At midnight on Friday 8 October 1909, Nurse Ellen Pitman of Southleigh Road (also known as Leigh Road South), Clifton boarded the train from Bristol to Newcastle. She was on her way to take part in protests against the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lloyd George, who was due to speak in Newcastle the next day.
Nurse Pitman may have been sporting a bruise on her face. She had spent the evening protesting about Bristol North MP Augustine Birrell's visit to the city to speak in St James Parish Hall. Nurse Pitman and the other suffragettes had struggled unsuccessfully against the police barricade to get into the meeting, and as Birrell was leaving she ran towards his car to remind him of women’s demand for the vote. Someone in the car opened the door, which struck her in the face.
The event, however, is shrouded in obscurity. A rumour started that the intention had been to throw corrosives at Mr Birrell, and Lillian Dove-Willcox of the Bristol WSPU had to write a letter of denial to the Bristol press. A few days later Sir Herbert Ashman, one of the occupants of the car, declared that the incident had never taken place: “No woman approached us, and it is therefore ridiculous to talk of a woman being struck”.
In Newcastle the next afternoon Nurse Pitman and other women once again faced barricaded streets and police cordons around the Palace Theatre. It was left to male supporters to interrupt Lloyd George’s speech and to suffer violent ejection from the building. Later that day Nurse Pitman and seven other women were arrested for window-breaking. They wrote a letter to The Times from the Central Police Station announcing their intention to hunger strike. They sent a similar letter to WSPU headquarters adding how proud they were to serve “their adored leader” and asking for the “prayers of our Comrades”. Nurse Pitman, who had broken a window at Barras Bridge Post Office, was sentenced to 14 days in prison with hard labour. In court she said that “the blow was against the Government, and that it would not be the last”.
Nurse Ellen Wines Pitman was then aged 52 – although this too is hard to be certain about as Lady Constance Lytton, who was in prison with her in Newcastle and who said she knew her well, put her age at close to sixty. Nurse Pitman was one of the women whose treatment in Newcastle prison prompted Lady Constance to disguise herself as a working woman to expose the class bias of the prison system. Nurse Pitman and Kathleen Brown were forcibly fed and kept in prison 24 hours longer than Lady Constance and Jane Brailsford, the wife of journalist H N Brailsford. The only reason Lady Constance could see for this differential treatment “was that our names were known, theirs were not!” Disguised as working class Jane Warton, however, Lady Constance was forcibly fed in Walton Gaol, Liverpool.
Nurse Pitman was so dedicated to the cause that she risked her health and livelihood to serve it. When she was released from Newcastle prison her official welcome was delayed while she was nursed back to health. In October 1909 Votes for Women published a notice stating that the “false report” that she had given up her job for paid work for the WSPU was false, but it “had much damaged her professional career” and added that she had even gone without “the necessaries of life”. When Ellen Pitman volunteered to take part in another protest, Bristol organiser Annie Kenney asked for other women to take her place as she “has already done more than her share”.
Nurse Pitman was determined to do more and she was arrested on 12 November 1909 when she broke the windows at Small Street Post Office during protests against Winston Churchill’s visit to Bristol. It was said she was cheered by men in the street as she was arrested. In court she said, “a few broken windows were much less to be regretted than thousands of broken hearts”. She was imprisoned for two months with hard labour in Horfield Gaol and once again went on hunger strike. She was released on 22 November 1909 because of poor health.
And then – Nurse Pitman disappears from view and I have been unable to find out what happened to her. Did she recover from her hunger strike? Did she take part in any further suffrage protests? Or was her health so irreparably undermined that she did not live to see women get the vote? I would love to be able to finish Nurse Pitman’s story, and if I do discover more about her I will share it here.
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