Posts Tagged elizabeth Robins
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.
This article was published in the March 2003 issue of Antiquarian Book Review.
‘Deeds Not Words’ was Mrs Pankhurst’s motto. The slogan flourished in the early 20th century – it was even embroidered on a banner – a reaction to the apparently unproductive campaign for the enfranchisement of women that had already been waged for nearly 40 years.
The debate as to whether the vote was won by the slow drip of reasoned argument or by the sharp crack of breaking glass is one that still occupies historians. Althought it is the deeds of Mrs Pankhurst’s suffragettes – the spectacle of processions, the breaking of windows, the burning of houses and churches – that has coloured the popular perception of the suffrage campaign, without the ‘words’ that had over many years shaped the idea that women had an equal right with men to citizenship, the ‘deeds’ would have been committed in a vacuum. The women’s suffrage campaign was, during its entire 62 years, underpinned by ‘Literature’ in all its guises.
Works written in support of women’s enfranchisement had little difficulty in achieving publication. The instigators of the movement were members of the articulate radical middle class and were in close contact with communicators. A tentative beginning had been made in 1851 with Harriet Taylor’s article The Enfranchisement of Women, which, shortly after her marriage to John Stuart Mill, was published anonymously in the Westminster Review ( a journal of which Mill had in the past been editor). This was followed in 1855 by a pamphlet, The Right of Women to the Elective Franchise, written by Agnes Pochin, wife of a future Liberal MP, and published by John Chapman, that ‘Publisher of Liberalisms’.
Among the names of the 1500 women who signed the suffrage petition that Mill presented to parliament in June 1866 (marking the formal beginning of the campaign), were several with connections to the publishing or bookselling trades – including Elspet Strahan, sister of Alexander Strahan, a liberal with a zeal for social reform and the publisher of the eponymous publishing house. He had recently launched the Contemporary Review, in which he published an article on ‘female suffrage’ in March 1867, written by Lydia Becker.
Based in Manchester, Lydia Becker was to be the driving force behind the 19th-century campaign. Among other signatories to the petition were Louisa Farrah, wife of a radical publisher and bookseller (282 Strand, London); Eliza Embleton, a bookseller from Leeds (Burley Street); the wife of James Renshaw Cooper, a radical Manchester bookseller (1 Bridge Street); and the wife and daughter (both named ‘Harriet’) of Edward Truelove, radical publisher and antiquarian bookseller (2240 Strand), who had been imprisoned for publishing Robert Owen’s Physiology in Relation to Morals. (See here for an interesting blog by Dr Tony Shaw about Truelove and his grave, on which the two Harriets both appear.)
Once the campaign had been launched, ‘words’ in support of women’s enfranchisement multiplied rapidly. The societies that had formed to promote the cause published a plethora of pamphlets – one of the first, of which 4500 copies were distributed, was a reprinting of the speech made by Mill to Parliament during the debate on the second reform bill in May 1867.
The accounts of the earliest Enfranchisement of Women Committee show that in its first year of existence over £94 was spent on printing. This was set against receipts from the sale of pamphlets of only £6 11s. Political publishing was not a profitable business. In reality, political publishers who were prepared to put their imprint on books and journals to promote the woman’s cause were not so unworldly as to risk their money. A study of the ledgers of companies, such as Trubner and H.S. King, reveals that many of the suffrage publications, including Lydia Becker’s The Women’s Suffrage Journal, were published only on a commission basis.
Under this arrangement, the author or the society undertook all the risk of publication, while the publishers merely provided the service of printing, binding and distribution, for which they gave the book their imprint, charged a fee and took a percentage of sales. Publishers’ ledgers, where they have survived, provide an interesting keyhole through which to view the suffrage campaign. Lists of payments make it possible to identify an author who published anonymously, the print order for a book, journal or pamphlet can give us an idea of the ambition of the author or society; and the number of pulped gives a reason why so many of the items are now extremely scarce – and expensive.
The suffrage campaign appeared to have made such considerable progress in its first years that Mill, a canny businessman as well as philosopher, felt the time was ripe to publish the work that he had first drafted in the early 1860s on ‘the woman question’. As he wrote in a letter to The Times on 9 April 1869: ‘It is not specially on the Suffrage question, but on all the questions relating to women’s domestic subordination and social disabilities, all of which it discusses more fully than has been done hitherto. I think it will be useful, and all the more, it is sure to be bitterly attacked’. Mill knew full well the publicity value of controversy.
