Posts Tagged holloway prison
The epitaph reads:
In Loving Memory of my dear wife STELLA LAVINIA SPENCER born in England March 9th 1884 died April 14th 1930 age 46. Her nobility of soul was shown as an an ideal wife and in her endeavours for the welfare of others. A pioneer and tireless worker for the social and political emancipation of women. Poetess and artist whose devotion to the good and the beautiful was the constant striving of her life. Even in adversity.
I recently had an enquiry, emanating from Uruguay, as to whether I knew of Stella Lavinia Spencer, who had died in Montevideo in 1930, was buried in the city’s British Cemetery, and had, perhaps, been a suffragette. Well, the short answer was ‘No’ – the name rang no bells – but a quick search showed that a Stella Lavinia Spencer was indeed listed in the Roll of Honour compiled by the Suffragette Fellowship. So the hare was ready to be chased.
Identifying her as a possible suffragette was the easy bit. The attempt to untangle the identity of Stella Lavinia Spencer has been a good deal more complicated. No-one of that name appears in the list of ‘Suffragettes Arrested’ compiled by the Home Office, nor does she appear on any census. It is obvious from the wording on the tombstone that ‘Spencer’ was her married name and the Probate Register revealed that her husband’s name was ‘Alberto John Spencer’. So the hunt was on to establish her maiden name.
One would have thought that, with the relatively unusual forenames of ‘Stella Lavinia’ and a firm birth date of 1884, this wouldn’t be difficult. But, in fact, no-one of those names appears to have been born in England (or anywhere else) in 1884. Was she perhaps a child registered before her parents had selected her name? It’s possible. Or could she have refashioned herself, selecting names more appealing than those with which she had been furnished by her parents? Again, a possibility. There’s probably a quite straightforward reason for her absence from the various registers, civil or ecclesiastical, but, if so, I haven’t found it.
However, thanks to a general Google search for ‘Stella Lavinia Spencer’ I encountered an article (‘You Are Not a White Woman’) by James Heartfield (The Journal of Pacific History, vol 38, no 1, 2003) which sketched something of my quarry’s biography – as well as telling a rather riveting story. The article concerns the trial in Fiji in 1915 of Stella Spencer, which makes clear that she was by now married. But it turns out that ‘Spencer’ was not her husband’s family name; ‘Alberto John Spencer’ was originally ‘Alberto John Sangorski’. This was a surname I knew very well, as Sangorski and Sutcliffe was the leading firm of ‘art’ bookbinders in England at the beginning of the 20th century. Research quickly revealed that Stella’s husband, Alberto Spencer, was the son of Alberto Sangorski, renowned as the firm’s illuminator and calligrapher.
Anyway, armed with this new knowledge, I was now able to search for the marriage of Alberto Sangorski and, sure enough, found that he had married in Kensington in the summer of 1910. But even now matters were complicated by a quirk in the listing on the register that didn’t make clear the name of his bride. I won’t bore you with the ramifications of my further searches but only say that I finally decided that a likely candidate was a ‘Stella L. Mahny’. Needless to say I could find no other record of a woman with that rather unlikely surname, but with this faint lead I returned to the ‘Suffragettes Arrested’ register and discovered that a ‘Stella O’Mahoney’ had been tried in Westminster on 1 July 1908. Without the tedious unravelling of the link to the Spencer surname I could not have been certain that I had the right ‘Stella’. But I am sure now that I have.
And what was it that she had done to merit arrest? Votes for Women (9 July 1908) reported that, on 30 June 1908, Miss Stella O’Mahoney had taken part in a demonstration organised by the Women’s Social and Political Union in the vicinity of the House of Commons and that, with 26 other WSPU members, had been arrested. She was ordered to give a surety of £20 not to take part in any other militant activity, but refused, and was instead sentenced to a month’s imprisonment in Holloway. At the trial she gave her address as that of the WSPU office, 4 Clement’s Inn, so, once again, I could get no closer to her.
There is no other record I can find of Stella O’Mahoney’s involvement with the WSPU but I would presume that she had been a member both before and after this incident. However, a couple of years later, soon after her marriage, she and Alberto set off for Australia, landing in Sydney on 17 November 1910.
