To mark International Women’s Day, we gathered in the ancient church of St Mary’s in Morpeth to celebrate the life of Suffragette martyr, Emily Wilding Davison

Wearing suffragette ribbons, our gathering of North East women (and a few men!) sang hymns, joined in songs with Werca’s Folk, listened to amusing and spirited words from Northumberland’s female High Sheriff (who happens to be a reverend too – how Emily would have approved!) and the Romanian consul – also a woman.

Afterwards we were given long-stemmed white carnations and processed behind Emily’s descendants to her graveside.  Flowers were laid to the sound of Werca’s Folk singing the rousing Women’s Marseillaise that Emily would have known well.  Then there were hot drinks and a buffet in the nearby hall – the whole event laid on by Northumberland County Council.

(I took this with my phone, balanced against the railings, so that’s why it’s on a tilt!)

Next year is the centenary of Emily Davison’s death – there will be many events to mark the occasion – I’ll keep you updated here.

“The tranquil graveyard was so overrun with mourners that Maggie and Rose could not get near to see the coffin lowered into the ground at the Davison burial mound, so they patiently waited their turn among the lofty pines. Some time later they were able to approach the iron-fenced memorial which was almost hidden under the heaps of wreaths and floral messages. The scent of the flowers was overpowering as Maggie tossed her own modest purple iris onto the coffin.

‘I’ll fight on, I promise!’ Maggie whispered, as around her women openly wept.”  

Extract from my novel THE SUFFRAGETTE


Suffragettes – Photographed By Scotland Yard

This just goes to show how seriously the establishment perceived the threat from the Suffragette movement: According to the BBC,

“In 1912, Scotland Yard detectives bought their first camera to covertly photograph the suffragettes. The pictures were compiled into ID sheets for officers on the ground.”

I wonder if they ever brought their camera north to photograph the ne’er-do-wells that my Great Granny and her sisters were. They took part in public demonstrations, which would have provided ample opportunity for the Yard’s snapper – like this one from 1909, a couple of years earlier:

 Suffragette demonstration from 1909. I love the banner, “A Gude Cause Maks A Strong Arm” – properly Scottish!

In addition to taking covert photographs, Scotland Yard’s camera was also used to produce mug shots of women prisonners. These were circulated to aid identification of these trouble makers on release. Bearing in mind that these were women who were hunger-striking and being force fed, they weren’t willing models for these photographs.

For example, Evelyn Manesta was photographed while being held in place by a prison guard:

But after a spot of light air-brushing, no-one need ever know of the way these women were being treated:

Using cards like this to identify likely trouble makers is something that still goes on today. The police’s Public Order Intelligence Unit (CO11) produces these spotter cards – target “H” on this example is comedian and political activist, Mark Thomas:

I didn’t include Scotland Yard’s use of modern technology in their fight against women’s suffrage when I was writing The Suffragette. Information on this part of the police’s programme was so sensitive that it was only released last year. But I do like to think that my characters Maggie Beaton and Alice Pearson would have been the kind of people to attract this unwanted attention!

More Suffragettes Under Surveillance photos are available on the Retronaut site.

Suffragettes And The Peace Movement

As well as the long fight to get votes for women, the Suffragette movement was also very much involved in peace campaigning.

I became aware of the extent of this when I was taking part in a monthly peace vigil against the invasion and occupation of Iraq. At the same time, I was researching conscientious objectors in the First World War for A Crimson Dawn, and I wondered if the widespread women’s movement for emancipation had been stopped by the outbreak of the Great War.

Anti-Suffrage politicians at the time were quick to call for an end to the campaign – it was seen as unpatriotic when “our brave boys” were involved in such a desperate struggle. That line sounds very familiar today, doesn’t it?

Yet many of the Suffragette groups did not disband. Many brave women stood up against the government’s jingoistic rhetoric, and kept in touch with their fellow campaigners in the ‘enemy’ countries. They saw the war for what it was – an imperialist expedition that was about grabbing colonies and resources. Ordinary people on both sides were manipulated into fighting in support of a system that kept them subjugated.

