Film Review: Peterloo

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The film poster for the 2018 film Peterloo, directed my Mike Leigh (Source: Thin Man Films).

2019 will mark the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre, arguably one of the key turning points in the history of British radicalism. In anticipation of this anniversary, Peterloo, directed by Mike Leigh, was released on the 2nd November 2018. I recently went to see the film, and whilst I think it is a very well-made film that will make an excellent teaching resource, I don’t think it has much popular appeal, and I wonder what it is actually trying to achieve.

On the 16th of August 1819, between 60,000 and 80,000 protesters gathered in St. Peter’s Fields in Manchester to call for more men to be given the vote. The local magistrates panicked and ordered local soldiers and special constables to disperse the crowds. Mounted soldiers charged into the crowd with their sabres drawn. Unable to leave the area, hundreds of people received injuries from the sabres or were trampled by horses. It is estimated that 18 people died, although more may have died later from their injuries. The horrific events became known as the Peterloo Massacre, a play on the Battle of Waterloo, a triumphant victory for the British and Prussians over Napoleon’s French forces in 1815.

The massacre was an important moment in the history of British radicalism. It started a period of repression of dissent by the British government, but it also served to crystalise the goals and determination of radicals, leading to significant victories in the mid-nineteenth century. Much like the centenary of the Representation of the People Act in 2018 (for more information, see the Vote100 page of this blog), the bicentennial of the Peterloo Massacre in 2019 looks set to be marked with a wide range of events, exhibitions, and cultural outputs. Peterloo is sure to be the first of many.

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The famous orator Henry Hunt (played by Rory Kinnear) greets the crowds in St. Peter’s Fields (Source: BFI).

It took me a while to work out what I actually think about Peterloo. It is undoubtedly a well-made film, with historically accurate costumes, sets, and dialogue. The representation of the massacre itself is wonderful; well, when I say wonderful I mean shocking and violent and awful, but that is because it was made so well. The acting is very good; Maxine Peake is wonderful as always, and Rory Kinnear does an excellent job of portraying the charismatic but pompous Henry Hunt. At 2 hours and 34 minutes it is a long film, but it doesn’t drag at any point. It also takes care to make sure that the viewer understands the context of Peterloo; the political and social conditions that allowed such an event to take place. For some, this may also be one of the film’s biggest weaknesses. It has a very ‘educational’ feel about it–I think it will make an excellent teaching resource, but how many people go to the cinema or choose something on Netflix because they want to learn something?

For me, this issue gets at the biggest problem with Peterloo; it isn’t clear who it is trying to appeal to. It is quite different from other recent films about historical British protest. Pride (2014) is a light-hearted comedy about overcoming difference to develop mutual respect and solidarity. It appeals to anyone who enjoys light-hearted comedies with a happy ending. Suffragette (2015) is a character driven story about Maud Watts, a fictional woman who grows as a person through her participation in the women’s suffrage movement. It appeals to anyone who likes character driven stories. I don’t really know what kind of film-goer Peterloo would appeal to, beyond people who like historical protest, which I am willing to admit is a relatively niche group.

Both Pride and Suffragette have been criticised for leaving out individuals and groups in order to simplify the stories and politics (for example, see Diarmaid Kelliher’s post on this blog: Thoughts on Pride: What’s Left out and Why does it Matter?). This can be very frustrating for historians, but perhaps it is worth editing the story a bit in order to make it more approachable for the general public. A historically accurate film is all well and good, but is there any point being historically accurate if nobody watches it? Peterloo has what feels like hundreds of characters, many of whom we meet only briefly. In most films, all the characters have a purpose; they learn a lesson, develop as a person, or do something to drive the story along. Peterloo has multiple characters that seem to do nothing but make the film more difficult to follow. It lacks the neatness of fictional stories or those adapted to better suit the silver screen, like Pride and Suffragette.

Peterloo is not a bad film, but I’m just not sure what it’s trying to achieve. If Mike Leigh wanted to make an accurate portrayal of a significant event in British history, then I think he has done a good job. If he was trying to bring the story of the Peterloo Massacre to a new audience, then I’m not convinced the film will be effective.

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.


