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Obiter Dicta and Other Pronouncements: Augustine Birrell and the Suffragettes

I recently came into possession of a minor literary curiosity, a copy of the first volume of The Collected Essays and Addresses of the Rt Hon Augustine Birrell 1880-1920 published by J M Dent in 1922. The book was dedicated to the author’s friend “GSC” at Christmas 1922. A hand-written note in the book states that “GSC” was Goonie Churchill. She was Winston Churchill’s sister-in-law Gwendoline, who was known in the Churchill family as Goonie. She married Winston Churchill’s younger brother Jack in 1908. (Though the note dates the dedication to Christmas 1929.)    

Why should this book be of the slightest interest to me? The reason is that Augustine Birrell (1850–1933) was a minister in the Liberal government that so determinedly resisted women’s demand for the vote during the militant suffrage campaign of 1903 to 1914. Birrell was the Liberal MP for Bristol North between 1906 and 1918, and from 1907 to 1913 he was Chief Secretary for Ireland. He was in addition a great book collector, a self-confessed “book-hunter from boyhood”. His own library contained over 10,000 books. He was also an author himself, producing volumes of essays and literary criticism including two volumes entitled Obiter Dicta (1884 and 1887), as well as an autobiography (Things Past Redress, published posthumously in 1937). Birrell also had a distinguished career in law, and between 1896 and 1899 was a professor of law at University College London.  

A copy of The Collected Essays and Addresses, Volume 1, signed by the author.
As a Liberal minister, Birrell was a prime target of suffragette militancy. In Bristol, his talks were frequently interrupted by women’s suffrage campaigners, including a well-known incident in the Colston Hall on 1 May 1909. During the afternoon suffragettes Elsie Howey and Vera Holme managed to get into the Hall and hide in the organ, from where they interrupted his speech with cries of “Votes for Women” until they were found by stewards and thrown out. Votes for Women, the newspaper of the Women’s Social and Political Union, published a parody of the event by Vera Holme, which ended on an optimistic note: “It may be that Mr Birrell/Won’t speak in that Hall again,/And it may be never in Bristol,/Until the vote we gain.”  

Augustine Birrell, MP for Bristol North 1906-1918
It was really too much to hope for. Birrell continued to speak in Bristol, and suffragettes continued to heckle him. In July 1909 suffragettes leafletted a garden party meeting at Cook’s Folly, a castellated  house in Bristol overlooking the Avon Gorge. In October that year Ellen Pitman broke through police barriers around St James’s Parish Hall and ran towards the minister’s car. It was rumoured that she had intended to throw corrosive at Birrell, which was vehemently denied by the Bristol WSPU organiser Lillian Dove Willcox. In December women clung to lamp posts outside one of his meetings and shouted suffrage slogans. Three women also went to the house where he was staying and shouted at him through a megaphone.

In June 1913 there were more protests at Colston Hall, and two women were violently ejected, while from the gallery a male supporter scattered memorial leaflets of Emily Wilding Davison, who died after running in front of the King’s horse at the 4 June Derby. In November 1913 Birrell’s visit to the city was marked by chemical attacks on letter boxes in the city centre, as well as the destruction of Begbrook Mansion and a boathouse in Eastville Park by arsonists. At a meeting in north Bristol a man threw a dead kitten at Birrell crying “torture that instead of women”.  In March 1914 a letter addressed to Birrell was left at a timber yard in Ashton Gate which was destroyed by fire.

The women dogged Birrell’s steps outside Bristol as well. In Southampton in 1907 three hundred stewards were brought in to keep women protesters out of a meeting at the Skating Rink. Nevertheless, women did manage to get in and interrupt his speech. In May 1909 Birrell was in Liverpool to accept his honorary degree from Liverpool University when the ceremony was interrupted by suffragette Mary Phillips, who had spent the previous twenty four hours hiding under the platform in order to make her protest. In November 1910 Birrell took to his bed after being injured during a suffragette deputation in London, although Christabel Pankhurst, leader of the WSPU, repudiated the charge that he had been deliberately attacked by women protesters.

It is hard not to feel sorry for Birrell. Neither he nor any other politician could have enjoyed being the butt of suffragette militancy. But many of the incidents came during particularly difficult years for him.  Having lost his first wife after less than a year of happy marriage, he had married Eleanor Mary Bertha in 1888. She was a help to him in his political career, and was President of Bristol North Women’s Liberal Association. In 1911 she was diagnosed with a brain tumour which led to her insanity, and finally to her death in 1915. Birrell tendered his resignation as Chief Secretary for Ireland in 1912, but Prime Minister Asquith refused to accept it. While coping with his wife’s illness, he was compelled to continue his work in Ireland. Not surprisingly, his personal tragedy affected his work, and in 1916 he was blamed for the Easter Uprising in Dublin. In 1918 he lost his seat for Bristol North and left politics for ever.

He continued book collecting and writing, and his work was well regarded in certain literary circles. The Times obituary (21 November 1933) opined that “his style has a winning and informal quality which has charmed thousands of readers into a sense of being in the presence of a cheerful, cultured, but unpedantic man”. 

Has this charm endured? Sadly, not in this reader’s opinion. I found myself very uncharmed by the contents of the first volume of The Collected Essays and Addresses. With essays on John Milton, Alexander Pope, Samuel Richardson, William Cowper and others it’s practically a study in the traditional male canon. The only woman writer to get a mention is Hannah More – “one of the most detestable writers that ever held a pen”, incapable of “one original thought, one happy phrase”. So much for the feminine element.

The hand-written note from The Collected Essays and Addresses, Volume 1
Still, in an attempt to give Birrell the benefit of the doubt I decided to check a few of his other books to see if perhaps Volume 1 is unusual in this respect. I did a quick search on Project Gutenberg and looked at:-

In the Name of the Bodleian and Other Essays – one essay on a woman writer – Hannah More again.

Obiter Dicta: Second Series - not a single woman writer, but does contain the observation “Why all the English poets, with a barely decent number of exceptions, have been Cambridge men, has always struck me…‘as extremely curious.’ ”

Res Judicatae: Papers and Essays – no essays on any women writers.    

And on the Internet Archive:-

The Collected Essays and Addresses of the Rt Hon Augustine Birrell 1880-1920, Volume III – no essays on any women writers.

At which point this woman writer had had enough.


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