Posts Tagged Mrs Pankhurst
While undertaking some research for a talk I gave a couple of weeks ago at the Royal College of Nursing I encountered an intriguing mystery. What happened to Nurse Pine’s ‘suffragette medal’.
Nurse Catherine Pine (1864-1941) was the Pankhurst family’s special nursing attendant – she had cared for Mrs Pankhurst’s son, Harry, who died in her nursing home in 1910. She ran the nursing home at 9 Pembridge Gardens, Notting Hill, and it was here that many suffragettes were taken after release from prison after hunger striking.
Mrs Pankhurst was among the many who recovered from imprisonment in the care of Nurse Pine. Although the authorities never dared force feed Mrs Pankhurst, she was desperately weakened by successive hunger strikes. See here for a photograph of Nurse Pine tending Mrs Pankhurst.
In her will Nurse Pine left what she described as her ‘suffragette medal’ to ‘the History Section of the British College of Nursing.’. Now the term ‘suffragette medal’ is usually used to describe a medal given by the WSPU to those who went on hunger strike – and I knew that there was no evidence that Nurse Pine was ever imprisoned – so began to wonder ‘what did she mean by her “suffragette medal”?’
Delving a little further I came across a note in a March 1942 issue of the British Journal of Nursing that tells us that ‘A few months ago we announced that the late Sister Catherine Pine had bequeathed to the British College of Nurses the priceless historic Medal and Bars bestowed upon her by the late Mrs. Emmeline Pankhurst, for her devoted services to her when released from durance vile. As time goes on this gift we may hope will be valued at its true worth by women all over the world.’
Could this have been a medal specially struck for Nurse Pine? Perhaps it was. If so, I wonder what the ‘Bars’ represented? Did they commemorate the number of times she admitted to Mrs Pankhurst to her nursing home? That really does seem very fanciful.
In terms of the suffragette campaign, the description ‘Medal and bars’ usually refers to a ‘hunger strike medal’, with bars added for each subsequent hunger strike.
The only explanation I could think of was that it was Mrs Pankhurst’s own medal – given to Nurse Pine in thanks. Noting that the British College of Nurses (an organisation that was not the Royal College of Nursing) closed in 1956, I wondered what had happened to Nurse Pine’s bequest.
Now, in the same 1942 issue, the British Journal of Nursing recorded that:
Miss Mary Hilliard, a gentle, very valiant suffragette, has bestowed as a gift to the College the fine linen handkerchief, signed by and embroidered by all the gallant women who suffered imprisonment for conscience sake, in support of the enfranchisement of women in Holloway prison in March 1912. It displays 67 signatures embroidered in various colours, and all that remains is to offer a warm vote of thanks to Miss Mary Hilliard, R.B.N.A., and to await the time when this historic gift can he suitably framed and placed in the History Section of the British College of Nurses, where its unique value will be appreciated.’
In fact I know that that embroidered handkerchief is now housed in Priest House, the museum of the Sussex Archaeological Society in West Hoathly, Sussex, and so I emailed the Custodian to enquire how it had arrived with them. He was able to tell me that it had surfaced at a West Hoathly jumble sale around 1970 where, in fact, nobody had bought it and it was rescued off a bonfire at the last minute. I must say I can’t see such an artefact being a jumble sale wallflower nowadays. However, nobody knows by what means the handkerchief ended up in West Hoathly after the closure of the British College of Nurses.
The archive of the British College of Nurses is held by King’s College University of London and their archivist has kindly checked for me and nothing resembling Nurse Pine’s’ suffragette medal’ is held by them.
So were the contents of its ‘History Section’ scattered when the British College of Nurses closed? What happened to Nurse Pine’s medal? Is it, in fact, one of the two medals presented to Mrs Pankhurst that are now held in public collections – one in the Houses of Parliament and one in the Museum of London?