Jessie Kenney

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

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

Turbulent Prestonians: Edith Rigby, 1872-1948

Regular readers of this blog will know that I usually write about Turbulent Londoners, women who participated in some form of protest or dissent in London. However, I have recently moved to Preston in Lancashire, so I have decided to celebrate the turbulent history of my new city. As I was learning about Preston I came across Edith Rigby, a social reformer and suffragette, whose activism rivalled any of the London suffrage campaigners.


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Edith Rigby, 1872-1948 (Photo: Wikipedia)

Edith Rayner was born on the 18th of October 1872, one of seven children of a doctor. Although her family was quite well off, they lived in a working-class area, and Edith came to sympathise strongly with the poor and disadvantaged. She questioned the sharp divisions between Preston’s social classes, and devoted much of her life to improving the lives of working-class women, as well as fighting for women’s rights more generally.

It is though that Edith was the first woman to ride a bike in Preston, in the late 1880s. She was pelted with vegetables and eggs as she cycled around the town, but that did not put her off. In September 1893, at the age of 21, Edith married Dr. Charles Rigby. The couple moved into the elegant Winckley Square, which contained the kind of large, expensive homes that had led Edith to question the inequality between rich and poor in her early life. It seems likely that Charles was supportive of Edith and her beliefs–throughout her married life she was known as Mrs. Edith Rigby, rather than the customary Mrs. Charles Rigby. The couple adopted a two-year-old boy named Arthur in 1905, and by all accounts had a happy marriage.

In 1899, Edith founded St Peter’s School, which allowed working class women to continue their education after the age of 11. She was also critical of how Preston’s wealthy treated their servants. The Rigbys did employ servants, but they treated them well; for example, they were allowed to eat in the dining room and they did not have to wear uniforms. As the bicycle story might suggest, Edith was not afraid of causing a little scandal; she wore unconventional, practical clothing, and caused a stir by washing the front step of her house herself.

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The plaque on number 28 Winckley Square, where Edith Rigby lived with her husband (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

At the time, children started work in the local factories and mills at the age of 11 as ‘half-timers.’ Edith founded an ‘after-mill club’ for half-timer girls in Preston on Brook Street. The club was both educational and recreational , and activities included cricket, music, and trips to the swimming baths and theatre, as well as more traditional lessons such as debating. The trip to the theatre gave rise to the Brook Street Drama Society which performed An Enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen, a play about corrupt local officials and the morality of whistle blowing.

Edith was also involved in a series of campaigns to help specific groups of female workers. For example, the women of the Woods Tobacco Factory suffered from illnesses caused by nicotine poisoning and poor ventilation in the factory. When they were forced to work an extra hour per day for the same wages, Edith stepped in. She persuaded Woods’ best customer, the Co-Operative Wholesale Company, to boycott Woods until working conditions improved. In 1906, she formed a Preston branch of the Women’s Labour League, a union for female workers.

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The Woods Tobacco Factory in Preston in 2014 (Photo: Hilary Machell)

In 1907, Edith founded a Preston branch of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), the organisation founded by Emmeline Pankhurst to campaign for women’s suffrage in 1903. Edith was an active recruiter, encouraging members of the local Labour party to join the WSPU. Although soft-spoken, she was known for being incredibly persuasive. In 1908, Edith travelled to London to participate in a march on the Houses of Parliament. Along with 56 other women, Edith was arrested and sentenced to a month in prison. This was the first of seven prison sentences Edith would endure for the cause of women’s suffrage. She embarked on a hunger strike, and was subjected to force-feeding.

The following year, Winston Churchill, at this point President of the Board of Trade, visited Preston. Edith was arrested at a meeting at which Churchill spoke. After her release, she followed Churchill to Liverpool, where she smashed a window at a police station. For this, she was sentenced to two weeks imprisonment. In 1913, she threw black pudding at the local MP at a meeting in the Manchester Free Trade Hall. She chose black pudding because it was more demeaning than other foodstuffs usually used in such a protest, like milk or eggs.

