This is the final entry in a short series of posts about the Historical Association conference, held in Chester in May 2019.

After the break, it was time for me to reprise my lecture from the Historical Association’s ‘Teaching the Tudors’ CPD day in York, ‘A History of the Reformation in 5 Ballads’. It was great fun giving the paper again, not least because it has so much singing that it’s almost like a performance rather than a lecture.

After lunch, the first lecture was given by Claire Hickman on ‘The Doctor’s Garden’.  She described how the 1760s saw a real interest in natural history and importing exotic plants.  The plants had economic value as well as being beautiful.  People spent a lot of money creating immense collections

Dr Claire Hickman

Dr John Lettsom was a well-trained doctor, with many important roles in natural history and medicine. His patients were sometimes recruited through his plant collecting networks, and he was very well connected – his admission to the Royal Society was signed by Benjamin Franklin and James Ferguson, among others.  He had a city practice but bought himself a rural estate, where opened his garden to visitors, even writing a guide book.   Everything in the garden was labelled with the correct scientific name, so you could teach yourself botany from walking round the garden through practical experience.  The garden was used to trial agricultural techniques. Lettsom thought the mangel wurzle could be useful as a cheap food to feed the poor, because they grow very large; it was known as ‘the root of scarcity’. He was one of the first people to grow the mangel wurzel in England.  But Dr Hickman argued that Lettsom also saw it as a beautiful plant, as it was planted among larches in the garden borders.  Lettsom published his findings as a pamphlet on how to grow and use them. 

William Curtis, another Quaker, opened a botanic garden for training medics but it was also open to the public. Doctors were already trained in botany and students needed to see the plants, but the gardens also attracted visitors who wanted to see the new exotic plants from the rest of the world, so Curtis included agricultural plants and grasses as well as medicinal plants.  Botany was seen as a public interest as well as an academic interest.

By 1777, the Leith Walk Garden was laid out not on a straight path like a botanic training garden, but on picturesque walk.  The public had to start applying to see the gardens through ticketing policies, and announcements were made when interesting plants flowered.

The final session of the conference was given by Tara Morton on ‘Suffrage Lives 1866-1914: Researching the Database’.  Tara had worked on building the Suffrage Lives database for the HA, which was based on two key sources: the 1866 petition for female suffrage, and the Home Office Index of Suffragettes Arrested, 1906-1914.

The 1832 Great Reform Act extended the franchise slightly through the enfranchisement of male persons, but women were excluded.  Debates prior to this had been about ‘persons’, which meant the principal of women’s enfranchisement was included before the reform act because person does not specify man or woman. But the Great Reform Act replaced this phrase with ‘male persons’ meaning it removed the ‘women’ argument.  Tara suggested that the shared struggles against this oppression brought women together.

Tara Morton

The original petitions from 1866 no longer exist, but one of the founders was Emily Davies and she got printed copies printed, published and circulated. These include names, occupations and locations where the signatories signed the petition.  Some gave their full names, others didn’t.  Addresses are likewise vague at times.  This makes it difficult to trace them all, but it does show that support for women’s suffrage was socially more widespread than we might expect – echoing the keynotes by Yasmin Khan and Fern Riddell, she pointed out that the signatories were not just the stereotype of staid, white middle class women.  There were blacks and working-class women too.

Elizabeth Wolstenholme-Elmy

Even when we look at the supposedly staid white middle class women, they turnout to be unseemly.  Tara gave two examples:

  • Elizabeth Wolstenholme-Elmy founded her own school; later, the Manchester Schoolmistresses Association; and the Women’s Franchise League with Emmeline Pankhurst. She gave evidence to the first royal commission set up to look at secondary education.  She described marriage as ‘a lifelong sentence of pauperism and dependence’.  Nevertheless, the fact that she lived as man and wife with a man who wasn’t her husband made other suffrage campaigners unhappy, as they thought that she brought the campaign into disrepute. She was on the committee on the WSPU but left in 1912, possibly because of the increased violence.  She led some of the suffrage pilgrimage through Congleton even though by this stage she was in her 80s.  Her photograph appears to show a staid white middle class woman – but only because that’s what we expect to see.
  • Viscountess Katherine Louisa Amberley was member of the Stanley family.  An outspoken member of the suffrage community, she was a public speaker in favour of women’s rights, and one of her lectures was published.  However, she was not acceptable among her class and particularly offended Queen Victoria. 

The 1867 and 1884 Franchise Reforms enfranchised more men, but not women, so lots of women’s suffrage societies were set up afterwards.  They had to decide on tactics and ideologies: should they campaign to promote wider social reforms to benefit women, or concentrate on the franchise?

In 1897, the umbrella group National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies was set up, promoting the women’s franchise through peaceful means.  But there were more radical women in the industrial north who thought traditional means wouldn’t work so they set up the WSPU.  Their tactics escalated from heckling to arson and bombings.  This is where the Index of Persons Arrested comes in, although even at the National Archives they don’t know quite why it was created.  It includes names, dates and places of arrest.   There are anomalies, such as the random placement of names in the index out of alphabetical order, and also suffragette aliases.  

The document shows that there was more diversity in suffragettes than the stereotypical images, for example, Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, who lived at Hampton Court Palace and was an Indian princess, and  Verla ‘Jack’ Holmes, a cross-dressing lesbian.  The database also shows how many working-class suffrage campaigners there were.  Again, Tara gave two examples:

  • Adelaide Knight was born in Bethnal Green. Her father was an alcoholic and committed suicide.  She was crippled and used walking sticks, but also loved poetry and music. She married the son of a naval officer in a mixed race marriage in which her husband took her surname, and they shared the household chores.  She was arrested in 1906 for disturbing the peace.  She was sent to prison for 6 weeks unless she agreed not to take part in any further suffrage activities, but she chose prison.  Her husband looked after the children during her imprisonment and fully supported her decision.  Tara argued that she was representative of many working class women who were concerned about the motivations of the WSPU, who seemed happy to use working class women but only when it suited them.  As a result she left the WSPU and eventually joined the Communist party.
  • William Ball was twice arrested for the suffrage cause.  We know little with certainty but his ordinariness makes him interesting.  He was probably from the Midlands, and he was married with 5 children.  He believed in adult suffrage – that women should be enfranchised in line with men before more men were enfranchised – and said that he wanted as much protection for his girls as his boys.  He was a member of the men’s wing of the WSPU, the Men’s Political Union.  He was arrested and sent to prison for breaking two Home Office windows.  He declined prison food, but he wasn’t given the option to order his own food because he was not classified as a political prisoner.  Ball was also subject to force feeding.  The prison officers quickly discharged him to a lunatic asylum. He was eventually moved to a private nursing home through the intervention of well wishers.  An inquiry into his case was heavily biased in favour of the prison authorities, belittling Ball by saying the mental ill-health was not down to his prison ordeal but his own defective character and the excitement of indulging in suffrage activities.

These are only a few snapshots of the evidence recorded on the HA’s Suffrage Lives database.

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