This also doesn’t seem to be the answer. Neither of the medals has added ‘bars’. The one held by the Museum of London was given to Mrs Pankhurst in recognition of her hunger strike in Holloway beginning on 1 March 1912 and Beverley Cook, the Museum’s curator, tells me that, although the provenance is a little unclear, it is likely to have arrived at the Museum in 1950 along with the rest of the Suffragette Fellowship archive.
The other medal awarded to Mrs Pankhurst is not a ‘hunger strike’ medal – it predates the employment of the hunger strike – but commemorates her imprisonment in Holloway in October 1908 after being convicted for inciting crowds to ‘Rush the House of Commons’. It is now held by the Parliamentary Art Collection in the House of Commons – see here.
Could there have been a third medal awarded by the WSPU to Mrs Pankhurst? She certainly went on more than one hunger strike and would have merited ‘bars’, which the Museum of London medal doesn’t have. Could she then have ‘bestowed’ this on Nurse Pine? Or did she, indeed, have a medal made specially for Nurse Pine? As I said, it’s all a bit of a mystery. If anyone knows the answer I shall be delighted to hear from them.
Whatever the truth, it is rather sad that the British College of Nurses does not seem, in the event, to have taken care of the gift that they hoped ‘will be valued at its true worth by women all over the world.’ However, Nurse Pine’s collection of photographs, now held in the Museum of London, most definitely is treasured.
You can read more about Nurse Pine in her entry in my The Women’s Suffrage Movement: a reference guide, Routledge.
This summer is passing so quickly that I realise that I’ve missed – by two weeks or so- the 100th anniversary of Kate Frye’s final involvement with the New Constitutional Society for Women’s Suffrage. Still – better late than never -it would be a pity not to record an eye-witness account of the final ‘suffrage’ procession, which had morphed into one claiming for women a ‘Right to Work’ for the war effort.
Kate has been married for six months and is now ‘Mrs John Collins’ – but ever since the wedding John has been based at army camps on the east coast so she is, as before, living alone in her digs at 49 Claverton Street, Pimlico.
You can read about Kate Frye’s work as an organiser with the New Constitutional Society for Women’s Suffrage in Campaigning for the Vote: Kate Parry Frye’s suffrage diary. – for full details see here.
Saturday July 17th 1915
A very dull morning and it just started to rain as I went out. I was prepared for wild weather as the wind too was very fierce – a short grey linen dress – a woollen coat to keep me warm – Aquascutum – boots and rubbers – a small cap tied on – and an umbrella. It was fortunate I was so prepared as it turned out a wicked day and rained till 4 o’clock.
I went by bus to Westminster and walked along the Embankment to see if there were any signs of preparation but it was pouring by then so there was nothing. I went to Slaters in the Strand and had some lunch and back on the Embankment by one. There from the paving stones sprang up marshalls and assistant marshalls (I was a marshall with a broad red sash) all like me hurrying to posts. Mine was 101 and only 100 were given out – so I claimed mine and stood behind the last soldier with 101 until nearly 3.30.
But the rain kept the people away who would have filled the last of the 125 sections and we marshalls and assistant marshalls had very little to do. Our section commander never came along at all so we had to organise ourselves. Miss Barnes of the Knitting Dept came along to be in my section. She is a thoroughly good sort. Just before 3.30 we discovered if we were to march we must arrange ourselves – so a few people did one thing – a few another. I ran down the line telling people to come along and so we caught up with the front.
Banners and bannerettes were hastily pulled out of carts and we were off. I went up and down giving directions and making us as trim as possible. We were a motley crew but we had some fine banner bearers and the greater number of us looked very neat in rainproof coats. And so off again on the great Women’s Patriotic Procession organised by Mrs Pankhurst and led by her. Mr Lloyd George received a deputation of women concering Munitions. Mrs Chapman [president of the New Constitutional Society for Women’s Suffrage] walked all the way in the first section and went in with the deputation.
