Turbulent Londoners: Jessie Kenney, 1887-1985

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past, with a particular focus of women, whose contribution to history is often overlooked. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. To celebrate the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, all of the Turbulent Londoners featured in 2018 will have been involved in the campaign for women’s suffrage. This post is about Jessie Kenney, younger sister of Annie Kenney, the best-known working class member of the Women’s Social and Political Union.


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Jessie Kenney (Source: Unbound).

Most people who are familiar with the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) know about Annie Kenney, the charismatic working class organiser from Oldham in Greater Manchester. What fewer people know is that Annie’s sisters were also involved in the fight for women’s suffrage. Annie’s younger sister, Jessie, was also a full-time organiser for the WSPU, although she had a different skill set to Annie.

Jessie Kenney was born in Oldham in 1887, the ninth of 12 children. When she was 13, she left school to start working in a cotton mill, although she continued her education through evening classes. In 1905, she went with her sister Annie to the Oldham Clarion Vocal Club to listen to Teresa Billington-Grieg and Christabel Pankhurst speak about women’s suffrage. After that, both sisters joined the WSPU. Annie, eight years older than Jessie, was a charismatic and engaging speaker. Jessie’s skills were more organisational, and in 1906 she began working for the WSPU full time as Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence‘s secretary.

Jessie used her organisational skills to great effect, arranging deputations to visit politicians and interrupt meetings. On the 23rd of February 1909 Jessie took advantage of a loophole that allowed ‘human letters’ to be sent through the Royal Mail to send Daisy Soloman and Elspeth McClellan to the Prime Minister from the Strand Post Office. In October 1910, she organised the WSPU’s campaign during the Walthamstow by-election. In 1912, she did the same in South Hackney.

Jessie did not just organise WSPU actions, she also took part in them. She was imprisoned for a month after being arrested at a protest in Parliament Square on the 30th of June 1908. On the 10th of December 1909 she disguised herself as a telegraph boy in order to try and access the Prime Minister Herbert Asquith at a public meeting in Manchester. On the 5th of September 1910, along with Elsie Howey and Vera Wentworth, she accosted Asquith and Herbert Gladstone whilst they were play golf.

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Jessie Kenney’s office in the WSPU headquarters in Clement’s Inn, London. The picture was taken by an H. Seargeant in July 1911 (Source: Museum of London).

In 1913 Jessie was taken ill and sent to Switzerland to recover. She didn’t destroy her papers before she left, and evidence that the authorities found in her flat was used to convict the WSPU’s chemist, Edwy Clayton, to 21 months in prison for his role in the group’s arson campaign. In 1914, Jessie went to stay with Christabel Pankhurst, who was living in hiding in Paris. Between July and August, she travelled to Glasgow once a week to make sure the WSPU’s newspaper, The Suffragette, was published successfully.

When Britain joined the First World War in August 1914, Jessie threw herself into the war effort with the rest of the WSPU. In 1915, she travelled to America to organise the early stages of the Pankhurst’s Serbian Mission. The following year, she helped to organise the WSPU’s War Work Procession in London, encouraging women to join the war effort. In 1917, Jessie travelled to Russia with Emmeline Pankhurst to meet with the Provisional Government and try and persuade them to keep Russia in the war.

After the war, Jessie worked for the American Red Cross in Paris. She decided she wanted to be a Radio Officer on a ship, and trained at the North Wales Wireless College. She got a first class certificate in Radio Telegraphy, but was unable to get a job in such a male-dominated industry. Instead she worked as a steward on cruise liners before settling in Battersea and working as an administrative secretary in a school. She died 1985.

Jessie Kenney may not be as famous as her sister, but there is no doubt that she worked just as hard to win women the right to vote. Her skills kept her out of the spotlight, but she made an invaluable contribution to the WSPU and deserves just as much recognition as any other woman who campaigned for the right to vote.

References and Further Reading

ArchivesHub. “Papers of Jessie Kenney.” No date, accessed 14 October 2018. Available at https://archiveshub.jisc.ac.uk/search/archives/046b1a57-c944-3de8-bc81-00176e398001

Simkin, John. “Jessie Kenney.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified February 2015, accessed 14 October 2018. Available at https://spartacus-educational.com/WkenneyJ.htm

Wikipedia, “Jessie Kenney.” Last modified 15 August 2018, accessed 9 October 2018. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jessie_Kenney

Mill Girls and Militants at Preston’s Flag Market and the Harris Museum

The centenary of some women being given the right to vote in the UK has inspired a huge variety of creative outputs, including books, exhibitions, and even a few of my own blog posts (see everything I’ve written about Vote 100 here). On 27th of October, I went to see a performance piece that creatively engaged with the suffrage centenary in an entirely different way. Mill Girls and Militants is inspired by Lancashire’s suffrage stories, and created by Ludus, a Lancaster-based dance development charity.