Edith employed militant tactics to get her point across, even by the standards of the WSPU. On the 5th of July 1913, she planted a bomb in the Liverpool Cotton Exchange. No one was hurt, and the damage was minimal. Edith had planned it this way, because she wanted people to understand how angry the suffragettes were, and how much harm they could do if they wanted to. Edith turned herself in, and was sentenced to 9 months in prison. She also claimed responsibility for setting fire to Lord Levelhulme’s bungalow on the West Pennine moors just two days later, on the 7th July 1913. The fire destroyed valuable paintings and caused around £20000 worth of damage.

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The Liverpool Cotton Exchange in about 1963 (Photo: Liverpool1207)

With the outbreak of World War One, the WSPU ceased campaigning and threw themselves behind the war effort. Edith disagreed with this decision, and joined the breakaway group the Independent Women’s Social and Political Union (IWSPU), setting up a branch in Preston. Although not opposed to the war like some groups such as the Women’s Freedom League and the East London Federation of Suffragettes, the IWSPU continued to campaign for the vote until it dissolved in 1918.

During the war, Edith bought a cottage outside Preston called Marigold Cottage, which she used to produce food for the war effort. Charles retired and lived with Edith at the cottage. Charles died in 1925, and Edith moved to North Wales the following year. During her later life, Edith became interested in the work of Rudolf Steiner, eventually forming her own Anthroposophical Circle. She died in 1950 near Llandudno, Wales.

Edith Rigby was a formidable woman, fiercely committed to her principles. She dedicated her life to fighting for women’s rights, particularly those of working class women, who were so frequently exploited in the factories of Lancashire. She was willing to take drastic action, and whilst I do not necessarily agree with her methods, I certainly admire her courage.

Sources and Further Reading

Caslin, Sam. “Why did Suffragette Edith Rigby Plant a Bomb at the Cotton Exchange in Liverpool?” University of Liverpool. Last modified 6th February 2018, accessed 20th March 2018. Available at  https://www.liverpool.ac.uk/history/blog/2018/suffragette-edith-rigby/

Machel, Hilary. “‘Of Course, she was Years Ahead of her Time’: Preston Suffragette Edith Rigby.” Friends of the Harris. Last modified 25th June 2014, accessed 1st March 2018. Available at http://friendsoftheharris.tumblr.com/post/89842164634/of-course-she-was-years-ahead-of-her-time 

Wikipedia. “Edith Rigby.” Last modified 18th February 2018, accessed 1st March 2018. Available at  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edith_Rigby

Wikipedia. “Independent Women’s Social and Political Union.” Last modified 3rd December 2017, accessed 1st March 2018. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Independent_Women%27s_Social_and_Political_Union

Book Review: Vanishing for the Vote- Suffrage, Citizenship and the Battle for the Census

Jill Liddington Vanishing for the Vote

Vanishing for the Vote: Suffrage, Citizenship and the Battle for the Census by Jill Liddington.

Jill Liddington. Vanishing for the Vote: Suffrage, Citizenship and the Battle for the Census. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014. RRP £16.99 Paperback.

The centenary of the Representation of the People Act 1918 is being marked in a number of ways, including the publication of a number of books on various aspects of the campaign for women’s suffrage. There are already a significant amount of excellent studies on the campaign for women’s suffrage however, including Vanishing for the Vote: Suffrage, Citizenship and the Battle for the Census by Jill Liddington, published in 2014.

Vanishing for the Vote focuses on one particular tactic in the campaign to gain women the right to vote, the 1911 census boycott. On the night of Sunday the 2nd of April, women from across the suffrage spectrum evaded, boycotted, or refused to complete the most comprehensive census survey ever attempted. The argument was that if women did not count as full citizens, then they should should not allow the government to count them. Not every suffrage campaigner agreed with the tactic however; some believed that it was more important that social policy be informed by accurate data about the population.

This census rebellion would not be a violent confrontation, like forcible feeding in prison or street battles with the police. Rather, it would be peaceful civil disobedience to challenge the very meaning of citizenship. What did it mean, in an otherwise supposedly mature democracy like Edwardian Britain, to be a grown women, yet to be treated politically like a child, a criminal or a lunatic?

