Wednesday, 18 December 2013

'We will have a fire': arson during eighteenth-century enclosures

Join our Winter Solstice Blog Hop! Thirty writers throw light on a dazzling range of topics. Follow the links at the end of this article to be enlightened and brightened by our blogs... 

“Inclosure came and trampled on the grave
Of labours rights and left the poor a slave
And memorys pride ere want to wealth did bow
Is both the shadow and the substance now.”  

John Clare, The Mores 
On 1 May 1794, the writer Hester (Thrale) Piozzi of Streatham Park recorded in her diary that the furze on the common had been set on fire in protest at the enclosure of land “which really & of just Right belonged to the poor of the Parish”. Yet even while she acknowledged that the protesters had justice on their side, she criticised them for not “going to Law like wise fellows” and concluded: “So senseless are Le Peuple, & so unfitted to be souverain”.

The senseless poor of Streatham were not unique. During the eighteenth century, enclosure resisters throughout the country tore down fences, damaged gardens, greenhouses and orchards, destroyed trees, broke windows, fired guns at enclosers, attacked land surveyors, sabotaged farm equipment and blocked roads. Most sensationally of all, they torched houses, barns and hayricks.  

What possessed them to commit arson – a capital crime – instead of “going to Law”?

Le Peuple

Picture a farm labourer in the eighteenth century: we’ll call him Jack Straw. Not only is Jack’s work hard, it’s also seasonal. If he had to rely on his wages alone, his family would have starved long ago. Luckily his village has some common land where Jack and his family gather fuel for heating and cooking. They keep a cow and a pig which they graze on the common. They forage for food: berries, mushrooms, nuts and herbs. Sometimes they sell some of the produce they’ve harvested in local markets to bring in a bit of extra income. They gather rushes to make tallow candles and thatch their cottage.

Jack isn’t the only villager who depends on the common. Local tradesmen such as blacksmiths or bakers use it to supplement their incomes during slack periods. Smallholders pasture their livestock on it. Part of the land is set aside to provide income for charitable purposes so even the poorest in the parish benefit.

No-one owns the common, but that doesn’t mean it’s first grab, first served. The village has appointed officers to regulate the way the land is used. They make sure no one takes more than he’s entitled to, that the land isn’t over-grazed, that ditches are cleared and animal carcasses are removed, that ponds are kept clean. Jack knows he will be fined if he breaks the rules. 

So there’s Jack Straw, working hard but getting by, keeping his family off the parish poor relief or out of the workhouse. Then one day a notice appears on the church door: the common is going to be enclosed by Act of Parliament. There’ll be no more wood for the fire or rushes for the thatch, and Jack will have to get rid of his cow and pig because he can’t afford to buy feed. Jack Straw and his family are going to be a lot worse off in the days to come.  

Of just Right belonged to the poor of the Parish 

The effect of an Enclosure Act was to eradicate commons rights, leaving the no-man’s-land that remained available for distribution amongst the landowners. In order to obtain an Enclosure Act, the promoters had to secure the consent of the majority of land owners in the parish. Since consent was weighted by how much land each signatory owned, it was possible for one large landowner to give consent.  

A solicitor was employed to draw up a Bill. When the Bill reached Parliament it was referred to a committee for consideration. The committee looked at matters such as the compensation to be paid for loss of commons rights, the distribution of the land, and provision for payment of tithes.  

It looks like due process, but in fact it was heavily weighted in favour of the enclosers. There was only one stage at which objections could be lodged, and that was when the Bill reached committee. So when Hester Piozzi wondered why the poor of the parish didn’t go to Law, she’s wondering why they didn’t employ a solicitor to draw up their petition in the due form and present it to the committee. (Petitions which were not in due form were ignored.)  

Going to law like wise fellows 

Well, why didn’t they?  

Mrs Piozzi herself provides the clue.  

They were the poor of the parish. They couldn’t pay a solicitor to draft their petition, or retain counsel to represent them in committee. They could not afford to go to London and lobby MPs, and even if they could how could they negotiate a system from which they were completely excluded? Most of them couldn’t even write.  

It is no wonder, then, that so few petitions were presented to enclosure committees. In Nottinghamshire, for example, of 171 enclosures, only nine were the subject of counter-petitions, and the petitioners included an earl, land owners and “gentlemen”.  

What’s more, the land owners had more than legal technicalities on their side. They had force. They could get away with including clauses in Enclosure Bills imposing the death penalty on resisters. They could call on the army to help them enforce enclosure – as they did in Bedfordshire, Northamptonshire and Cambridgeshire.  

A mist of flames 

Jack Straw and his neighbours have no connection with the great men of Parliament, or the enclosure committees which are packed with land owners and their friends. What can they do to make their objections known?  

They can light up the night sky with protest. Arson, or the threat of arson, is one of their most potent weapons. They can promise farmers who deprive them of their rights that “As soon as your corn is in the barn we will have a fire” (anonymous letter sent to an Essex farmer, 1773). They can warn those who “intend of incloseing our Commond fields” that they will wake in their beds in a “mist of flames” (anonymous letter sent to Oliver Cromwell of Cheshunt Park, 1799).  