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Mill Girls and Militants on the Preston Flag Market on Saturday 27th October 2018 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The performance took place in Preston’s Harris Museum, and on the Flag Market outside. A combination of music and dance, the performance was the culmination of a summer of activities and research designed to connect women in Preston, Lancaster, and Burnley with local suffrage history. It was performed by the Ludus Youth Dance Company and local community groups, and was recorded with special Virtual Reality cameras, which means the performance will be available as a VR experience, increasing the number of people who can experience it and creating a teaching resource.

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A defiant group of suffragettes on the second floor of the Harris Museum (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The performance began on the Flag Market, with a wonderful rendition of ‘Nana was a Suffragette,’ a song written by Jules Gibb. Dancers then took on the role of the women of Lancashire, working their shift in the mill as word of a pro-suffrage meeting spreads. Beyond that, the ‘narrative’ became less easy to follow (for me, anyway!). The audience followed the women into the Harris Museum, where groups performed on three different floors. We were all then evicted from the museum, replicating women’s experiences of being banned from museums and art galleries after suffragettes damaged exhibits. One of the most famous examples is the slashing of The Rokeby Venus, a painting by Diego Delazquez, in the National Portrait Gallery by Mary Richardson in 1914. We were led back to the Flag Market, where the ‘protest’ continued. Each of the earlier sections had been performed by smaller groups, but this one involved the whole cast, communicating a real sense of collective power. The choir sung again, and the performance culminated with the whole cast flipping their aprons around the reveal the flags and colours of various pro-suffrage organisations.

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The flags of different suffrage organisations were revealed as part of the performance’s finale (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

I’m not ashamed to say that I don’t often ‘get’ modern dance performances, I struggle to connect with the story they are telling, or the emotion they are trying to convey. And I will admit that there were parts of Mill Girls and Militants that I didn’t understand. However, I enjoyed the performance, which was definitely the most creative way that I have seen the suffrage centenary engaged with over the last 12 months, and I can see its potential for engaging the general public. Lots of people who were in town for other reasons stopped to see what was going on, and who knows, perhaps a few of them went home and did a bit of research on Edith Rigby or Selina Cooper, or any of Lancashire’s suffrage campaigners. I also liked the way that Mill Girls and Militants used the space of Preston’s city centre; the Flag Market is a large open space which has probably witnesses hundreds of protests over the years, and the more enclosed spaces of the Harris Museum created a completely different atmosphere.

Thanks to the VR experience that is being produced of the performance, Mill Girls and Militants is not yet over. It will be interesting to see how this next stage of the project develops, and whether it is as effective in virtual reality as it was in real life.

London’s Protest Stickers: Immigration and Race 2

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Immigration and racism have been a key issue for activists in London in recent years (Photo: Hannah Awcock, 09/10/16, Whitechapel High Street).

In recent years, events such as the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean and Brexit have made immigration and race particularly contentious issues in Britain. As I have discussed before, London is no stranger to immigration; the city would be a very different place without it. Unfortunately, it is also no stranger to xenophobia, racism, and anti-migrant sentiments, as some of the stickers below demonstrate. However, there are groups, social movements, and activists who are willing to defend the rights of migrants and ethnic minorities in Britain, as most of the stickers below will show.

To see where the protest stickers in this post were located, check out the Turbulent London Map.

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Most protest stickers represent left-wing points of view, but there are some that promote particularly nasty politics. These next few stickers are all of this type. When I went back the next day, this one had been removed, suggesting that I’m not the only one that found it unpleasant (Photo: Hannah Awcock, 02/06/16, Euston Road).

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The text of this sticker has been obscured by water damage, but the first half says “When Tibet is full of Chinese it’s genocide.” I’m not sure what the second half says, but it implies that there is a similar situation in North America and Europe, but it’s called diversity (Photo: Hannah Awcock, 02/06/16, Euston Road).

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I suspect that the last three stickers were all made by the same people/person, given they have the same message, similar design, and were all located in close proximity (Photo: 03/06/15, Great Portland Street).

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This sticker was made by an anti-fascist group, and the slogan is quite common amongst anti-fascist stickers, although the image varies (Photo: Hannah Awcock, 09/10/16, Cable Street).

