My Suffrage Journey by Jennifer Godfrey, Author of Suffragettes of Kent.
I began my suffrage research and writing journey back in 2017 when I answered a writing magazine advertisement that said publisher, Pen & Sword Ltd, were looking for new authors. Little did I know at that time that this was how so many got involved in the suffrage movement more than a hundred years ago. An example of this is the 1913 Pilgrimage by the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). They advertised country-wide seeking all non-militant associations and friends and sympathisers, both men and women, to join the pilgrimage and help in other ways. This included giving money, providing pilgrims with food and shelter, exhibiting posters and selling the NUWSS magazine to spread the word and attract more sympathisers. Such use of advertisements over 100 years ago resulted in 50,000 pilgrims arriving in London to peacefully demonstrate and speak about votes for women. By responding to an advertisement in 2017 I too was launched into the start of a two year journey of researching and writing about suffrage.
I am often asked why my research and writing of Suffragettes took me two years. There were a combination of reasons. Firstly, there was an enormous amount of research material that I needed to work through to piece together and account. I also experienced some difficult personal challenges during that period of my life which resulted in a short break. Now as I sit and reflect on this period I am immediately drawn to thinking about the incredible strength, hope, determination and sacrifice of those that campaigned for women’s suffrage. Whether these campaigners chose to protest as a law-abiding suffragist like Vera Conway-Gordon from Rochester, or a militant suffragette like Ethel Violet Baldock, all made sacrifices and all had hope that their actions and words would make a difference.
Those choosing to campaign in a peaceful, law-abiding way showed 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 going to be created in Rochester in memory of Vera. Find out more here.
Probably the most absorbing story on my suffrage journey was that of Ethel Violet Baldock. This was a previously untold story about a Kent working class maid, born in Gravesend, brought up in Maidstone, but working and living in Tunbridge Wells at the time of her arrest. Despite input from her descendants much mystery still surrounds her story. It is known that Ethel was arrested in March 1912 with active Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) member Violet Bland in London for smashing the window of the Commercial Cable Company in Northumberland Avenue. Ethel spent 26 days on remand in Holloway Prison. As a maid, it is likely she would have not had a job to go back to and from some accounts from her family it seems likely her relationship with family members was affected.
Unlike Ethel who was released after 26 days on remand, Violet Bland was sentenced to four months’ hard labour. She was imprisoned at Aylesbury Prison and along with other suffragette prisoners including Olive Walton from Tunbridge Wells immediately went on hunger strike. They were forcibly fed. My research also revealed that Kent’s Maidstone Prison received some of these window smashing suffragettes and forcibly fed them. By 1912 the prison doctors were required to medically examine prisoners to determine if they were fit to be forcibly fed. To tell this story, my book includes reference to and extracts from the Maidstone Prison’s medical examination reports.
As my research journey continued I discovered that Kent was part of the practical implementation of the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill-health) Act (nicknamed ‘the Cat and Mouse Act’). Infamous WSPU member Annie Kenney was held in Maidstone Prison in 1913 and having gone on hunger strike became unwell and taken to the hospital wing. She was released without being forcibly fed owing to her poor health. This was a release on licence under the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’, meaning once recuperated Annie (the ‘mouse’) would be rearrested (by the Authorities or ‘cat’) and imprisoned to complete her sentence.
Kent was also where one ‘mouse’ chose to run and hide. Again in 1913, the WSPU toured West Kent including the Sevenoaks area in a caravan. Called ‘Campaign Kent’ by the WSPU this was an August tour by 8 active members with one being ‘a mouse’. Miss Rosa May Billinghurst, a disabled suffragette was an active WSPU member and lived in Lewisham. It would appear that she was collected in Lewisham as the tour party made its way from London to Kent. Rosa May was out of prison on licence at this time and so as a ‘mouse’ was evading recapture and imprisonment whilst on her tour of Kent.
I discovered, researched and accounted several tours of Kent by different women’s suffrage societies. Kent was targeted to reach tourists and residents. Some organisations such as the Women’s Freedom League (WFL) and WSPU used caravans to tour enabling them to reach the many rural communities. These tours spread the word and recruited members. Two members recruited in 1908 by Mrs Charlotte Despard on her WFL tour were the Tillard Sisters. They ran on to Southborough Common, near Tunbridge Wells, to reach the caravan and then permanently joined the tour of Kent. This was the start of their suffrage journey as both embarked on further missions for the cause which resulted in arrest and imprisonment.
Since publishing my book, I have had the privilege of being involved in some fascinating local and national projects including a Kent Archives film; national mapping women’s suffrage project and Social Sciences Festival.
Women’s suffrage campaigners were known for organising meetings and there were many tremendous speakers amongst them. For example, Kent saw Mrs Despard; Australian Actress Muriel Matters, Amelia Scott and Nina Boyle. The aim was to fight for the cause by having their voices heard. In my book I account many examples of such suffrage speeches. My own suffrage journey has now led to talks and I thoroughly enjoy these because I get to share these important historical voices. Their strength, determination , hope and sacrifice to fight against the status quo and to provide future generations with the right to vote and be heard must always be remembered.
My suffrage journey continues as I am now researching and writing a second book about this fascinating subject. I will be revealing more on this later in the year.
If anyone would like to find more information please visit my website: https://jennifergodfrey.co.uk
I am currently selling signed copies of my book, delivered (UK addresses) for £13.50 and offering groups/schools/organisations a 1 hour talk with Q&A for a discounted rate of £25. Please do email me if you are interested: firstname.lastname@example.org