The Heartfield article mentions that Stella Spencer had worked as a journalist, but I have been unable to find any articles written by her. The tombstone describes her as a poet and an artist, but, yet again, I can find no trace of her work in any medium.
So, Stella Spencer would remain something of an enigma were it not for the reasons behind her trial in Fiji in March 1915 that James Heartfield reveals in his article. She had arrived with her husband from Melbourne about seven months earlier because he had been employed in a new venture, the Fiji Produce Agency. This organisation had been set up as a means for Fijians to market their own produce, in competition with European traders. The background rivalry, both economic and political, was complicated, but the upshot was that Stella Spencer stood trial, accused of slapping a Fijian in the face. He was a henchman of the European faction and had accused her of being ‘a bad woman’, the implication being that she was sexually involved with a Fijian. The ensuing trial – of a white woman accused of assaulting a Fijian – was remarkable, motivated not from a desire to protect Fijians, but to punish those Europeans who failed to observe the policy of separation from the indigenous population.
Stella Spencer was found guilty but apparently, Heartfield reports, did not have sufficient funds to pay the fine levied and was, therefore, imprisoned. I have no evidence whatsoever for querying this, but did just wonder if, as in 1908, it was rather that she had refused to pay a fine. It seems very surprising that no funds could be mustered if she had been minded to pay. Stella then went on hunger strike, perhaps in emulation of the suffragette stratagem, adopted subsequent to her 1908 imprisonment. However, she abandoned the hunger strike after four days and wrote to the governor asking for passage to Melbourne for herself and her husband. This was granted at the end of April 1915. I don’t know when and why she and Alberto eventually made their home in Montevideo but he remained there for the rest of his life, dying in 1954, twenty years after Stella, and is buried in the same cemetery.
It is not difficult to detect a parallel between Stella Spencer’s interest in the emancipation of women and that of improving the lot of the native population of Fiji. Whatever her background, she was clearly imbued with a spirit of rebellion
The Holloway Prison brooch was designed by Sylvia Pankhurst and awarded to members of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) who had been imprisoned. It was first mentioned in the WSPU paper, ‘Votes for Women’, on 16 April 1909 and was described as ‘the Victoria Cross of the Union’. [It pre-dated the Hunger-Strike medal]. The design of the brooch is of the portcullis symbol of the House of Commons, the gate and hanging chains are in silver, and the superimposed broad arrow (the convict symbol) is in purple, white and green enamel. The piece is marked ‘silver’ and carries the maker’s name – Toye & Co, London, who were also responsible for the hunger strike medals. This brooch is for sale. Such treasures of the suffrage movement are now very scarce. It is in fine condition.
Email me if you are interesting in buying. firstname.lastname@example.org
Place is important to me and sometimes my attention is caught by an incident occurring somewhere I’ve known well. And so it was that four years ago I noticed that a suffragette ‘outrage’ had taken place at the Richmond Post Office. Ella Stevenson, a WSPU member, was charged with placing a packet containing two tubes of phosphorous in the post box attached to the main Richmond Post Office. In my youth I knew this Post Office very well – it is a rather fine building – 70 George Street – but was long ago abandoned by the PO and is currently a branch of Anthropologie. Quite coincidentally, very soon after I had become aware of this incident and had pictured it in my mind, I was asked to value two hunger-strike medals – one awarded to Ella Stevenson and the other to her sister, Geraldine. Other matters have intervened, but now, four years later, here is something of their story.
Ella and Geraldine Stevenson were two daughters in the large family (12 children, I think) of Leader (1826-1907) and Louisa Stevenson (1828-1913). Leader Stevenson, who was an ‘Australia merchant’, was born in London of non-conformist parents, his wife in Tasmania. In the first decade of the 20th century the family was living at 10 Cumberland Road, Kew.
Both Ella [Ellen] (c. 1860-1934] and Geraldine Stevenson (1866-1949) were financial supporters, in a smallish way, of Mrs Pankhurst’s militant suffrage organisation, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) and until October 1910 Ella was Literary Secretary of the Richmond and Kew WSPU.