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United Glasgow FC is a football team that aims to make the sport accessible and bring communities together to all by keeping costs down and combating discrimination. At some point one of them, or their supporters, came to London and put up a sticker (Photo: Hannah Awcock, 09/10/16, Cable Street).

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This sticker has a very simple design, but I think it’s effective. It also doesn’t provide any clues as to who produced it, suggesting that the message was more important to whoever produced it than promoting a particular group or campaign (Photo: Hannah Awcock, 23/03/17, Charing Cross Road).

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Stand Up to Racism is a fairly self-explanatory organisation. This sticker is promoting their national day of action in 2017. They also organise national conferences, and smaller protests and campaigns on specific issues. Recently, they have been campaigning against the popular neo-fascist leader, Tommy Robinson, and the Democratic Football Lads Alliance, which they accuse of being racist (Photo: Hannah Awcock, 20/03/16, New Cross Road).

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This sticker on Euston Road is another example of a simple, effective message (Photo: Hannah Awcock, 23/03/17, Euston Road).

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This slogan has become a common refrain amongst those campaigning against the handling of the European migrant crisis. If there were no borders, then there would be no illegal immigrants, and there would be no need for fences to keep them out (Photo: Hannah Awcock, 09/10/16, Whitechapel High Street).

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The UK Border Agency has come under fire in recent years for the immigration raids it conducts across London. A movement has grown up that seeks to counter the raids in a variety of ways, including publicising the movements  of the UKBA on social media, so it is harder for them to make surprise raids (Photo: Hannah Awcock, 09/10/16, St. George’s Gardens).

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Sisters Uncut is an organisation that campaigns against cuts to services related to domestic violence (see London’s Protest Stickers: Gender). Here, they are expressing solidarity for another vulnerable group. Migrant women are also particularly susceptible to domestic violence (Photo: Hannah Awcock, 12/10/17, Regent’s Canal).

 

Book Review: London Fog- The Biography

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London Fog by Christine L. Corton.

Christine L. Corton. London Fog: The Biography. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017. RRP £13.95 paperback.

I like books about London, and I like books that take very specific objects or phenomena, such as a particular weather condition, and links them to wider political, social, economic, cultural, and historical contexts (Tear Gas by Anna Feigenbaum is a really good example of this). So when I found London Fog: The Biography, I was excited to read it.

Although London’s location in the Thames basin means it has always been susceptible to mist and damp, London Fog begins in the 1840s, when the city’s rapid expansion and industrialisation meant London began to suffer from fog in earnest. The book’s narrative ends in the 1960s; the last major period of fog London experienced was in December 1962. For more than a century the city suffered from dense, cloying fog during the winter months that was capable of shutting down the city by reducing visibility to almost zero, and caused breathing difficulties, respiratory illnesses, and even death.

Christine L. Corton uses the fog to tell a social, cultural, and political history of London between those two dates. She explores the way that fog was constructed and interpreted in various narratives, including political debates and identity. Over the course of the century in which fog was a defining characteristic of London life it was the subject of many arguments about what caused the fog, what was so dangerous about it, what could be done to prevent it, and whose responsibility it was. Corton traces these debates with skill and patience.

There is also a lot of literary and art criticism in London Fog; Corton devotes significant attention to how fog in London has been represented in various art forms including paintings, photography, novels, and films. In this way, London Fog reminds me of Nightwalking by Mathew Beaumont, which explores the literary history of London at night. Whereas Nightwalking suffers from a distinct lack of female writers, however, London Fog does discuss female artists.

London Fog is obviously the product of extensive and detailed research. It is full of wonderful images, often in colour. This is a big plus; it is quite unusual for books like this to have so many high-quality images. The narrative is incredibly detailed, which occasionally causes the pacing to suffer; readers with only a mild interest in the topic may struggle.

There are a huge number of books about London’s history, and it takes a lot to write one that stands out from the crowd. London Fog is about a subject that is quintessentially London, but also manages to be original. It is an excellent example about how something small and specific can be used to better understand the large and general.

Turbulent Londoners: Helen Taylor, 1831-1907

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past, with a particular focus of women, whose contribution to history is often overlooked. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. To celebrate the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, all of the Turbulent Londoners featured in 2018 will have been involved in the campaign for women’s suffrage. This post is about Helen Taylor, a feminist and campaigner.


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Helen Taylor with her stepfather, John Stuart Mill (Source: Wikipedia).