The Subjection of Women was published by Longmans in May 1869, went into a second edition in the same year, and has remained ever since a central text of the women’s movement.
It took until 1902 for the first history of the campaign to appear. Women’s Suffrage: a record of the women’s suffrage movement in the British Isles with biographical sketches of Miss Becker was painstakingly compiled by Helen Blackburn, who had for many years worked as secretary of the Central Committee for Women’s Suffrage.
The new force that emerged in 1903, Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union, did not delay so long before giving itself a distinctive history. A series of articles written by Sylvia Pankhurst, daughter of Emmeline, as The History of the Suffrage Movement, appeared in the WSPU’s new paper, Votes for Women, starting in the first issue in October 1907 and concluding in September 1909.
This history was, naturally, shaped to emphasise the Pankhursts’ centrality to the movement. Bibliophiles might like to note that the book that emerged from the articles, The Suffragette: the history of the women’s militant movement, was first published in America in 1911 by Sturgis & Walton and sheets where only then shipped back to Britain, where it was subsequently published by Gay & Hancock.
The publication in 1912 of Women’s Suffrage: a short history of a great movement (TC & EC Jack), written by Millicent Fawcett, did something to redress the balance. She had been involved with the campaign since its earliest days and since 1907 had been leader of those who described themselves as ‘law-abiding’ in contradistinction to the militants.
Agnes Metcalfe’s Woman’s Effort: a chronicle of British Women’s Fifty Years Struggle for Citizenship (1865-1914), published in 1917, gives a detailed overview of the campaign, concentrating on the efforts of the militants.
In 1920 Mrs Fawcett completed her history of the suffrage campaign, begun in A Short History, with another pithy summary of events that had led to the passing of the Representation of the People Act, 1918, granting the vote to women over the age of 30.
All these books were bought (as ownership inscriptions found in them testify) by sympathisers to the cause, were part of the stock of the small lending libraries run by many of the local suffrage societies and also found their way into the public library systems and even into prison libraries. While imprisoned, suffragettes were able to read lives, such as those of Joan of Arc and Garibaldi, that they considered (by analogy) relevant to their cause – the cult of the ‘hero’ clearly appealed to those conscious of their role in history.
Alongside the polemics, the women’s suffrage campaign also provided a rich seam mined by writers of fiction. John Francis Maguire, MP for Cork and an active supporter of the woman’s cause, was the first, publishing in 1871, a year before his death, a three-decker, The Next Generation (Hurst & Blackett). The action was set in 1891, by which time the ‘Rights of Woman’ movement..was a wonderful success [and had] long since been accepted with satisfaction almost universal’. Eighty-nine women MPs sat in parliament and Mrs Bates was chancellor of the exchequer.
The following year, ‘Arthur Sketchley’ in Mrs Brown on Women’s Rights (George Routledge) worked what Maguire had correctly identified as a ‘fruitful theme’, and demonstrated that his comic heroine, Martha Brown, had already got the measure of ‘women’s sufferages’. Mrs Brown surveys her first suffrage meeting: ‘Why, surely no Members of Parlyment aint a-coming to sich a ‘ole as this; for I’d ‘eard Miss Snapley a-braggin’ as Professor Fairplay were a-goin’ to take up the question in the chair, along with a old lady in the name of Mill, and a good many more as all ‘oped to be in Parlyment afore they died.’
The subject also, of course, lent itself to melodrama as well as to comedy. Emily Spender published in 1871 a novel, Restored (Hurst & Blackett, 1871) dedicated to the leader of the Bath society for women’s suffrage, of which she herself was an active member. In the novel a wicked husband, repossessing his young wife, declaims ‘If you had read your Bible a bit more, and John Stuart Mill, a little less, you would have been a better woman, Frederica.’ [Incidentally Emily Spender, the great-aunt of Sir Stephen Spender, spent her later years in Italyand was the model for E.M. Forster’s ‘Miss Lavish’ in Room with a View.]