Liddington, 2014; p. 2

In Vanishing for the Vote, Jill Liddington explores the boycott in depth, including: the census itself; the Women’s Freedom League, which spearheaded the boycott; some of the key personalities involved; the events of census night itself; and the protests’ significance and implications. In 2009 the original 1911 census schedules were made public by The National Archives, providing researchers with a wealth of new resources. Liddington and another historian, Elizabeth Crawford, tracked down 500 census schedules of women involved in the campaign for women’s suffrage, in order to conduct the first in-depth analysis of what happened during the boycott. The book looks big, but around half of it is actually a Gazetteer of these census schedules, a fantastic resource for anyone interested in suffrage campaigners.

The book is clear and well-written, and although the structure appears unusual at first, it makes sense as the book unfolds. In the Introduction, Jill argues that Vanishing for the Vote is suitable for  academic and popular audiences. Whilst the writing is accessible, I think some of the content would alienate readers that are just interested in history; Liddington explains the methodology of collecting the census details and explores the relevant literature in quite some detail, so it feels more like an academic history book than a popular one. Liddington takes a balanced approach to the debate about the boycott, taking the time to explain the history of, and logic behind, the census itself as well as the campaign to boycott it. As a result, Vanishing for the Vote is not just about how suffrage campaigners asserted their rights as British citizens, but also about how the Edwardian state was attempting to improve the lives of its citizens. As Liddington often argues, it was government by the people versus government for the people. Supporters of women’s suffrage had to decide what was more important to them–the right to vote, or accurate data to inform social reform.

Most people are familiar with the suffragette tactics of smashing windows, arson, and hunger strikes. Vanishing for the Vote is a thorough, engaging, and balanced exploration of one of the lesser known tactics employed by campaigners for women’s suffrage. If your curiosity has been piqued by the centenary celebrations, then it is definitely worth a read.

 

Suffrage: Education, Activism and Votes for Women Exhibition at Royal Holloway

Royal Holloway, University of London, has pretty good credentials when it comes to historical feminism. Officially called Royal Holloway and Bedford New College, it was formed from a merger of Royal Holloway and Bedford College in 1985. Both of the original institutions started out as women’s colleges. Bedford College was the first higher education college for women in the United Kingdom, founded by Elisabeth Jesser Reid in 1849. Royal Holloway was founded in 1879 by the entrepreneur and philanthropist Thomas Holloway. As such, both colleges have a number of notable female alumni, including…

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The Emily Wilding Davison Building is a striking new Library and Student Services hub located in the centre of Royal Holloway’s campus. It is named after the well-known suffragette who was killed at the Epsom Derby in 1913 after running in front of the King’s horse, who attended Royal Holloway in the early 1890s (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

In 2017, Royal Holloway opened a new library building named after the well-known suffragette, Emily Wilding Davison. She studied English at Royal Holloway in 1891 although she could not complete her studies because she could not afford the fees after the death of her father in 1893. The Emily Wilding Davison Building includes a small exhibition space, which is currently hosting Suffrage: Education, Activism and Votes for Women until the 17th of March 2018. As someone studying historical protest at Royal Holloway, I felt almost obliged to go and check it out.

The exhibition includes items from Royal Holloway’s own Special Collections, as well as the British Film Institute, the Museum of London, and the Women’s Library at the London School of Economics. It covers the period from the foundation of Bedford College in 1849 to 1918, when the Representation of the People Act entitled some women to vote. The items are mostly textual, but there are also images, video footage, posters, and suffrage-based souvenirs.

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The exhibition space in the Emily Wilding Davison Building (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The exhibition space is small, but Suffrage makes good use of it. It is covers both suffragettes and suffragists, which is good to see– although suffragette organisations like the Women’s Social and Political Union and the Women’s Freedom League were good at attracting publicity and are still quite well-known, most of the women who campaigned for the right to vote were suffragists, believing in legal methods of persuasion. Unsurprisingly given the exhibition’s location, Suffrage also makes a strong connection between the suffrage campaign and women’s education. The fight for the right to vote is one of the most studied and represented campaigns in British history, particularly in this centenary year, so it is refreshing to see the topic approached from a different angle. I also like the long time period covered by the exhibition; events after 1905 tend to receive the most attention, but campaigners had been working hard for half a century before that.