So Jack Straw is going to go out one night with a tinder box in his pocket. He’s going to set fire to a hay rick. If he’s caught, he’ll hang.  

Senseless Jack Straw.

I am currently working on a novel set during the eighteenth-century enclosures. Murder, riot - and arson!

Here are some more blogs on the theme of "Casting Light Upon the Darkness"

(Note: Links will go live on 21 December 2013):-

Helen Hollick - A little light relief concerning those dark reviews! Plus prize giveaway.

Prue Batten - Casting Light...

Alison Morton - Shedding Light on the Roman Dusk Plus a Giveaway Prize!

Anna Belfrage - Let there be light!

Beth Elliott - Steering by the Stars: Stratford Canning in Constantinople, 1810-12

Melanie Spiller - Lux Aeterna, the chant of eternal light

Janet Reedman - The Winter Solstice Monuments

Petrea Burchard - Darkness - how did people of the past cope with the dark? Plus a Giveaway Prize!

Richard Denning - The Darkest Years of the Dark Ages: what do we really know? Plus a giveway prize!

Pauline Barclay - Shedding Light on a Traditional Pie

David Ebsworth - Propaganda in the Spanish Civil War

David Pilling - Greek Fire Plus a Giveaway Prize!

Debbie Young - Fear of the Dark

Derek Birks - Lies, Damned Lies and...Chronicles

Mark Patton - Casting Light on Saturnalia

Tim Hodkinson - Soltice@Newgrange

Wendy Percival - Ancestors in the Spotlight

Judy RidgeleySanta and his Elves Plus a Giveaway Prize 

Suzanne McLeod - The Dark of the Moon

Katherine Bone - Admiral Nelson, A Light in Dark Times

Christina Courtney - The Darkest Night of the Year

Edward James - The secret life of Christopher Columbus; Which Way to Paradise?

Janis Pegrum Smith - Into the Light - A Short Story

Julian Stockwin - Ghost Ships - Plus a Giveaway Present!

Manda Scott - Dark into Light - Mithras, and the older gods

Pat Bracewell - Anglo-Saxon Art: Splendor in the Dark

Lucienne Boyce - 'We will have a fire' - 18th century protests against enclosure

Nicole Evelina - What Lurks Beneath Glastonbury Abbey?

Sky Purington - How the Celts Cast Light on Current American Christmas Traditions

Stuart MacAllister (Sir Read A Lot) - The Darkness of Depression

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Anyone for Panko?

This splendid playing card is one of a set for the game of Panko, or Votes for Women,  “the Great Card Game – Suffragists v Anti Suffragists”.  


The cards were designed by  Edward Tennyson Reed (1860–1933), a cartoonist known for his sketches of politicians in the House of Commons. Reed worked for Punch magazine on their parliamentary pages between 1890 and 1912.   


Panko was one of many items of merchandise sold by the militant Women’s Social and Political Union to raise funds for the cause. It was marketed as a gift with appeal for both supporters and antis. If you bought it for friends who were supporters it would please them, and if your friends were anti it would amuse them – and after the game you could convert them! Advertised in the WSPU magazine, Votes for Women, in December 1909, Panko would have made an ideal Christmas present. Alas, my set is incomplete – big hint in case Santa is thinking of bringing me something this year!  

Sunday, 20 October 2013

From Roman Fact to Roman Fiction

Yesterday, 19 October 2013, was the first of two free Meet the Historians events which have been organised for the Historical Novel Society to take place during the Bristol Literature Festival. From Roman Fact to Fiction was one of a number of events associated with the Bristol Museum’s Roman Empire: Power and People exhibition (on until 12 January 2014).  

Gail Boyle is Senior Collections Officer (Archaeology) for Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives, and the curator of Roman Empire: Power and People. She gave a fascinating talk comparing and contrasting how authors of historical novels and experts in a museum context weave stories around objects.  

Ben Kane is the author of rip-roaring action novels about Spartacus, Hannibal and first-century BC Rome. He told us about his recent walk along the length of Hadrian’s Wall, wearing full Roman military kit. This included hobnailed boots – which he brought with him! The walk raised almost £19,000 for charity.  

Manda Scott’s international best-selling Boudica series explores who we were before the Romans came, while her Rome series of first-century spy thrillers dissects the early Empire and the men and women who were key to its evolution. Manda’s talk was on “Writing Roman fiction: the use of fact and the versatility of invention. How fiction writers can expand on history, and explore the places historians dare not tread.”     

It was an afternoon of challenging and stimulating ideas about history, storytelling and the writer’s craft. We also had an introduction to the exhibition from Gail, and Manda and Ben signed books in the Museum’s bookshop afterwards.  

