Discovering Brighton’s Suffragettes

Last Friday, I went on a walking tour in Brighton about the city’s suffragettes. Organised by Dr. Louise Fitzgerald of the University of Brighton, the tour was given by Karen Antoni, a historian and actress. I have written about protest in my home town before, but I still have a lot to learn, so I was keen to go along and find out more. The event was organised to coincide with the release of the film Suffragette (which I still haven’t seen- I want to see it with my Mum, who is hard of hearing, and subtitled film showings are in woefully short supply!) and The Time is Now Campaign, a series of events focused around film exploring the role women play in affecting change.

Historian and actress Karen Antoni led a wonderful walking tour about Brighton's suffragettes (Photo: Hannah Awcock)

Historian and actress Karen Antoni led a wonderful walking tour about Brighton’s suffragettes (Photo: Hannah Awcock)

With Brighton’s reputation as a cosmpolitan and contentious city, it is no surprise that Brightonians were no strangers to the campaign for women’s suffrage. The Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) set up a local branch in 1907, and many of the organisation’s most well known members, such as Christabel Pankhurst, Annie Kenney, and Emily Wilding Davison, came to visit the city. The tour started in Pavilion Gardens, which is bordered by the Royal Pavilion and the Brighton Dome, both of which were used for meetings which the WSPU hosted, and tried to disrupt. We learnt the lyrics to a popular suffragette song, which adapted the well-known Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory/The Battle Song of the Republic, and sung the song as we travelled around the city. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of singing an empowering song in the middle of the street with over 50 other people, even if we did get a few funny looks!

Glory glory hallelujah, glory glory hallelujah,

Glory, glory hallelujah,

And the cause goes marching on!

Rise up women for the fight is hard and long,

Rise in thousands singing loud a battle song,

Right is might and in its strength we shall be strong,

And the cause goes marching on!

Suffragette song, sung to the tune of Glory glory hallelujah. If the religious reference puts you off, you can always replace ‘hallelujah’ with ‘revolution’, although most of those campaigning for female suffrage would probably not have approved!

Karen Antoni outside the Brighton Dome. Two suffragettes, Eva Bourne and Mary Leigh, once tried to sneak into a meeting by hiding in the organ overnight. They were discovered because the organ was so dusty that it made them sneeze (Photo: Hannah Awcock)

Karen Antoni outside the Brighton Dome. Two suffragettes, Eva Bourne and Mary Leigh, once tried to sneak into a meeting where Henry Asquith was speaking by hiding in the organ the night before. They were discovered because the organ was so dusty that it made them sneeze (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The next stop on the tour was the intersection of North Street and West Street/Queen’s Road (the Clock Tower). This is where the headquarters of the Brighton WSPU branch was located, above the Singer Sewing Machine Company. The building is still there, although the ground floor is taken up by more contemporary chain stores now. Just around the corner on Queen Square used to stand a church where a suffragette-themed wedding was held; the wedding vows were adapted accordingly (the wedding was still between a man and a woman, the suffragettes weren’t that radical!)

Selling copies of The Suffragette outside the WSPU Brighton headquarters (Photo: Getty Images).

Selling copies of The Suffragette outside the WSPU Brighton headquarters in 1914 (Photo: Getty Images).

The next stop was Victoria Road, a short walk from the town centre. Number 13/14 used to be a boarding house called Sea View, run by local suffragette Minnie Turner. By 1913 Minnie’s guest house had a reputation for hosting suffragettes, and in April her windows were stoned by disgruntled locals. Minnie was arrested 3 times for her suffragette activities, and imprisoned in Holloway Prison for 3 weeks in 1911 for breaking a window at the Home Office. In July 1912 Emily Wilding Davison stayed at Sea View whilst recovering from being on hunger strike in prison. The tour finished outside Churchill Square, the city’s main shopping centre, where we had one final sing song.

Minnie Turner's House in Victoria Road, Brighton. The current resident's are aware of the their home's proud past (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Minnie Turner’s House in Victoria Road, Brighton. The current residents are aware of the their home’s proud past (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

I have always thought that walking tours are a fantastic way of communicating and engaging with historical research, and this Brighton Suffragette walking tour is no exception. It is informed by 7 years of research- many hours spent trawling though local newspapers and the collections of the Brighton Museum. It is wonderful research, and it is so important that it is accessible to all, academic or otherwise. Walking tours are just one of the many ways to disseminate historical research, but they are a very good one.

I couldn't resist the opportunity to wear a suffragette sash (Photo: Tricia Awcock).

I couldn’t resist the opportunity to wear a suffragette sash (Photo: Tricia Awcock).

A campaign is being started to try and get some blue plaques put up around Brighton honouring the city’s suffragettes. To join the campaign or find out more, check out the Facebook group here.

