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'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...


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