Bertha Brewster was born in 1887 to George and Bertha who lived in the village of Henfield, near Horsham in West Sussex. Two years after Bertha was born, the family was completed with the arrival of a brother, Philip. Brother and sister attended the progressive boarding school, Bedales, presumably as day pupils as the 1901 census records the family living in Steep, Hampshire, the village location of the school. Founded in 1898 by John Haden Badley, its foundation was in part at the urging of his wife, Amy a suffragette and cousin of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Millicent Fawcett. Bertha was academic and in 1905 was one of the first two girls to leave school to attend London University although no record has been located of her graduating.
The first indication of Bertha’s involvement in the suffrage movement is a donation to the fundraising £20,000 appeal to which her mother also donated. By 1909 the family had moved to Osmonds, a substantial country house located between Droitwich and Ombersley in Worcestershire. In August 1909 Bertha was arrested for the first time. A group of suffragettes had rented a house adjacent but separated from Sun Hall in Liverpool by a narrow passage for when Richard Haldane, a Liberal member of Parliament and the Secretary of State for War came to speak. When the meeting started, one climbed onto the roof while another addressed the gathering crowd. According to the press reports, slates and other missiles were thrown from the roof of the house at the gallery windows of the hall forcing Haldane to interrupt his speech. Bertha was sentenced to one month in prison, not the two months her fellow participants received. Bertha protested at the leniency of her sentence which she served at Walton Gaol. Votes for Women reported that on the way to the gaol the women sang the Marseillaise and managed to push through an opening in the roof of the prison van a flag, which had they had smuggled in, which read Votes for Women.
The lack of recognition as political prisoners led the women to go on a hunger strike before their trials. Sentenced on 24 August, by which stage they had been on hunger strike for three days, the women were released two days later. Their treatment prompted questions in the House of Commons. The Home Office gathered information regarding the force-feeding of other categories of prisoner. A report from Parkhurst Prison reported that in three years sixteen were force-fed; three of whom were classified as insane. The majority were fed for short periods, but several were fed for longer. One was subjected to the procedure over two years, another for over year who became so familiar with the process he inserted the tube himself. The report makes for chilling reading. The process is described in detail: a soft rubber tube passed into the stomach through which a hospital diet of grated or pulped ‘meat or fish, pudding, potatoes, cabbage and bread’ mixed with ‘eggs and milk or beef tea’ was poured via a funnel. The process took if there was no resistance a couple of minutes. The use of a nasal tube, in the alternative, disposed of the need to use a gag but less nutritious food only could be administered.
Following their release, the women were charged with willful damage at the prison where they had allegedly smashed windows. Bertha was charged with damaging fifteen panes in her cell valued at 3 shillings and 9 pence. In response, the women contended that they had been punished for their actions while in prison and all that remained to be settled was a payment for the damage. However, the authorities argued that because Bertha was ill due to refusing food, she had been too weak to be punished. The summonses for arrest were issued in September over a month after the incident took place. While Bertha remained at large, a court hearing took place in October. Bertha’s mother instructed a barrister to defend Bertha and pay any damages. The judge refused to hear the barrister ordering the issuing of a warrant for her arrest.
The Bedales Chronicle, following Bertha’s imprisonment, commented ‘May it go down to posterity side by side with Franklin’s discovery of Sodium, and the imprisonment of Bertha Brewster - our suffragette- for stone throwing.’ The following issue of the Chronicle published a letter from ‘G.J.’, who took issue with the celebration of criminal activity, his missive closed ‘...to get the vote, use one’s influence quietly is my method.’ Bertha had been cast as the leading lady in a performance of Ibsen’s Love’s Comedy to be performed by alumni of Bedales. The Chronicle reported that while Bertha was in the audience, her part was taken by another actor as it was felt if she appeared, she might be arrested as the warrant was still out for her detainment.
In January 1910, Bertha and Emily Hudson gained access to the roof space above Louth Hall, Lincolnshire, where Lloyd George was due to speak. During their sojourn in the roof, they survived on German black bread, hard-boiled eggs and chocolate. When Lloyd George rose to speak, they began to shout. He responded by observing ‘I see some bats have got into the roof - Well let them squeal; it doesn’t matter’, dismissing their actions as ‘silly tactics.’ When the two women appeared in court, they were cautioned. While in the cells Brenda wrote on the walls ‘Most welcome bondage, for thou art a way I think to Liberty.’
A few weeks later, Bertha was arrested and back in Liverpool to answer the charges of wilful damage at Walton Gaol. She was sentenced on 21 January to six weeks with hard labour. Just before she entered prison, she handed over 5 shillings ‘Because I cannot work in the election.’ The WSPU organised a well-attended protest meeting outside the prison, a few days later. In London, the treasurer of the WSPU, Mrs Pethick Lawrence, spoke of the unjustness of the sentence comparing it to the 5 shillings fine metered out to a man who had attacked and knocked down a woman holding a baby.
The decision to prosecute was intended to deter other such prisoners from damaging prison property. A memo, on the files, makes it clear that the sentences were viewed by the Home Office as ‘unnecessarily severe’ and it was feared that as Bertha went on hunger strike, she would have to be released early. A letter was written to the judge who had tried the case requesting his support in showing clemency by agreeing to release Bertha after three weeks.
Bertha went on hunger strike and appealed against her sentence. On 30 January she was released on bail of £40 having refused food for six days. It was noted that Bertha was released into the care of her mother and took a meal before she left the prison. Interviewed by Votes for Women Bertha described the process of force-feeding using a tube and steel gag. On each occasion, she resisted necessitating her to be forcibly restrained by tying her down. Once she barricaded herself in her cell, and it took a considerable time to extract her. For this, she was given three days close confinement in a punishment cell. Part of this sentence was remitted, and Bertha was returned for another attempt at force-feeding; the table on which she had been tied initially was replaced by a chair. In February the Home Secretary, Herbert Gladstone, pardoned and remitted the balance of the sentence and therefore Bertha withdrew her appeal. Bertha received the WSPU medal for valour.