Sources and Further Reading

Dyhouse, Carol. “Minnie Turner’s “Suffragette Boarding House,”” Clifton Montpelier Powis Community Alliance. Last updated ….accessed on 26/10/15. Available at http://www.cmpcaonline.org.uk/page_id__85_path__0p36p21p55p.aspx

Kisby, Anna. “Found! Suffragettes Hiding in the Brighton Dome.” Brighton Museums. Last updated 11th March 2011, accessed 26th October 2015. Available at http://brightonmuseums.org.uk/discover/2011/03/08/found-suffragettes-hiding-in-the-brighton-dome/

Simkin, John. “Minnie Turner.” Spartacus Educational. Last updated August 2014, accessed 26th October 2015. Available at: http://spartacus-educational.com/WturnerM.htm

Soldiers and Suffragettes: The Photography of Christina Broom

Me outside the Museum of London Docklands, contributing to the #museumselfie Twitter hashtag (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Me outside the Museum of London Docklands, contributing to the #museumselfie Twitter hashtag (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Soldiers and Suffragettes: The Photography of Christina Broom is a temporary exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands in Canary Wharf, open until Sunday the 1st of November. I went along because not only did Christina Broom photograph the campaign for female suffrage in the early twentieth century, she was also an impressive woman in her own right, as the first female British press photographer. The exhibition is worth checking out if you are interested in photography or social history, as well as the two main topics; Brooms photography of the suffrage movement and the armed forces.

Christina Broom was a small woman, and it must have been difficult to carry her heavy camera and equipment around (Source: Museum of London).

Christina Broom was a small woman, and it must have been difficult to carry her heavy camera and equipment around (Source: Museum of London).

In 1903 at the age of 40, Christina Broom noticed the increasing popularity of postcards, and began photographing local views and events in order to produce her own. Her husband had never fully recovered from an injury acquired during a game of cricket, and she took up photography to provide for her family. For the next four decades Broom hauled her heavy camera and tripod back and forth across London documenting the city and its people. Soldiers and Suffragettes is the first exhibition devoted solely to Broom’s work, and aims to share her story so she can receive some of the appreciation she deserves.

Because of my own interests I was mostly drawn to Broom’s photos of the suffrage movement, but I also found her military photography engaging. Broom was trusted by the soldiers, and she photographed many before they left to take part in the First World War. The photos of soldiers with their families on the platforms at Waterloo Station are particularly moving. The knowledge that this might have been the last time the men ever saw their loved ones is haunting, and the fact that Broom was allowed to capture these significant moments is an indication of how good she was at her job.

Broom photographed soldiers saying goodbye to their friends and family before leaving for the First World War. The pictures are haunting (Source: Museum of London).

Broom photographed soldiers saying goodbye to their friends and family before leaving for the First World War. (Source: Museum of London).

Broom’s pictures of the suffrage campaign are wonderful. She photographed campaigners both famous (including the Pankhursts) and obscure, capturing the sheer number of people involved. It is easy to think that Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst won the vote for women single-handed, but this is far from the case. Broom’s photos depict many of the organisations involved in the campaign, including the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, and the Women’s Freedom League, led by the incredible Charlotte Despard.

A photograph of Charlotte Despard taken by Christina Broom (Sources: National Portrait Gallery).

A photograph of Charlotte Despard taken by Christina Broom (Sources: National Portrait Gallery).

The exhibition also highlights the economics of the suffrage campaign. Although a supporter of female suffrage, Broom’s main reason for photographing the movement was financial. Supporters of female suffrage would collect memorabilia, the proceeds of which helped to fund campaigning. The WSPU had their own shops, in which they sold everything from postcards like the ones Broom produced to tea sets designed by Sylvia Pankhurst. The exhibition also includes photos of fairs held by various suffrage groups. One of the purposes of these fairs was to raise money. For example, at the Women’s Exhibition in Knightsbridge in 1909, a replica prison cell was constructed. Visitors were charged 6d to see inside and hear about what life was like for suffragettes in prison. The economics of social movements is something that I think gets frequently overlooked, so it was good to see it so prominent in Soldiers and Suffragettes.

Christina Broom's photograph of a suffragette dressed in a replica prison uniform at the Women's Exhibition in May 1909 (Source: Museum of London).

Christina Broom’s photograph of a suffragette dressed in a replica prison uniform at the Women’s Exhibition in May 1909 (Source: Museum of London).

Soldiers and Suffragettes is an exhibition that appeals on a whole range of levels. I even enjoyed the section about the technology of developing and printing the images- the backlit negatives of Broom’s photos were beautiful, making the Suffragettes look like vibrant ghosts. I would definitely recommend checking it out over the new few weeks before it closes.

Not only was Christina Broom a pioneer, leading the way for other female professional photographers, she was also very talented. Her images are moving and personal, as well as a fantastic record of a dynamic period in London’s history.

On Blackheath Festival: A Turbulent Setting

The On Blackheath festival took place on the 12th-13th September 2015, on Blackheath in south east London.

The On Blackheath festival took place on the 12th-13th September 2015, on Blackheath in south east London.

Last weekend, I went with my Mum and sister to the On Blackheath festival which is, funnily enough, on Blackheath in south east London. Shared between the boroughs of Lewisham and Greenwich, it is one of the largest areas of common land in London today. It is a fantastic setting for a family-oriented festival; when it gets dark you can see the lights of the towers in Canary Wharf glinting from across the river. But Blackheath is ancient, going back at least as far as the Doomsday Book, and it has hosted countless other gatherings of a more turbulent nature.