Much of the attention during this centenary year of women’s suffrage has been on the groups who were active immediately before some women won the right to vote in 1918. Whilst groups such as the Women’s Social and Political Union, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies and the Women’s Freedom League were very important in the struggle for the right to vote, the campaign actually went back much further than that, to the mid-nineteenth century. One of the first prominent campaigners for women’s rights was Helen Taylor, daughter of Harriet Taylor Mill.

Helen Taylor was born in London on the 27th of July 1831, the only daughter and youngest child of John and Harriet Taylor. Helen had little formal education as a child, but travelled widely in Europe with her mother. Her father died when she was a teenager in 1849, and her mother remarried the philosopher and politician, John Stuart Mill, two years later. Helen wanted to be an actress, and in 1856 went to work for a provincial theatre company in the north-east of England. She left when her mother died in 1858, however, and never returned to the stage.

After her mother’s death, Helen moved in with her stepfather and became his assistant. John valued the intelligence and input of his stepdaughter, as he had with his wife; he claimed that his later work was the result of three minds, not one. The two of them split their time between Blackheath in London, and Avignon, where John had bought a house so he could be close to his wife’s grave.

Helen shared a deep passion for the cause of women’s suffrage with John. They both believed that a woman’s right to vote should not be determined by her marital status. This was an issue that divided suffrage campaigners in the 1860s. Helen played a key role in the 1866 petition calling for right to vote to be extended to all householders, not only men. Helen helped to draft the petition, and was the link between the women who organised it and her stepfather, who presented the petition to parliament on the 7th of June. 1,499 women signed the petition, and although it was dismissed by the parliament, it is often viewed as the start of the organised campaign for the vote.

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The first page of a pamphlet version of the 1866 petition presented to parliament asking that some women be given the right to vote (Source: LSE)

Despite her firm and often loudly voiced opinions, Helen was popular amongst feminists in London. She was a member of the Kensington Group, a female discussion group formed in 1865. After the 1866 petition was rejected, this group formed the basis of the London Society for Women’s Suffrage. After John Stuart Mill’s death in 1873, Helen spent time editing and publishing his work.

The Contagious Diseases Acts were a series of controversial laws that regulated prostitution in military areas. They placed most of the responsibility, and punishment, on the women rather than their customers. During the 1870s there was a strong campaign to repeal the Acts. Helen supported this campaign, and saw it as evidence that women needed to be represented in parliament. She worried that the suffrage cause would be damaged by an association with prostitution, however, and tried to keep the two causes separate.

When John Stuart Mill died, Helen was left financially independent and able to devote herself entirely to her own projects. In 1876, she stood for election to the Southwark school board. She won, and was re-elected twice more before she retired in 1884. She was very popular in this role, campaigning for free and universal education, the abolition of corporal punishment, and for free meals and clothing for the poorest children. Helen was also a supporter of Irish Home Rule, particularly land reform. She was the only woman to serve on the executive of the Land Nationalisation League.

Helen had strong views on morality; she was a member of the Moral Reform Union and the National Vigilance Association. In 1885, secretary of the Vigilance Association William Alexander Coote failed to secure the Liberal nomination for the constituency of Camberwell North. Enraged by this, Helen decided to stand for election herself, 34 years before women were actually allowed to stand for election as MPs. The returning officer refused to accept her nomination or election deposit, but her radical campaign platform gained a lot of attention–she advocated universal suffrage, home rule for Ireland, free universal education, graduated direct income tax, and the banning of war unless the people consented to it.

In the late 1880s Helen retired from public life, and spent most of her time in Avignon, where her mother was buried. She returned in England in late 1904 due to poor health, and was cared for by her niece in Torquay. She died on the 29th of January 1907. Helen Taylor was a woman of strong opinions, which she was not afraid to express. This led to strained relationships with other feminist activists, but she was well respected for her intelligence and determination. She helped pave the way for the women whose campaigning in the early 1900s would eventually win women the right to vote.

Sources and Further Reading

Levine, Philippa. “Taylor, Helen.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 8th October 2009, accessed 31st August 2018. Available at http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-36431?rskey=nioAzW&result=1 [requires subscription to access].