Throughout the 19th century, a stream of novels used support for, or antipathy to, the suffrage cause as a shorthand by which to delineate characters or to put plot machinery into gear. An indication that the campaign was losing its momentum at the end of the century may be surmised from the fact that between 1900 and 1906 no ‘suffrage’ novels were published.
However, in 1907, the year after the WSPU took its campaign to London, three novels appeared. The most famous of these is The Convert (Methuen) written by Elizabeth Robins, who was a keen supporter of the WSPU and based her scenes and personalities on activities of which she had been an eyewitness. Describing a suffrage rally in Trafalgar Square she drummed home the argument for the existence of the WSPU:
‘You’re in too big a hurry’, someone shouted, ‘All the Liberals want is a little time.’
‘Time! You seem not to know that the first petition in favour of giving us the Franchise was signed in 1866…We must try some other way. How did you working men get the suffrage?, we asked ourselves. Well, we turned to the records and we say. We don’t want to follow such a violent example. We would much rather not – but if that’s the only way we can make the country see we’re in earnest – we are prepared to show them.’
The Convert was in fact Elizabeth Robins’ novelisation of her play Votes for Women!, written during the autumn of 1906 and first staged at the Royal Court Theatre in April 1907. For Kate Parry Frye’s description of a visit to see the play on 16 April 1907 click here.
In the years that followed, the real-life activities of the suffragettes were reflected by the derring-do of their fictional equivalents in a steady stream of novels. Novelists could now take their middle-class readers into places they might not previously have sought to enter – even the prison cell – and were given legitimate reason to describe the indignities that might be wrought on women’s bodies, whether through the horrors of force-feeding or at the hands of policemen in battle outside the House of Commons. A hero of one such tale (A. Mollwo, A Fair Suffragette) is racked by ‘the picture of [a] fragile, slender little body at the mercy of this yelling, excited crowd, torn first one way, then another, insulted by angry policemen, knocked under the feet of horses.’
All in all, the wide range of ‘suffrage’ literature published during the course of the campaign – histories, tracts, speeches, leaflets and novels – offers historians and collectors a fascinating lens through which to view not only the political battle in all its complication, but also the changing perception of the position of women that in the end was so necessary to the winning the vote.
Kate Frye, besides being a life-long diarist, had a life-long devotion to the theatre, for a few years at the beginning of the 20th century even putting herself on the stage. However, on this afternoon in April 1907, it is her experience as a theatre-goer that she records. Her growing interest in women’s suffrage, which had been instigated by her new friends, Alexandra and Gladys Wright, was stimulated by a visit to the Royal Court Theatre to see Votes for Women! – a play by the American actress and author, Elizabeth Robins.
‘Tuesday April 16th 1907 [London: 25 Arundel Gardens, North Kensington]
..Changed my dress before lunch. Agnes and I had to leave at a quarter to two and went up to Notting Hill Gate. There met Mrs Wright, Alexandra and Gladys. They had asked us to join them in a theatre party to see ‘Votes for Women’ at The Court – but Mrs Wright told us it was her party and wouldn’t let us pay for a thing. They took us first-class to Sloane Square and in the Dress Circle – second row right – in the centre – to see the piece. It was a most enjoyable and interesting afternoon. I loved the piece – it is quite fine – most cleverly written and the characters are so well drawn. Needless to say the acting was perfection as it generally is at the Court Theatre and the second act – the meeting in Trafalgar Square – ought to draw the whole of London. I was besides myself with excitement over it – so were the Wrights – we all loved it. It was a jolly afternoon – and most awfully kind of them to take us like that. Gladys was very keen to know if it would have any effect on people. I can’t tell – people are not so easily influenced, I fear, except in isolated cases. I wanted to know what the men were thinking of it.
Miss Wynne Matthison was fine – really great, I thought – as Vida. Dorothy Minto was good and I liked Jean Sterling Mackinlay. Aubrey Smith was just the man for the part and played it well. Lewis Casson, Holman Clark were good too and Edmund Gwenn was fine and so amusing as a ‘Labour Member’. Miss Maud Milton, Miss Frances Ivor, Miss Gertrude Burnett and Agnes Thomas all played well and added to the complete success of the piece. The papers have not done it credit, I think – they have only seen the novelty of the idea and situations – not the cleverness in writing and construction. It was pouring when we came out. Mrs Wright took us to a tea shop and gave us tea and then we all came home by train together.’