The festival has a laid back, family friendly atmosphere, but not every gathering on Blackheath has been so pleasant.

The festival has a laid back, family friendly atmosphere, but not every gathering on Blackheath has been so pleasant.

The common land of London has always played a role in the life of turbulent London, hosting many a protest and political meeting. Before the Gordon Riots in 1780 the Protestant Association held a mass meeting in St. George’s Fields, the area of modern day Waterloo and Lambeth. In 1848 the Chartists held a rally on Kennington Common (all that remains of which is the Oval cricket ground) which did not go their way and effectively ended the Chartist movement. The similarity between St. George’s Fields and Kennington Common is that they no longer exist. Blackheath does, and when you go there you can imagine standing in the footsteps of famous radicals.

The Manic Street Preachers performing at the On Blackheath festival 2015.

The Manic Street Preachers performing at the On Blackheath festival 2015.

So when I was standing on Blackheath on Saturday night, listening to the Manic Street Preachers performing “If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next,” which is inspired by the 1936 Spanish Civil War, I got thinking about Blackheath’s radical history. The Manic Street Preachers are not afraid to be political in their performances, and they may not have realised it but they were continuing a strong Blackheath tradition by doing so at On Blackheath. During the 1381 Peasant’s Revolt, and the 1450 Kentish Rebellion both used Blackheath as a rallying point. Wat Tyler, the leader of the Peasant’s Revolt, is commemorated by Wat Tyler Road, which runs across the heath. After camping on Blackheath, Cornish rebels angry at a war tax imposed by Henry VII were defeated at the Battle of Deptford Bridge (otherwise known as the Battle of Blackheath) in June 1497.

In the middle of Blackheath is a mound of earth called Whitefield’s Mount (or Whitfield’s Mount/Mound), which at one point was known as Wat Tyler’s mound because it was used for making speeches during the Peasant’s Revolt. One of the speakers was John Ball, who uttered that well-known statement of equality:

 When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?

He didn’t necessarily make this speech on Whitefield’s Mount, but wouldn’t it be great if he did? It has been speculated that the Mount is the final resting place of some of the 200-2000 Cornishmen killed during the Battle of Deptford Bridge. True or not, Whitefield’s Mount is clearly intimately linked with London’s turbulent past.

Street performers at the On Blackheath festival. The Cornish Rebellion in 1497 was started when King Henry VII raised taxes to fight a war with the Scots.

Street performers at the On Blackheath festival. The Cornish Rebellion in 1497 was started when King Henry VII raised taxes to fight a war with the Scots.

By the 1830s and 40s, radicals were addressing a new set of issues, and the Chartists had began using Blackheath as a location for meetings as part of their campaign for universal male suffrage. Almost a hundred years later, it would also be used for meetings calling for female suffrage. More recently, Blackheath was used in 2009 for a week-long climate camp, complete with compost toilets, and a pedal-powered radio station and TV channel. In 2013, there was a protest against Zippo’s Circus who were set up on Blackheath, one of the few UK circuses that still use animals in their performances. Even the On Blackheath festival itself has been the subject of protest, with anarchist Ian Bone objecting to common land being fenced off for a ‘foodie fest’ that was not accessible to the poor communities in surrounding areas. 

London’s open spaces play a vital role in the city’s life by hosting gatherings of all kinds. From festivals to protests, they are a key part of the social, political and cultural life of the city. London’s 2000+ year history means that almost anywhere you go in London will have been the site of past protest of some sort, but areas of common land have been particularly contentious, and Blackheath is no exception. By performing songs such as “If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next,” the Manic Street Preachers were both drawing from and continuing a tradition of dissent on Blackheath that stretches back hundreds of years.

Sources and Further Reading

Anon. “Blackheath, London.” Wikipedia. Last modified 12th September 2015, accessed 13th September 2015. Available at  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blackheath,_London 

Anon. “Cornish Rebellion of 1497.” Wikipedia. Last modified 13th September 2015, accessed 14th September 2015. Available at  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cornish_Rebellion_of_1497

Anon. “Zippos Circus Protest in Blackheath!” The London Animal Rights Meetup Group. No date, accessed 15th September 2015. Available at  http://www.meetup.com/animalrights-202/events/112127872/

Chandler, Mark. “BLACKHEATH: Climate Camp Protest Criticised by Councillors and Police.” News Shopper. Last modified 27th August 2009, accessed 15th September 2009. Available at  http://www.newsshopper.co.uk/news/4568764.BLACKHEATH__Climate_Camp_protest_criticised_by_councillors_and_police/?ref=rl 

Read, Carly. “I predict a riot! Hell-raising anarchist Ian Bone set to boycott posh On Blackheath music and food festival – and urges The Levellers not to perform.” News Shopper. Last modified 29th July 2014, accessed 15th September 2015. Available at http://www.newsshopper.co.uk/news/11372522.Hell_raising_anarchist_set_to_boycott_On_Blackheath_festival/

Runner500. “In Search of the Battle of Deptford Bridge.” Running Past. Last modified 2nd January 2014, accessed 14th September 2015. Available at https://runner500.wordpress.com/tag/deptford-bridge/ 

Runner500. “Whitefield’s Mount- A Rallying Point for Protest and Preaching.” Running Past. Last modified 29th October 2014, accessed 14th September 2015. Available at  https://runner500.wordpress.com/2014/10/29/whitefields-mount-a-rallying-point-for-protest-and-preaching/

Tracing Turbulent London in North East England 1: Morpeth

Morpeth is a picturesque market town in the South of Northumberland. Emily Wilding Davison is one of the most famous Morpethians.

