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
Anarchist stickers are one of the most common categories of protest stickers you’ll find on the streets of London (you can see my previous post on the topic here). Some of the stickers promote anarchism in general, or celebrate prominent anarchist thinkers, whilst others promote specific groups. As with a lot of protest stickers, many of them have a sense of humour. Amongst the stickers below are examples of all of these types.
You can see where I found these protest stickers on the Turbulent London Map.
Lisa Keller. Triumph of Order: Democracy and Public Space in New York and London. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009. RRP £24.00 paperback.
Cities are incredibly complex systems, made up of hundreds of interconnecting networks. Sanitation, transportation, power, housing, local government, and public order, amongst others, all have to function successfully in order for a city to thrive. The larger the city, the more complicated and chaotic it gets, and by the end of the nineteenth century London and New York were the two largest cities in the world. The governments of these two cities, and their residents, had to strike a balance between order and liberty. Triumph of Order: Democracy and Public Space in New York and London traces the struggle to find a balance between these two, frequently conflicting, concepts in the nineteenth century.
Liberal democracies such as the US and the UK place a strong emphasis on liberty and individual freedom. However, the fact is that we are all willing to give up some of that liberty so that the government can maintain order and protect us and our property. Exactly how much of our individual freedoms we are willing to sacrifice in order to feel safe is a matter of constant debate. In Triumph of Order, Lisa Keller argues that in London and New York during the nineteenth century the balance between liberty and order tipped towards order. Using a combination of examples, archival sources, and analysis, Keller makes a convincing argument that liberty, particularly freedom of speech, was curtailed in favour of minimising the risk of disorder and violence on the streets of two of the world’s greatest cities.
The legacy of the nineteenth century was a new structure for public order, in which liberty was expendable. Great Britain and America retained a framework for free speech and assembly, but democracy as an ideal became tempered by realities of city life. The principles and practices established in the nineteenth century yielded long-lasting societal parameters affecting public space, free speech, and assembly.
Keller, 2009: p.223
Although I read academic books as part of my research and teaching, most of the books I review on Turbulent London are aimed at a more general audience. Triumph of Order is written for an academic audience, and is therefore less accessible than most ‘popular’ history books. This is not a criticism, however, just an observation; Triumph of Order is a good book, but if you are looking for something to take on holiday with you, I wouldn’t suggest this. A small criticism that I do have is that Keller is often careless with chronology. The book is structured chronologically, with the first half looking at London and the second focused on New York, but within individual chapters there is a tendency to jump back and forward between different events and time periods that can be confusing.
As someone who studies London and has visited New York, I have always been curious about how the history of the two compares. Triumph of Order highlights the parallels and differences between the two cities. Some of them are relatively obvious: London, for example, was the first major city in the world to have a professional civilian police force (1829), which had clear implications for the way free speech and protest was controlled (New York City followed suit in 1845). Other insights Keller provided are less familiar to me as a British reader, such as the idea that Americans have always been more tolerant of bodily violence and loss of life than British people. Many people have died during riots in London, but it is mostly due to accidents and the violent tactics of authorities; in New York, rioters themselves are more likely to kill people. In Triumph of Order, Keller does a good job of comparing the two cities in a way that also provides insight into them as individual metropolises.
The balance between liberty and order is a difficult issue. In Triumph of Order, Lisa Keller has produced a book that illuminates the historical structures that underpin that balance in two of the most significant cities in Western liberal democracies. That’s no mean feat.
Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who played a part in 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 post is about Dorothy Thurtle, a trade unionist and women’s reproductive rights campaigner.
Dorothy Lansbury was born on the 15th of November 1890 in Bow, East London. She was the sixth of twelve children, although two of her siblings sadly died in infancy. Her mother was Elizabeth Brine, and her father was George Lansbury, the popular working class Labour politician. Dorothy went to an elementary school in East London, and grew up surrounded by radical politics. When she left school she worked as a clerk and accountant. She joined the Independent Labour Party when she was 16, and the National Union of Clerks (NUC) when she started work.
