Posts Tagged People’s History Museum
A reader of this blog has asked me to confirm who was the ‘Mrs Rachel Scott’ who unfurled the ‘First in the Fight’ Manchester WSPU banner in 1908.
You will remember that I wrote here about the discovery of the banner and the subsequent appeal that resulted in it being acquired by the People’s History Museum in Manchester. In that piece I wrote that I suspected that the woman given the honour of unfurling the banner was the Mrs Rachel Scott who had been the WSPU’s first honorary secretary, rather than Rachel Scott, wife of C.P. Scott of the Manchester Guardian. And, of course, the merest further investigation showed that it was indeed Mrs ‘Secretary’ Scott who had unfurled the banner – not least because Mrs C.P. Scott had died three years earlier, in 1905.
But my enquirer was still interested in finding out something of Mrs Rachel Scott, the ‘unfurler’….so I have done a little delving. For, although her name has often been mentioned in studies of the early days of the WSPU, she has not, as far as I can see, hitherto been credited with a real life.
I can report that she was born Rachel Lovett in Chorlton, Lancashire, in 1863, one of the many (at least 9) children of Thomas Lovett and his wife, Elizabeth. Her father was a labourer in the oilcloth industry and in 1871 the family was living next to the Marsden oilcloth factory at Canal Side, Newton Heath. Rachel’s older sisters became weavers or winders as soon as, aged 14, they left school. However, the 1881 census shows that Rachel had escaped this fate and, aged 17, was working as a pupil teacher. She presumably continued teaching until her marriage in 1890 to Henry (Harry) Charles David Scott, the son of a schoolmaster. Harry was at this time described as a ‘cashier’ but by 1901, when the family, now with four children, was living at 5 Duncan Street, Broughton, he was ‘managing director of an engineering firm’. In fact, he worked for the Manchester firm of Royles for most of his life, becoming chairman of the board of directors. At the turn of the 20th century he was a strong supporter of The Clarion, the socialist newspaper, and was a member of the Independent Labour party, paying the rent of the Party’s Manchester meeting room.
For we know it was through the Manchester ILP that Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst encountered Rachel Scott, who was one of the women she invited to the meeting at her house in Nelson Street, Manchester, on 10 October 1903, at which the Women’s Social and Political Union was founded. Mrs Scott was appointed the WSPU’s first secretary and had a letter published in the 30 October 1903 issue of The Clarion alerting fellow Socialists to the existence of this new organisation and appealing ‘to all women Socialists to join in this movement to press upon party and community the urgent need of giving to women the vote, that they may take their share of the vote for social emancipation’.
Rachel Scott maintained her involvement with the Manchester WSPU for some years, noted as present at various meetings and demonstrations, for instance appearing on Platform 12 at the WSPU Hyde Park demonstration of Sunday 21 June 1908 (described in Votes for Women, 18 June 1908, as ‘well-known as a capable speaker and hard worker in the Manchester district’) and, of course, was singled out to present the banner to the Manchester WSPU on 20 June 1908, the day before the Hyde Park meeting. The banner hadn’t been ready in time to be unfurled with others in the Queen’s Hall in London.
Rachel Scott was on the platform at a meeting in Manchester’s Free Trade Hall on 19 January 1909 when Christabel Pankhurst received a rapturous welcome but I get the impression that after this she rather fades from view, perhaps less interested as it became clear that the WSPU was no longer a supporter of the socialist movement with which, in 1909, she was still actively involved. Certainly, she did not boycott the 1911 census and was at home (‘Arrandale’, Crofts Bank Road, Urmston) on census night with her husband and by now five children. Her eldest son was a ‘student of chemistry’, another was an ‘engineering apprentice’, and a third was a clerk. The other two children were still at school.
One of Rachel’s sisters was living with the family in 1911, as she appears to have done all their married life. Another of Rachel’s sisters died that year but had previously worked as a superintendent in the ‘Imbecile Wards’ of the Crumpsall (Manchester) Workhouse. Yet another sister had for a time been employed as a nurse in the same workhouse. Presumably both positions had been an improvement on the sisters’ earliest employment in the cotton industry. Doubtless both from her own experience and that of her sisters Rachel Scott was well apprised of the state of the poor and afflicted and had hoped that the WSPU would be a means of improving their lot. She may have become disillusioned.