Morpeth is a picturesque market town in the South of Northumberland. Emily Wilding Davison is one of the most famous Morpethians.

Last week, I wrote about the importance of networks for understanding protest in London. As a national and imperial centre London is, and has long been, a key node in a whole range of networks involving the circulation of ideas, people, and materials. This fact was brought home to me recently when I visited the North East of England. Even though I was about 300 miles away from London, I found multiple connections to Turbulent London.

Morpeth is the county town of Northumberland. Situated on a crossing point of the river Wansbeck, the town has a long history, but I am more interested in one of it’s most famous residents. The suffragette Emily Wilding Davison came from Morpeth, and is buried there. Her grave in St. Mary the Virgin Church is visited frequently, and Davison House in the town centre has been painted purple in her honour.

Emily Wilding Davison in buried in the Davison family plot in the churchyard of St. Mary the Virgin.

Emily Wilding Davison in buried in the Davison family plot in the churchyard of St. Mary the Virgin in Morpeth (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Davison House in the centre of Morpeth also honours Emily. It is painted purple, and includes a mural, a plaque, and pictures of Emily inside.

Davison House in the centre of Morpeth also honours Emily. It is painted purple, and includes a mural, a plaque, and pictures of Emily inside (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Emily Wilding Davison is arguably one of the most famous suffragettes. Born in 1872, she joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1906, and began working for them full time in 1909. She became increasingly militant, and was often arrested for causing a public disturbance. She was imprisoned nine times, during which she was force-fed; almost drowned when a guard filled her cell with water; and threw herself down a 10-metre iron staircase in protest at the practice of force-feeding. She also spent a night hidden in a cupboard in the House of Commons so she could list it as her place of residence in the 1911 census.

Despite all this, Emily is probably best known for the way she died. At the Epson Derby on the 4th of June 1913, she ran out in front of the King’s horse. She was trampled, and died in the 8th of June from her injuries. Controversy has raged ever since about whether or not she intended to commit suicide, but it seems most likely that she was just trying to attach a suffragette scarf to the horse’s reins. She became a martyr for the suffragette cause and was buried in Morpeth on the 15th of June.

Morpeth certainly is proud of Emily. As well as Davison House and her grave, she is mentioned in the Tourist Information Centre as a ‘local hero’. Davison House, in Sanderson shopping arcade, was only renamed and painted in March this year. A cynic might say this was an attempt to draw visitors into the town centre (St. Mary’s Church is on the outskirts). Whatever the reason, it was getting attention from passers-by when I visited, and anything that raises the profile of lesser-known historical activists is great as far as I’m concerned.

Emily Wilding Davison is included as one of Morpeth's 'local heroes' on the walls of the Tourist Information Centre.

Emily Wilding Davison is included as one of Morpeth’s ‘local heroes’ on the walls of the Tourist Information Centre (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The artwork in Davison House, by  Jan Szymczuk.

The artwork in Davison House, by Jan Szymczuk (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Pictures of Emily Wilding Davison on the walls in the stairwell of Davison House.

Pictures of Emily Wilding Davison on the walls in the stairwell of Davison House (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

I found visiting Emily’s grave more moving than I expected it to be. She is buried in the Davison family plot, which is surrounded by a green railing; as well as the family headstone there are other, more recent memorials to Emily. The space clearly means a lot of people; messages and ribbons in the suffragette colours have been attached to the railings by previous visitors. In this way, the grave acts as a focus for both official and unofficial forms of remembrance and commemoration. Both the unofficial and unofficial are being constantly renewed- the grave was restored in 2008, a new plaque was added on the centenary of Emily’s funeral in 2013, and some ribbons and messages were more weathered than others.

The text on Emily's headstone includes the suffragette's motto 'Deeds Not Words.'

The text on Emily’s headstone includes the suffragette’s motto ‘Deeds Not Words’ (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

A message of thanks attached to the railings by a representative of  Trentham National(?) Women's

A message of thanks attached to the railings by a representative of Trentham National Women’s Register in 2013 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

IMG_9747

A plaque added to the grave on the centenary of Emily Wilding Davison’s death in 2013. Emily is called ‘A True Daughter of Northumberland’ (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

One of the most recent messages was also one of the most touching. The message, dated the 19th of December 2014 memorialises Katrina Dawson, who was killed in the Sydney Siege a few days before. It explains that the Dawson family were close to Emily Wilding Davison’s descendants; Emily didn’t marry or have children, but one of her relatives must have emigrated to Australia. The message says that Emily would have approved of Katrina’s actions. This shows that, for many, Emily Wilding Davison is a a role model, someone to look up to and be inspired by. This is not something I had thought about before, but the shrine-like quality of the grave made it hard to miss.

