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‘Those wanton imbecile women’: the Gatty Laboratory and the Militant Suffragettes

This article is based on research and conversations with Edward Warington Shann’s daughter, Hebe Welbourn. Quotations by Edward Warington Shann are from his letter to his mother dated 22 June 1913 and are used with Hebe Welbourn’s permission.

Fire destroys a railway carriage…a hotel burned down…a church vandalised…a country mansion gutted…between 1912 and 1914 British newspapers carried reports almost daily of arson and other attacks on public and private property by the women of the Women’s Social and Political Union – the suffragettes – as part of their militant campaign for votes for women. So familiar do these headlines become that it is easy to forget that behind them were real people whose lives were affected by these incidents. One of them was Edward Warington Shann, a lecturer at St Andrew’s University, for whom an act of arson was nothing less than “a calamity”.  

Edward Warington Shann was born in York in 1886. His father was a doctor, and his maternal grandfather was William Henry Flower (1831–1899), the Director of the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, London. A surgeon who had served as an army surgeon in the Crimea, Flower had previously been the curator of the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons. 

William Henry Flower, Director of the Natural History Museum

Edward’s grandfather encouraged his interest in natural history, which he went on to study at St Andrew’s University, along with philosophy, chemistry, botany and natural history. He was a member of the St Andrews University Dramatic Society and the Students’ Missionary Society. He graduated as BSc in 1909, and was appointed a Lecturer in Comparative Embryology and Assistant Professor in Zoology under Professor William Carmichael McIntosh FRS (1838-1931), Director of the Gatty Marine Laboratory. 

The Gatty Marine Laboratory was a purpose-built laboratory which opened in 1896. It was funded by Charles Henry Gatty LLD of East Grinstead, Sussex, a keen amateur naturalist. Professor McIntosh FRS was its first director. Professor McIntosh often invited groups of students to social gatherings, and it was during these occasions that Edward met his first wife. Ruth Olivia Broome (1890–1939) was the daughter of Mr Justice Broome and Mrs Broome of Natal, South Africa, and studied English Literature at St Andrew’s. Their wedding was planned for the summer of 1913. In the meantime, Edward worked on his PhD thesis at the Gatty Laboratory. 

Diagram by Professor William Carmichael McIntosh

With his marriage and an academic career to look forward to, all seemed to be going well. Then, on the night of 21 June 1913 – in his own words – “a calamity” struck. Arsonists broke into the Gatty Laboratory bringing with them about a dozen tins of inflammable liquid. The fire was spotted by a group of fishermen off shore, who notified the coastguard, who notified the police station, who sent for the Fire Brigade. By the time the Fire Brigade arrived the fire had been burning for nearly three hours, and when it was extinguished an hour later, the east wing had been seriously damaged, with the roof especially being badly affected. The damage might have been worse had a water tap in the building not burst and prevented the fire spreading.

No one was in any doubt that this was the work of the suffragettes. Placards had been stuck to the outside of the building on which were written, “Take heed of the women’s rebellion”, and, “We need to be goaded, like oxen as we are, into a trot.” (The Scotsman, 23 June 1913. The second message is a quotation from ‘Reading’ in Walden by Henry David Thoreau). It should be noted, however, that it was not unknown for arsonists to “frame” the suffragettes by leaving suffragette newspapers and messages behind, and in this as in many other cases it was never definitely proved that the attack was carried out by suffragettes. Interestingly, though, at a fire at Leuchars Junction railway station near St Andrew’s a few days later, also attributed to suffragettes, it was reported that the flasks of inflammable fluid used to start the fire were similar to those used at the Gatty Laboratory.

Fortunately, the Guardian noted (23 June 1913), the building was insured. No insurance could replace the scientific papers and drawings consumed by the flames. As Edward told his mother: “all the research section with a  considerable amount of material has been utterly destroyed – and a good deal of it is stuff that money can never replace”. Marine drawings by Professor Mcintosh’s sister, Roberta McIntosh Günther, were damaged by smoke and heat. Other drawings and plates by well-known naturalists were also destroyed or damaged, as were microscopes, microtomes and glass vessels. In addition, many specimens were destroyed by the heat.

