Hats off to the Suffragettes!

Unless you’ve been living under a rock this week, you’ll have no doubt heard that it is now 100 years since the Suffragettes won the right to vote for some women. (The right for every woman to vote would come later).  This subject is one I’ve always felt passionate about, and it is a great pleasure for me to write a blog post about it today.

Several years ago, I bought a postcard album from an antiques fair. I was interested in it because of the many Edwardian actresses included there. However, it wasn’t until I got home and started taking the cards out, that I realised the album had belonged to a young woman called Clara, and the cards were (mainly) from a Gloucester man called William. Clara’s family owned a hotel in Torquay and from what I can gather from the cards, she met William while he was staying there, just after the turn of the century. The cards were written in the years following their meeting, when they were “just good friends” but it was fairly obvious that William was sweet on Clara from the beginning. (Happily, research shows that Clara and William were married in 1914, so his love was eventually reciprocated!).

Because I only have the cards William sent to Clara, I obviously can’t see their conversations from her perspective. However, from the things he wrote, it is clear that she was extremely interested in the work of the Suffragettes, and may even have gone on some marches herself.

On a card dated 16 November 1907, William writes: “After hearing Mrs Despard last Saturday, I began to think there is a doubt, which is I hope it went off safely.”  I have since done some research into this rather cryptic note and discovered that Mrs Charlotte Despard was at one time a Suffragette, who left the movement to work more for the socialist and labour parties. She visited William’s town of Gloucester in order to talk about her political interests and he was obviously in the crowd. The talk of safety seems to refer to the various Suffragette marches and action taking place in Torquay during this time.

Another card is dated 18 January 1908: “The results of the Devon election was a great surprise today. I see the Suffragettes have been having a rather exciting time down there.” This card alludes to a series of arrests that the Devon Suffragettes suffered as a result of so-called disorderly conduct during their campaign.

On 4 April 1908, William tried his hand at some Suffragette-inspired poetry. On the back of a card fearing actress Jean Aylwin he wrote:

“There was a young maid of Torquay,
Who said a Suffragette now I will be.
But when for votes she did shout,
All the men shouted out,
In the ‘House’ is where woman should be.”

The last Suffragette-related card is dated 20 June 1908: “Is anyone from Torquay going to the Suffragettes demonstration in Hyde Park tomorrow? Did you see that it is estimated to cost £10,000? There is an excursion from Gloucester, 4/s return.”

This particular note refers to what the media described as a “demonstration unparalleled in the history of British politics.” It involved half a million people, and was designed to show the prime minister that the movement in favour of extending voting to all women, had the support of the majority. The women marched all over London, accompanied by bands and banners, before finally gathering in Hyde Park, where 80 speakers addressed the crowds. Drama came when the podium where Miss Christabel Pankhurst stood, was unsuccessfully rammed by an opposition group, (or “East End roughs” as the media called them). Later various women fainted and collapsed due to the extreme crowd pressure, and a  planned ‘Votes for Women’ cry could not be heard over the cheers and waving of hats and handkerchiefs.  Unfortunately, there are no cards in the collection that confirm whether Clara was in the crowd that day.

I would love to know more about Clara’s involvement in the movement, but alas her story in her own words has alluded me so far. I live for the day when I find another album, this time written by her! In the meantime, I did a little research into the Torquay Suffragettes  at the time Clara was interested in their cause, and came across this letter in a newspaper from a Reverend E S Buchanan. He was on a cruise at the time, and met, “an ardent Suffragette from Torquay, who walks the deck, pathetically wearing a large broach inscribed, ‘Votes for Women.’ P is the only one of our company who has ventured to speak to her, in fact he has had tea with her and her father, upon at least two occasions. He told us she is a very kind hearted woman, and not at all masculine when you know her.” [It strikes me that I’d have had lots to say to Reverend Buchanan, if I’d been around back then, but that’s another story!]

Researching and finding out more about the Suffragette movement makes me extremely grateful that women like Clara existed. Let’s celebrate their victories today and every day. Because of THEM, we can be US!

Until next time,

Michelle x

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