Posts Tagged suffragette memorabilia

Suffrage Stories: ‘Bring Manchester’s Suffragette Banner Home’

Manchester WSPU Banner, c. 1908

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 followed 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 is not lost and that ‘other party’ is prepared to sell the banner to the PHM for a sum that gives him a not entirely unreasonable profit. The museum has been awarded funds from various bodies to cover a substantial part of this sum, but needs to raise a further £5000 to be able to complete the purchase.

As a result The People’s History Museum is Crowdfunding to ‘Bring Manchester’s Suffragette Banner Home’ – see here for details. I’ve made a contribution. Will you?

 

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Collecting Suffrage: Suffragette Jewellery And ‘The Antiques Trade Gazette’

This week’s issue of the Antiques Trade Gazette contains a letter from me protesting against the mis-describing of random pieces of Victorian/Edwardian jewellery that have a combination of metals and/or stones approximating to the purple, white and green of the WSPU, as ‘suffragette’.

ATG

Here is the text of the letter:

‘As a long-established dealer in suffragette memorabilia I must try once again to take a stand against the mis-labelling as ‘suffragette’ of any pieces of jewellery that contain stones approximating to some shade of purple (or pink or red), white and green.

I see on page 32 of this week’s ATG that two auction houses so described 3 brooches/pendants. I have no idea if the intrinsic value of the items was commensurate with the sale price achieved, but of one thing I am certain – there was nothing in the lot descriptions that convinced me that these pieces had any association with the suffragette movement. I only hope that those bidding were not doing so with any thought that they were acquiring a piece of suffragette history. It should be obvious to anyone with any historical sense that it is necessary to have a much more detailed provenance – a documented history – other than some woolly description about ‘purple, white and green’.  

The ‘colours’ were the invention of one of the leaders of the WSPU, Mrs Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, as a way of creating a ‘brand’ for the WSPU and were first used in June 1908 at a grand rally held by the WSPU in Hyde Park.‘The Public Meeting Act’ of December 1908, mentioned in the ATG piece, was intended, although notably unsuccessful, to prevent suffragettes from heckling ministers – not to prevent suffragettes themselves from holding meetings. It was not until years later – in April 1913 – that there was any prohibition on the WSPU holding meetings in public parks. Moreover, Britain was never such a repressive country that suffragettes found it necessary to wear jewellery ‘in the colours’ as a secret token of allegiance. Quite the reverse; women wore their badges (also now very collectable) proudly –advertising the WSPU and many other suffrage societies.

Since each of these societies followed the WSPU lead and adopted an individual combination of colours of their own I am surprised that auction houses and dealers have not yet leaped onto that bandwagon. For instance, the colours of the main suffrage society – the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies – were red, white and green. Just think how many pieces of jewellery with stones in those colours could be described as ‘suffragette’ if we were seriously to follow the ‘purple, white and green’ rule.

I have studied the suffragette movement in depth – in all its manifestations – and can report that there is no evidence that ‘suffragette’ jewellery was made in anything like the quantity flooding the auction houses and, of course, Ebay. Moreover the only commercial company known to have made and retailed ‘suffragette jewellery’ as such was Mappin and Webb (Stanley Mappin was a convinced supporter of the WSPU – joining in the suffrage boycott of the 1911 census). I would be interested to learn of any documentation citing any other commercial company as maker of ‘suffragette jewellery’.  

 Other jewellery was made by individual artist craftswomen- such as the well-known enameller Ernestine Mills – to sell at fund-raising suffragette bazaars and may well have included references to suffragette colours and motifs. On occasion one can find pieces that demonstrate clearly their suffragette provenance. One such is a pendant made – in purple, white and green enamel – from a design by Sylvia Pankhurst. The pendant is long since sold but I use the  image of it as the identifier on my website – womanandhersphere.com – on which those who really want to know about ‘suffragette’ jewellery can find more information – as they can in the entry under ‘Jewellery and Badges’ in my The Women’s Suffrage Movement; a reference guide, published by Routledge. Ignorance should not be a reason for allowing auction houses and dealers to perpetuate the ‘suffragette jewellery’ myth. As I say, I specialize in suffragette memorabilia but could not possibly bring myself to sell something as ‘suffragette’ if I was not certain that it had an authentic provenance.’

I don’t suppose this will make a jot of difference – but I try. A suffrage collector told me recently that, after buying an item on Ebay and then doing a little research, he realised that the item was not of original suffragette provenance. When he protested to the Ebay seller, he was told,  ‘Prove it’. That was not a valuable item, so it was not worth the trouble of engaging in a prolonged battle with a seller who lacked both historical knowledge and a conscience.  However, I am sure there are cases, particularly of jewellery, where sales are made that would not have been without the spurious ‘suffragette’ description.

Caveat Emptor 

Buy only from a reputable dealer.

 

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