There’s another Meet the Historians event on 26 October, when I’ll be on a panel with Julian Stockwin, Adrian Tinniswood and Steve Poole to look at Bristol’s maritime history. It’s free, it’s at the M Shed from 2 to 4 pm, and you can find out more about The Best Port of Trade in Britain: Bristol's Maritime History on the HNS Bristol group website.

Find out more about the Roman Empire: Power and People exhibition at the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery website.

Find out more about Manda Scott at Manda Scott’s website 

Find out more about Ben Kane at Ben Kane’s website

Thursday, 19 September 2013

That infernal brothel: the story of Bet Carter (c1770 - ?), a convict to New South Wales

At the end of April 1794 The Surprize convict ship set sail from Portsmouth bound for Botany Bay. Her master was Patrick Campbell and the first mate was Mr McPherson. On board were 23 soldiers of the New South Wales Corp, the regiment established in 1789 to serve in Australia. Six of the soldiers were deserters who had been taken from prison.  

Amongst the 94 convicts were four men known as the Scottish Martyrs: radicals Thomas Muir, Thomas Palmer, William Skirving and Maurice Margarot, who had all been sentenced to transportation for campaigning for parliamentary reform. During the voyage the four men fell out and in an atmosphere of spying and treachery, Thomas Muir and William Skirving ended up on charges of plotting to incite a mutiny. Several people were drawn into this brutal affair, during which the suspects were confined without trial, witnesses were bullied, and accused soldiers flogged and kept chained to the poop in cramped positions and left exposed to the elements.

The Scottish reformers weren’t the only martyrs on board. In his self-justificatory account of the voyage (A Narrative of the Sufferings of T F Palmer and W Skirving), Palmer (a Unitarian minister) , devoted a paragraph to “McPherson’s girl”, another unfortunate caught up in the alleged mutiny plot. Her name was Bet Carter.

One amenity the convict ships were always supplied with was a brothel. The Surprize was no exception. Palmer was most indignant when his friend James Ellis, who accompanied him to Australia as a free settler, was lodged in “a cot in the most flagitious brothel in the Universe”, and the cabin Ellis had paid for was given to a convict woman kept by one of the soldiers, Serjeant Baker. Palmer was even more furious when he himself had to spend part of his confinement in “that infernal brothel. The language of Newgate was virtue and decency in comparison”.

McPherson had picked Bet Carter from that “flagitious brothel”. Elizabeth Carter was a prostitute at “Mother Macclew’s” house in Sharp’s Alley, London. Like many prostitutes, Bet augmented her earnings by robbing her clients. Her downfall came when, with a woman called Elizabeth Ford, she picked up a servant called Benjamin Painton on 8 November 1792. The women took him to Mother Macclew's. He agreed to pay Bet six pence, and gave Ford a shilling to buy gin (an interesting sidelight on relative values). Elizabeth Ford went off on her errand, and while Bet Carter and Painton “were going to the agreement”, Bet picked his pocket. While he was trying to retrieve his purse from her, Elizabeth Ford came back and the three of them struggled.

Mother Macclew came rushing in to see what the noise was about. In fact, “Mother Macclew” was not married to Mr Macclew, the owner of the house; her name was Mary Williams. Mary Williams “found” the purse on the floor by a bed in the room but “not that bed we had been upon”, claimed Painton. She returned it to Painton, lighter by nine guineas and three shillings. Painton refused to leave without his money and a constable was sent for. Constable Mulleins arrested Carter and Ford.

Bet claimed that she had gone to the house alone to hire lodgings and when she went up to her room she found Painton standing on the stairs. He accused her of taking the money, which she swore she had never had. Her story didn’t convince the court. Elizabeth Ford was found not guilty, but Bet was found guilty of stealing, though the court decided that the theft had not taken place in the house. She was sentenced on 15 December 1792 to seven years’ transportation. She was 22 years old.

If the Elizabeth Carter sentenced at the Old Bailey in 1792 is indeed the Bet Carter who became “McPherson’s woman” on board The Surprize, she spent the next couple of years in prison waiting for a convict ship to become available. It was not unusual for prisoners to be kept waiting in this way. Palmer himself was in prison in Perth for three months before being sent to a hulk on the Thames, where he spent a further three months in chains doing hard labour. He was taken to The Surprize from the hulk in February 1792, and waited a further two months before the ship sailed. Nor was a delay of two years unusual. These periods were not taken into account when transportation actually took place.

Like Serjeant Baker’s woman, once she was on The Surprize, Bet sold herself to one of the soldiers in return for better living conditions and protection from the violence of the “brothel”. There “the women were almost perpetually drunk, and as perpetually engaged in clamours, brawls, and fighting”. Conditions for the convicts shut away below decks were dreadful, as Palmer discovered: “it was so close and hot under the torrid zone, we could not bear the weight of our clothes”.

Unfortunately for Bet, first mate McPherson was not popular with Captain Campbell. When he complained to the Captain about Serjeant Baker, who he said had insulted him, he and Campbell had a furious row. The upshot was that Campbell had McPherson arrested and confined to his cabin. The hapless first mate was then accused of being a leader in the mutiny plot. 