It was a long and interesting procession but would have been longer had the weather been better. But the rain stopped about 4 o’clock and actually just as I got back to the Embankment at 6 o’clock the sun came out. The procession started off at 3.30 sharp. There were no end of Bands and they helped one tremendously. The route was long – Embankment, Whitehall, Cockspur St, Pall Mall, St James, Piccadilly, Park Lane, Oxford St, Regent’s St, Haymarket, Northumberland Avenue on to the Embankment again when we gave up banners and those who could went along on to hear Mr Lloyd George speak from a balcony looking over the Embankment. I saw him watching the whole thing from there as we went along.
Such a crowd to watch us all along the route and the Clubs packed with people. At intervals tables with ladies taking signatures of women ready to do munition work. It was very inspiring and invigorating and though I felt very tired and seedy before I think the walk did me good. I was a bit stiff and glad to sit down. I made my way to the Strand and had some tea.
Kate Frye (1878-1959) – was resurrected by ITV who put her (played by Romola Garai) in a series – The Great War: The People’s Story – and commissioned me to write her life. This story of an ordinary Englishwoman will appeal to all those interested in a real life lived – from the palmy days of Victoria to the New Elizabethan age. For more details read here.
I was asked the other day to speak briefly on Woman’s Hour about Mary Richardson, the suffragette who took a hatchet to the Velasquez painting, The Toilet of Venus -known as The Rokeby Venus , while it was on display in the National Gallery in March 1914. You can listen to the resulting piece – which includes a clip from a 1957 Woman’s Hour interview with Mary Richardson – here.
Looking again at Mary Richardson’s story – as she tells it in her suffragette autobiography, Laugh a Defiance – I was interested in a brief mention she made of the house from which she set out for the National Gallery on that fateful day – Tuesday 10 March 1914. It was a house in which she had been given shelter when she was let out of Holloway the previous October under the terms of the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’, after going on hunger strike. She continued to live there clandestinely – as a ‘mouse’ – evading the police.
As she tells it, this house in Doughty Street in Bloomsbury had once been the home of Charles Dickens but was now under the charge of a ‘Mrs Lyon’. Investigation reveals that in 1914 the house that was Dickens’ home from 1837-9 and is now the Charles Dickens Museum was, together with number 49, a boarding house run by a Miss Jane Lyons. Mary Richardson wrote that she knew immediately that it was to Dickens’ house that she had been brought. Indeed she would have, for as she left the motor car that had carried her from Holloway she would have seen this plaque, which had been placed on the front of 48 Doughty Street by the LCC in 1903. Once settled into the boarding house doubtless she would have heard from Miss Lyons more about the famous connection that gave cachet to the establishment.
Number 48 Doughty Street was acquired by the Dickens Fellowship in 1923 and opened as the Museum in 1925. Interestingly the Museum has quite recently acquired number 49 – so that the two houses are now interlinked as they presumably were when Mary Richardson was given shelter in Miss Lyons’ boarding house. When Mary Richardson made her acquaintance in 1914 Miss Lyons would have been 78 years old. She may well have been given the honorary title of ‘Mrs’ and it isn’t particularly surprising that Mary Richardson had, 40 years or so later, slightly misremembered her surname. The only information that Mary Richardson offers about ‘Mrs Lyon’ was that she had once been housekeeper to Benjamin Disraeli. Could that have been true?
Jane Lyons had been born in Plymouth in 1836, one of the eldest in a large family – of possibly 12 children. Her father, Moses Lyons (who also gave his name on various censuses as ‘Lewis Lyons’ and ‘Morris Lyons’) was a licentiate of the Society of Apothecaries – that is, he was qualified as a doctor and practised as both a doctor and as a dentist. He had been born in Coventry c 1811; his mother had been born in Russia. The family were probably Jewish in origin – although there is no evidence that they practised that religion. One sister, certainly, was married in a Congregational church. In 1871 the Lyons family was living in the Islington area of Birmingham and Jane Lyons worked with her mother and five of her sisters in the family’s stationers shop.
