Since January I have been living and working in Hull, an overlooked city in East Yorkshire on the Humber Estuary. I am quite easily pleased when it comes to the places I live–I have yet to live anywhere that I don’t like. That being said, Hull is a vibrant city with friendly and welcoming people, lots to do, and a thriving cultural scene (I have especially become a fan of the Bankside Gallery, where you can see fantastic street art at several locations around the city). Hull gets an average number of protest stickers for a city of its size; I have already written one post about them for the University of Hull’s Department of Geography, Geology and the Environment blog, here. But the stickers keep appearing, and so will the blog posts!
Lissa Evans. Old Baggage. London: Transworld, 2018. RRP £8.99 paperback
I love reading fiction, but I have an unfortunate tendency of reading books in one sitting, so I try to avoid it during the week because otherwise I end up a sleep-deprived mess. A few weeks ago, I dedicated my Friday evening to Old Baggage by Lissa Evans, a novel about Mattie Simkin, a former Suffragette who is struggling to deal with her past and come to terms with her present. I must admit to picking this book up because of my interest in protest history, but Old Baggage is a wonderful book that will charm and engross you whether or not you are a history nerd like me.
Old Baggage is set in 1928, ten years after the right to vote was won for women over the age of 30 who owned property. Mattie Simkins is living in on Hampstead Heath with her devoted friend and former comrade Flea. Although her militant suffragette days are behind her, Mattie is still a vibrant character, quick to anger at injustice, slow to compromise, and fiercely loyal to her ideals. When Mattie realises that young women have little interest in, or knowledge of, politics, she sets out to change that by starting a group that combines physical fitness, intellectual debate, and female empowerment. The group is a resounding success, but Mattie’s single-mindedness causes conflict with the people she cares about the most, and she has to swallow her pride in order to put things right.
Some of you may know Mattie from Lissa’s first novel, Crooked Heart (2015), set during the London Blitz. I had no idea that Mattie wasn’t a new character when I read Old Baggage, and as it is a prequel you don’t need to read the older novel in order to understand this one (although I have heard that it is very good!). Old Baggage strikes a delicate balance between poignancy and humour (there were some sections that made me laugh out loud), and the fictional characters fit well into the historical events and context. It is not often that you come across a book where the two main characters are middle-aged women, and Mattie and Flea’s fierce, if a little dysfunctional, friendship is the wonderful heart of the book.
We don’t often think about what happens to activists after the cause has been won, or after they decide to stop fighting. Many of the women involved in the campaign for women’s suffrage put their energies into other causes; for example, Dora Montefiore was elected to the provisional council of the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1920 at the age of 69. Some, such as Adela Pankhurst and Flora Drummond, became active in right wing politics. Others settled down to ‘normal’ lives; Jessie Kenney, younger sister of the more famous Annie, became a steward on cruise liners, and Rosa May Billinghurst retired from activism. Most of these outcomes are represented in the characters of Old Baggage (including the suffragette-turned-fascist), so as well as being an enjoyable read, it is also a thoughtful reflection on what happens next. When you have dedicated your life to a cause that was dangerous and all-consuming but also thrilling and empowering, what do you do when it ends? Old Baggage asks questions about moving on and making sense of a different life that don’t have easy answers. But it’s the books that make you think that tend to be the ones you remember.
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. This week I am writing about Winifred Horrabin, a socialist and writer who’s papers are held in the Hull History Centre.
Some of the women I write about in the Turbulent Londoners series were comfortable taking direct forms of action that many people would consider extreme. Winifred Horrabin was not one of those women, preferring instead to campaign for change through her writing. Despite being deeply unhappy in her later years, Winifred made significant contributions to the socialist cause in Britain.
Winifred Batho was born in Sheffield on the 9th of August 1887. She was the fourth of six children, three of whom died in infancy. Her parents were working class and non-conformist, her father was a postal telegraph clerk and independent minister. He developed tuberculosis in his 30s, and moved to South Africa in an attempt to get better. His family joined him, but he died soon after in 1891. The family returned to Sheffield, but Winifred would develop a lasting fascination with the country. As a young woman she started writing a biography of South African novelist and social commentator Olive Schreiner that she would continue to work on for most of her adult life. Winifred shared Schreiner’s political and feminist opinions.