In 1915, some of these women even organised a peace conference. Aletta Jacobs (one of the first woman doctors) called the conference to take place in The Hague, and it became the foundation of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. The conference was attended by Suffragettes from the USA, as well as Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence & Emily Hobhouse representing England, and Chrystal MacMillan representing Scotland. In all, there were 1136 delegates from 12 countries. After the conference, they personally lobbied various governments in London, Berlin, Vienna, Budapest, Rome, Berne and Paris to sue for peace.

It’s a mark of how far they got under the skin of the political system, with Theodore Roosevelt describing them as “hysterical pacifists… both silly and base”, while Jane Addams was described in the Rochester Herald as,

“In the true sense of the word, she is apparently without education. She knows no more of the discipline and methods of modern warfare than she does of its meaning. If the woman conceded by her sisters to be the ablest of her sex, is so readily duped, so little informed, men wonder what degree of intelligence is to be secured by adding the female vote to the electorate.”

This sort of personal attack is a sure sign that you’ve got them on the run! Jane Adams was subsequently awarded the Nobel Peace prize – the first American woman to be honoured with this award.

Unless We Can Vote, We’re Not At Home!

Well, not us as such. It was my family who were deliberately “not at home” on the night of the 1911 census.

We managed to get a copy of the 1901 census to see who should have been in the household – click to enlarge:

As you can see, the Gorries at No. 3 Cameron Park, Edinburgh are all listed. Yet mysteriously on the night of the 1911 census, everyone’s on holiday, and young Robert (my grandfather!) seems to be staying with the neighbours at No. 1:

Where was everyone?

I found out when I was researching The Suffragette – they were at a party! They’d hired a room at an Edinburgh hotel and were in fancy dress, with Great Aunt Beth as Young Lochinvar, no less. I remember her well from later in her life – when we used to visit her flat when I was a girl, she’d treat all us kids to breakfast in bed.

Here’s the page from my notebook. I made these notes while studying The Gorrie Collection at The National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh – a collection of papers, photos and newspaper cuttings donated by Auntie Beth:

Census evading was just one of the ways for women to protest. As Christabel Pankhurst said,

Until women count as people for the purpose of representation…as well as for purposes of taxation, we shall refuse to be numbered

As Women’s Freedom League founder member Margaret Wynne Nevinson commented in 1913:

All over the country the names of thousands of women are missing from the Census papers, proving the great axiom of the British Constitution – that government must rest on the consent of the governed

It is estimated that the number of evaders ran to well over a hundred thousand. In a population of around 40 million, that wasn’t enough to seriously distort the results, but it did gain significant publicity for the cause of women’s suffrage.


UPDATE – 30th Jaunuary 2012

Census evasion is a form of protest that’s still very much alive and kicking! Quaker pacifists refused to complete last year’s census, and they’re now being prosecuted for their conscience.

My Family’s Links To The Suffragette Movement

We made a short video, explaining some of the background to my book, The Suffragette! This was filmed in Morpeth in Northumberland, with the grave of Emily Wilding Davison as the backdrop:

The Suffragette movement was a broad church, with some people getting involved just through personal lobbying, while others, like my Great Aunt Bel, sold newspapers to raise funds for the cause. At the other end of the scale was civil disobedience (my family was not at home for the 1910 census), or even outright militancy.

Emily Wilding Davison was at the extreme end of this scale. On 4th June 1913 she was run down by the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby, and died of her injuries several days later. Although her exact motivation for entering the race track was never resolved (had she simply intended to cross it? Was she trying to fix a banner or flag to the horse, so that it would cross the line carrying the WSPU colours? Did she intend martyrdom?), footage of the incident was captured by Pathé News, and remains to this day a potent symbol of how desperate was the struggle for women’s suffrage: