Friday, January 13, 2017

Rebellion Against Tyrants: Suffragette Graffiti in Holloway Prison

The closure of Holloway Prison in July 2016 prompted many people to remember some of the women imprisoned there since it opened in 1852, amongst them militant suffragettes. Some of the most well known were Women’s Social and Political Union leaders Emmeline Pankhurst and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence; Ethel Smyth, who composed the suffragette anthem, The March of the Women; and Emily Wilding Davison, who died after running in front of the King’s horse at the 1913 Derby. Many of these women went on hunger strike in support of their claim for political prisoner status, and were forcibly fed.

Although the hunger strike was the most extreme, there were many other ways in which suffragette prisoners could defy the prison regime. They talked in spite of the silence rules; sang suffragette songs; and refused to do the work, such as making men’s shirts, allotted to them. And like prisoners before and since, they scrawled messages on the prison walls.

Discovering graffiti by a suffragette who had previously been in a cell lifted the spirits of women who came after them. In 1909, after smashing the windows in her cell, Emily Wilding Davison (1872–1913) was moved to a cell which had been occupied by Bristol suffragette Lillian Dove Willcox (1875–1963). Here she found the words “Dum spiro spero” on the walls: While I breathe, I hope. Emily Wilding Davison later wrote, “In the dark punishment cell, to my delight, I found on my wall Mrs Dove-Willcox’s name and ‘Dum spiro spero’. I added mine and ‘Rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God’.”

Suffragette Vera Wentworth (1890–1957) was a London shop assistant and trade unionist. In 1909 she was the WSPU organiser in Plymouth. She was an active militant who was arrested many times for breaking windows and heckling politicians, serving prison sentences in Exeter as well as Holloway. Vera Wentworth also campaigned in Bristol: in March 1909, she accosted Liberal MP Augustine Birrell at Temple Meads railway station to ask him when the Government would give women the vote. She was arrested in Bristol on 12 November 1909 during disturbances associated with the visit of Winston Churchill to the city, when she broke windows at the Liberal Club. She went on hunger strike in Horfield prison and was forcibly fed.

In 1908 she and other women were arrested when they attempted to approach the House of Commons in a delivery van. Vera was sentenced to six weeks in prison. She was sent to  Holloway, where she was kept in prison for an extra day for carving “Votes for Women” on the wall of her cell. She told the Governor of Holloway “that in years to come, when Holloway is in disuse and is one of the sights of London, visitors will be shown the inscription, and women, then with the glory of the vote, will shudder and thank providence that they did not live in these days”.

Sadly, this cannot be. Holloway prison was rebuilt between 1971 and 1985, and the suffragette graffiti, if it still existed at that time, was lost for ever. So too was the turreted gateway from which released suffragettes used to emerge to a heroine’s welcome: parades, music, banners and flags. But though that Holloway has gone, we can still be thankful that the days when women were thrown in prison and tortured with the forcible feeding tube and gag simply for demanding the right to vote, have gone. 

Find out more about Vera Wentworth, Lillian Dove Willcox and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence in the Suffragette Spotlight On...Archive at

Reclaim Holloway: The government is planning to sell Holloway to private developers. The publicly-owned site’s estimated redevelopment value could reach £2.5 billion. The Reclaim Holloway project has been set up to campaign for the site to be used instead for council housing and community projects. Find out more about the campaign at


Sunday, January 8, 2017

Silver Sound 6 January 2017: Bristol, Balloons and Shaun the Sheep!

Today’s guest was Bristol artist Jenny Urquhart. Jenny creates contemporary, vibrant paintings of her favourite places, working with acrylic, ink, collage, computer-based graphics, and photography. She is best known for her paintings of Bristol scenes with balloons. Her paintings also feature scenes from Devon, Cornwall and North Wales. One of Jenny’s favourite Bristol subjects is the Bristol Suspension Bridge.

If you are travelling through Temple Meads any time soon you will see some of her work, and that of other Bristol artists, on display in the station.

Jenny taught biology for ten years before switching careers and painting full time. In 2015 she painted two Shaun the Sheeps for the 2015 Shaun in the City campaign to raise money for sick children. Her Shauns are Lambmark Larry, which was displayed in London Paddington Railway Station, and Baalloon, which was displayed in Bristol.

Jenny has recently published a Bristol colouring book featuring some of her best-loved Bristol paintings.

Jenny is a patron of CCS Adoption (Clifton Children’s Society) which finds homes for children in the south west. She was recently involved in a massive fund raiser called “This is Bristol”, when she invited Bristolians to send photos of themselves, their houses, pets, or favourite Bristol places. She made the photos into a collage which was raffled off for CSS.

You can find out more about the work of CSS Adoption on their website.

This year Jenny plans to focus on rural landscapes, and will also be visiting Pembrokeshire for the first time.

We featured the music of sixties female group The Velvellettes, and Gerard provided us with a quiz inspired by our guest.

You can listen to the show here (10 am to 11 am)

Silver Sound is broadcast by BCfm 93.2 fm between 10 am and mid day on Thursdays and Fridays. I’ll be back on the show on 27 January 2017 with another fabulous guest!

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Obiter Dicta and Other Pronouncements: Augustine Birrell and the Suffragettes

I recently came into possession of a minor literary curiosity, a copy of the first volume of The Collected Essays and Addresses of the Rt Hon Augustine Birrell 1880-1920 published by J M Dent in 1922. The book was dedicated to the author’s friend “GSC” at Christmas 1922. A hand-written note in the book states that “GSC” was Goonie Churchill. She was Winston Churchill’s sister-in-law Gwendoline, who was known in the Churchill family as Goonie. She married Winston Churchill’s younger brother Jack in 1908. (Though the note dates the dedication to Christmas 1929.)    