Ella’s first militant action seems to have taken place on 4 December 1909 when, as ‘Ethel Slade’, she was arrested in Rawtenstall, Lancashire, after breaking windows in the local Liberal Club. She had gone north to protest at a meeting held by a government minister, Lewis Harcourt, but had been barred from the theatre where it was being held. She refused to pay a fine and was sentenced to 14 days’ imprisonment. It doesn’t appear that the police had yet discovered her real identity.
The following year, in November 1910, as ‘Ethel Slade’, Ella Stevenson was sentenced to 14 days’ imprisonment after taking part in demonstrations surrounding the ‘Black Friday’ riot in Parliament Square.
Neither Ella nor Geraldine Stevenson was at home on census night in April 1911 and we may presume they were following the WSPU boycott call. Later in the year, again as ‘Ethel Slade’ Ella was charged with breaking windows in Parliament Street on 21 November – as part of an organised WSPU demonstration (because the government was proposing to bring in a Manhood Suffrage Bill – excluding women). ‘Ethel Slade’ was sentenced to 14 days’ imprisonment.
Now, although I know that Geraldine Stevenson earned a hunger-strike medal, I can find no trace of her among suffragettes arrested by the police nor does her name appear in any news reports. However, when she was breaking windows in Parliament Street ‘Ethel Slade’ was accompanied by a ‘Grace Stuart’, who was, in fact, Geraldine Stevenson, using a pseudonym, but keeping her own initials.
Both ‘Ethel Slade’ and ‘Grace Stuart’ were released from prison on 12 February 1912. At the ‘Welcome Breakfast’ ‘Ethel Slade’ said it was a great honour for women to go to prison and mentioned that she was going to volunteer for the next deputation.
A few months later, in March 1912, Grace Stuart was sentenced to 6 months’ imprisonment after taking part in an organised WSPU window-smashing campaign – and I suspect it was during this term in Holloway that she earned her hunger-strike medal.
On 5 November 1912, as ‘Ethel Slade’, Ella, with another women, broke 9 plate-glass windows in New Bond Street – and was sentenced to 4 months’ imprisonment. They were protesting against the fact that an amendment to the Irish Home Rule bill that would have allowed for a measure of female suffrage was lost. She went on hunger strike, was forcibly fed, and was released after two weeks.
On 5 March 1913 Ella Stevenson was sentenced at the Old Bailey to 9 months’ imprisonment for placing a packet containing two glass tubes of phosphorous in the post box attached to the main Richmond Post Office. It had burst into flames. It is more than likely that she had been given the phosphorous by Edwy Clayton, an analytical chemist of ‘Glengariff’, Kew Road, Kew, whose wife was honorary secretary of the Richmond and Kew WSPU. Around the time of Ella’s sentence, Clayton was charged with conspiracy to commit damage (supplying bomb-making information and materials) and sentenced to 21 months’ imprisonment. He went on hunger strike, was released under the ‘Cat and Mouse’ Act and eluded re-arrest.
When sentencing Ella Stevenson the Recorder said that ‘it was impossible for people to be allowed to go about defying the law because they require some change made in it. Such a condition of affairs would lead to a state of barbarism’. Defendant replied that she would go to prison to carry on the fight as she had carried it on outside’.
No women were allowed in court during her trial and Ella specifically asked for a ‘lady reporter’ to be allowed in court and had also asked for her sister [Geraldine?] to be present. But the Recorder was adamant – ‘No women’. There was something of an outcry about the exclusion of women, and the Commissioners of the Central Criminal Court quickly decided that this would not happen in future.