Campbell proceeded to question Bet, who said she knew nothing about the plot. This is what, according to Palmer, then happened:-

“She had suffered so much before on McPherson’s account, and besides grief for him she was put in irons. When they went to lay hold on her she fainted away, and fell upon the deck, but no sooner did she recover than her mouth was open to declare her ignorance of any plot whatever; and persisting in it, she was hoisted up and flogged. The girl, finding that she had nothing but barbarity to expect, disdained to gratify their cruelty with a single groan or pity-invoking look.”

The Surprize reached Botany Bay on 25 October 1794. I don’t know what happened to Bet Carter after that. I hope that disdainful Bet, who refused to beg her tormentors for mercy, and whose short existence seems to have been one long tale of violence and exploitation, managed to make a better life for herself in the colony. Somehow, though, I doubt it.


A Narrative of the Sufferings of T F Palmer and W Skirving, during a voyage to New South Wales, 1794, on board the Surprise transport, Thomas Fysshe Palmer (Cambridge, 1797)

The Old Bailey on Line

Convict Record of Australia

Convicts to Australia

See also The Floating Brothel: The extraordinary true story of an eighteenth-century ship and its cargo of female convicts, Sian Rees (London: Headline, 2001)







Sunday, 25 August 2013

Mrs Pankhurst and the Double Standard

When Mrs Pankhurst sought to justify WSPU militancy, she often did so by drawing attention to a double standard that accepted men’s militancy but criticised women’s. “The smashing of windows is a time-honoured method of showing displeasure in a political situation,” she said, adding, “When Englishmen do it, it is regarded as an honest expression of political opinion…when Englishwomen do it, it is treated as a crime.”  

Mrs Pankhurst served a term in prison in 1908 for inciting disorder during a deputation to the House of Commons. After her release from Holloway, she insisted on the suffragettes’ right to be regarded as political prisoners , not common criminals, and directed WSPU members to refuse to co-operate with prison rules unless this was granted. It was this demand that led hundreds of women to adopt the hunger strike.  

Yet the WSPU frequently argued that the Government was prepared to grant male activists political status and tolerate their violence and incitement of others to break the law. During her defence speech in court on 21 May 1912 Mrs Pankhurst noted that while she was in prison (in 1908) “for no greater offence than the issue of a handbill”, the Government had received members of the Young Turkish Revolutionary Party. These men had “killed and slain…while we women had never thrown a stone…we were imprisoned while these political murderers were being feted by the very Government who imprisoned us”.  

The WSPU issued constant reminders of the fact that the male franchise had been extended as a result of male militancy. In 1909, in the days leading up to Liberal MP Winston Churchill’s visit to the city,  Bristol suffragettes circulated leaflets pointing out that the 1832 Bristol Riots had been a factor in men obtaining the vote. It seems Bristol was prepared to riot again: at least the female part of it. Churchill’s visit was the focus of days of demonstrations that included window breaking and heckling him at meetings.  

One suffragette, Theresa Garnett from Leeds, even assaulted him when he arrived at Bristol Temple Meads from London. She broke through the cordon of detectives surrounding the politician and lunged at him with a whip, crying “Take that, you brute!” She was sentenced to a month in Horfield Jail, where she went on hunger strike and was forcibly fed. She protested by setting fire to her cell and was placed in solitary confinement. Eleven days later she collapsed and was moved to the prison hospital.    

On 4 December 1913 Mrs Pankhurst was arrested at Plymouth on her return to England from America, where she had been on a speaking tour. She was released after a hunger strike and went to Paris, where her daughter Christabel Pankhurst had fled the previous year to avoid arrest. Mrs Pankhurst was rearrested in Dover on her return, and went on a hunger, thirst and sleep strike. Protesting against her treatment, suffragettes burned a timber yard at Devonport, near Plymouth, on 15 December. The message, “Our reply to the torture of Mrs Pankhurst, and her cowardly arrest at Plymouth” was left at the scene. A second card left at the scene read, “How dare you arrest Mrs Pankhurst and allow Sir Edward Carson and Mr Bonar Law to go free?”  

Edward Carson and Andrew Bonar Law were leaders of the Ulster Unionist movement, which was pledged to resist Irish Home Rule by force; the armed Ulster Volunteer Force was formed in 1912. When the Bishop of London condemned suffragette militancy, Mrs Pankhurst protested, “Why does he condemn militancy on the part of women while, presumably, he approves (since he remains silent) the preparations made by men in Ireland to destroy, not only property, but human life?” 

The WSPU attempted to petition the King on 21 May 1914, but were turned away from Buckingham Palace by cordons of police. It was a violent affair, with mounted police  charges and brutal treatment of the women by police officers and men in the crowd. Sylvia Pankhurst called it a “day of woman bating indeed”. Mrs Pankhurst was arrested and taken to Holloway. She was released after a five day hunger and thirst strike. Sixty six women and two men were also arrested, and when they appeared in court the next morning there were noisy demonstrations inside and outside, and eight more arrests were made. The protests continued over the next few days. Pictures were slashed at the National Gallery, a mummy case broken at the British Museum, and a portrait of the King in the Royal Scottish Academy was damaged.  