LSE. “The 1866 Women’s Suffrage Petition.” Last modified 7th June 2106, accessed 31st August 2018. Available at http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/lsehistory/2016/06/07/the-1866-womens-suffrage-petition/

Simkin, John. “Kensington Society.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified September 1997, accessed 31st August 2018. Available at http://spartacus-educational.com/Wkensington.htm

Wikipedia. “Helen Taylor (feminist).” Last modified 13th March 2018, accessed 31st August 2018. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helen_Taylor_(feminist)

Protest Stickers: New Orleans

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Someone got creative with this road sign in New Orleans (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

A few months ago, I was lucky enough to go to New Orleans. It’s a city I have always wanted to visit, and it more than lived up to my expectations. It is a vibrant city, full of excellent music, good food, and wonderful people. New Orleans is not without its problems however; the city has become increasingly segregated since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and it has an uneasy relationship with one of its most important industries, tourism (I wrote about the problems with AirBnB in New Orleans here). However, it doesn’t seem to be a city that shies away from it’s problems. The protest stickers I found suggest that New Orleans is a city with a healthy political culture, and I’m certain it’s people will never stop trying to make it a better place.

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Every so often, I find stickers that other people have altered in some way, either by writing on them or scratching parts off. I found quite a few in New Orleans, suggesting that people might take notice of stickers more there than in other cities. The message of this sticker has been altered to mean the complete opposite of what was originally intended. I’m not sure what it’s referring too, but I found the sticker on Bourbon Street, infamous party street and now major tourist trap. There are several strip clubs on Bourbon Street, and strip clubs are an issue that divides feminists, so it could be about that, but it could also be about something completely different (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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With some careful scratching, this sticker has been transformed from anti-fascist to pro-fascist (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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The message of this sticker has been almost entirely obscured. However, I found the same sticker in other places, so I know that the missing words are “Putin’s penis” (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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It is not clear, but this sticker has been altered to read “Trump is an asset.” As much as I disagree with the altered sticker, I can’t help thinking it’s quite a clever edit. However, it looks as if someone else might have tried to scribble out this altered message too (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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The American President Donald Trump was the subject of quite a few of the stickers I found. Unsurprising really, as calling him a controversial figure would be a major understatement (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This one is a little more subtle in its critique (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker makes use of the popular cartoon Rick and Morty to criticise Trump (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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I think this sticker is particularly clever. The building behind the crime scene tape is the White House (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Another popular topic of protest stickers in New Orleans was the police. The message of this one is pretty clear (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Throughout history, the policing of nightlife has often caused tension between authorities and citizens, particularly minority groups (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker plays with the concept of Neighbourhood Watch areas, which is where the logo comes from. The real Neighbourhood Watch programme in the US is run by the National Sheriff’s Association though, so I doubt the anti-police message comes from them. This sticker was made by a group called CrimethInc., an anarchist alliance (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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ACAB is a popular anti-police acronym, it stands for All Cops are Bastards. In the case of this sticker, though, it also means something less contentious (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker also hides it’s anti-policing message by giving a different meaning to ACAB. It’s still a relatively subversive message, though; autonomous communities govern themselves, without any outside interference (Photo:Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker adapts the “Refugees Welcome” slogan and symbol that has become popular since the refugee crisis began a few years ago (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This is more of a poster than a sticker, but I liked it, so decided to leave it in. Someone tried to remove it, but the message is still clear (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker links capitalism and climate change, and I think it is quite effective (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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The Equitable Food Initiative claims to work across the food supply chain to get a better deal for farm workers, but it seems someone disapproves. I wasn’t able to find out anything about why that might be (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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I mentioned the debate over strip clubs earlier, and this sticker was obviously produced by someone who likes stripping, for whatever reason (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker was produced by the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) which works to defend individual rights and liberties in the US (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Book Review: American Uprising- The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt

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American Uprising by Daniel Rasmussen.

Daniel Rasmussen. American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt. New York: Harper Collins, 2011. RRP $15.99 paperback.

Earlier this year, I visited New Orleans. It is a wonderful city, but it’s history of race relations is troubled, to put it mildly. An area called the German Coast sits just a few miles north-west of the city, on the banks of the Mississippi River. In the nineteenth century, it was some of the richest and most fertile agricultural land in America. The most common crop was sugar, and the owners of the plantations along the river grew incredibly rich from it. But it was a system built on slavery. By 1810, 75% of the local population were slaves. Faced with a daily assault of cruel, dehumanising, and violent treatment, it is no surprise that slaves found subtle ways to resist the system. Occasionally, this resistance took the form of armed rebellion. In January 1811, between 200 and 500 enslaved men undertook an armed uprising on the German Coast. American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt tells the story of this revolt, and makes a convincing argument for its significance in the development of the modern United States of America.

This is a story about slave revolutionaries: their lives, their politics, and their fight to the death against the planters and their militia. Above all, this is a story about America: who we are, where we came from, and how our ideals have at times been twisted and cast aside for the sake of greed and power.