By 1881 Jane Lyons had come to London and on the night of the census, 3 April 1881, was living in a boarding house at 72 Gower Street in Bloomsbury, described as an ‘annuitant’. So it doesn’t appear that she was Disraeli’s housekeeper at the time of his death – which occurred 16 days after the census was taken. But I suppose it is not impossible that she was so employed at some time during the previous decade.
By 1891 Jane Lyons was housekeeper at ‘Brunswick House’, 56 Hunter Street, Bloomsbury. Here lived 45 boarders – all women – most of whom were working – as teachers, typists, clerks, and artists.
Ten years later, in 1901, Jane Lyons was the proprietor of a ‘Private Hotel and Boarding House’ at 48 & 49 Doughty Street. Here, on the day of the census, she had 24 boarders – all women – again clerks, teachers and typists (and a stockbroking nephew). By 1911 Miss Lyons’ clientele had slightly changed – now numbering a good half-dozen men among her boarders.
Miss Lyons, as a single woman running her own business, was very much the type of woman we might expect to support the ‘votes for women campaign’ – perhaps as a member of the Tax Resistance League. But from Mary Richardson’s evidence she went that bit further and gave active support to those who were evading the police. According to Mary, while she was living at number 48 Annie Kenney, who was also on the run, stayed for a time in Miss Lyons’ boarding house. I wish I knew more about Miss Lyons.
In Laugh a Defiance Mary Richardson relates that she had planned her attack on the RokebyVenus in advance – presumably while living under Miss Lyons’ roof. Indeed she states that she had sought approval from Christabel Pankurst for her plan. But never once in Laugh a Defiance can I find any mention of the fact that since March 1912 Christabel had been living in Paris. Mary Richardson refers to her as though she were living close by, convenient for consultation. I find it difficult to believe that in those febrile months in 1914 Mary Richardson was in such close contact with Christabel. Did she, 40 years later, feel it necessary to justify her actions by implying that she was always ‘acting on orders’?
The sequence of events ran like this. Mrs Pankhurst was arrested in Glasgow during the evening of Monday 9 March – after something of a battle with the police at a meeting in the St Andrew’s Hall. Around her was a bodyguard of women – one of whom was Mrs Lillian Dove-Willcox, with whom Mary Richardson was closely associated.
After one of her hunger strikes Mary had recuperated at Lillian’s cottage in the Wye Valley and their friendship seems to have lasted all Mary’s life. Symbol Songs, a collection of poems she published in 1916 contains ”The Translation of the Love I Bear Lillian Dove’ – and it was Lillian (by now, after remarriage, Mrs Lillian Buckley) who wrote Mary’s obituary for the Suffragette Fellowship newsletter. It wouldn’t surprise me that if the ‘Rokeby Venus’ plan had been shared with anyone, it had been shared with Lilian Dove-Willcox, who travelled back from Glasgow on the train in which Mrs Pankhurst was being escorted by the police.
However the train stopped at a station short of Euston and Mrs Pankhurst was taken off it and driven straight to Holloway in order to avoid the suffragette crowds that were awaiting her at the terminus. The news of her arrest was in the Tuesday morning papers. I don’t really want to add any (quite gratuitous) speculation to Mary Richardson’s already rather unreliable memoir, but I’m going to anyway.
Could Mary Richardson have seen Lilian Dove-Willcox early that Tuesday morning and heard first-hand of the dramatic events in the St Andrew’s Hall? And dramatic they were. It was a violent scene – with clubs wielded by the women and a gun – loaded with blanks – fired by Janie Allan, a wealthy Scottish supporter. A report from the front line, made by a close friend, or even the knowledge that such a friend had been involved in such a battle could have been the real catalyst for choosing this day of all days for putting her plan into action. Doughty Street is only a short distance from Euston. Although Mary Richardson says in a radio interview that she was in the National Gallery as early as 10 am, The Times report, Wednesday 11 March, mentions that she was there at 11 .