Ella Stevenson went on hunger strike as soon as she got to Holloway and was forcibly fed. ‘Extraordinary vitality is a splendid thing to have outside prison, it is tiresome inside. I am not downhearted’ she is reported as saying. A report in Votes for Women, 11 April 1913, described how her nostrils were severely injured by forcible feeding and one of her teeth had been knocked out when members of the prison staff were trying to force her mouth open. The Governor reported: ‘the task has been very difficult and disagreeable one owing to her violent resistance; but the medical officer reports that though she exhausts herself by her resistance, there are no serious ill-effects. As to her teeth, the facts are that on one occasion she bit the rubber shield over the doctor’s finger and broke a tooth which was a mere shell owing to decay .Her lip has been sore from an attack of herpes but is now better. These details are distressing and I should be glad to advise a remission of sentence if it were not almost certain that she would on her release commit further offences. I need not say that a strict watch is kept over her condition and every care taken to prevent her injuring herself.’ It is clear, from a letter written to the Home Office by Geraldine Stevenson, that it was one of Ella’s front teeth that was broken – a rather distressing thing to happen to a middle-aged woman in Edwardian Britain
A 17 April 1913 report from Holloway Prison shows that she was given 2.5 pints of ‘Horlicks, Brand’s Essence, Allenbury’s Milk and egg – fed twice by oesophageal tube. Violently resistive the whole time.’
Ella was eventually released from prison on 28 April under the ‘Cat and Mouse’ Act – the Temporary Discharge of Prisoners Act, one of the first four prisoners released under the Act. She did not return to Holloway on 12 May as required – but was re-arrested on 7 August 1913, while selling The Suffragette in Richmond, and was taken back to Holloway to continue her sentence. Her mother had died at home in Kew just over two weeks earlier – on 19 July 1913.
Ella again went on hunger strike and was released on 14 August under the terms of the ‘Cat and Mouse’ Act. While in prison she broke windows and her conduct was deemed ‘Bad’. A Report from the prison’s medical officer (13 August) mentioned that she ‘has forsaken sleep owing to constantly recurring dreams that she has swallowed a drop of water by mistake. Feels extreme satisfaction on finding it is only a dream.’
A ‘Wanted’ Notice for Ella Stevenson appeared in the Supplement to the Police Gazette 2 January 1914. ‘Wanted – for failing to return to Holloway Prison on 22 Aug 1913, as required by the conditions of her discharge under the Prisoners’ Temporary Discharged Act (1913), Ella Stevenson, alias Ethel Slade CRO No S/165568, age refused (about 45), height 5ft 6in; complexion sallow; hair light brown turning grey, and eyes grey.’
Perhaps as a result of this publicity, on 23 January 1914 Ella Stevenson was re-arrested, was once again taken to Holloway, where once again she adopted a hunger-and-thirst strike and was released a few days later (under the ‘Cat and Mouse’). She was arrested again on 17 March, released on 19 March, and re-arrested 23 June, and released 27 June. She described this last occasion: ‘I was arrested in Richmond very early on Tuesday morning, June 23. I attempted to strike the man who arrested me, but was taken to Richmond Police Station where I was held until 2 o’clock and then taken through the streets of Richmond firmly grasped by two men in uniform. Finding the procession was to be of this very public nature, I decided to make the most of the opportunity to get the people to understand, if possible, what was happening. I resisted the whole way telling the people that I was resisting an iniquitous Act on principle. I gave them as much information as I could in the time, and at the railway station and afterwards in the carriage, when several people got in with us, I was able to appeal to them and reason with them without interruption….’The Suffragette, 10 July 1914. Once back in Holloway she again went on a hunger-and-thirst strike, was released on 27 June and does not appear to have been re-arrested before the outbreak of war on 4 August brought the WSPU campaign to an end.
Picturing Ella Stevenson’s activity in George Street and, eventually, that enforced march through Richmond certainly enlivened my rather tedious wait at the bus stop opposite the station as I was on my to the National Archives last week. And, once there, I met her again in files describing her treatment in Holloway and her resistance to it. No real knowledge of the part she and her sister played in the fight for the vote – or, indeed, anything else at all of their lives – has survived within her family. Such is the fate, noted time and time again, of the maiden aunt.
P.S. For a Museum of London surveillance photograph of Ella Stevenson, probably taken when she was in Holloway – see here.
And, quite coincidentally, the Museum of London was earlier this year given the illuminated scroll awarded to Ella Stevenson by the WSPU after one of her imprisonments. All the pieces of the Stevenson jigsaw are falling into place.