Rasmussen, 2011, p. 3

As author Daniel Rasmussen himself argues, the German Coast Uprising has received limited attention from historians over the years. In addition, because the participants were slaves, archival documents relating to the uprising are scarce–accounts from the perspective of the slaves themselves are almost non-existent. Even the names of most of the participants are unknown to us. As a result, Rasmussen has to be creative in the way that he reconstructs the story of the revolt. For example, he uses the accounts of other enslaved people, such as Olaudah Equiano and Solomon Northup (who’s story of slavery formed the basis for the 2013 film 12 Years a Slave), to give the reader an idea of what life would have been like for the slaves who participated in the revolt.

American Uprising does a good job of  telling the story of the revolt in an engaging and accessible way. But Rasmussen also goes beyond this narrative, to explore how the uprising was represented and interpreted, both immediately afterwards, and later by historians. The uprising was quickly depoliticised by those in authority, its participants portrayed as animalistic and violent criminals in a narrative that is still frequently used in relation to riots and other violent protests.

As the map at the beginning of the book demonstrates, the United States of America was still very much a work-in-progress in 1811; Louisiana had only been part of the Union since 1803, and it didn’t obtain statehood until 1812. Rasmussen explains how the uprising played an important role in justifying the necessity of statehood for Louisiana, and helped pave the way for further American expansionism over the next few decades. This is one of the key points in Rasmussen’s argument that the uprising deserves much more attention than it currently gets.

I bought American Uprising whilst I was in Louisiana in order to learn more about the state’s history of dissent. I got much more than that; the book explores the significance of the uprising far beyond the local area, putting it in the context of the development of a nation. American Uprising is well-written and enjoyable, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in the history of protest, slavery, race relations, or imperial expansionism.

Turbulent Londoners: Flora Drummond, 1879-1949

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past, with a particular focus on women, whose contribution to history is often overlooked. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. To celebrate the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, all of the Turbulent Londoners featured in 2018 will have been involved in the campaign for women’s suffrage. This post is about Flora Drummond, a WSPU organiser who was nicknamed ‘The General.’


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Flora Drummond as a young woman (Source: Spartacus Educational).

Flora Drummond (nee. Gibson, later Simpson) was a talented organiser and public speaker. She became involved in the suffrage movement after a personal experience of injustice, and went on to become one of the most well-known organisers in the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). Thanks to her effective organisation skills she became known as ‘the General’ and embraced this nickname, leading suffragette marches dressed in military style uniform and riding a horse.

Flora Gibson was born on 4th August 1878, the daughter of a tailor. Although she was born in Manchester, she grew up on the Isle of Arran in Scotland. When she was 14 she left school and moved to Glasgow to continue her education. She completed the qualification to be a postmistress, but was denied a job because of new regulations that required workers to be at least 5 foot 2 inches tall. Flora was 5 foot 1 inch. She felt this injustice very deeply, believing that the rule discriminated against women because they were shorter on average. Despite this setback, she went on to get further qualifications in short hand and typing.

In 1898, Flora married Joseph Drummond, and the couple moved to Manchester. Both were active in the Fabian Society and International Labour Party. Flora worked in various factories, so she could better understand what life was like for the women who had no choice but to work there. When her husband became unemployed, however, Flora became the sole breadwinner and worked as manager at the Oliver Typewriter Company.

Flora joined the WSPU in Manchester, and moved with it down to London in 1906, when she became a paid full-time organiser, along with Annie Kenney and Minnie Baldock. Her extensive organisational skills were quickly recognised by the WSPU; in 1908 she was put in charge of the group’s headquarters in Clement’s Inn. She was popular and innovative in this role. Flora also had a flair for dramatic protests. That same year, she hired a boat and floated on the Thames outside the Houses of Parliament, addressing the MPs that were sat on the riverside terrace. In October, Flora was a key organiser of a rally in Trafalgar Square. Because of her role, she was arrested for inciting suffragettes to rush the House of Commons, and was sentenced to 3 months in prison, alongside Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst. She was released early when it was discovered she was pregnant. Flora would be imprisoned a total of 9 times for the suffrage cause, and went on hunger strike on several of those occasions. It was around this time that Flora acquired the nickname ‘the General,’ for her enthusiastic and effective organisation skills. She embraced the nickname, and began wearing a military style uniform on demonstrations.

'General' Flora Drummond, 1907.

Flora loved her nickname, ‘the General,’ and played into it, wearing a military style uniform on protests (Source: Getty Images).