Mary Richardson is not explicit as to whether she had already purchased her weapon of choice – a butcher’s chopper – although she does state that she bought it in the Theobald’s Road – a main road close to Doughty Street .However, because, as she repeatedly explains, she fixed the chopper into her sleeve with a chain of safety pins (though I can’t quite work out how the first in the chain was attached to the chopper??) it seems unlikely that she would have undertaken this rather cumbersome exercise on her way to the National Gallery, suggesting that she had the chopper already primed, as it were, in her room in the boarding house.
In another BBC radio interview, broadcast on 23 April 1961 – click here to listen to it – Mary Richardson revealed that she had chosen the Rokeby Venus because she hated women being used as nudes in paintings – she had seen the picture gloated over by men, and she ‘thought it sensuous’. In the 1957 Woman’s Hour interview she mentioned that she felt the painting was held in high regard because it was so financially valuable (it had cost £45,000 when purchased in 1906), whereas Mrs Pankhurst’s life counted for nothing. Presumably she was unaware that it was a fellow suffragist, Christiana Herringham, who had been the driving force in the setting up of the National Art Collections Fund – the organization that bought the painting for the nation.
In the later interviews Mary Richardson doesn’t mention that Mrs Pankhurst had only just been rearrested – but tells the story as though Mrs Pankhurst had been held for a long time, on hunger strike, in a damp underground cell in Holloway – and that her life was in danger. But, as we see, Mrs Pankhurst could have barely reached Holloway by the time Mary set out from number 48.I have mentioned that Mary Richardson’s Laugh a Defiance is an unreliable memoir. At the most basic level the account she gives of her involvement in the suffragette campaign is not chronologically accurate – rather she presents a series of incidents, in each of which she takes a starring role. I have little doubt that the purpose of Laugh a Defiance was to raise funds. It doesn’t appear that Mary Richardson was ever in full-time employment and, although she had presumably inherited some money from her family, at the end of her life the income must have dwindled. At the time of her death in 1961 she was living in a single room – in Hastings. Obviously in order for such a book to sell it did have to be packed with dramatic incident.
I can find no reviews of the book in contemporary newspapers or magazines – or, to be accurate, in ones that are now digitized. The only quote used in its publicity by the publisher, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, was a remark by C.V. [Veronica] Wedgwood who on the radio programme, The Critics, described it as ‘A document – ingenious and absolutely genuine’. Well, yes, ‘ingenious’ is perhaps the word to describe Laugh a Defiance for although Wedgwood was an historian she clearly had not interrogated the accuracy of the ‘document’.
Leaving aside quibbles about who did what, when or where, the book contains laughable examples of ‘cod history’ – such as when Mary in Holloway describes her view onto what she describes as the site, in Elizabethan times, of the banqueting hall of the Earls of Warwick. Doubting very much that those Earls had ever had a London home in Parkhurst Road, Holloway, I did a little research to try to discover what had been in Mary Richardson’s mind. The answer: that when the prison was built in the mid-19th century the architect copied the design of the gatehouse from Warwick Castle. Such is the way that the most innocuous facts become corrupted and I’m certain that Mary Richardson’s suffragette autobiography contains many more such elisions and half-truths. Rubbed up and polished, they presented a dashing and easily digested history designed to appeal to the general reader.
I have always wondered what her fellow suffragettes made of Mary Richardson’s Laugh a Defiance – and of her two broadcasts. The Suffragette Fellowship, the organization to which many former members of the WSPU and the Women’s Freedom League belonged, was by no means devoid of factional infighting. Certainly she appears to have felt quite at ease when, a couple of years after the book was published (but before the radio programmes were broadcast), she attended a Suffragette Fellowship reunion at Caxton Hall (you can watch her here on a Pathe newsreel as she shows her very distinctive hunger-strike medal to a policeman. I wonder if any comments were made about the accuracy of her recollections?