On the morning of Monday 8 June 1914 – a year to the day after the death of Emily Wilding Davison – a young woman was found lying unconscious on the floor of her flat at 111 Jermyn Street, close to Piccadilly Circus. She was discovered by her charwoman, Mrs Spicer,who called the police. They in turn called a doctor, who spent some time attempting resuscitation. But the young woman could not be revived. She had taken an overdose of veronal, a barbiturate to which she had apparently become addicted. Around her were scattered seven empty veronal bottles and by the side of one of them were 23 loose tablets. She had left a suicide note, dated 5 June, addressed to her mother and signed with the initials ‘J.L.G.’, although the young woman was known to her landlord, charwoman and a circle of relatively recently acquired friends as ‘Laura Grey’.
The story revealed by the inquest was one that might be thought too contrived if one read it in a novel, or watched it unfold on stage or film. In it we find all the tropes that concerned British society at that most febrile of times in the summer of 1914.
Laura Grey’s death. caused a brief but spectacular newspaper sensation. In this case the ‘ruin’ of a well-brought-up young woman was associated not only with the familiar evils of drugs, the stage and night clubs but also with the exotic addition of the very topical phenomenon of window-smashing, imprisonment and hunger striking – all that denoted involvement in the militant suffragette movement. On the day that her death was first reported the newspapers were full of reports of police raids on suffragette hide-outs and of suffragette bombing, arson and a hatchet attack on a painting by Romney in the Birmingham Art Gallery.
‘Laura Grey”s real name was Joan Lavender Baillie Guthrie. She had been born in 1889 to a well-off young couple – her father doesn’t appear to have had employment as such, but was involved with the Volunteers, the territorial army of its day. He was Cambridge-educated but had been born in South Africa. During the Boer War he returned there as an officer in the Imperial Yeomanry, dying of enteric fever on 16 May 1900. His wife must have been alerted to his condition because she set sail for Cape Town on 5 May. I don’t know if she arrived before he died, but she returned to Southampton on 14 June having, presumably, seen him to this grave.
In December 1900 Mrs Baillie Guthrie with her two daughters (Lavender and Lilias, as they were known) set off for the Continent. I don’t know how long they spent abroad, but there is no trace of any of them in the 1901 UK census. Lavender apparently received a good education – she was reported to be a proficient student of Latin and Greek – but where and how this was acquired I don’t know.
Mrs Baillie Guthrie first appears on the London local electoral register in 1909 which may indicate that the family had only recently returned from living abroad. It was, anyway, about this time that Lavender Guthrie first joined the Women’s Social and Political Union. As her mother remarked at the inquest, ‘She was not quite a normal girl. She studied very hard, and had ideas of Socialism and of giving her life and her all to her more unfortunate sisters.’ A picture was being painted at the inquest of an unbalanced mind – that Lavender, when about 16 years old, had damaged her face with a chemical. Indeed, the doctor who tended to her when she was dying remarked on a scarring to her face. However, as set out in the inquest report, this episode is directly linked by her mother to Lavender’s desire to do good in the world.
Her mother also said that Lavender was an obedient daughter and, although a member of the WSPU from the age of 18, did not take part in any militant activity until 1911 when she was 21 and had reached the age of majority.
One other aspect of Lavender Guthrie’s character that was considered by her mother as not quite normal was that ‘she thought we were too luxurious in our life. All her life she had been a very good and spiritual-minded girl, and had not cared for any of the ordinary pleasures of life or enjoyments of life. All her ideal was to work, and work very hard.’ She said that Lavender had tried hard to find work to support herself but ‘she found that the wages of unskilled women labour would not support life.’ It was only when she was successful in getting employment on the stage that she was able to earn sufficient to enable her to leave home, apparently, at the end of 1912.
However, for some months in the early part of 1912 Lavender had had no need to seek work as she was a prisoner in Holloway Gaol She had taken part in the March 1912 WSPU-organised window-smashing campaign. and was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment for wilful damage. The window she had broken was that of Garrards, the famous jewellers, perhaps targeted it as a protest against the luxurious lifestyle that she abhorred.