In October 1909, Flora moved to Glasgow and organised the first militant pro-suffrage march in Edinburgh. She also ran the WSPU’s general election campaign in 1910, before returning to London in 1911. Flora was captain of the WSPU’s Cycling Scouts. Based in London, this group of women would cycle out to the surrounding countryside to give pro-suffrage speeches. By 1914, Flora’s health was suffering from repeated imprisonments and hunger strikes. She returned to the Isle of Arran to recuperate, but came back to London when war broke out. From this point onward, however, she focused on public speaking and administration, avoiding direct action in order to minimise her chances of arrest; her organisational skills meant she was more useful to the cause outside of prison anyway. During the First World War, Flora stayed loyal to Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst and threw herself behind the war effort. Proving she had abandoned the left-wing politics of her youth, Flora toured the country trying to persuade trade unionists not to strike.

In 1918, Flora helped Christabel in her unsuccessful election campaign standing for the Women’s Party in Smethick. In 1922, she divorced Joseph and later married Alan Simpson. Flora co-founded the Women’s Guild of Empire, a right-wing campaign group opposed to both communism and fascism. The group’s main aim was to increase patriotism amongst working-class women and prevent strikes and lockouts. In 1925, the group had 40,000 members. The following year, Flora led the Great Prosperity March, which demanded an end to the unrest which would soon peak with the General Strike.

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A portrait of Flora by the artist Flora Lion painted in 1936. Flora is wear a medal in the WSPU colours (Source: National Galleries Scotland).

Flora died on the Isle of Arran on 7th January 1949. Well-liked, witty, and innovative, she is well known as one of the most dynamic members of the WSPU. She continued campaigning for what she believed in even after women won right to the vote, and even in her old age she was a good-natured and determined woman. Although I disagree with her later politics, I wouldn’t mind being a bit more ‘Flora.’

Sources and Further Reading

BBC Scotland. “Ballots, Bikes and Broken Windows: How Two Scottish Suffragettes Fought for the Right to Vote. Last modified 6 February 2018, accessed 6 August 2018. Available at  http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/5cdhGvg5Lcy52KPV7xY7YBS/ballots-bikes-and-broken-windows-how-two-scottish-suffragettes-fought-for-the-right-to-vote

Cowman, Crista. “Drummond [nee Gibson; other married name Simpson], Flora McKinnon.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 6 January 2011, accessed 6 August 2018. Available at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/39177 [this reference requires a subscription to access].

Simkin, John. “Flora Drummond. ” Last modified January 2015, accessed 6 August 2018. Available at http://spartacus-educational.com/Wdrummond.htm

The Herald Scotland. “Belated Salute to the General.” Last modified 15th May 2001, accessed 6 August 2018. Available at http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/12168905.Belated_salute_to_the__apos_General_apos__At_last_a_memorial_is_to_be_erected_to__an_extraordinary_Scots_suffragette___as_Jennifer_Cunningham_discovers/

Wikipedia. “Flora Drummond.” Last modified 11 July 2018, accessed 6 August 2018. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flora_Drummond

Represent! Exhibition at the People’s History Museum

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The People’s History Museum is devoted to the development of democracy in Britain (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Last week, I wrote about my visit to the Voice and Vote exhibition in Westminster Hall at the Houses of Parliament. As I noted in that post, there a lot of books, events, documentaries, and exhibitions commemorating the centenary of some women winning the right to vote. I recently visited another exhibition inspired by this anniversary, this time at the People’s History Museum in Manchester. The museum’s collections are all about the development of democracy in Britain, so the centenary of the Representation of the People Act is an event they really couldn’t ignore. The result is Represent! Voices 100 Years On, a thoughtful exhibition that explores how far political representation, in a variety of forms, has come since 1918.

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The Represent! exhibition is on at the People’s History Museum until 3rd February 2019 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Represent! is crowd-sourced and inspired by zines–low-cost, self-published magazines that have been closely associated with radical culture since the 1960s. Acknowledging that voting is only one form of political representation, the exhibition also considers other kinds of representation, such as media, self-representation, and voice (protest). It also asks questions about the ‘legacy’ of 1918, questioning whether you (the visitor) feels sufficiently represented, and what can be done to reduce inequality and increase representation of marginalised groups. The exhibition includes images, placards, banners, art, clothing, and films. Much of the text is in the form of quotes from those who contributed the items (such as activists, historians, and journalists), so it feels as if they are telling their story in their own words. There are also a series of ‘referendums’ dotted around the exhibition (e.g. is it ever justified to break the law during a protest? Should the voting age be lowered 16?), so visitors can add their voice to the exhibition too.