For instance, as far as I can discover, no member of the WSPU ever mentioned that Mary Richardson was, as she claimed, at the Derby watching Emily Wilding Davison as she stepped into the path of the King’s horse. Why was such a valuable first-hand account not written up in The Suffragette or Votes for Women? Why was she not called as a witness at the inquest? In her telling the expedition to Epsom was not clandestine – rather she was following an order from Headquarters to go there to sell The Suffragette. She doesn’t go so far as to say that she accompanied Emily Davison but somehow out of the seething Derby crowd – the hundreds of thousands that swarmed over Epsom Downs – she was able to spot Emily and position herself at the opposite side of the track at Tattenham Corner. Exciting reading – but is it history?
However, Mary Richardson’s account in Laugh a Defiance of her attack on the Rokeby Venus accords very accurately with the contemporary newspaper reports. There was, of course, no need to dress up that drama – for she was (with Venus) undoubtedly the star of that particular episode.
As this is a blog post – not an academic article – I will allow myself another flight of fancy. I live not far from Doughty Street and am a regular passenger on the No 38 bus that runs along Theobalds Road. By 1914 this bus route had been in operation for a couple of years and, unless Mary Richardson walked to the National Gallery, may well have carried her as far as Cambridge Circus, bringing her within striking distance, as it were, of the Gallery. It is these gossamer connections – the layers of history through which we pass – that continue to amuse me. If I were sufficiently fanciful I could link Mary Richardson and the Rokeby Venus to both the number 38 bus, on which, incidentally, I travelled part of the way to my date with her in the Woman’s Hour studio, and to Charles Dickens, the shade of whose footstep she touched as she made her determined way over the threshold of 48 Doughty Street that March morning.
P.S. Coincidentally another nude, George Clausen’s Primavera, attacked by Maude Kate Smith in the RA Summer Exhibition in 1914, was sold by Christies on 17 June 2014, the day after my Woman’s Hour piece – for £92,500. You can listen to Miss Smith describing how she attacked the painting in a recording held by the Women’s Library@LSE.
PPS Readers who have been kind enough to visit from the Persephone Books website and are of a ‘Persephone mind’ (although equipped with non-Persephone technology – ie an e-book reader) will, I hope, find a GOOD READ in the life of Kate Parry Frye – who was very much a ‘Persephone’ woman. Read all about her here.
Millicent Fawcett wearing a pendant given to her by the NUWSS in recognition of her service
Because of copyright issues, I don’t feel able to show you the portrait of Mrs Pankhurst that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. But I wonder how many of you know without looking here which one I mean?
As I thought, a great many. That is doubtless because the portrait is on permanent display.
Mrs Pankhurst’s presence is also kept before us in the shape of her statue in Victoria Tower Gardens, right next to the House of Commons.Both of these images are not where they are by chance. Immediately after her death former suffragettes determined to memorialise their leader in this time-honoured tradition – a portrait painted for the national collection and a statue erected in a prominent and relevant position.
Therefore, it’s unsurprising that Mrs Pankhurst is remembered.
But what of Mrs Millicent Fawcett, whose method of campaigning for the vote for women differed from that of Mrs Pankhurst, but who was in many ways the more effective politician. Indeed, it was she who finally delivered ‘votes for women’.
Mrs Fawcett has no statue. Indeed, droll and dry woman that she was, I’m sure she would turn in her grave if such an idea were to be mooted.
The National Portrait Gallery’s only painted portrait of Mrs Fawcett is this one by Ford Maddox Brown that depicts her as the tender young wife of Henry Fawcett, the blind politician. There is no hint in this picture of her future career. Incidentally this painting hangs, not in London, but in Bodelwydden Castle.
Tate Britain does hold this portrait of Millicent Fawcett, painted at the end of her life by her friend Annie Swynnerton. Mrs Fawcett is shown wearing academic dress, her honorary degree robes from St Andrews.