In Holloway she went on hunger strike, was forcibly fed and was released after serving about four months. During this time Holloway was packed with suffragette prisoners – among them Emily Wilding Davison – and Lavender Guthrie would have known and been known to these most committed members of the WSPU.
While in Holloway Lavender Guthrie wrote the following poem that was subsequently published in Holloway Jingles, an anthology collected and published by the Glasgow branch of the WSPU. The dedicatee, ‘D.R.’ is thought to be Dorothea Rock. The poem has been singled out by literary critics as having more merit than most of the other ‘Jingles’. (Another poem in the anthology is by Emily Wilding Davison.)
Beyond the bars I see her move,
A mystery of blue and green,
As though across the prison yard
The spirit of the spring had been.
And as she lifts her hands to press
The happy sunshine of her hair,
From the grey ground the pigeons rise,
And rustle upwards in the air,
As though her two hands held a key
To set the imprisoned spirits free.
Listen here to an atmospheric setting by Eva Kendrick of this poem sung by the Northern Arizona University Women’s Choir. (I love it.)
To this suffragette’s autograph album Lavender Guthrie contributed a few lines from Robert Louis Stevenson – ‘The conditions of conquest are easy; we have only to hope a while, endure a while, believe always and never turn back’. Below her given name she added in brackets her stage and suffragette name – Laura Grey. It was the name she used when arrested. Like some other women – particularly of the middle class – she did not want her real name to appear in the papers in order not to embarrass her family. It is likely, therefore, that it was first as a suffragette soubriquet that Lavender adopted the name ‘Laura Grey’, which then gave her a ready-made stage name.
It seems that Lavender Guthrie suffered from the after effects of forcible feeding and there is the suggestion that it was after her release that she discovered that veronal could ease the ‘neuralgia’ from which she now suffered. Her mother said that Lavender was ‘very ill’ after her release from prison.
Lavender’s first stage engagement was in the Lyceum Theatre’s Christmas 1912 pantomime – The Forty Thieves – doubtless an excellent vehicle for displaying the thinly-veiled flesh of the ‘pantomime girls’. At the time the Lyceum was renowned for staging the best pantomimes in London.
Now able to leave the comfort of her Kensington home, ‘Laura Grey’ lived at first in rooms in Handel Mansions, Brunswick Square, Bloomsbury. Bloomsbury then had a rather louche reputation. However it was not long before she moved to the flat in Jermyn Street, close to the bright lights of Piccadilly. A couple of years earlier (when the 1911 census was taken) the tenant of the flat was a 24-year-old American ‘dancer (artistic) not in work’, who declared that she was married with one child. However neither husband or child was living with her and I feel that here, too, is a story of quiet desperation waiting to be uncovered.
There is no indication in the inquest report of the other shows in which Laura Grey was engaged (although there must have been at least one or two because the Lyceum was described as the first). The coroner did not disguise the curl of his lip when he referred to her as a ‘pantomime girl’. As such she represented all that was meretricious and sleazy in the eyes of right-thinking people. Pantomime Girl, a novel by Annie Louise Daniells published in 1913 ,did not allow the central figure a happy ending – even if she was not actually forced, unlike poor Laura Grey, to suffer the ultimate wages of sin.
For not only did Laura Grey die, but she died pregnant. How much further could a young middle-class woman fall? The coroner had no trouble at all in revealing the cause – her involvement with the suffragettes. He read in full the letter that accompanied the award of her hunger-strike medal, sent to Lavender Guthrie by Mrs Mabel Tuke of the WSPU, and commented ‘Could anything be more calculated to upset the mind of a young girl than receiving this document and this travesty of a medal. The effect was quite clear. She leaves her home, her sister, her mother, for a garret in order to earn her own living and probably devote herself to this cause. She is next on the stage as a pantomime girl. Next we find her in the company of men frequenting night clubs and taking money from them. There is no more about the suffragist movement. The girl seems to have been absolutely degraded, and from then her whole history is one of drink, drugs, immorality, and death from her own hand.’