Amongst the ruins Edward discovered that many of his drawings and books were water damaged. His microscope case was blistered by the heat, but luckily the instrument itself was safe. At first it seemed his specimens had escaped unscathed too, but on closer examination he found that “they had all been boiled and were quite useless, all the material that I had prepared for work in the summer vac has perished”. Wearily he noted, “I shall just have to begin the work for my thesis all over again”. He also lamented the effect of the destruction on Professor McIntosh: “The poor old Professor is very cut up. His whole heart was in that laboratory and the work done there.” He declared, “Never as long as I live will I agree to giving the vote to a class of people capable of such wilful and indiscriminate destruction”.

Unsurprisingly, many people agreed with Edward. The St Andrews Citizen commented that the fire “brings very near to us the strange mental and moral temperament of these misguided women…they can only be looked upon as people with unhinged minds” (St Andrews Citizen, 28 June 1913). They added that the suffragettes should be thankful that the worse that had happened to them so far was forcible feeding in prison. 

The Natural History Museum
 

The St Andrews branch of the non-militant National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies was also quick to condemn the arson attack, in line with the Union’s national policy: “The St Andrews Branch…desires to condemn in the most emphatic manner the damage done to the Gatty Marine Laboratory, which is alleged to have been caused by a woman or by women who have adopted militant methods…This Society believes that violent action is both derogatory to those who take part in it or support it, besides being prejudicial to the cause” (Dundee Courier, 23 June 1913).  

 

Mrs Millicent Garrett Fawcett (second from left) leads a procession of the non-militant NUWSS

In spite of the impact on his thesis work, Edward ended his letter to his mother on a more optimistic note: “luckily for me my coming happiness is great enough to overshadow the dejection I should otherwise feel”. He and Ruth married on 2 July 1913.

It appeared that life was back on track for Edward. But before he had time to rewrite his thesis, the First World War intervened. He served as a second lieutenant, and later Captain, in the Northumberland Fusiliers, and was mentioned in despatches in 1916. In his absence on military service, Professor McIntosh appointed a temporary assistant in his place. By the time Edward’s active service was over, it was impossible to pick up the threads of his old life. 

Edward was awarded his PhD in 1923 with a thesis on “Investigations on the Comparative Myology of Fishes”. By then he was teaching Biology at Oundle School, Northamptonshire and he never resumed his university career. Later he taught physics, chemistry and biology at Rugby School, and also wrote school text books such as First Lessons in Practical Biology (1922). Ruth was active in the Girl Guides’ movement  and was a member of the Housecrafts and Arts Committee of Rugby Technical College. Sadly, she died in 1939 after a long illness. Edward subsequently remarried.

Edward’s career had taken a very different turn to the academic life he had hoped and planned for. To him it seemed that his misfortunes began on that night in June 1913 when his thesis went up in smoke. Closely followed by the war, he was never able to make up for the disruption and lost time.

 

Picture Credits:-

Sir William Henry Flower. Photograph by Elliott & Fry. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Public Domain Mark

Diagram by Professor William Carmichael McIntosh: 'A monograph of the British marine annelids', Wellcome Collection (https://wellcomecollection.org/images?query=william+carmichael+mcintosh); Creative Commons (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/legalcode)

The Natural History Museum, South Kensington: plan, above, and the street elevation, below. Photo-lithograph after M. B. Adams, 1879, after A. Waterhouse. Adams, Maurice Bingham, 1849-1933

(https://wellcomecollection.org/images?query=natural+history+museum+kensington); Public Domain Mark

Mrs Millicent Garrett Fawcett leads a procession of the non-militant NUWSS, Women's Library on Flickr, No Known Copyright Restrictions

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