At the back of the exhibition, almost hidden behind a partition, footage of suffrage demonstrations is projected onto a wall. The campaign was one of the first to be filmed quite extensively, and I have always found the black and white grainy footage captivating. I suspect that I am not the only one who enjoys watching such footage, I think it helps to make historical protest more accessible. I was pleased to see the films included in Suffrage, therefore, although I think they could have been given more prominence.

Due to its origins, Royal Holloway and Bedford New College has a strong connection to women’s history. Suffrage: Education, Activism and Votes for Women highlights some of that history in a balanced and accessible way, as well as showcasing the College’s impressive archival collections.

Turbulent Londoners: Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, 1867-1954

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. First up is Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, one of the key members of the Women’s Social and Political Union until 1913.


Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence

Emmeline Petick-Lawrence in about 1910 (Source: LSE Library).

Most of you probably know this already, but 2018 marks the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, which granted some British women the right to vote. There are a huge number of events, exhibitions and book publications happening this year to commemorate the event, but I wanted to play my own small part in marking the event on Turbulent London. As such, all Turbulent Londoners featured this year will have played some role in the campaign for women’s suffrage. First up is Emmeline Peckith-Lawrence, one of the key members of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) between 1906 and 1913.

Emmeline Peckith was born in Bristol on the 21st of October 1867 to a wealthy Methodist family. One of 13 children, Emmeline was sent to boarding school at the age of 8. Reluctant to conform from an early age, she was often in trouble at school, and the teachers thought she was a bad influence on other children. In 1891 Emmeline moved to London to work with some of the city’s poorest inhabitants as a voluntary social worker. She worked at the Sisterhood of the West London Mission, where she helped to run the girl’s club. It was here that Emmeline became a socialist.

Growing frustrated with the constraints of the Mission, in 1895 Emmeline left to co-found the Esperance Club, a girl’s club which experimented with dance and drama. She also started the Maison Esperance, a dress-making co-operative with a minimum wage, an 8 hour day and a holiday scheme. She wanted to give the young women she worked with a practical example of socialism. In 1899 Emmeline met, and fell for, the wealthy lawyer Frederick Lawrence, but she refused to marry him unless he shared her socialist ideals. By 1901, he had come around to her way of thinking. The equality of their marriage was unheard of in polite society–they chose to double-barrel their surnames and kept separate bank accounts to retain their independence.

In 1906, Emmeline joined the WSPU. She must have thrown herself into the movement wholeheartedly; in October of that year she was arrested and imprisoned with other prominent suffragists such as Annie Kenney, Dora Montefiore, and Adela and Sylvia Pankhurst after a ‘riot’ in the House of Commons lobby. Emmeline would go to prison six times for her political beliefs. Frederick publicly declared that he would donate £10 to the suffrage movement for each day that his wife remained in prison. It was the start of a close relationship between the Pethick-Lawrence’s and the WSPU’s finances–Emmeline became the group’s Treasurer, and raised £134000 over 6 years. The couple also donated large amounts of their own money. Also in 1906, the Pankhursts moved the headquarters of the WSPU from Manchester to London. The Peckith-Lawrences offered their own home as the location for the new offices. They also opened their home to activists recovering from prison sentences. The couple masterminded, edited, and funded the journal Votes for Women from 1907.

Votes for Women 1913

The front cover of an issue of Votes for Women from June 1913.

 

As the years passed the WSPU turned to increasingly violent tactics. In 1912, Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst endorsed a campaign of window smashing. Emmeline Peckith-Lawrence did not support these violent methods, but remained loyal to the WSPU. In March, she was arrested along with her husband and imprisoned for conspiracy, despite not participating in the window smashing. Christabel Pankhurst escaped to France, but the Peckith-Lawrences spent 9 months in prison, including being force-fed. They were also successfully sued for the costs of the window smashing campaign, which left them close to bankruptcy. After the Pethick-Lawrence’s release, the Pankhursts announced plans for the WSPU to begin a campaign of arson. For Emmeline and Frederick this was too far, and they spoke out against the increasingly violent actions and rhetoric of the WSPU. Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst hated dissent within the WSPU, and despite all the Pethick-Lawrences had done for the group, they were expelled.

For Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, the expulsion was a personal as well as a political betrayal. It did not halt or even slow her activism however. She joined the Women’s Freedom League, which had formed after another group of campaigners left the WSPU in 1907 (Charlotte Despard was the group’s first President). She also joined the United Suffragists, which was formed in 1914 by former WSPU members. Unlike the WSPU, they admitted men and non-violent suffragists, and continued to campaign throughout World War One. The United Suffragists adopted Votes for Women as their official paper.

During the war, Emmeline was a member of the Women’s International League for Peace. She saw the conflict as the ultimate demonstration of men’s unsuitability to being responsible for humanity. At the beginning of the war, Emmeline was invited to America to promote the cause of women’s suffrage. She went, hoping she could also persuade Americans to support peace negotiations. Because she was travelling from the US and not Britain, Emmeline was one of only 3 British women who were able to attend the Women’s Peace Congress at the Hague in 1915. At the end of the war, she argued that  a fair peace settlement was the only way to prevent further conflict. She lived long enough to see herself proved right.

EPL at Women's Peace Congress

Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence travelled to the 1915 Women’s Peace Congress with the American delegation–she is on the far left of this picture (Source: United States Library of Congress)

When women finally won the right to vote in 1918, Emmeline stood as the Labour candidate for Manchester-Rusholme, with policies such as nationalisation and equal pay. Pacifists were incredibly unpopular at the time however, and she came last, winning a sixth of the vote. During the 1920s and 30s she worked for the Women’s International League, which campaigned for World Peace. Between 1925 and 1935, she was President of the Women’s Freedom League. She was also involved in Marie Stopes’ campaign to provide information on birth control to working class women. Emmeline continued campaigning until she had a serious accident in 1950. Frederick looked after her until her death on the 11th of March 1954.

At the time, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence was one of the most well-known campaigners for women’s suffrage. Nowadays, she is largely unknown, which I think is a real shame. Born into privilege, she used her advantages to help others, and to fight for what she believed in. Her political activism spanned six decades and huge social and political change. As I’m sure will become clear as 2018 progresses there were many brave and remarkable women involved in the campaign for women’s suffrage. Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence is just one of many who deserves our admiration and respect.

Sources and Further Reading

Hawksley, Lucinda. March, Women, March: Voices from the Women’s Movement from the First Feminist to the Suffragettes. London: Andre Deutsch, 2013.

Simkin, John. “Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified September 2015, accessed 17 January 2018. Available at  http://spartacus-educational.com/Wpethick.htm 

The Men Who Said No. “Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence.” No date, accessed 17 January 2018. Available at  http://menwhosaidno.org/context/women/pethicklawrence_e.html

Wikipedia. “Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, Baroness Pethick-Lawrence.” Last modified 28 December 2017, accessed 17 January 2018. Available at  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emmeline_Pethick-Lawrence,_Baroness_Pethick-Lawrence

 

Book Review: Sophia- Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary

Sophia front cover

Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary by Anita Anand.

Anita Anand. Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary. London: Bloomsbury, 2015. Paperback £9.99.

If you asked the average person to name individual suffragettes, they would probably say Emmeline or Christabel Pankhurst, or perhaps Emily Davison. There were, however, many individual women who contributed to the campaign for female suffrage, including Sylvia Pankhurst, Daisy Parsons, Clementina Black, and Charlotte DespardSophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary tells the story of Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, one of these lesser known, but just as fascinating, women who devoted herself to the fight.

Granddaughter of Ranjit Singh, the Maharaj of the Punjab, Princess Sophia and her siblings occupied a unique position in British society. Her father, originally beloved by Queen Victoria, had turned against the British empire which had taken his birthright. Her family relied on the British government for everything, but their status as Indian royalty gave them a degree of protection that meant they could still be troublesome. Sophia did not resent the British government like her father and some of her siblings, but she did care deeply for the people of India, which she visited several times. There was little she could do for the burgeoning independence movement from so far away, however, and women’s suffrage became the cause to which she devoted her energies.