Like many female activists in the early 1900s, Dorothy got involved in the campaign for women’s suffrage. She was a member of the Women’s Freedom League (WFL) and the Women’s Labour League. The WFL split from the WSPU because of their autocratic structure, and Dorothy disapproved of the WSPU’s violent methods. This caused some tension in the Lansbury family; Dorothy’s brother William was imprisoned for breaking windows on behalf of the WSPU.
Dorothy met her husband Ernest through her union work; he was chairman of the London district of the NUC. They married on the 13th of August 1912, and had 2 children. Dorothy and Ernest collaborated on their political projects, in 1913 they co-authored Comradeship for Clerks. Ernest was elected Labour MP for Shoreditch in 1923, and Dorothy pursued a career in local politics. She was the General Secretary of the Shoreditch Trades Council and Labour Party, and in 1925 she was elected to Shoreditch Borough Council. In 1936 she was elected mayor of Shoreditch, becoming one of the first female mayors in London (others were Ada Salter, elected in 1922, and Daisy Parsons, also elected in 1936).
Perhaps inspired by her mother’s twelve pregnancies, Dorothy became interested in women’s reproductive rights 1920s. In 1924, she and Ernest were founding members of the Worker’s Birth Control Group (WBCG), which campaigned to get the Labour Party to commit to the extension of working class access to birth control information. Dorothy also promoted the cause amongst the Labour Party’s women’s sections. In 1926, Ernest put forward a parliamentary bill on this topic, but it failed. Dorothy was frustrated by the Labour Party’s lack of response to the campaign; she argued that it didn’t care about women’s rights, and was only paying lip service to gender equality.
In the 1930s, Dorothy took up the cause of legalising abortion alongside other veterans of the WBCG. She was an early member of the Abortion Law Reform Association (ALRA), serving as the group’s Vice President until her retirement in 1962. She was also involved in the National Birth Control Council, which still exists today as the Family Planning Association. Between 1937 and 1939 she sat on the interdepartmental committee on abortion, the only member who was in favour of radical reform to the abortion law. When the committee’s report recommended no change to the law, Dorothy published a minority report, arguing that abortion should be legal on social grounds in some circumstances, especially for women with high fertility rates. She was particularly sensitive to the conditions of working class women with lots of children. For Dorothy, it was as much about social justice as it was reproductive rights; it was much easier to access an abortion if you were upper class.
Dorothy remained a strong advocated for women’s rights; in 1945, she described women as an oppressed class, and compared their position to slavery. In 1967, after 3 decades of campaigning, the Abortion Act was passed, which legalised abortion in Britain under some circumstances. In around 1970, a memorial garden honouring Dorothy was laid out in Shoreditch Park. She died on the 28th of February 1973.
When I was writing this blog post, it was very difficult to find a picture of Dorothy. It is more difficult to research women’s history than men’s, for a number of reasons, not least because they just weren’t considered as important for much of history, and there tends to be fewer surviving records about women. If we are not careful, then the contributions of women like Dorothy might disappear from history entirely. I write these blog posts because their bravery and resilience deserves to be remembered.
Sources and Further Reading
Brooke, Stephen. “Thurtle [nee Lansbury], Dorothy.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 3rd January 2008, accessed 24th June 2019. Available at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/69843 [subscription required to access].
London Parks and Garden Trust. “Shoreditch Park.” Last modified 2nd April 2018, accessed 24th June 2019. Available at http://www.londongardensonline.org.uk/gardens-online-record.php?ID=HAC052
I recently visited Berlin at a time when climate change and environmental protection were at the forefront of protest cultures around the world thanks to the efforts of Greta Thunberg and the Fridays for Future movement, and Extinction Rebellion. Whilst touring the German Bundestag (Parliament) with my students, I witnessed a Fridays for Future protest which involved activists handcuffing themselves to the handrails seen in the image above. In last week’s post, I wrote about Berlin’s protest stickers, but there were so many protest stickers in the city relating to climate change and the environment that it warranted its own post. Again, I must thank my colleague Julia Affolderbach for translating a lot of these stickers for me.