One of the most recent unofficial messages left at the gravesite made a connection between Emily and the actions of a woman killed in the 2014 'Sydney Siege.'

One of the most recent unofficial messages left at the gravesite made a connection between Emily and the actions of a woman killed in the 2014 ‘Sydney Siege’ (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Even now, a century after her death, Emily Wilding Davison is remembered with admiration and gratitude. Morpeth is proud of her, and not just because of power to draw in tourists. As ‘A True Daughter of Northumberland’ she embodies qualities which the county as whole want to be known for (Northumbrians are also very proud of Grace Darling, the daughter of a lighthouse keeper who conducted a daring rescue of shipwrecked sailors during a storm in 1838). Emily also forms a connection between Morpeth and London, 300 miles away, demonstrating just how far the networks of protest interlacing the capital reach.

Next week I will be writing about the memorials in Tyneside to the Jarrow Marchers, who marched from Tyneside to London in 1936.

Sources and Further Reading

Anon. ‘The Grave of Emily Wilding Davison’ More in Morpeth. No date, accessed 30th August 2015. http://www.moreinmorpeth.co.uk/visit/the-grave-of-emily-wilding-davison

Smith, Anna. ‘Emily Davison Tribute Planned in Morpeth.’ Morpeth Herald. Last modified 10th March 2015, accessed 30th August 2015. http://www.morpethherald.co.uk/news/emily-davison-tribute-planned-in-morpeth-1-7149312

Book Review: ‘March, Women, March’ by Lucinda Hawksley

'March, Women, March' by Lucinda Hawksley.

‘March, Women, March’ by Lucinda Hawksley.

Hawksley, Lucinda. March, Women, March. London: André Deutsch, 2013.

Lucinda Hawksley’s March, Women, March, recently released in paperback, serves as a fantastic introduction to the history of the women’s movement in the UK, introducing the reader to all the key players from Mary Wollstoncraft through to Christabel Pankhurst, including quite a few who are not so well known nowadays. The book traces the struggle for women’s rights and female suffrage from the end of the eighteenth century to the late 1920s, using extensive quotes from those directly involved to help tell the story.

Hawksley uses numerous extracts from the diaries, letters and publications from those directly involved in the events she describes, so much of the story is told in the words of those who were there and took part. Not only does this act as proof of the huge amount of research that must have gone into the book, it also gives it a personal feel; you can almost feel the determination and strength of the women emanating from the pages.

One of the great strengths of this book is the fact that it tells the whole story of the women’s movement, putting the well-known suffragettes into the context of their predecessors and contemporaries. The Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) and the suffragettes did not spring up out of nowhere- they were inspired by, and worked alongside, vast numbers of other women such as Caroline Norton, Clementina Black and Charlotte Despard. March, Women, March acknowledges and celebrates the whole of this history, not just the bits that have successfully made their way into the collective consciousness.

In fact, my main criticism of the book is that I would have liked more detail about the early pioneers of the women’s movement. Women such as Caroline Norton, who railed against the way that she was treated by both her husband and the law after her marriage, and campaigned tireless for the rights of married women to see their children and control their own income, are much less familiar to me than the Pankhursts, and I would have liked to hear more about them.

March, Women, March also puts the campaign for suffrage into the context of other campaigns that aimed to benefit women, such as attempts to raise awareness about sexual health and contraception, and the ‘rational dress’ movement, which sought to free women from the physical constraints of tight corsets, high heels and excess frills and bows. These campaigns made social pariahs of their champions, appalling mainstream society with their frank and radical opinions. Many of the campaigners, such as Clementina Black who worked tirelessly to improve the conditions of working women, believed that the situation would not truly improve until women were granted the vote, for why should politicians listen to them when they could not influence the outcome of elections? Everything came back to suffrage.

If you are acquainted with the events and figures of the women’s suffrage campaign after 1900, much of this book will feel familiar, although you will probably still learn something new. If you are not familiar with the activities of the WSPU and others, then this book is an ideal introduction to the topic. Either way, March, Women, March is a very enjoyable read, and I would highly recommend it.

Book Review: ‘Sally Heathcote: Suffragette’ by Mary Talbot, Kate Charlesworth and Bryan Talbot

 

'Sally Heathcote: Suffragette' by May Talbot, Kate Charlesworth and Bryan Talbot.

‘Sally Heathcote: Suffragette’ by Mary Talbot, Kate Charlesworth and Bryan Talbot.

Talbot, Mary M, Kate Charlesworth and Bryan Talbot. Sally Heathcote: Suffragette. London: Jonathan Cape, 2014.

Sally Heathcote: Suffragette is a graphic novel that follows Sally Heathcote, a fictional young woman from Manchester who works for the Pankhurst family before they move to London. The story of the suffragettes, from the early days in Manchester through to World War One, is told through the eyes of Sally, a young working class woman who grew up in the workhouse. The book is thoughtful, historically accurate and beautifully illustrated; and a refreshing alternative to traditional depictions of the suffragettes.