This painting is permanently in storage. It was shown at the Royal Academy in 1930 and, after being bought for the nation as a Chantrey Bequest purchase, has never been seen in public since. When I was writing Enterprising Women I arranged to see the painting in the Tate’s store. There was no difficulty – beyond making an appointment – in gaining access – but how very different from saying ‘hallo’ to Mrs Pankhurst every day, if one so chose, in the National Portrait Gallery.
Why can’t this portrait be brought out of storage and, if it doesn’t fit into the Tate Britain hanging policy, be transferred to the National Portrait Gallery where it would admirably complement Mrs Pankhurst?
Mrs Fawcett was not, of course, without staunch memorialising supporters. But, rather than a statue, they put their efforts into a building – Women’s Service House in Marsham Street, Westminster – and named the large hall inside for Mrs Fawcett. Financial exigency has long since separated the building from the women’s movement (although we are thankful that it has been given a new lease of life by Westminster School). For many years Millicent Fawcett’s name was synonymous with the wonderful library that originated in Women’s Service House but was at the beginning of the 21st century given the much less resonant name of The Women’s Library.
However Mrs Fawcett’s lifelong work for the women’s cause is still commemorated in the vigorous efforts of The Fawcett Society. I am sure, sensible woman that she was, she would much rather that that was the case than that her portrait should hang in the National Portrait Gallery. And, yet, knowing how responsive the public is to the visual image, I do wish she might be allowed to share Mrs Pankhurst’s limelight.
Because it would be too ironic to devote a post to bemoaning the lack of visual representation of Mrs Fawcett, here she is, wearing an National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies badge.
Read much more about Millicent Fawcett – and all the Garretts – in Enterprising Women: the Garretts and their circle
and when in London visit the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Gallery.
UPDATE: And if there were to be a statue of a woman in Parliament Square (see here) to commemorate the women’s suffrage campaign, why should it not be of Millicent Fawcett?
In the past – very suffragette -month the following guest posts commissioned from me have appeared:
For the No 10 website: We Wanted to Wake Him Up: Lloyd George and Suffragette Militancey
For the OUP Blog: Why is Emily Wilding Davison remembered as the first suffragette martyr?
For the British Library Untold Lives Blog: Emily Wilding Davison: Perpetuating the Memory
I also took part in Clare Balding’s Secrets of a Suffragette (Channel 4 TV), can be heard talking about Kate Parry Frye and Emily Wilding Davison’s funeral procession on Parliamentary Radio, and took part in the ‘Women’s Rebellion’ programme in Michael Portillo’s Radio 4 series 1913: The Year Before. To listen to the last two see under ‘Links’ – to the right.
In Night and Day, set in 1910, Virginia Woolf writes explicitly of the suffrage campaign. She places the office of her suffrage society, the ‘S.G.S.’, in the heart of Bloomsbury, in Russell Square. Mary Datchet works there (‘From ten to six every day’) in an office on the top-floor of a large house ‘which had once been lived in by a great city merchant and his family’. When Mary Datchet is found ‘lost, apparently, in admiration of the large hotel across the square’, she could in fact have been looking at not one but two imposing hotels – the Russell and the Imperial.
A house with just such a view, number 23, on the north-western corner of the square, belonged to Sir Alexander Rendel, grandfather of Ellie Rendel, close friend of Ray Strachey. Although by 1910 the offices of the main women’s suffrage societies were in real life based either in Westminster, where Ray Strachey was busy working for the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, or around the Strand, Russell Square had indeed, in the later years of the 19th century, been a centre of the movement. The northern corner of the Hotel Russell (perhaps the very hotel on which Mary Datchet’s gaze rested) had replaced 8 Russell Square, where Dr Richard Pankhurst, his wife Emmeline, and their young family had lived from 1888 to 1893.