Earlier this year, I went to Berlin as a member of staff on an undergraduate field trip. I had never been before, and I was really looking forward to the chance to explore a city with such a complex history, as well as a reputation for alternative culture and politics. Berlin did not disappoint; it is a vibrant city, with an admirable approach to coming to terms with the most difficult moments of its past. It has a lively culture of protest stickers too, so much so that I have decided to do two blog posts on the topic. At this point I would like to say thank you to my German-speaking colleague, Dr. Julia Affolderbach, who never once ran out of patience with me for repeatedly asking “What does this sticker say?”
I recently got the chance to see Woman at War, an Icelandic film that’s been receiving excellent reviews. Directed by Benedikt Erlingsson and staring Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir, it tells the story of Halla, a choirmaster who leads a double life as The Mountain Woman, waging a one-woman war against the expansion of heavy industry threatening the climate and Iceland’s natural environment. She’s very good at it too, until she is offered the chance of fulfilling her life-long dream of becoming a mother, and suddenly has to make some difficult decisions. The film is fantastic, and it draws on some really interesting debates and issues related to the geographies of protest.
Halla’s tactics are the cause of much controversy amongst the Icelandic media and politicians in Woman at War. She only ever commits violence against electricity pylons, never animals or people, but she is criticised for this nonetheless. When deciding on their tactics, activists must walk a fine line between doing something that will get attention and alienating people by going ‘too far’. Most of us consider violence against people and animals unacceptable whatever the cause, but people tend to be more tolerant of violence against objects. Despite this, Halla’s opponents use her tactics to undermine her argument. Her critics also accuse her of bypassing the democratic system and making unilateral decisions about Iceland’s future that she has no right to make, as she is not an elected official. In this way, Woman at War raises interesting questions about whether or not protest is democratic. It is widely understood that dissent and protest is an essential part of a healthy democracy, but how much pressure can we put on elected officials before it becomes unethical? Generally speaking, protest marches, rallies, petitions, and lobbying are considered acceptable, but violence, blackmail, or bribery is not. But does this lines shift if politicians refuse to engage, or if the future of the human race is as stake (as many people believe it is because of climate change)? This is not a debate with an easy answer.
Halla wages her one-woman war by sabotaging electricity pylons that supply an aluminium smelting plant. Sabotaging machinery and equipment is nothing new for the more militant wing of the environmental movement, but Woman at War was released during a surge of non-violent direct action on behalf of the environment by groups such as Extinction Rebellion and Fridays for Future (also known as the school strike for climate movement, kick started by Grea Thunberg). Although these groups argue that non-violence is the most effective approach, they share a sense of urgency with Halla about the need to do something quickly. They are not alone; for example, The Guardian has recently announced a change in the language it will use, favouring “climate emergency/crisis/breakdown” over “climate change,” and “global heating” over “global warming.” Woman at War is not preachy, but it does convey a sense that drastic changes are needed very quickly.
Landscape is another prominent theme in Woman at War. Large portions of the film take place in Iceland’s rural highlands, and Halla has a strong connection to the natural world around her. It is her intimate knowledge of the landscape that enables her to evade capture, using crevices and streams to hide from helicopters and throw dogs off her scent. As well as the world as a whole, it is this landscape she is seeking to protect through her activism, and in return it protects her. When the film’s action shifts to Ukraine, the contrast with the Icelandic landscape is stark; the large cooling towers and desolate factories a warning against exactly the kind of economic development that Halla is trying to prevent in Iceland.