The centrepiece of the exhibition is a recently rediscovered banner from the Manchester branch of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). It was uncovered last year in a charity shop in Leeds, and was bought by the People’s History Museum, partially thanks to a Crowdfunder campaign. There are links throughout the exhibition between the women’s suffrage campaign and modern social movements: a replica suffragette’s outfit is contrasted with the outfit worn by a member of Sisters Uncut at a recent protest; and connections are drawn between suffragette’s experiences of prison and Safety4Sisters, whose work includes campaigning for the rights to detained migrant women. These connections encourage the visitor to think about how far we have (or haven’t) come in the 100 years since the Representation of the People Act.

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The centrepiece of the exhibition is a WSPU banner, more than a century old, that the museum bought last year after it was discovered in a charity shop (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

There is no obvious order in which to move around the exhibition, no single narrative to follow. This is apparently becoming an increasingly common strategy for museums, giving visitors the freedom to choose how they experience exhibitions. Whilst I understand the logic behind it, I still find it a bit disconcerting, like if left to my own devices I might ‘do it wrong.’ This is something that I will probably get used to as I encounter more museums designed in this way; the Museum of Warsaw is another example of this unstructured style that I have visited recently. For now, however, it does make me feel a bit uncomfortable.

Represent! is a thought-provoking exhibition that asks more questions than it answers; I think that is the intention. It is critical and reflective, representing a range of different ideas and voices. I visited on a Saturday and there were very few other people there, which is a real shame, I think it is a fantastic exhibition which as many people should visit as possible. It is open until the 3rd of February 2019, so do go and check it out if you get the chance!

Voice and Vote Exhibition at the Houses of Parliament

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Me at the Voice and Vote exhibition in Westminster Hall at the UK Parliament (Photo: Graeme Awcock).

2018 marks the 100th anniversary of some women being given the right to vote in the UK. The anniversary has been marked with a whole range of events, books, documentaries and exhibitions (I have collected together all my blog posts on the topics here). One of the exhibitions is Voice and Vote: Women’s Place in Parliament in Westminster Hall at the Houses of Parliament. It is only a small exhibition, but it does a great job of putting the story of women’s fight for the right to vote in the context of the spaces women have occupied in Parliament both before and after 1918.

The exhibition is divided into 4 areas: the ventilator, the cage, the tomb, and the chamber. Each area includes a reconstruction of a particular space that women have inhabited in parliament over the last few centuries. These spaces include a ventilator shaft in the loft space above the House of Commons chamber which women used to listen to debates before Parliament was destroyed during a fire in 1834; the Ladies Gallery, a small and stuffy viewing space high up in the rebuilt chamber; the broom cupboard in which Emily Wilding Davison hid on the night of the 1911 census; the Lady Members’ room (known as ‘the tomb’) which became increasingly overcrowded as female MPs were elected in the years after 1918; and the chamber of the House of Commons, in which 208 women now sit.

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The Voice and Votes exhibition in Westminster Hall makes good use of its limited space (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Alongside these recreated spaces are items, documents, images and quotes that illustrate women’s relationship with the UK’s democratic system both before and after they won the right to vote. Parliament has quite substantial archival collections of its own, and many of the items on display came from these collections. Personal highlights for me were a banner used during a protest in which Muriel Matters and Helen Fox chained themselves to the bars covering the windows of the Ladies Gallery in 1908, and a pair of bolt cutters bought afterwards so that similar protests could be dealt with more easily. They were used in April 1909 to remove members of the WSPU that had chained themselves to statues in St. Stephen’s Hall. Other items are loaned from elsewhere, including papers and objects relating to Leicester suffragette Alice Hawkins, which are still owned by her family.

Voice and Vote is a small exhibition, but it makes the most of the space. It contains a lot of items and information, but it doesn’t feel overcrowded. The recreated spaces are an effective way of putting the visitor in the shoes of the women who interacted with Parliament over the last few centuries, even when they were not welcome. They are a clear way of structuring the exhibition, and they are something a bit different–a creative and novel way of engaging with history.

I would highly recommend a visit to Voice and Vote. It is well designed, and puts the campaign for women’s suffrage in wider context of women in Parliament. I also think it will appeal to those who have limited background knowledge, and those who already know quite a bit about women’s history in British politics. The capacity of the exhibition is limited, so it is recommended that you book, and it runs until 6th of October 2018.