The jury duly returned a verdict of suicide during temporary insanity. However, this is just what Lavender Guthrie had anticipated. In the note she left for her mother she wrote ‘Of course the kindly Coroner will call it temporary insanity, but as a matter of fact I think this is about the sanest thing I have yet done. I am simply very, very tired of things in general.’ In fact her mother had been so worried about her that she had called in two women doctors – Dr Helen Boyle, who specialised in mental disorders, and Dr Louisa Garrett Anderson, who had actually been imprisoned in Holloway at the same time as Lavender – hoping that they would be able to certify her as insane. Their visit to Jermyn Street, accompanied by two nurses -so certain were they, from what they had been told by Mrs Guthrie, that they would need to remove Lavender – had taken place on 26 May. The doctors, however, had not found Lavender suffering from any delusions that warranted restraint.
It is difficult to know exactly what Laura Grey’s Jermyn Street life had been like. She left over £1000 in her will, although this money might not have been easily accessible. According to her mother, although she had initially refused to accept an allowance, by the time of her death she had agreed to receive an annual allowance of £100. Was she receiving money from men, as the Coroner suggested – or assumed? Who knows? Her mother noted at the inquest that she ‘lived in a very self-sacrificing manner, denying herself everything.’ However, it would appear that she must have spent at least some of her money on drink and drugs. When asked by the Coroner if she knew that her daughter ‘had taken to drink’, Mrs Guthrie gave the immortal reply, ‘I had heard of absinthe: I do not know whether that is drink’. Laura Grey’s regular consumption of veronal was evident from the bottles found in the flat. In the touching letter she left for her mother she wrote, ‘I have been taking veronal for the last six months practically every night. I only lied to you about it because I knew you would worry if I told you the truth’.
In this letter Laura Grey also writes, ‘During this last year I have met some very dear souls, both men and women. If you ever come across them and they speak to you of me give them a welcome for my sake, even though I may have met them in bad and immoral ways’. In July Mrs Guthrie wrote a short letter in the Daily Mail, in which she thanked those who had got in touch to sympathise at her loss – and there is a hint that among these may have been some of the ‘dear souls’ to whom Lavender refers. In which case it appears a rather generous letter.
The night clubs frequented by Laura Grey were named as the Astor Club (already defunct by 1914), the Mimosa, the Leicester and the Albert Rooms. They were all doubtless of a transient nature and have vanished leaving no discernible trace. newspaper reported that ‘she generally wore evening dress at these resorts, but lately she appeared in costumes of the futurist fashion
Betty May, exotic dancer, good-time girl and another frequenter of Soho haunts, in her racy memoir – Tiger-Woman – published in 1929, places Laura Grey in the bohemian Cafe Royal, alongside many better known figures, such as the futurist painter C.R.W. Nevinson. ‘I knew her well’, Betty May writes, ‘and the night before she was found dead she came over to me in the Café and gave me a book she had promised to lend me. We had a long chat and she seemed quite cheerful. She was tall and slim, with a very fine forehead. At one time she had been a militant suffragette.’ Whether or not this charming scene actually did take place I don’t know. Betty May’s memoir doesn’t strike me as totally reliable, but the fact that she chooses to mention Laura Grey at all 15 years after her death is interesting. If Laura Grey was in the Cafe Royal the night before she died, that fact was not mentioned at the inquest. Indeed there was a suggestion in the press that she may have taken the veronal on the Friday night and lain undiscovered all weekend until Mrs Spicer arrived on Monday morning.
Betty May also mentions, as another of the bohemian haunters of the Cafe Royal, both William Orpen, the painter of the above picture, and the poet, Anna Wickham who’ always dressed very severely, and had a deep voice that used to frighten me a great deal’.
Whether or not Anna Wickham actually knew Laura Grey she was sufficiently moved by her fate to write a poem, Laura Grey, that was published in the Daily Herald (a left-wing newspaper) on 16 June 1914.
And Anna Wickham was not the only member of the literati to be inspired to poetry by Laura Grey’s death. On 14 June 1914 Gilbert Cannan, poet and essayist, wrote to Lady Ottoline Morrell, ‘these last days I have been haunted and most passionately moved the story of the girl, Laura Grey. Her unassailable spirit thrust deliberately through the worst of life has shone splendidly for me and I wrote this poem which I send to you now..’His biographer, Diana Farr, commented ‘ Here was a girl that Gilbert would have loved to cherish and the poem he sent to Ottoline called simply Laura Grey was his response to a story which moved him deeply.’