Following her release, Bertha spoke of her experiences at WSPU events. During a carefully orchestrated procession in July 1910, Bertha was the banner captain of the group, which rallied at Cleopatra’s Needle on the Thames embankment, leading a group from the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage and four other groups. On 18 November 1910 Bertha was arrested for her part in Black Friday when over three hundred women marched on the Houses of Parliament. Asquith had made an election pledge of a Conciliation Bill which would have granted some women the vote. When the Liberals won the general election, a committee proposed legislation which would have seen around a million women obtaining the vote. Although it received the support of the House of Commons Asquith halted its progress by refusing to allow its passage any more Parliamentary time. A dispute between the House of Commons and the House of Lords saw Asquith call on 18 November a general election which dissolved Parliament from 28 November. The WSPU were outraged and marched to Parliament in protest. Many women were injured. Winston Churchill, the Home Secretary, announced that ‘on this occasion no public advantage would be gained by proceeding with the prosecution.’ Bertha participated in the inquiry conducted by Henry Brailsford and Jessie Murray. She reported ‘both arms were very much bruised for over three weeks … I could hardly walk upstairs…the Black Heath policemen were dreadfully rough and cruel … and lifted me right up and flung me as hard as they could many times..’
Bertha supported the protest that saw women refuse to pay tax, as they did not have the vote, under the auspices of the Women’s Tax Resistance League. Her refusal to pay the Inhabited House Duty saw the authorities seize a carriage clock to be sold at auction to raise the taxes she owed. At each sale, a crowd of women would attend to protest. On this occasion, in an attempt to outwit the women, the only auction lot was Bertha’s carriage clock. A crowd of women gathered both inside and outside the auction room. The auctioneer mounted the podium and opened the bidding and then without a single bid being made turned to a man in the corner of the room handed him the clock and received in return twenty-one shillings. Uproar ensued. The auctioneer found himself surrounded by angry woman. The police had to come to the aid of the auctioneer who then retrieved the clock from the man and started the auction again. As the women had initially intended it was resold to one of their own. The auctioneer departed, and the women used the auction room to make speeches and accepted an apology from the man who had originally bought it.
Documents gathered collected and collated following a raid on the WSPU offices sheds light on Bertha’s mother’s involvement with the union. In 1908 Bertha’s mother joined the union and went on to be the secretary of the Ombersley branch distributing copies of the Vote. After Bertha’s release from Liverpool the WSPU wrote to her mother: ‘You have already given so very much through your dear daughter whose devotion and courage has been proved again and again.’
In November 1911 Bertha was arrested for breaking two windows at the National Liberal Club valued at 20 shillings. She was fined £5 or twenty-one days in prison. It is unclear whether she went to prison or not as there is no record of either her internment or release. In May the following year, Bertha wrote to the press regarding the treatment of women in prison. She argued that by not according them the status of political prisoners, the government were harming their own argument. Few she felt would question the length of sentences metered out if the women’s treatment in prison was the same as criminals.
A few weeks later Bertha was arrested for breaking windows at Rayleigh Post Office. She was fined £5 or one month imprisonment. A lady in court paid the fine. Bertha continued to raise awareness of the cause in a series of letters to the press. Her most widely publicised letter and the one which is most remembered today was published in the Daily Telegraph on 26 February 1913:
Everyone seems to agree upon the necessity of putting a stop to Suffragist outrages; but no one seems certain how to do so. There are two, and only two, ways in which this can be done. Both will be effectual.
On the 6 February 1914, the United Suffragists was formed by former members of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies and the WSPU. While the latter stopped campaigning during World War I the United Suffragists continued taking over Votes for Women as their newspaper. Bertha became an active member joining the governing committee and playing a pivotal role in founding a branch in Birmingham. The same year her brother, Philip a conscientious objector married a fellow suffragette, Clara Giveen. Throughout the war, Bertha continued to campaign and keep the issue in the spotlight. In one issue of Votes for Women, 3 August 1917, she penned an erudite essay on why Jane Austen should be regarded as a feminist.
When success was achieved, Bertha penned the following poem:
The Passing of the Grille
On Anti’s all, do you recall the days that once you knew,
When you were the majority, and the Suffragists were few?
When women all were womanly, and men were really male,
And bipeds clamouring for votes were promptly put in jail?
When the female of the species was made to know her place,
And hidden in the gallery with bars before her face?
But now all that is at an end, she’ll sit where she’s a will,
For the House has just consented to removal of the grille.
That prehistoric state of things has gone without a doubt;
The Suffragist is everywhere; you cannot keep her out;
The Anti’s ranks are getting thin; their day is nearly done;
Their prominent supporters are converted one by one;
Six million soon will vote and worst - and final blow!
The House will never be again the House they used to know,
For every night in future the gallery will fill
With those who hitherto have scorned to cower behind the grille.
In August 1918, Bertha was campaigning for men like her brother Philip, a conscientious objector. She suggested writing in protest to the Home Secretary at the release of the objectors after the end of their sentence and their prompt re-arrest on the same charge. A step which was contrary to a pledge Lord Derby had made the previous year in the House of Lords. In addition, she was fundraising for the Save the Children Fund, formed to raise monies for the starving children of Germany and Austria whose suffering was caused by the blockade of Germany by the Allies. After the end of the war, Bertha turned her attention to supporting the Labour Party raising funds to fight elections.
Bertha ultimately settled in the village of Weobley in Herefordshire and died in France in 1959.