It was here, in the 1890s, that the Pankhursts’ art-furnished double drawing room had provided a useful gathering place for conferences of the Women’s Franchise League, a society aimed at winning the vote for women. The most lavish of these conferences, held over three days in December 1891, was illustrated in the Graphic and reproduced 40 years later in Our Mothers (ed. Alan Bott & Irene Clepahane), a book owned by Virginia Woolf and consulted by her when writing Three Guineas.
The chief founder of the Women’s Franchise League was Mrs Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy, one of the 19th-century’s most active workers for the women’s Cause. Virginia Woolf’s father, Leslie Stephen, was in touch with Mrs Elmy on at least one occasion, for it is she he thanks for the information he used when compiling the entry for the Dictionary of National Biography on her brother, Joseph Wolstenholme.
The latter was, until his death in 1891, an intimate of the Stephen household; the two men had met at Cambridge where, before an unfortunate marriage, Wolstenholme had been a fellow of Christ’s College. Noel Annan describes a dinner in Wolstnholme’s rooms at Christs’ at which Leslie Stephen took issue with the opinions held by his dining companions. He accused them of ‘drivelling radicalism’ and joked: ‘to give women votes – why, it might save the Church of England for a quarter of a century’.
There were many reasons for objecting to the vote for women but Joseph Wolstenholme was not to be swayed. In 1870 he and two other fro Cambridge subscribed to the Manchester National Society for Women’s Suffrage, the most radical of the women’s suffrage societies, founded by his sister in 1865.
Whatever differences they might have had on such subjects, Leslie Stephen remained an affectionate friend, inviting Joseph Wolstenholme to share the Stephen holiday each summer in Cornwall and reminiscing about these visits in the Mausoleum Book in which he alludes to Wolstenholme’s ‘Bohemian tastes and heterodox opinions’. Quentin Bell has suggested that the character of Augustus Carmichael in To the Lighthouse was based on that of Joseph Wolstenholme. Carmichael and Wolstenholme certainly shared a taste for opium. Carmichael does not, however, reveal his opinion on women’s suffrage.
Virginia Woolf included memories of ‘The Woolly One’ (as Wolstenholme was fondly known to the young Stephens) in A Sketch of the Past and mentions in 22 Hyde Park Gate, that George Duckworth thought ‘old Mr Wolstenholme not one of the “nice people”‘.
So we can recognise that, as Mary Datchet’s eyes gazed across Russell Square from the S.G.S. office, threads of association spooled forth linking her and her creator to two of the most influential activists for women’s suffrage. It would be a mistake, however, to identify the ‘S.G.S.’, the acronym never elucidated, with a women’s suffrage society.
In 1910 Virginia Stephen offered her services to the People’s Suffrage Federation (P.S.F.), a society formed in October 1909 to promote adult (not merely female) suffrage and to remove the property basis as the qualification for citizenship.
To her friend and teacher, Janet Case, Virginia wrote in a letter dated 1 January 1910: ‘I don’t know anything about the question. Perhaps you could send me a pamphlet, or give me the address of the office …You impressed me so much the other night with the wrongness of the present state of affairs that I feel that action is necessary.’
So it was that Virginia Stephen spent a short time working in an office in Mecklenburgh Square, addressing envelopes for the P.S.F., while absorbing details that were to be transported across Bloomsbury to the office of the S.G.S. As the adult suffrage for which the P.S.F. was committed was also known as ‘universal suffrage’, perhaps we could unravel the initials of Mary Datchet’s society and reconstruct them as ‘The Society for General Suffrage’.
All things pass away and, as Mrs Pankhurst’s double drawing room made way for the terracotta splendour of the Hotel Russell, so the ‘Virginia Woolf Burger and Pasta Bar’ that at the beginning of the 21st century nestled in the hotel’s northern corner where once the members of the Women’s Franchise League held earnest debate, is, alas, no more. How suitable, then, that the hotel’s new dining room is named ‘Tempus’, with Night following Day in the diurnal rhythm that sweeps us onward while Mary Datchet still stands, ‘lost in admiration’, gazing out across Russell Square.