Sunday, 3 April 2011

Refusing to be counted

Yesterday (2 April 2011) was the anniversary of the women’s boycott of the 1911 Census and I marked the event by joining historians Jill Liddington and Tara Morton on their “Artists and Evaders” walk around Kensington. As a suffrage demonstration, the refusal of many militant and non-militant suffrage campaigners to fill in their Census forms was far from being the most spectacular or successful of the protests made by disenfranchised women. According to the Registrar in a letter to The Times on 1 April 1911, if the suffragists hoped that the Census would be seriously affected they would be proved wrong. Even if 100,000 women were “bold enough to defy the law”, he said, in an overall population which “will no doubt be found to exceed 40 millions” (in fact he overestimated by half a million) their absence would make little difference. In the event, many evasion attempts simply did not work: women were counted anyway.

Even so, Christabel Pankhurst hailed the demonstration as a success, and in one way at least it was: it gained publicity for the cause. “Until women count as people for the purpose of representation…as well as for purposes of taxation, we shall refuse to be numbered”, said Mrs Pankhurst. It was this message that the Census protest managed to convey to the public in newspaper articles, speeches, posters and gatherings such as that held in Trafalgar Square on Census night. As Jill Liddington and Tara Morton explained during our walk though Kensington’s magnolia-scented streets, the Census evasion had its origins in Kensington, since it was the brain child of artist and women’s suffrage supporter Laurence Housman who lived with his sister Clemence at 1 Pembroke Gardens, Edwardes Square.

Laurence Housman was a founder member of the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage and with his sister Clemence Housman a co-founder in 1909 of the Suffrage Atelier. This was a group of artists whose aim was to use their work to support the campaign for the women’s vote. The Atelier was based in the studio at the bottom of the Housman’s garden, where they produced banners, postcards, cartoons, and posters. Kensington was home to a number of artists and suffragists, many of whom produced art for the cause either independently or within the Atelier. They included jeweller Ernestine Mills who designed badges for the Women’s Social and Political Union; artist Olive Hockin whose studio equipment included hammers, paraffin, stones, and wire cutters for use in militant attacks; and Louise Joplin Rowe who let the Atelier use her studio at 7 Pembroke Gardens for exhibitions. Writer May Sinclair was Olive Hockin’s neighbour in Edwardes Square Studios, and novelist Evelyn Sharp, who was the Kensington WSPU Branch Secretary, lived in a flat in Duke’s Lane.

We had a lovely day: the weather was kind and never have the streets and squares of London looked so lovely. We stood on the corner of Phillimore Gardens and Kensington High Street with the Kensington contingent of the great suffragette procession on 21 June 1908. We wore white dresses and sashes in the colours and in front of us fluttered the banner designed by Laurence Housman and embroidered under Clemence’s direction: From Prison to Citizenship. In Pembroke Gardens we listened to the “ker chunk ker chunk” of the Atelier’s printing press as it churned out caricatures of the Liberal politicians responsible for the imprisonment and torture of unenfranchised women. Rather than stay at home and be counted on the night of 2 April, we knocked at the door of Number 1 and spent the night with other evaders while Laurence gallantly slept in the studio (though we were disappointed that only three other women joined us). And we sat on the floor of the studio labouring from dawn to dusk with Clemence, embroidering those beautiful banners behind which so many women marched in order to win for us our right to vote.

Read Sonia Lambert’s article about the Census boycott in The Guardian, 1 April 2011 -

Visit the 1911 Census site -

See some of the beautiful suffrage banners and designs from the Women’s Library collection on line at VADS: the online resource for the visual arts -

See Laurence Housman’s From Prison to Citizenship banner -

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