But there were many others who were moved in a different direction. The novelist, E. W. Hornung, the author of Raffles, a brother-in-law of Arthur Conan Doyle, and a Kensington friend of the Guthrie family, wrote a letter to The Times, published on 13 June as an Appreciation of ‘Laura Grey’. Referring to her throughout as Lavender Guthrie, he described her as ‘a beautiful and gentle creature: one both gracious and unaffected, indeed as great-hearted and noble-minded and sweet-tempered a girl as ever looked like a Greek goddess and carried herself like a queen.’
This paragon, this icon of young British womanhood, did however have one fault – ‘Erratic and wilful she no doubt had always been.’ It was this fault, ‘observable outside her family circle’, that had caused her to associate with the militant suffragettes, whose ‘methods and practices both inside and outside prison’ oozed ‘slow and subtle sex-poison.’ It was this that had robbed Lavender Guthrie of her ‘bloom’ – ‘the thirst for sensation had become a passion and the craze for revolt had become a disease’. For this he laid the blame firmly on the leaders of the WSPU.
All the newspapers were awash with letters about the case. A few were sympathetic to Laura Grey’s fate but most, like a correspondent to the Daily Express, saw her as the ‘Victim of the Furies’. And you will have no difficulty in guessing who these were.
For their part, the WSPU put its own particular spin on the sad story, declaring that Laura Grey had long left their ranks and it was because she was no longer a suffragette that she had fallen in with the wrong sort of people. Why were the names of the men which whom she had associated – particularly the father of the child she was expecting – not publicised? It was the Government and the attitudes of society that were responsible for Laura Grey’s death. In fact her ‘ruin’ ideally illustrated Christabel Pankhurst’s slogan of the last couple of years – ‘Votes for Women and Chastity for Men’.
It was certainly not a good moment for the WSPU to be associated with drug-taking, for at this very time – amongst all the other newspaper reports of suffragette mayhem – was the story – sensationalised in the popular press – that a solicitor’s clerk had been discovered attempting to smuggle a drug to Grace Roe, one of the WSPU leaders, now on hunger strike in Holloway. The drug was actually an emetic – enabling her to be sick after forcible feeding – not a barbiturate – but the man and, indeed, woman in the street, could now even more easily associate ‘drugs’ with ‘suffragettes’.
If only Laura Grey/Lavender Guthrie had been able to hold out for a couple more months might the war have made a difference to her situation? With the great change that British society was about to undergo, the birth of baby to yet another unmarried young woman might have felt of little less consequence in general, although doubtless still fraught in the particular. In her farewell letter to her mother she sent ‘My love to Lilias, and I hope she will be very happy and marry some decent man whose children you could be proud of’. This strikes me as the saddest sentence in a long, sad letter. Lilias never married. If Mrs Baillie Guthrie had wanted only grandchildren of which she could be proud, she was to be disappointed.
Nearly 100 years after the sad event, Lavender Guthrie’s suicide still has the power to shock. Although I had known of the case in a general way it was only a week ago, when going through cuttings accumulated by my diarist, Kate Parry Frye for all about Kate Frye’s diary click here), that I came across a copy of Hornung’s letter to The Times. Kate had clipped it and neatly folded it and I doubt anybody else had looked at it until I opened it out last week. I have checked and, although she was in London at the time, Kate makes no mention of the case of Laura Grey in her diary – but it had obviously not gone unremarked.
In another neat leap through the century, Lavender Guthrie’s hunger-strike medal that I illustrate at the head of this post is now held in the collection of Ken Florey, who illustrates it beautifully in his Women’s Suffrage Memorabilia: An Illustrated Historical Study. So, the very hunger-strike medal that in 1914 was in the Jermyn Street room as poor Lavender Guthrie took her overdose of veronal, was taken away by the police and then held up to such contempt and ridicule by the Coroner, is, a century later, the prized and treasured possession of a dedicated collector of suffragette memorabilia.
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