Yet, as Mrs Pankhurst pointed out, while the King refused to receive militant women, on 24 July 1914 he received a deputation of militant men led by Edward Carson during a  conference at Buckingham Palace to discuss the situation in Ireland. Members of Sylvia Pankhurst’s East End Suffrage Federation picketed outside with posters saying “The King must call a conference on Votes for Women”. 

The King did not call a conference on votes for women, and the WSPU continued to protest about the double standard. Men, Mrs Pankhurst said, “have decided that it is entirely right and proper for men to fight for their liberties and their rights, but that it is not right and proper for women to fight for theirs…Well, the Suffragettes absolutely repudiate that double standard of morals.”




Saturday, 20 July 2013

Dreadnought Days

I’ve had an exciting few Dreadnought days, with a walk, a play, a panel and my own suffrage pilgrimage to Aldeburgh in Suffolk...

In a series of events around the region, the Dreadnought South West project commemorates the 1913 Suffrage Pilgrimage organised by the non-militant National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). Women’s franchise campaigners from all over the country walked to London along six main routes, including one through the south west starting at Land’s End. The Pilgrimage began on 18 June 1913 and ended with a rally in Hyde Park on 26 July, where Mrs Millicent Garrett Fawcett, president of the NUWSS, addressed the crowd.  

I was thrilled to be involved in some of the Dreadnought events here in Bristol.    

Suffragette Walk 

On 7 July ten of us braved the heat to walk around Clifton looking at sites connected with the militant suffrage campaign in Bristol. In 1907 leading suffragette Annie Kenney came to the city to launch a local branch of the Women’s Social Political Union (WSPU), the militant organisation led by Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel. For the next few years the city was the setting for countless meetings and rallies; local MPs were heckled; windows broken; buildings burned; and the WSPU shop wrecked by anti-suffrage students.  


A new play specially written by Natalie McGrath, Oxygen formed the centrepiece of Dreadnought’s tour across the south west. I saw it at the Trinity Centre in Bristol on 11 July. While telling many women’s stories, the play focusses in particular on the lives of two sisters, one a militant, the other a non-militant. The complexity of the sisters’ relationship reflects the complexities of the campaign for the vote, and illuminates the connections and distances between both branches of the suffrage campaign. There’s also a real sense of the dilemma of attempting to balance the personal and the political as friends and home take second place to the cause: the young sister leaves the elder to take care of their demanding father, the elder fails to respond to a call for help from a pregnant friend. 

The play has a wide expressive range, moving from speeches to crowd scenes to private encounters. The language is poetic and evocative, summoning up the spirit of the suffrage campaigners in its use of key phrases of the time: shoulder to shoulder, the common cause, dread[ing] nought. Our sympathy is engaged at a deep and immediate level: in the recital of the names of the towns the women pass through; in the prison scene (“We strike!”); in the beautiful songs; and in the one-minute silence for Emily Wilding Davison.   

Anger and indignation about the oppression of women lie at the heart of the action. We are reminded why women wanted the vote: to end sweated labour, the exploitation of women, child poverty. In one of the most moving scenes, the women imagine that in one hundred years these problems will all be solved. If there is still anyone who thinks that feminism is no longer needed, then Oxygen is a reminder of how much remains to be done – and how much women can do. It is a beautiful, stunning piece with a fabulous cast. Ultimately, in spite of its often sombre tone, it is (as the song 'Oxygen' has it) “Full of hope for us”.    

Suffragette Militancy Panel 

I was joined at Bristol M Shed on 13 July by June Hannam, Professor Emerita at the University of the West of England; Lois Bibbings, Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of Bristol; and Dawn Dyer of the Local Studies Team at Bristol Central Library, with Wendy Larner of the University of Bristol in the chair, to discuss the effectiveness and ethics of suffragette militancy.  

June reminded us of the varied types of militancy – it was not just arson but included things like tax and census resistance – and considered how women’s engagement in the campaign contributed to their personal development (eg gaining confidence). Dawn described her involvement with the 100 Women of Bristol booklet, and looked at images of militants – for and against – on postcards, noting the violent misogyny of some of the “antis”. Lois drew parallels between conscientious objectors and militants: both were “gender dissidents” in the way they challenged traditional male and female roles. Finally, I suggested that suffragette militancy was “an experiment that failed” because in its attempt to adapt traditional forms of violence to its cause, it could not live up to its ideal of not causing harm to anyone.    

My Suffrage Pilgrimage 

And finally, my suffrage pilgrimage. Why Aldeburgh? Because Millicent Garrett Fawcett, who greeted the suffrage pilgrims in Hyde Park, was born in Aldeburgh in 1847. She had a long and varied career campaigning for women’s rights in education, the welfare of working-class women, and against child-abuse, as well as for women’s suffrage. She died in 1929. 
Her sister Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (born in London in 1836) was one of the first women to pursue a career in medicine. She was for a time a member of the NUWSS, later joined the militant WSPU (aged 72), but left when militancy escalated. She retired to Aldeburgh in 1902, where in 1908 she became England’s first woman mayor. She died in Alde House in Aldeburgh in 1917.  