Sophia is a well-written, thoroughly researched, and detailed biography. Anita Anand has included a wealth of rich details that makes you feel like you really know Sophia, that you understand her motivations. Personally, I welcome anything that helps to extend popular awareness of the suffragettes beyond Emmeline Pankhurst and her most famous daughter, and I also appreciate the way Sophia puts the suffragettes in the context of contemporary non-British social movements, particularly the early campaign for Indian independence. They are mostly seen as a stand-alone phenomena, but the campaign for women’s suffrage took place in the context of a whole range of other social justice movements.

Whilst I understand the necessity of context, there are times where it feels like the book goes into too much contextual detail. Sophia isn’t even born until page 44, and the narrative sometimes veers away from Sophia to dwell on other people and events. It feels a little like padding, which seems unnecessary considering how much source material Anand was able to find about Sophia herself.

Sophia is an enjoyable read, and Anita Anand deserves the praise she has received for it. I would recommend it to anyone interested in women’s history, colonialism, or the women’s suffrage movement.

Turbulent Londoners: Daisy Parsons, 1890-1957

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. My next Turbulent Londoner is Daisy Parsons, a Suffragette and the first female Mayor of West Ham.


 

Daisy Parsons

Daisy Parsons, MBE (Source: Newham Story).

Daisy Parsons was a formidable woman. Despite leaving school at the age of 12 to help support her family she became a force to be reckoned with in East End politics, working closely with Sylvia Pankhurst in the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS), then going on to become the first female Mayor of West Ham.

Born Marguerite Lena Millo on the 25th of May 1890, Daisy must have had a difficult childhood. She was born in Poplar in East London, her family moving to nearby Canning Town when Daisy was 8 months old. She had 5 younger brothers, and because her father was an invalid, her mother had to take on washing and charring work. Daisy was given a certificate of exemption in 1902 so that she could leave Beckton Road School early to look after her brothers, a necessity she always regretted. When she was 14 she left home to work as a maid, but later became a cigarette packer at the Carreras Tobacco Company in Aldgate, because the pay was better. Women and girls were paid 3d for every 1000 cigarettes they packed (most managed about 3000 a day).

It was whilst working at the tobacco company that Daisy had her first contact with the trade union movement; male employees at the factory had a fixed lunch hour and a space to eat because their union had fought for them. Female employees had to eat in the toilets! Daisy’s husband Tom was a driver for Stepney Borough Council and an active union member. They married in December 1908 when Daisy was 18.

Daisy obviously had a keen interest in politics in her own right- she joined the Women’s Social and Political Union and the International Labour Party, and was one of the founding members and the secretary of the ELFS. She was remembered as being assertive and persuasive. She was clearly not one to shy away from action- at Suffragette demonstrations she carried a ‘Saturday Nights’ (a length of hemp rope tied at one end, a sort of improvised cosh) hidden up her sleeve in case she needed to defend herself.

Daisy Parsons- Suffragette Deputation

Daisy was part of a deputation to the Prime Minister from the East London Federation of Suffragettes in 1914. She is on the far right of this image (Source: Janice Brooker).

Daisy took part in a deputation of working women to Prime Minister Asquith on the 12th of June 1914, trying to persuade him of the necessity of female suffrage. By this point she had 2 daughters, and was also looking after her niece. Daisy stuck with Sylvia Pankhurst after the split with her mother and sister, and ELFS worked tirelessly during the first world war, setting up a Mother and Child Welfare Centre in West Ham to help women who were struggling whilst their husbands were away, or had been killed.

When women over 30 were given the right to vote in 1918 Daisy still couldn’t vote because she was only 29! This did not deter her from moving into mainstream local politics however, and she was elected as a Labour Councillor for Beckton ward in 1922. She became deputy Mayor of West Ham in 1931, and Mayor in 1936. She also became a Justice of the Peace in 1933, and an Alderman of West Ham in 1935. During World War 2 Daisy organised the evacuation of local children and helped to organise the Women’s Voluntary Service. Her efforts did not spare her from tragedy however; her brother and niece were killed in the Blitz.

Daisy Parsons- Beckton Lido

Daisy Parsons at the opening of the Beckton Lido in August 1927 (Source: Newham Photos).

