Suffragettes of Kent

Suffragettes of Kent, guest post by Jennifer Godfrey

You will see from this post that I value the benefits that history provides in informing the here and now. By sharing my research and writing I am able to connect with history, examining many fascinating voices, stories, issues, problems, solutions and lessons that can be learnt from. Bringing historical accounts and voices to life is crucial if we are going to learn from the past and effectively apply it to today’s world. It is also an amazing vehicle for connecting members of communities to each other that otherwise would not have had the opportunity to interact. Since the publication of my book Suffragettes of Kent I have been fortunate that I have shared my research with societies, groups, schools and contributed to a mapping project, the creation of a sensory garden, and the interview of a young researcher living in the house of a Kent Suffragette. Anyone interested in contacting me about a talk, involvement in a project, other initiative please do see my contact details below.

The research for my book, Suffragettes of Kent, provided insight into many historic journeys of hope, determination and courage. In the course of my research I discovered many heart-warming stories, including the fruit farmers who provided a place to stay for the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) touring party; a Justice of the Peace who allowed the Women’s Freedom League (WFL) to pitch their caravan in his garden; and; the huge number of women’s suffrage supporters participating in the nationwide pilgrimage by the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS).

WFL van touring Kent
WFL van touring Kent

A common theme running through these stories was enormous determination and hope. As early as 1866 there was the first mass petition for votes for women. With approximately 1500 signatories from around the country, these campaigners worked to collect, cut and paste them into one document for presentation to Parliament.  Vera Conway-Gordon was a suffragist from Kent. She was elected as Honorary Secretary and later President of the NUWSS Rochester branch in 1912/13. She worked tirelessly for the cause and led the arrangements for the 1913 pilgrimage through Rochester. A sensory garden is being created there in memory of Vera.

A significant discovery was the previously untold story of a 20-year old Kent working class maid, Ethel Violet Baldock. In the first chapter of my book, I profile Ethel, and I refer to her as ‘our Ethel’ as she represented all those from Kent involved in the suffrage movement. Originally from Maidstone, Ethel was living and working in Tunbridge Wells upon her imprisonment in London in 1912.  Ethel’s crime was participation in the WSPU’s window smashing campaign, and it was a privilege to meet and learn from Ethel’s descendants as part of my research.

Another exciting experience was to connect with and interview 12-year old Isabeau who lives with her family in the Maidstone house that Ethel grew up in. Isabeau has been inspired by Ethel’s story to complete her own research and project. More on this can be found here.  Another young girl, Coco, has taken Ethel’s story to the stage in her presentation of a suffragette at her local Headcorn History Show. For more on this click here.

I have also been fortunate to be involved in the making of some short films about Ethel and these can be seen on my website. The attraction to Ethel is understandable. Without any known prior involvement with the suffrage movement, Ethel was arrested and imprisoned in Holloway at the same time as Emmeline Pankhurst.  Ethel had partnered with well known ‘master’ suffragette, Violet Bland, when smashing the windows of the Commercial Cable Company at no. 1 Northumberland Avenue.  They were arrested and appeared in court together. Violet was sentenced to four months’ imprisonment and forcibly fed in Aylesbury Prison. Ethel was released after 26 days’ on remand as she was called upon to keep the peace and pay a surety.

Another interesting find was that Maidstone Prison forcibly fed suffragette prisoners. These were glass-breakers like Ethel and Violet, involved in the 1912 WSPU window smashing protest in London.  With the huge number of glass-breakers arrested the authorities moved prisoners to various prisons, with Maidstone being one of them.  Women’s suffrage campaigners from Kent who heard about the treatment these suffragette prisoners were receiving protested outside Sessions House in Maidstone.

Rosa May Billinghurst in her wheelchair

In the course of my research, I retraced the Kent tours completed by the different suffrage societies. There were several by the WSPU; WFL; and NUWSS. The WSPU tour to Kent took place in August 1913 and consisted of 8 members. Known as ‘Campaign Kent’, it was similar to the WFL Kent tours and was publicised as a holiday tour. The aim of the tour was to visit villages, promoting the cause of the WSPU, selling and advertising their society newspaper, ‘The Suffragette’.  My book acknowledges that the WSPU tour stopped in Lewisham on route to Kent to collect another party member, and that Rosa May Billinghurst was involved in the tour. She can be seen 3rd from the left (wearing a tie) in the photograph of the tour party on the front cover of my book, Suffragettes of Kent.  Rosa May was a disabled suffragette and a wheelchair user.  She had been arrested for her part in a suffrage protest and having gone on hunger strike was released under the Temporary Discharge for Ill Health Act of 1913 or as it is more commonly known, ‘the Cat and Mouse Act’. Rosa May then joined the WSPU Kent tour in 1913 and so would have been a ‘mouse’ on the run from the ‘cat’. The authorities or ‘cat’ used the Cat and Mouse Act to wait for suffragette prisoners to regain their strength and then rearrest and return them to prison to complete their sentence.

Jennifer Godfrey is author of Suffragettes of Kent. This is her first book published by Pen and Sword in 2019.  Jennifer gives talks to groups, societies, primary and secondary schools. To find out more visit Jennifer’s website at: www.jennifergodfrey.co.uk To get in touch please email Jennifer at: hello@jennifergodfrey.co.uk

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