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Rethinking Militancy

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February 2008

As a small provincial city, Bath is not the sort of place you would expect to find militant suffrage activity. However, in Edwardian times the city had a thriving branch of the militant group, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) whose local activities were faithfully recorded by Mary Blathwayt and her mother, Emily, whose diaries enlightened The Thornbury Society for Local History and Archaeology at the hands of Professor June Hannam in a talk entitled ‘Rethinking Militancy’.

Mary was the daughter of Colonel Linley Blathwayt, brother of the owner of the much grander Dyrham House (now a National Trust property). On his return from a role in the army in India, Colonel Blathwayt purchased Eagle House in Batheaston where Mary was born in 1879. To all intents and purposes Mary led a traditionally middle class early life busying herself in the traditional feminine pursuits of local society and giving little indication of any desire to associate herself with militant action of any sort. However, within the Blathwayt social circle there were already some families, notably the Tollemanches, who were already members of the less-militant ‘suffragist’ movement. It may well have been these associations that provided the encouragement for both Mary and her mother to attend meetings where the charismatic Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the more radical WSPU (or suffragette movement) spoke. It would appear that Mary and her mother were convinced by Mrs Pankhurst that the fight for the right of women to vote could only be advanced by the use of militant action in line with their motto, ‘Deeds not Words’.

What sort of ‘deed’ were these? Mary’s diaries reveal that her early connection with the movement saw her assisting with meetings where leading suffragettes such as Annie Kenney would speak. These meetings could be far from genteel affairs and one of her diary entries records how the audience jeered and heckled and finally threw fruit which hit Mary on the cheek. Later, her diary describes her participation in demonstrations in London where disruptive protest resulted in the arrest of some WSPU members. We know, for example, that in 1909 one member attacked Winston Churchill with a riding whip whilst others spat at Policemen for which they were imprisoned. Whilst in prison many of the suffragettes went on hunger-strike to which the authorities responded with brutal force-feeding. Images of the well-dressed ‘genteel’ lady suffragettes being force-fed were later used in WSPU leaflets in order to shock the public into an anti-government reaction.

From her home in Batheaston, Mary continued to receive support in her work not only from her mother, but also from her father. Diary entries record how Colonel Blathwayt allowed leading WSPU activists to stay at Eagle House after their participation in exhausting speaking tours or to recuperate from their experiences of prison and forcible feeding. Whilst guests of the Colonel, he encouraged the suffragettes to plant a tree in an area of the grounds that came to be known as the ‘suffragette field’. These events were recorded by the Colonel in a series of photographs showing the suffragettes in lady-like poses gazing wistfully in peaceful and contemplative mood at the newly planted tree. It is impossible to know whether Colonel Blathwayt ever intended that his photographs should be published. However, they do provide a unique record of the rank and file of the movement. The fact that they were taken suggests that those involved were aware of the historical significance of what they were doing and saw the photographs as an exceptional opportunity to counter the stereotypes put forward by their opponents who accused them of being ‘unwomanly’, ‘mannish’, or a ‘shrieking sisterhood’. It is ironic that Colonel Blathwayt sought to record the planting of trees which he must have assumed would be a long-lasting reminder of the actions of individual suffragettes. Instead, in the 1960s the trees were cleared away to make way for a housing estate and it is the photographs that have remained.

Despite his initial support of the movement, as the suffragettes escalated their militant action, it is clear that Colonel Blathwayt and his wife became increasingly concerned about the lengths that the movement was apparently prepared to go to reach its goals. The numbers of suffragettes being imprisoned particularly concerned them and Emily’s diary recorded her fears for her daughter. So in 1913, the catalyst for Mary’s resignation came when local action escalated from filling local letter boxes with tar and refusing to pay taxes, to the arson of the homes of some of her neighbours.

This was effectively the end of Mary’s association with the suffragettes although she continued to take a keen interest and record events in her diary. When, in 1914, Prime Minister Asquith agreed to meet with representatives from the suffragist movement, Mary commented in her diary that he had done so only because of the militant actions of the WSPU.

Women over thirty and householders were finally given the right to vote in 1918 by the new Prime Minister, Lloyd George. It is estimated that there were about six million women who were eligible. However, voting rights were not given to all women over twenty-one until 1928.

The Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society always welcomes new and occasional members. Details of our programme can be found on this website, the library or the Town Hall. Our meetings are on the second Tuesday of the month, held at St Mary's Church Hall beginning at 7.30pm. Visitors are always welcome at the society for the small charge of £2.50.

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