The final theme that jumped out when I watched Woman at War is gender. When the chance to adopt a little girl from Ukraine is presented to her, Halla realises she must choose between being and activist and a mother. She takes her role as eco-warrior very seriously, but she has dreamed of becoming a mother, and it is obvious that she would devote just as much attention to this new role. Perhaps the choice between her passion and her dream of motherhood is more literal than that which most women face, but I’m sure that many can identify with Halla’s dilemma, and it was painful to watch her agonise over it. However, it is also Halla’s concern for future generations that drives her to her activism, she is trying to protect the world on their behalf. So perhaps without her motherly instincts, she would not have embarked on her one-woman crusade. Activists often sacrifice a great deal in their fight for what they believe in. Woman at War confronts the emotional toll of these sacrifices, as well as examining the forces that drive women to take action.
Woman at War is an excellent film. Despite it’s topical storyline about the future of humanity, it manages to be very funny at times, and retains a note of hope. It is both entertaining and thought-provoking, a difficult balance to strike. It hasn’t had a big cinematic release in the UK, but if you get the opportunity to see it, then I thoroughly recommend that you do. Who knows, perhaps Halla will inspire you to go out and save the world.
Fern Riddell. Death in Ten Minutes. London: Hodder, 2018. RRP £9.99 paperback.
Thanks to the centenary of the Representation of the People Act in 2018, there has been a significant amount of books, documentaries, and museum exhibits about the campaign for women’s suffrage over the last two years (see all of my blog posts on the topic here). It is no easy task, therefore, to come up with something that stands out from the crowd. I have been looking forward to reading Death in Ten Minutes since its publication last year, but I have been waiting for the paperback to come out. I am pleased to say that it was worth the wait.
Death in Ten Minutes is a biography of Kitty Marion, a German-born actress and singer who came to live with her aunt in Britain as a young girl to escape an abusive father. During her time in the theatres and music halls she was subjected to sexual assault and mistreatment by men who held power over her career. She became increasingly disillusioned with the way women were treated by society, and the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) proved to be an ideal outlet for her frustrations. She became one of the group’s most militant suffragettes, responsible for multiple arson and bomb attacks around the country. During the First World War Kitty was forced to leave Britain because she was German, despite living in the UK for most of her life. She took refuge in the US, where she became heavily involved in the birth control advocacy movement. She continued to fight for what she believed in until her death in 1944. In her later years, she wrote an unpublished autobiography, which Fern Riddell draws heavily on in Death in Ten Minutes. The result is an account of Kitty’s life that is vivid, engaging, and feels like it is told from her perspective.
There are lots of things I like about Death in Ten Minutes. One of the main characteristics of the book that surprised me is that Riddell uses Kitty’s story to make a broader argument about the way that women’s history in general, and the suffrage movement in particular, has been sanitised in popular memory and dominant historical narratives in order to (re)produce a particular patriarchal understanding of women. Riddell also critiques the way that the suffragettes are idolised in popular memory, glossing over violent and life-threatening acts of terrorism to present a picture of perfect women. But no one is perfect, and it is just as important to acknowledge that about our admired historical figures as it is about ourselves. In most historical biographies aimed at a popular audience, I do not expect the kind of critical analysis found in Death in Ten Minutes.
The second major strength of Death in Ten Minutes for me is that it doesn’t end in 1918. Many of the women involved in the suffrage campaign went on to use their skills for other causes and social movements, and Kitty was no exception. She worked for the birth control advocacy movement for just as long, if not longer, than she campaigned for the WSPU. Social movements and political campaigns in the twentieth century were empowering experiences for many women, allowing them to develop skills they never anticipated, and the confidence to use those skills (the 1984-5 miner’s strike is another good example). Death in Ten Minutes contextualises the suffrage campaign within Kitty’s life, and shows that there was much more to her than being a suffragette.
Death in Ten Minutes is a well-written and thoroughly researched book that gives Kitty Marion the recognition she deserves as a fierce and passionate, but flawed, campaigner for women’s rights. I highly recommend it.