Votes for Women! (n.b. the exclamation mark that Kate omitted) was first performed on 9 April 1907, directed by Granville Barker. The title had been changed from more the rather more anodyne ‘The Friend of Woman’. The Pankhursts were in the audience on the first night.
Nearly 100 years later, on 19 March 2003, Samantha Ellis wrote a most interesting piece on the play and its production for guardian.co.uk. See here for the whole article.
She notes that, like Kate, the critics loved the second act,
‘which had 40 actors, a plastercast base of Nelson’s Column and two huge ‘Votes for Women’ banners. For the Sketch it was “the finest stage crowd scene that has been seen for years”; to the Observer, it was “a marvel of verisimilitude akin to that which might be achieved by a joint use of megaphone and cinematograph”. Beerbohm, writing in the Saturday Review, felt that Dorothy Minto, playing one of the speakers, “caught exactly the spirit of her part – the blithe spirit of the budding platformist”. The Illustrated London News praised Agnes Thomas, playing a speaker identified in the script only as “A Working Woman”, for having “just the rasping Cockney tones, the termagant attitude, that are required” but carped: “There never were such speeches in Trafalgar Square.”
The play’s heroine, Vida Levering, a militant with a mysterious past, who may have been based on Christabel Pankhurst, was played by doe-eyed Edith Wynne-Matthison. Her casting affronted some reviewers; the Times’s critic sniffed, “The cause would make much more headway than it does if all its advocates were as fair to look upon and as beautifully dressed as Miss Wynne-Matthison,” and wondered: “Why, by the way, does Miss Levering take such care to make the best of her good looks and pretty figure and wear such charming frocks? Is it to please other women?”
He also cast doubt on the play’s polemical power: “Whether … the cause Miss Robins has at heart is likely to be advanced by hanging it on to other questions of seduction, abortion, and infanticide is perhaps doubtful.” He was not the only one to dislike the plot, in which Vida is revealed as the quintessential fallen woman, who hates men because an ex-lover forced her to have an abortion. Beerbohm claimed that he “yawned outright” when the ex-lover’s perfidy was revealed by the creaky device of a dropped handkerchief.
At the final plot twist, “when the ex-lover became a born-again suffragette”, even the Stage’s critic became distressed: “Except to those who have the Cause at heart … this might have seemed a rather lame and impotent conclusion.” For the Illustrated London News’s critic, the “play proper [was] not so interesting; its melodramatic story … [was] far too long and … far too thin”. But the suffragettes did not care. Robins gave them a quarter of her royalties, and in 1909 the play was staged in New York and Rome, selling the feminist message far beyond London. It also converted its leading lady, Edith Wynne-Matthison, to the cause; she and Robins founded the Actresses’ Franchise League in 1908 “ensuring that men like the Times’s critic could never again imply that suffragettes could not be glamorous”. ‘
As far as I remember Kate Frye, although she became a member of the Actresses’ Franchise League very soon after it was founded and was very proud to walk with the AFL in the 1911 Coronation Procession, makes no mention of seeing any of the short plays written to be performed by members of the suffrage societies. Some of these plays – such as How The Vote Was Won by Cicely Hamilton and Christopher St John – have been collected in The Methuen Drama Book of Suffrage Plays, edited by actress and researcher Naomi Paxton, recently published by Bloomsbury. See here for details.
Kate Frye did, however, have a starring – if silent – role in the first production, directed by Edith Craig, of Christopher St John’s controversial play, The Coronation. You can read her full diary entries relating that experience in
Campaigning for the Vote: Kate Parry Frye’s Suffrage Diary edited by Elizabeth Crawford
For a full description of the book click here
Wrap-around paper covers, 226 pp, over 70 illustrations, all drawn from Kate Frye’s personal archive.
ISBN 978 1903427 75 0
Copies available from Francis Boutle Publishers, or from Elizabeth Crawford – firstname.lastname@example.org (£14.99 +UK postage £3. Please ask for international postage cost), or from all good bookshops.
For much more about Kate Frye’s life as an actress see Kate Parry Frye: the long life of an Edwardian actress and suffragette by Elizabeth Crawford for details see here