Winifred was an intelligent child; she could read by the age of 4. Between around 1902 and 1906 she attended the Sheffield Central School, and in 1907 she went to Sheffield Art College. It was here that she fell in love with Frank Horrabin, a staff artist and art editor for local papers. Frank shared Winifred’s socialist beliefs. Winifred joined the WSPU, and for a while worked with Adela Pankhurst (the youngest and least-well known of the Pankhurst family). In 1909 Winifred was selected by the WSPU to disrupt a speech given by Winston Churchill at a Liberal Party meeting. Activism did not come naturally to her, and she was amazed that she was actually able to go through with it.
Winifred married Frank on the 9th of August 1911, and the coupled moved to London for Frank’s work. In London they became heavily involved in the Labour College movement, joining a group called the Plebs League. The Plebs League wanted education for the workers, controlled by the working classes. The League had established the Central Labour College in 1909. George Sims was the first secretary of the League and edited Plebs, the Labour College movement’s monthly publication.
Winifred designed and embroidered the Labour College’s banner, which showed the torch of knowledge surrounded by 3 words: Educate, Agitate, and Organise. She was strongly influenced by Sims; she left the WSPU and adopted the Plebs’ argument that male and female workers should work together against the ‘producers.’ Sims argued that campaigning for the vote was collaborating with capitalism. The Plebs League claimed to want equal education for men and women, but they didn’t practice what they preached, and the Central Labour College only admitted male students.
Winifred was also influenced by HG Wells. He encouraged her to give a talk to the Fabian Society in 1912, where she argued that the abolition of private property was the only way in which women would be freed from economic slavery and gender hierarchy. Like other feminists at the time, she was pressured to put her socialism ahead of her feminism, and she struggled with this conflict. Winifred formed the Women’s League to promote the education of women workers. She wanted women admitted to trade unions and other working class organisations.
In 1914, the Horrabins became joint editors of Plebs. Support for the Plebs League declined during the First World War, and Winifred edited Plebs alone for a year after Frank joined the military. The couple also co-organised fundraising events and theatrical performances for the Pleb’s League, and wrote educational texts.
After the war, Winifred combined her international socialism with pacifism. The Horrabins were members of the Communist Party of Great Britain from 1921 to 1924, and co-wrote Working Class Education in 1924. Around this time, Frank started an extra-marital affair with Ellen Wilkinson. It’s uncomfortable to think about any of the Turbulent Londoners having flaws, but it is important to acknowledge that they were real women, and therefore not perfect. Winifred and Frank would remain married until 1947, but he had other affairs and Winifred was devastated when it became clear he no longer wanted to be with her.
During the 1930s and 40s Winifred had a successful career in journalism, writing for the New Clarion, the Miner, Time and Tide, and the Manchester Evening News. She dreamed of becoming a novelist, but this was another area of her life which would cause her bitter disappointment. Winifred moved to Backheath in the 1950s, and throughout the 1960s continued to work on her biography of Olive Schreiner, a novel, and a play about the Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle. She moved to Dorking in Surrey shortly before her death on the 24th of June 1971.
Social movements need activists who are willing to risk imprisonment, injury, and even death. These are the people who get noticed, and they tend to be the ones who get remembered. But social movements also need people who are willing to dedicate themselves to the less romantic, exciting stuff like writing and fundraising. It doesn’t get as much attention, but it is just as important for ensuring that the social movement survives, if not more so. Winifred Horrabin was one of those people, and she deserves to be remembered for her contributions to British feminism and socialism.
Sources and Further Reading
Capern, Amanda. “HORRABIN, Winifred (1887-1971).” in Keith Gildart, David Howell and Neville Clark (eds.) Dictionary of Labour Biography, Volume 11. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003; 140-145.
Capern, Amanda. “Horrabin [nee Batho], Winifred [pseud. Freda Wynne].” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 23rd September 2004, accessed 14th June 2019. Available at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/42087 (requires a subscription to access).
Simkin, John. “Winifred Batho.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified August 2014, accessed 14th June 2019. Available at https://spartacus-educational.com/Jbatho.htm