Protest and graphic novels are not strangers. I recently reviewed Fight the Power  on this blog, which tells the story of many key examples of historical protest in the English-speaking world. V for Vendetta is a well-known example, with V masks becoming a common feature at marches and demonstrations across the world over the past few years. The recent Comics Unmasked exhibition at the British Library had a whole section on the connections between comics, graphic novels and dissent, which showed that comics frequently constitute protest as well as just representing them.

Sally Heathcote in a WSPU march (Source: Sally Heathcote, 2014).

Sally Heathcote in a WSPU march (Source: Sally Heathcote, 2014).

In a nursing home in Hackney in 1969, an aged Sally dreams about her youth as a suffragette. After leaving the workhouse, Sally became a domestic servant for the Pankhursts. She moves to London several years after the family, and eventually gets a job working for the WSPU. All of the major features of the history of WSPU are then told through Sally’s own experience of them. She is arrested and imprisoned, where she embarks on a hunger strike and is force-fed, like many real-life suffragettes did when they were refused the right to be treated as political prisoners. She  joins the Young Hot Bloods, a secretive militant group within the WSPU, and participates in the bombing of a house belonging to Lloyd George. The divisions within the women’s suffrage movement are seen through Sally’s eyes, as is the death of Emily Wilding-Davison, who was killed by the King George V’s  Horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913.

Apart from the fictional main character, Sally Heathcote is historically accurate and incredibly well researched, with several pages at the back of the book dedicated to explaining the historical sources and contexts of particular events in the story. Also, some speeches and newspaper articles in the book are lifted directly from genuine historical documents. The story does not idealise the WSPU, depicting many of the movement’s weaknesses and divisions. Throughout the book, Sally talks with a mancunian accent, and her story illustrates the class prejudices that were present amongst the leading members of the WSPU. The splits and acrimony between the Pankhursts and many of their closest allies are also shown. As a result the book is a balanced account of history, showing that maintaining solidarity across differences is one of the most difficult challenges faced by a social movement.

Sally is imprisoned in Holloway Jail (Source: Sally Heathcote, 2014)

Sally is imprisoned in Holloway Jail (Source: Sally Heathcote, 2014)

Sally Heathcote is not perfect however. Frequently with graphic novels I struggle to tell some of the characters apart, and I find myself failing to develop a connection with the characters, gaining little insight into their emotions and motivations. Although Sally can always be identified by her bright red hair (colour is used sparingly and to great effect within the book), I often couldn’t identify which of the other main protagonists were speaking. This difficulty may be accentuated if the reader is not familiar with the leading members of the women’s suffrage movement. In addition the reader never gets an explanation as to why Sally is so committed to the WSPU.  As the book progresses we learn she is headstrong and brave, and feels like she owes a debt to Emmeline Pankhurst for hiring her when she left the workhouse, but she never actually says why the right to vote is so important to her. I think this is a major oversight, as it is harder to identify with Sally if you don’t understand her motives.

Sally Heathcote: Suffragette is a poignant, realistic tale of struggle at the turn of the twentieth century. The Suffragettes are possibly one of the most well-known social movements in British history, so it must be a daunting prospect to try and tell their story from a fresh perspective. Sally Heathcote, with it’s unusual format and brave protagonist, does a pretty good job.

Book Review: ‘Fight the Power! A Visual History of Protest Among the English Speaking Peoples’ by Sean Michael Wilson et al.

'Fight the Power!' by Wilson et al.

‘Fight the Power!’ by Wilson et al.

Wilson, Seán Michael, Benjamin Dickson, Hunt Emerson, John Spelling and Adam Pasion. Fight the Power! A Visual History of Protest Among the English-Speaking Peoples. Oxford: New Internationalist, 2013.

The title of Fight the Power! A Visual History of Protest among the English-Speaking Peoples may be a little long winded, but it does sum up the book well. Through the medium of comic strips, the book tells the story of some of the key moments in the history of protest in the English-speaking world (well, from the last 2 centuries anyway). The protests discussed are wide ranging in terms of topic and geography, taking in race, class, labour and governance issues, as well as such diverse countries as Ireland, Australia, America, and the former British Empire.

The format of the book makes it incredibly approachable and engaging, ideal for young people (although some of the images are a little graphic) or those with little previous knowledge of protest. The examples lack detail and can be one-sided, but neither of these are inherently bad things. The book is a fantastic introduction to many protests, and it does not claim to be an unbiased account.

Despite the diversity of the examples, several themes recur throughout the book. One is police brutality. The actions taken by those in authority attempting to suppress protest have frequently proved provocative, causing demonstrations to escalate into violent clashes. The Battle of Peterloo (1819) and the Battle of Toledo (1934), amongst others, are good examples of this. Violence, or the lack of it, is another theme that recurs throughout the book. Whether or not to use violence is one of the most fundamental decisions a protest movement makes, which can drastically influence the outcome of a campaign. There is no ‘right’ answer; apart from the moral debate, both violent and non-violent movements have proved successful in the past.

The lasting impression which the book leaves is one of hope. Particularly in the past few years, it can be very easy to believe that protest does not achieve anything, that  it is all too easy for those in authority to repress or ignore demonstrations and social movements. But what the examples in Fight the Power prove is that protest can force change. The Suffragettes, Rosa Parks, and the various independence movements of the British empire demonstrate that change may take time, decades even, and it may not be exactly the progress that you imagined, but it can be achieved.