Rachel Scott died in 1925. Of her sons, one was killed during the First World War, one became an analytical chemist, another an engineer designer, and the fourth emigrated to Australia. Her daughter married, but died in 1935. Harry, still a director of Royles, was appointed a magistrate in 1931 and died in 1937.
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A couple of months ago I was astounded to spot the appearance of this banner in the catalogue of a Leeds auction house. It seemed impossible that such an important item of suffrage memorabilia should suddenly surface in this way.
Having been in the business of dealing in books and ephemera for well over 30 years I have a deeply-rooted suspicion of anything that looks too good to be true. It probably is. It seemed unlikely that anyone would go to the lengths of faking this banner..but one never knows. But if it was ‘right’, what a fantastic survival.
Everything did look ‘right’ – see the wonderfully period lettering – and the banner is documented. The Manchester Courier, Monday, 22 June 1908, describes its first unfurling – on the previous Saturday in Stevenson Square, Manchester. The report describes the banner as having the words ‘”The Women’s Social and Political Union” printed in a white border flanking a purple centre where the motto is “Manchester First in the Fight” and “Founded by Mrs Pankhurst’. Although by 1908 WSPU headquarters was centred in London, here was Manchester claiming its rightful place as ‘First in the Fight’. For it was at a meeting at Mrs Pankhurst’s house at 62 Nelson Street, Manchester, that the idea for the new society had emerged on 10 October 1903.
The banner was unfurled to the skirl of bagpipes and received eulogia from Rona Robinson and Mary Gawthorpe. The woman who was given the honour of unfurling the banner is noted merely as ‘Mrs Scott’. I think this must be the Mrs Rachel Scott who had been present at the first meeting of the WSPU – and subsequently was appointed secretary – rather than Mrs Rachel Scott, wife of C.P. Scott, editor of The Manchester Guardian…..but more investigation is needed here. And then, to add a final flourish to the occasion, Victor Grayson MP made a speech, declaring that ‘he was prepared to sacrifice himself on the altar of woman’s ideal’.
Of course I toyed with the idea of bidding for the banner. Such an item is incredibly scarce – the last one I know to have been for sale on the open market was auctioned in the early 1980s. It went to a very knowledgeable American collector and is now in the collection of a US university . But it was obvious that the perfect home for Manchester’s WSPU banner would be the People’s History Museum in Manchester. Surely it was really much more sensible, even if not the most smart business decision, to alert them to its existence in the hope that they would be able to bid for it themselves?
The People’s History Museum had known nothing of the forthcoming auction and were thrilled at the prospect of the possibility of acquiring the banner. Thus, on the day of the auction, representatives from the Museum went over to Leeds and, when viewing the banner, discovered, not only did it look and feel ‘right’, but that it still had attached the label of the maker, Thomas Brown, a well-known Manchester banner maker of the period.
The story that slowly emerged about the recent history of the banner is the stuff of dreams.
It had been given to a small independent charity shop in Leeds about ten years ago and had been in a cupboard ever since. The charity looks after elderly people in the local area and apparently it had been left to them, along with the other contents of his house, by an old man with no family. His mother had come to Leeds from Manchester in the 1930s. Her name was believed to be ‘Edna White’, but it isn’t known how she came to have the banner.
I watched the auction on-line and was horribly disappointed when it became clear that the PHM had reached their upper bidding limit and that the banner had been bought by another party for £13,600 (plus all the auctioneer’s premiums, VAT etc).
However, all was not lost and that ‘other party’ was prepared to sell the banner to the PHM for a sum that gave him a not entirely unreasonable profit. The museum was awarded funds from various bodies to cover a substantial part of this sum, and Crowdfunded to raise a further £5000 to complete the purchase.
The money was raised within a few days – and the ‘First in the Fight’ banner is now in the care of the People’s History Museum, where it will take pride of place in an exhibition next year to mark the centenary of the Representation of the People Act.
Update June 2018: The Manchester WSPU banner, full conserved, now takes pride of place in the People’s History Museum new exhibition ‘Represent: Voices 100 Years On!’
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