Elizabeth’s daughter, Louisa Garrett Anderson (1873-1943), stayed in the WSPU and went to prison in 1912 after taking part in a window-smashing raid. 

For information about the Suffrage Pilgrimage and Dreadnought South West see








Saturday, 6 July 2013

Were the suffragettes insane?

On 16 March 1912 a leader in The Times explained suffragette militancy by attributing it to women’s “Insurgent Hysteria”. The article suggested that “in a large number of cases, even though in the strict sense insanity is not present, there is a tendency to some form of hysteria or morbid moods akin thereto”. Women’s mental weakness was inherent in their physiology: their “senseless outrages against property” could best by understood by physicians. Amongst the correspondence the leader inspired, one doctor, in a letter headed “What Every Doctor Knows”, agreed that physicians did indeed understand the type of woman referred to. He explained that “when she has reached a certain age, we know that there is no help in us”. To prevent the development of such characters, he added, “the lunacy laws will require revision.”   

Medical scientist Sir Almroth Wright produced a whole book – The Unexpurgated Case Against Woman Suffrage – exploring the theme, characterising the suffragettes as “spinsters in a state of retarded development”, women who could not understand that their “unsatisfied sexuality is an intellectual disability.” He characterised the suffragettes as “ungrateful women” – disappointed wives , the sexually embittered, and those who wanted to have everything for nothing.  
Other newspapers, like the Daily Express, also described suffragettes as “crazy”, “frenzied” and “insane”. The insane, of course, could not vote. Neither could criminals.

Suffragette militancy itself proved that women should not have the vote. “If anything could strengthen the general conviction of ordinary men that women are unfit for the suffrage, it surely would be the supremely silly conduct of the window-breakers”, thundered The Times on 26 June 1912.  

Before forcible feeding was used on suffragettes, it was used on the insane, and it continued to be connected with insanity. A male suffragist, William Ball, was said to have been driven mad by forcible feeding. Bristol woman Alice Walters was so badly affected by forcible feeding she feared that if it continued she “should have gone mad”.
In 1912 the Home Secretary introduced The Mental Deficiency Bill which would give the Home Secretary the power to compulsorily confine people for life based on fairly sweeping definitions of insanity. In the Commons, Sir F Banbury criticised the Bill, saying it would make the Home Secretary “an absolute dictator” who could use the legislation to exclude who he chose from “the rights of citizenship”. It “would enable him to brand all the woman suffragists as deficient in mind and to lock them up”. Sir F Banbury added, however, that if he did so he “might be acting rightly”.    
When on 11 June 1914 the House of Commons discussed methods of dealing with hunger-striking militants, treating them as lunatics was amongst the options considered. Reginald McKenna, the Home Secretary, agreed that suffragettes were “hysterical fanatics”, but rejected the lunatic suggestion because his earlier attempts to get women certified as insane failed when doctors would not co-operate. (The other options considered were to let the prisoners die (“the most popular”, remarked McKenna), deport them, or give them the franchise (this was greeted with “Hear, hear, and laughter”).

Suffragettes on trial were frequently characterised as insane. During the trial of Bristol woman Lillian Lenton, who had burned the tea house at Kew Gardens, the magistrate asked, “is she responsible for her actions?”  Mary Lindsay, who struck Lord Weardale when she mistook him for Prime Minister Asquith, was remanded in custody to see whether she was of sound mind. The London County Council solicitor, prosecuting Elsie Neville Howey for setting off false fire alarms, described her crime as “an act of madness”.  

Sometimes it’s easy to sympathise with the outraged populace. One woman attended a church service and placed a canister of gunpowder and iron filings under a church pew. She lit the fuse as the congregation was leaving; the device was discovered and doused in water. What was she thinking? The same woman carried a loaded revolver and frequently declared that she wasn’t afraid to use it (though thankfully she never did). Was she insane? She was certainly reckless and violent – perhaps not the same thing.
What do you think? Were the suffragettes mad, criminal, or political activists? If you are in Bristol on 13 July 2013 you can find out more in a free panel event at Bristol M Shed – details below.
“Senseless outrages against property”: suffragette militancy and women’s right to vote
Saturday 13 July 2003, 2 pm to 3.30 pm, at Bristol M Shed.   