Daisy Parsons was obviously respected and admired. She was awarded the Freedom of West Ham in 1939, the highest honour which the borough can bestow, and was made an MBE in 1951 in recognition of her public service. She had gone from radical Suffragette to respected local official, but I get the impression she retained her determined and caring nature.

Sources and Further Reading

Anon. ‘Daisy Parsons, MBE.’ The Newham Story. No date, accessed 21st March 2016.  http://newhamstory.com/node/991

Brooker, Janice. ‘Daisy Parsons.’ Lost in London. Last modified 1st May 2007, accessed 21st March 2016. http://www.brooker.talktalk.net/daisy_parsons.htm

McCarthy, Ka. ‘Daisy Parsons.’ The Great British Community. Last modified 8th March 2016, accessed 21st March 2016. http://greatbritishcommunity.org/daisy-parsons/

Book Review: ‘Dynamite, Treason and Plot: Terrorism in Victorian and Edwardian London’

'Dynamite, Treason and Plot' by Simon Webb.

‘Dynamite, Treason and Plot’ by Simon Webb.

Webb, Simon. Dynamite, Treason and Plot: Terrorism in Victorian and Edwardian London. Stroud: The History Press, 2012.

There is a tendency today to see terrorism as some modern aberration, something that has arisen in recent years and might with luck fade away in time. This is unlikely. Terrorism of different sorts has been a constant backdrop in British history for centuries; it is likely to remain so for centuries to come. The notion that increased vigilance on the part of the public, combined with wise and good laws passed by Parliament, might one day defeat terrorism and usher in a peaceful era, where nobody needs to worry about bombs and assassinations, is a chimera.

Webb, p.151

As far as most people are concerned, Guy Fawke’s plot, the IRA bombings of the 1970s and 7/7 are probably the only examples of terrorism in London. In Dynamite, Treason and Plot: Terrorism in Victorian and Edwardian London, Simon Webb sets out to correct that misconception. From the Clerkenwell Outrage, where 12 people were killed in a Fenian prison break gone wrong; to the Tottenham Outrage (not every event is known as an Outrage, I promise!), a chase that lasted several hours and involved the hijacking of a tram and a milk cart, the stories Webb tells range from the horrific to the downright farcical.

Arguably the biggest strength of Dynamite, Treason and Plot is the emphasis on continuity. Humans have a tendency to believe that everything that happens is new, that the problems faced by modern society are unique to our time. Webb proves the inaccuracy of this belief, demonstrating that not only terrorism, but also immigration and xenophobia, are issues that the people of London have been grappling with for centuries. Irish, Jewish, and more recently Muslim; many minorities have been the subject of fear and discrimination in the city, and terrorism has frequently exacerbated the tensions.

Another of the strengths of Dynamite, Treason and Plot is Webb’s approach to terrorism itself. Webb doesn’t condemn the terrorists he describes outright, but neither does he glorify them. The first chapter of the book is devoted to discussion of the theories and motivations behind terrorism. It is not necessarily the mindless, monstrous violence which it is often portrayed as-there are particular reasons why people choose to resort to terrorism-and Webb takes them into account. Terrorism is an emotive subject, difficult to deal with in a sensitive and balanced way, but I think Webb does a good job of this.

Webb’s writing style can be repetitive; he frequently makes the same point twice in quick succession, and he often says how it was “nothing short of a miracle” that more people weren’t killed or injured in the events he recounts. He makes assertions, making a point without providing any supporting evidence, and often overlooks some of the historical controversies and debates. For example, in the chapter about the Suffragettes, Webb mentions the alleged plot to assassinate David Lloyd George by the Wheeldon family. In Dynamite, Treason and Plot it appears there is no doubt that that is what actually happened, but in To End all Wars by Adam Hochschild the event appears much more complicated. Hochschild suggests that the whole thing may have been a set-up, the plot concocted by the government to harm the opposition to the First World War, of which the Wheeldon family was a part. Whatever the truth, Webb completely ignores the debate, and as such misses out on some of the nuances of the story.

Despite the shortfalls I think Dynamite, Treason and Plot is well worth a read. It is an engaging read that deals with some of London’s darker, overlooked history. Webb puts terrorist into political and social context, rather than treating it as an isolated and inexplicable phenomenon to be instantly condemned.