afterword to The Turd Tree by Kate Clanchy.
All the stories are memorably engaging and the Afterwords free of academic jargon.
Published by Comma Press – for full details see here
Comma Press were last week declared Northern Publisher of the Year at the Northern Soul awards and in the same week were awarded funding by Arts Council England.
Having had occasion recently to study this photograph, I felt compelled to attempt to deconstruct its meaning. Why should a young woman, chained to a row of railings, be photographed in an otherwise empty street?
I know, of course, that suffragettes, chains, and railings are a well-known trope – although am unsure how often that ploy was actually used during the Edwardian suffragette campaign. But why was this woman photographed in this particular place? If she was actively protesting one might expect her to be surrounded by policemen or, at the least, crowds of onlookers.
I believe that this is, in fact, a staged event, re-enacting an earlier chaining that took place when there was no photographer to capture the scene. An artist did, however, reconstruct the protest.
Some time ago someone – and I can’t remember who – mentioned to me that they thought the woman was Helen Fox, a member of the Women’s Freedom League, who, with the intrepid Muriel Matters, chained herself to the grille in the Ladies’ Gallery in the House of Commons on 28 October 1908. You can read about the incident here.
Moreover, my informant suggested that the photograph may have been taken very close to the Women’s Freedom League office at 1 Robert Street, just south of the Strand. I had a hazy memory that the person who might have told me this was Naomi Paxton, whose research centres on the Actresses’ Franchise League, which had its office at 2 Robert Street. When I put my query to Naomi she replied that she doubted that she was the source of my information but most kindly suggested that, as she was working in the Strand, she’d take a detour to Robert Street. And this is the result.
I think that there is no doubt that it was at this street corner that Helen Fox stood in order to have her photograph taken. Photographs, interior shots, also exist of her sitting with the chains wrapped round her waist; presumably the purpose of this street photograph was to demonstrate more clearly what could be done with a length of chain and a padlock. As well as, by association, immortalising Helen Fox’s action in the House of Commons. I imagine that, as the site was adjacent to their office, the Women’s Freedom League had arranged for this photograph to be taken as fuel for their propaganda campaign.
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.