Join June Hannam, Professor Emeritus at the University of the West of England; Lois Bibbings, Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of Bristol; Dawn Dyer of the Local Studies Team at Bristol Central Library; and local author Lucienne Boyce to discuss the effectiveness and ethics of suffragette militancy in the campaign for women’s right to vote. For details see the Bristol M Shed website.
This free event is part of the Dreadnought South West series of events commemorating the south west’s contribution to the Suffrage Pilgrimage of 1913. For more information about the project see


Saturday, 30 March 2013

'The Suffragettes were in the organ'

I’ve been so busy preparing The Bristol Suffragettes for publication (expected in May) that I haven’t had a chance to write a blog for ages. With publication date drawing near, though, I’ve been thinking about dates quite a bit, and in particular how hard they, and other details, are to pin down. Surprisingly, that’s true even for recent and well-recorded events such as the suffrage campaign. You’d think that with newspapers, books, recordings and films available for us to consult, not to mention diaries and autobiographies, it would be comparatively easy to sort out the facts.  

Well, it isn’t!  

Take the case of the suffragettes who hid overnight in the organ in the Colston Hall, Bristol in 1909 to interrupt local MP Augustine Birrell’s speech the next day. According to A Nest of Suffragettes in Somerset by B M Willmott Dobbie (1979), the suffragettes were Elsie Howey and Vera Wentworth and the event took place on 2 May. Dobbie includes a rousing description of the event taken from Annie Kenney’s memoirs, Memories of a Militant (1924). Annie was the organiser in Bristol and arranged the protests, so she ought to know what happened. In her account, the two suffragettes went to a concert in the hall on the previous night and afterwards hid in the organ until the next evening, munching on chocolate and apples. Annie goes on to describe the hilarious scenes during Birrell’s talk as stewards “scampered here, there, and everywhere” in an attempt to find the source of the cries “Votes for Women!”. “The night and day spent in the organ had,” concluded Annie, “served its purpose.” 

A great stunt, no doubt about it. But did it really happen like that? I first began to wonder when I noticed that 2 May was a Sunday. It seemed odd to me that a political meeting was held on a Sunday. No doubt people did hold meetings on Sundays, but I thought I’d just double check. I looked in The Women’s Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide 1866-1928 (Elizabeth Crawford, 1999), which confirmed in the entry on Elsie Howey that it was on 2 May that Elsie Howey and Vera Wentworth hid in the organ. However, the entry for Vera Wentworth didn’t mention the event. 

I found this a bit puzzling so decided to take another book off my shelf. I looked in Antonia Raeburn’s The Militant Suffragettes (1973) and found that Elsie Howey had been accompanied by Vera Holme, not Vera Wentworth. I went back to The Women’s Suffrage Movement and in the entry for Vera Holme found confirmation of this. Vera Holme had written a verse account of the incident in the suffragette newspaper, Votes for Women, on 7 May which both Crawford and Raeburn mentioned. So it seemed fairly clear that the women were Elsie Howey and Vera Holme, not Vera Wentworth.  

However, while The Women’s Suffrage Movement entry on Holme repeated that the date was 2 May, Antonia Raeburn gave it as Saturday 1 May. She also said that the women had hidden in the organ during the Saturday afternoon, not on the previous night. This was corroborated by Vera Holme’s verse account, quoted in The Militant Suffragettes under the title “An Organ Recital” which read: “Seated one day in the organ/We were weary and ill at ease;/ We sat there three hours only,/Hid midst the dusty keys”. I also found a passage in Katherine Roberts’s Pages from the Diary of a Militant Suffragette (1910) which noted on 7 May 1909, “I want to make a note of an amusing parody I read in to-day’s Votes for Women…the other day two of our members contrived, during the afternoon, to slip in unobserved and hid in the organ.” Roberts went on quote Vera Holme’s poem, which she called “An Organ Record”. This was also the title given in the Crawford entry on Vera Holme. So now I had two titles for the poem.  

Finally, I checked the newspapers and found an article in The Guardian on 3 May 1909 which clearly stated that Mr Birrell had been interrupted during a speech in the Colston Hall on Saturday 1 May. However, The Guardian made reference to only one woman hiding in the organ: “She was found behind a group of pipes, and she was speedily rushed from the hall…” So now I had only one woman.  

Now, I’m not trying to point out other people’s errors because in fact I’d made the exact same error myself in my Spotlight On entry on Vera Wentworth – I’d put her in the organ with Elsie Howey on 2 May (now corrected – due out soon!). The point I want to make is that even though we have access to so many records nowadays, it’s still not as straightforward as you think to get the facts right – and I wouldn’t say I was 100% confident now! Confusions can very easily creep in, and for the very best of reasons.  

Annie Kenney’s account was written many years after the events, from memory, and did not always get the author’s full attention – she wrote sections of the book while taking her baby out for a walk. In addition, there were a number of incidents when suffragettes hid overnight in what Mrs Pankhurst called “dangerous positions, under platforms, in the organs, wherever they could” to get a chance of asking a Government Minister about votes for women. Emily Wilding Davison hid in a cupboard in the House of Commons on Census Night, 2 April 1911. On 8 May 1909, a suffragette hid for 24 hours under a platform in a hall in Liverpool to interrupt Birrell. There was even another “suffragette in the Colston Hall organ” incident in 1912, when two women hidden in the organ interrupted a speech by Mr Hobhouse, Liberal MP Bristol East. In Annie Kenney’s memoirs, it was during this episode that the women got into the hall during the afternoon. It seems likely that Annie muddled up the two Bristol events. In addition, Elsie Howey and Vera Wentworth often worked together in the south west, so it’s easy to see why their names become connected.  

