Focus on suffragettes
Suffragettes were prepared to risk their reputations, jobs and even their lives in pursuit of what they called ‘ the Cause’
Nothing connects us more closely with history than our own family. There’s a real thrill in searching indexes online or in an archive and discovering a name that we recognise, personally beckoning us back into the past.
How exciting would it be if that name not only helped to make us who we are, but revolutionised the way we live? Log on to the recently released Ancestry database, produced in association with The National Archives, and you might find out. In October, to celebrate the release of the film Suffragette, Ancestry made the details of more than 1,000 individuals arrested in the UK between 1906 and 1914 available at: (search.ancestry.co.uk/search/db.aspx?dbid= 61005). This is a list of suffragettes the Home Office provided amnesty to at the start of the First World War.
Their crime was to fight for the right of women to vote in Parliamentary elections. Like the heroine of the film, they were so passionate that they were prepared to risk their reputations, jobs and even their lives in pursuit of what they called ‘the Cause’. Most refused to pay fines, which meant they were given custodial sentences, sacrificing their physical freedom for a political voice we can too often take for granted today.
This struggle had been going on for more than 50 years (the first mass petition for women’s
suffrage was presented to Parliament in 1866), but it wasn’t until the early 1900s that campaigners began to use violence to emphasise their demands, dramatically catching the attention of the public – and the police. Many of them were members of the hardline Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), led by the charismatic Emmeline Pankhurst and her three daughters Christabel, Sylvia and Adela.
In 1906, the Daily Mail dubbed all militant protesters ‘suffragettes’; that same year, three of them – Annie Kenney, Jane Sparborough and Adelaide Knight – were arrested in Marylebone and sent to Holloway Gaol. These were the first suffragettes to be imprisoned in London. During the next eight years around 900 women were arrested, together with more than 100 male supporters. Some served single terms; many were repeat offenders and continued their protest while incarcerated by going on hunger strike or refusing to drink.
In August 1914, women’s suffrage campaigners agreed to redirect their energies from political activism to war work.
However, they were still liable to be rearrested at any time under the terms of the notorious Temporary Discharge for Health, or ‘Cat and Mouse’ Act of 1913, whereby prisoners weakened by hunger strike were released before they could starve to death, only to be imprisoned again as soon as they had recovered.
In return for the suffragettes’ pledge to stop throwing bombs, setting fire to (usually empty) houses, hurling stones wrapped in stockings or confronting policemen and politicians, the Home Office granted them an amnesty, promising not to rearrest them and using the database they had built up of offenders for reference. It originated as a card index. In 1922, the information was copied into a ledger now held by The National Archives (series HO 45/24665), and reproduced on the Ancestry site. It lists names, including aliases if known, and the dates and places
of arrest. Though the majority of protesters were convicted in London, it is clear that militant activism was going on throughout the UK. This is far more than a directory of suffragettes. Use it as a starting point for tracing further records of well-known names like the Pankhursts, Dr Elizabeth Garrett t Anderson or Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, and of the unsung g heroines of your own family. The e names are arranged alphabetically y by surname and the script is generally legible.
The date will help you to find local newspapers that may well have reported the incident during which an arrest took place. The press was only too pleased to bring these sensational l stories to its readers’ attention. Look on the subscription sites www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk or findmypast. co.uk, or in archives, history centres local to the arrest for these reports.
Most archives have catalogues that are free to search online; enter a name and you could be surprised by what emerges.
Suffragettes may have embarrassed their families at the time – although there are some examples of wholehearted support – but future generations were quick to recognise how courageous they were. Cherished family papers often found their way into public archives, deposited there as a tribute.
National collections are also useful. A name is all you need to search the Suffrage Fellowship Collection at the Museum of London ( collections. museumoflondon.org.uk), which includes a glorious array of marching banners, badges, posters and photographs, most of which have been digitised. Greater Manchester’s suffragettes are referenced on the Greater Manchester Lives website ( gmlives.org.uk). The Women’s Library at the London School of Economics ( bit.ly/1H0193v) holds records relating to the WSPU and non-militant organisations like the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, led by Millicent Fawcett; the Artists’ Suffrage League; the Women’s Freedom League and the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage.
Finally, look at Elizabeth Crawford’s The Women’s Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide 1866-1928 (UCL Press, 1999), which is available at larger public libraries. It’s a rich source of contextual information about individuals involved in this great enterprise, whose courage is well known but whose names – until now – have remained hidden.
Above: Uniformed suffragettes demonstrate in London in 1906
A march of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies in 1908