Another key message of the book, which is particularly relevant to my PhD, is that past protests can provide both practical suggestions and inspiration to contemporary protest movements. As Tariq Ali writes in the Introduction, “History rarely repeats itself, but its echoes never go away” (p5). An image on the back cover of the book shows an Occupy protester holding a “We are the 99%” placard, backed by a Suffragette, Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela, and others mentioned in the book. It is a powerful image of historical solidarity.

This book was given to me as a Christmas present (I got a lot of books this year, so brace yourself for a lot of reviews over the next few months!), and it certainly fulfills that role perfectly. It is a nice introduction to some of the most famous protests in the history of the English-speaking world, but I would recommend it even if you are already familiar with most of them as a refreshing approach to the history of protest.

Turbulent Londoners: Charlotte Despard, 1844-1939

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past. 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. The second Londoner to be profiled is Charlotte Despard, an inspirational pacifist, feminist and socialist campaigner.


 A portrait of Charlotte Despard by Mary Edis, exh. 1916 (Source:http://www.oxforddnb.com/images/article-imgs/37/37356_1_200px.jpg)

A portrait of Charlotte Despard by Mary Edis, exh. 1916 (Source: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography)

Charlotte Despard was a prominent feminist and social campaigner in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, who fought for many causes during her long life. Born into a wealthy French family in Kent in 1844, she married in 1870. She was brought up as a young Victorian lady should be, and frequently railed against her lack of a proper education. After her husband died in 1890, she became a dedicated and inspiring campaigner, although she was well known for her simple black clothing for the rest of her life.

Despard organised and funded a health clinic, a soup kitchen for the unemployed and youth and working men’s clubs in the slum called Nine Elms in Battersea, London. Not content with mere philanthropy, she actually moved into the area, living amongst those she worked so hard to help. In 1894 she became a Poor Law Guardian in Lambeth, a job at which she excelled, using her position to care for the most vulnerable ‘paupers’.

Politically, Despard was an active supporter of the Social Democratic Party and the Independent Labour Party, running in the 1918 general election as a pacifist Labour candidate for Battersea. By the time the Women’s Social and Political Union moved to London in 1906, she was a well-known progressive speaker, and an obvious choice for an ally. She became the WSPU’s honorary secretary, and was imprisoned twice in 1907 for her actions as a suffragette, at the age of 63. However, later that year the Suffragette movement split, and Despard became President of the Women’s Freedom League, which unlike the WSPU was democratically organised and advocated a campaign of passive resistance.

Despard addressing an anti-fascist rally in the 1930's, when she was in her nineties (Source:http://www.historytoday.com/sites/default/files/despard1.jpg)

Despard addressing an anti-fascist rally in the 1930’s, when she was in her nineties (Source: History Today)

Despard was a pacifist, opposing the Boer War and World War One, despite her brother, Sir John French, being the commander-in-chief of the British Expeditionary Force in France until 1915. The two remained close throughout the First World War, until Charlotte declared her support of Irish home rule and later independence. As the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Sir John French was tasked with trying to supress the very people she supported, and their previously close relationship suffered badly. In 1921 she moved to Ireland, where she continued to campaign for civil rights and the relief of poverty and distress. Despite her advanced years, she was classed as a dangerous subversive under the Irish Free State’s 1927 Public Safety Act. In 1933 her house in Dublin was attacked by an anti-communist mob.

As if all that wasn’t enough, Despard was also active in promoting a variety of other causes, including Save the Children, the Indian independence movement, theosophy, and the London Vegetarian Society. She died after a fall at the age of 95, but left behind an enduring legacy. Charlotte Despard was a confident, strong-willed, independent woman, who frequently defied convention and suffered hardship to fight for what she believed in. She is an inspiration.

Sources

History Today. http://www.historytoday.com/sites/default/files/despard1.jpg (accessed 12/11/14).

Hochschild, Adam. To End All Wars: A Story of Protest and Patriotism in the First World War. London: Pan Books, 2011.

Mulvihill, Margaret. ‘Despard, Charlotte (1844–1939)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2014 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/37356, accessed 12 Nov 2014.

Open University, The. ‘Charlotte Despard.’ Making Britain (no date) http://www.open.ac.uk/researchprojects/makingbritain/content/charlotte-despard (accessed 12/11/14).

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (no date) http://www.oxforddnb.com/images/article-imgs/37/37356_1_200px.jpg (accessed 12/11/14).

Book Review: ‘Voices From History- East London Suffragettes’ by Sarah Jackson and Rosemary Taylor

'Voices from History: East London Suffragettes' by Sarah Jackson and Rosemary Taylor.

‘Voices from History: East London Suffragettes’ by Sarah Jackson and Rosemary Taylor.

Jackson, Sarah and Rosemary Taylor. Voices from History: East London Suffragettes. Stroud: The History Press, 2014.

Voices from History: East London Suffragettes marks 100 years since the formation of the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS), a group led by Sylvia Pankhurst which was asked to leave the Women’s Social and Political Union after they refused to toe the party line. Not content with  campaigning for female suffrage, this inspiring group of women worked to aid and empower the local community. They started a nursery, 3 ‘cost-price’ restaurants and a co-operative toy factory, as well as campaigning for a living wage and better housing. Voices from History is a brilliant account of these achievements and others.

Voices from History is aptly named, telling the story of the ELFS with the aid of numerous first-hand accounts. One of the aims of the book is to celebrate the work of everyone involved in the Federation, even if their names have now been forgotten. The extensive quotes from multiple contemporary sources does this well, highlighting that the achievements of the Federation were down to the efforts of hundreds of individuals, not just well known leaders like Sylvia Pankhurst.

The book is very well contextualised, with female activism in the East End of London both before and after the  ELFS being detailed. I think it is often easy to view groups like the Suffragettes as isolated and unusual incidents, but in fact that is most often not the case, and the structure of the book demonstrates that well. There is a long tradition of radical activism in the East End, and the book situates the ELFS within this history. The final chapter discusses women’s activism in the East End since the suffragettes, right up to the present day. I particularly liked this way of concluding the book, as it shows that the story is not in fact over; there are many more battles to be fought against poverty and inequality in the East End.

Any criticisms that I have are minor really. In the middle of the book there are some wonderful pictures that illustrate the story brilliantly, but I would prefer it if they were interspersed throughout the book, so that you don’t have to keep skipping back and forth to the relevant images. Also, I would have liked more information about the archives and sources used during the research for the book. Even just a few sentences about how and where the research was conducted would have been much appreciated.

Voices from History is a thoroughly enjoyable read about a fascinating period of radicalism in the history of the East End of London. I attended the launch of the book as part of the East London Suffragette Festival in August this year and it was clear that the project was a labour of love for the two authors. Their admiration of the East London Suffragettes, and their determination that the ELFS get the recognition it deserves, shines through the pages of the book. The reader can’t help but feel the same.

What’s in a Name?

Richard_II_meets_rebels

Richard II meets the rebels on 13 June 1380. This image is from a 1470s copy of Jean Froissart’s ‘Chronicles’.

Occupy. The French Revolution. The Notting Hill Riots. The Battle of Cable Street. The Gordon Riots. The American War of Independence.

Many episodes of protest and contentious politics have been given a catchy name by which they are remembered. It is one of those things that you ( or I, anyway) don’t tend to think about very much. A name is often the first thing you learn about an event or period of time, and it is frequently the only thing you remember long after you have forgotten any other details. As such, it has a lot of power to shape perceptions of the event or time period they are referring to. But names can be misleading, creating perceptions that are inaccurate, or even flat out wrong. I have recently come across several examples of such misconceptions, which highlight the importance of  an awareness of how these names came about, who came up with them, what their purpose was, and, on occasion, the need for a new name.

The recent BBC2 series Melvyn Bragg’s Radical Lives devotes an entire episode to John Ball, fourteenth century preacher and inspiration behind the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381. In it, Bragg briefly argues the the Peasant’s Revolt is a misnomer, because  it was not only peasants that took part. Artisans, shopkeepers and other members of the middle class were also involved in the insurrection. Bragg doesn’t mention where the title Peasant’s Revolt came from, but it clearly may have served to belittle and minimise the movement by attributing it solely to the least powerful group in society. It may even have been a deliberate attempt to reduce the significance of the event in the eyes of history, by hiding the fact that a cross section of society were not supportive of the government, rather than just one group.

A similar example is the Matchgirl’s Strike of 1888. Louise Raw’s excellent book Striking a Light argues for the use of the term ‘matchwomen’ instead of ‘matchgirls’. Although many of the women involved were very young, the use of the word ‘girls’ rather than ‘women’ paints a particular picture of the strikers, portraying them as innocent, inexperienced, vulnerable, and in need of help. This image served the purposes of both supporters and critics of the strike at the time, but it has contributed to a skewing of the way that history views the events. Over time the agency of the women has been removed reducing the popular narrative of what happened  during the strike to an inaccurate caricature.

The effects of these derogatory names are not always negative, however. During the course of the wonderful East London Suffragette’s Festival recently, I learnt that the name ‘Suffragette’ was coined by a reporter for the Daily Mail, aiming to shame and belittle these women conducting themselves in such an outrageous manner. The insult backfired however, as the women of the suffrage movement embraced the title, taking ownership and turning it from an insult to a celebration of the women’s tactics.

Of course it is not possible for a name to encompass every single aspect of a protest or social movement, and I am not arguing that it should be able to. I am merely pointing out that, like most things, names are not neutral, unbiased descriptors. Like almost everything else, they should be viewed with a critical eye, and their purpose and effects should be carefully considered.

The Suffragette

The Suffragettes embraced the title meant as an insult (Source: Museum of London).

References

‘Now is the Time: John Ball.’ Melvyn Bragg’s Radical Lives. BBC2. Broadcast 2nd August 2014.

Raw, Louise. Striking a Light: The Bryant and May Matchwomen and their Place in History. London: Bloomsbury, 2011.