I have one more check to make on the 1909 episode, which is to consult Votes for Women for 7 May 1909. Then I’ll see what I can find out about 1912…goodness only knows how much more confused that will leave me! For now, I’m going with Elsie Howey and Vera Holme in the Colston Hall organ on the afternoon and evening of Saturday 1 May  1909...

Monday, 4 March 2013

Profiled on Literature Works!

I am pleased to be one of the first south west UK writers featured on Literature Works's lovely new website

Literature Works is a literature development charity for South West England which offers support to writers and readers in the region. The new website features writers' profiles, resources for readers, and an events calendar.

Monday, 18 February 2013

The Stepmother, Githa Sowerby, Orange Tree

I went to see Githa Sowerby’s 1924 play, The Stepmother, at The Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond on 16 February 2013. Before this production the play had never been performed in public (there was a private performance in 1924). In fact Sowerby, the author of a critically acclaimed play about a bullying industrialist, Rutherford & Son (1912), had been largely forgotten.

Over the years there have been rumblings of a revival of interest in Githa Sowerby (1876 – 1970). In 1980 the Theatre Upstairs put on an abridged version of Rutherford & Son. The Times Literary Supplement in 1994 talked of the “uncovered greatness of Githa Sowerby” in a review of a production of the play at the Cottesloe Theatre. Then she sank back into obscurity until 2009 with the publication of a biography by Pat Riley (Looking for Githa); the unveiling of a plaque at her Gateshead home; a revival of Rutherford & Son by Northern Stage; and other events in Tyneside to commemorate the Gateshead-born author – a veritable Githa Sowerby Festival.  

The Stepmother tells the story of Lois Relph’s marriage to Eustace Gaydon. Eustace gained influence over Lois when she was a young woman alone in the world, married her for her money, and immediately got control of her fortune. Running through his female relatives’ money is something of a habit of his: he’s already spent his Aunt Charlotte’s and for all we know (it isn’t mentioned) his first wife’s as well. Lois has no idea what he has done with the money, where it’s invested, even how much she has. If she needs money she has to ask Eustace for it, and then he only doles out small amounts. The situation continues even when she sets up her own business as a dress-designer (Eustace calls it her hobby), and might have continued indefinitely had not her eldest stepdaughter Monica needed money to make a marriage settlement, which Lois promises to provide. But when she tries to raise the funds, Lois discovers how much power her husband exercises over her and her affairs…

Despite the title and the fact that Lois cares deeply for her stepdaughters (a pleasant antidote to the Cinderella-Stepmother myth), the play isn’t really about being a step-mother. It’s about female autonomy and power within patriarchy. It offers a powerful exploration of the methods the system utilises to contain and control the feminine. Most obviously, these are through the control of property and the exclusion of women from male institutions (eg law, banking, investment industries). But – and it’s the confrontation with this issue that made the play of especial interest to me – it’s also through the use of language.

If the gasps of horror that greeted a number of Eustace’s utterances are anything to go by, others in the audience were impressed by this too. Eustace’s speeches are a master class in manipulation: in their use of jokes and flippancy; the undermining of Lois’s feelings and perceptions; the patronising assurances that all is well combined with just enough hints that all is not well to create a debilitating state of anxiety; the reversal of blame; the play for sympathy; the refusal to answer direct questions; the deflections from the main issue; the generalisations and vague criticisms. The bully’s language has many tactics, all designed to throw the victim off balance, to enforce their belief in their own ignorance and powerlessness (which at its most effective will have some basis in truth – Lois doesn’t know what’s happened to her money nor can she get it back); to put them in the wrong and instil a sense of the weakness of their cause.

If perhaps there were moments when we teetered on the brink of hissing Eustace and turning him into a pantomime villain, they were brief and the emotional and ideological impact of the play barely faltered. The performances were fantastic, in particular a plausible, gently-spoken Christopher Ravenscroft as Eustace and Katie McGuinness as Lois carrying us through all the horrors of a woman realising the reality of her position.  It’s a marvellous production and if you get the chance to see it don’t let it slip through your fingers!

My only carping criticism is of the seating arrangements. Unnumbered seating is all very well, but when the management tries to pack the audience in like sardines, and the audience refuses to be packed it doesn’t make for a very comfortable experience! And no, a seat that only has room for three people doesn’t seat four…

The Stepmother by Githa Sowerby runs at the Orange Tree Theatre until 9 March 2013 -

Patricia Riley’s biography, Looking for Githa, is available at Amazon – it’s gone onto my wish list!

The Times Literary Supplement, The uncovered greatness of Githa Sowerby, 14 June 1994

Rutherford And Son, Michael Billington, The Guardian, 18 June 1980

The Guardian, 14 August 2009: Githa Sowerby, the forgotten playwright, returns to the stage