Why should this book be of the slightest interest to me? The reason is that Augustine Birrell (1850–1933) was a minister in the Liberal government that so determinedly resisted women’s demand for the vote during the militant suffrage campaign of 1903 to 1914. Birrell was the Liberal MP for Bristol North between 1906 and 1918, and from 1907 to 1913 he was Chief Secretary for Ireland. He was in addition a great book collector, a self-confessed “book-hunter from boyhood”. His own library contained over 10,000 books. He was also an author himself, producing volumes of essays and literary criticism including two volumes entitled Obiter Dicta (1884 and 1887), as well as an autobiography (Things Past Redress, published posthumously in 1937). Birrell also had a distinguished career in law, and between 1896 and 1899 was a professor of law at University College London.  

A copy of The Collected Essays and Addresses, Volume 1, signed by the author.
As a Liberal minister, Birrell was a prime target of suffragette militancy. In Bristol, his talks were frequently interrupted by women’s suffrage campaigners, including a well-known incident in the Colston Hall on 1 May 1909. During the afternoon suffragettes Elsie Howey and Vera Holme managed to get into the Hall and hide in the organ, from where they interrupted his speech with cries of “Votes for Women” until they were found by stewards and thrown out. Votes for Women, the newspaper of the Women’s Social and Political Union, published a parody of the event by Vera Holme, which ended on an optimistic note: “It may be that Mr Birrell/Won’t speak in that Hall again,/And it may be never in Bristol,/Until the vote we gain.”  

Augustine Birrell, MP for Bristol North 1906-1918
It was really too much to hope for. Birrell continued to speak in Bristol, and suffragettes continued to heckle him. In July 1909 suffragettes leafletted a garden party meeting at Cook’s Folly, a castellated  house in Bristol overlooking the Avon Gorge. In October that year Ellen Pitman broke through police barriers around St James’s Parish Hall and ran towards the minister’s car. It was rumoured that she had intended to throw corrosive at Birrell, which was vehemently denied by the Bristol WSPU organiser Lillian Dove Willcox. In December women clung to lamp posts outside one of his meetings and shouted suffrage slogans. Three women also went to the house where he was staying and shouted at him through a megaphone.

In June 1913 there were more protests at Colston Hall, and two women were violently ejected, while from the gallery a male supporter scattered memorial leaflets of Emily Wilding Davison, who died after running in front of the King’s horse at the 4 June Derby. In November 1913 Birrell’s visit to the city was marked by chemical attacks on letter boxes in the city centre, as well as the destruction of Begbrook Mansion and a boathouse in Eastville Park by arsonists. At a meeting in north Bristol a man threw a dead kitten at Birrell crying “torture that instead of women”.  In March 1914 a letter addressed to Birrell was left at a timber yard in Ashton Gate which was destroyed by fire.

The women dogged Birrell’s steps outside Bristol as well. In Southampton in 1907 three hundred stewards were brought in to keep women protesters out of a meeting at the Skating Rink. Nevertheless, women did manage to get in and interrupt his speech. In May 1909 Birrell was in Liverpool to accept his honorary degree from Liverpool University when the ceremony was interrupted by suffragette Mary Phillips, who had spent the previous twenty four hours hiding under the platform in order to make her protest. In November 1910 Birrell took to his bed after being injured during a suffragette deputation in London, although Christabel Pankhurst, leader of the WSPU, repudiated the charge that he had been deliberately attacked by women protesters.

It is hard not to feel sorry for Birrell. Neither he nor any other politician could have enjoyed being the butt of suffragette militancy. But many of the incidents came during particularly difficult years for him.  Having lost his first wife after less than a year of happy marriage, he had married Eleanor Mary Bertha in 1888. She was a help to him in his political career, and was President of Bristol North Women’s Liberal Association. In 1911 she was diagnosed with a brain tumour which led to her insanity, and finally to her death in 1915. Birrell tendered his resignation as Chief Secretary for Ireland in 1912, but Prime Minister Asquith refused to accept it. While coping with his wife’s illness, he was compelled to continue his work in Ireland. Not surprisingly, his personal tragedy affected his work, and in 1916 he was blamed for the Easter Uprising in Dublin. In 1918 he lost his seat for Bristol North and left politics for ever.

He continued book collecting and writing, and his work was well regarded in certain literary circles. The Times obituary (21 November 1933) opined that “his style has a winning and informal quality which has charmed thousands of readers into a sense of being in the presence of a cheerful, cultured, but unpedantic man”. 

Has this charm endured? Sadly, not in this reader’s opinion. I found myself very uncharmed by the contents of the first volume of The Collected Essays and Addresses. With essays on John Milton, Alexander Pope, Samuel Richardson, William Cowper and others it’s practically a study in the traditional male canon. The only woman writer to get a mention is Hannah More – “one of the most detestable writers that ever held a pen”, incapable of “one original thought, one happy phrase”. So much for the feminine element.

The hand-written note from The Collected Essays and Addresses, Volume 1
Still, in an attempt to give Birrell the benefit of the doubt I decided to check a few of his other books to see if perhaps Volume 1 is unusual in this respect. I did a quick search on Project Gutenberg and looked at:-

In the Name of the Bodleian and Other Essays – one essay on a woman writer – Hannah More again.

Obiter Dicta: Second Series - not a single woman writer, but does contain the observation “Why all the English poets, with a barely decent number of exceptions, have been Cambridge men, has always struck me…‘as extremely curious.’ ”

Res Judicatae: Papers and Essays – no essays on any women writers.    

And on the Internet Archive:-

The Collected Essays and Addresses of the Rt Hon Augustine Birrell 1880-1920, Volume III – no essays on any women writers.

At which point this woman writer had had enough.