Edith Clarence was arrested in March 1912. She was born in 1876 in Sri Lanka. Her father, Lovell, a colonial judge, retired to England by Edith’s stepmother, Elizabeth. Edith’s mother, Blanche, died in 1888 when Edith, one of five children, was eight years old. On their return, the family settled in Axminster, Devon. By 1911, Edith’s two sisters had married, leaving her living with her father and stepmother.
The first mention of Edith’s involvement with the WSPU is a donation in August 1908. During the summer months, the WSPU encouraged volunteers to target seaside towns to raise awareness of the cause. The women were advised to take a sufficient supply of literature and Votes for Women for distribution together with membership cards for those who wished to join. Ideally, a second helper would be present to copy the membership details down so the head office had the information on their files. Edith spent a week, it was reported, working ‘indefatigably’ in a shop opened by the National Union of Suffrage Societies in Sidmouth, not far from Axminster. Edith also travelled to Oxford to attend a course specifically aimed at women which presented an opportunity to raise awareness of the suffrage campaign. Part of the plan was to hire a boat from which literature and the newspaper, Votes for Women, could be handed out. Edith attended few of the lessons for which she had signed up; most of her time was taken by ‘organising processions, open-air meetings,’ many of which she spoke at.
The following spring, Edith and Elsie Howey addressed a series of meetings in the Penzance area with Edith providing support. During the 1910 election campaign, Edith was joined in Torquay by, amongst others, Annie Kenney, Jessie Smith and Jane Malloch. By the autumn of the following year, Edith was appointed the honorary secretary of the Axminster Branch. In a speech, in February 1912, Edith expressed some of the reasons why she wished to gain the vote which echoes so many other campaigners: infant mortality, poverty and sweated labour. Through Edith’s campaigning, she met Hope Malleson who with Mildred Tucker, had settled in Devon. This led to a friendship with Hope’s sister, Mabel. A month later in March 1912, Edith was arrested and charged with obstruction, an alternative report states the charge was insulting behaviour. A fellow arrestee was Constance Bray (see earlier blog). Found guilty, Edith was sentenced to one month in prison. Following her release from gaol, Edith spent two weeks in July assisting the campaign in Glasgow and West Scotland. Over the coming months, Edith continued to work hard for the cause.
The following year, a letter was published in Common Cause, the newspaper of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, in which Edith objected to an assertion included in an article titled the National Union and Militancy. The writer had contended that ‘Militancy has introduced into the Suffrage Movement elements of revenge, of contempt for others, of unreason, of deafness to honest and considered criticism, which in a movement which stands for peace and justice and humanity are tragic.’ In a robust response, Edith argued that responsibility for the militant element lay with the Liberal government who had ignored the campaigners’ peaceful approach responding with ‘contempt, deafness and unreason.’ This attitude introduced ‘the elements of bitterness … which has deepened into rebellion.’ While the newspaper published the letter, in a note underneath, a strong response was published: ‘We do not feel that Miss Clarence’s statement touches our argument at all.’
It was a spat which spilled into the next edition of the newspaper. Edith submitted a further letter attempting to clarify her position arguing that militants accepted responsibility for their actions, but it was not correct to attribute to them the errors of the Government. The Editor, again, responded by pointing out that in her view the sentence in the original letter did not mean what Edith contended.
Around 1916, Edith moved to Dixton Manor in the village of Gotherington, near Cheltenham, the family home of the Malleson sisters. Edith and Mabel lived there until about 1925 when Mabel purchased the nearby Detmore House, Charlton Kings. At some point, Alice Fison, another suffragette, moved in with Mabel and Edith. Mabel died in 1931.
The 1939 register records Alice as the owner of Detmore House and Edith as the housekeeper/farmer. Edith remained politically active, often writing letters to the local press. In one she commented that to her socialism was ‘a practical embodiment of the truths enumerated 2000 years ago by the teacher whom the majority of the citizens of this country profess to follow.’ Edith became involved with the Tewkesbury and District Labour Party providing entertainment at social gatherings with recitations. During the General Strike in 1926, in a repeat of her activities for the suffrage movement, Edith sold the Gloucester Strike Bulletin. A man, the local managing director of a company, gave Edith the money to buy all the copies but, when it dawned on her what he was attempting to do, refused to hand over more than one copy. Angered, he attempted to wrest the remainder from her. The matter ended up in the Magistrates Court with the man charged with assaulting Edith. The charges were dropped after the man gave an apology. In an insight into Edith’s character, she instructed her solicitor to accept the apology and to make it clear she did not wish the matter to proceed but she took the opportunity to make it clear that the principal at stake was the freedom to sell newspapers for a political purpose without interference.
Edith was a memorable figure, ‘small rosy-cheeked, and very alert’ who cycled everywhere, often wearing clothing she felt was appropriate to the task in hand such as leather breeches. Interested in cultural and social affairs she founded a local Bulb Show which was held annually. Committed to the idea that education could improve a child’s opportunities she was, for many years, a manager of the local Holy Apostles’ School. A member of the National Council of Women, founded in 1895 to lobby for improved working conditions for women.
In an impassioned letter to the Gloucestershire Echo, Edith called for support of the Miner’s Relief Fund – ‘Our Christian religion bids us to feed the hungry – not the hungry with whose politics we agree.’ By May the following year, Edith was chairman of the Cheltenham Labour Party, often writing to the local newspaper, in that capacity, which led to some lively responses. The following year Edith stood for election as a councillor for the Charlton Kings Urban Council, a seat which she did not win. Over the coming years, Edith continued to support socialist politics; endorsing the formation of a child guidance clinic; speaking on agriculture and its associated difficulties and campaigning for a local theatre.
Alice and Edith lived together until Edith died suddenly in September 1941. Her obituary was headed ‘Miss E Clarence Dead Feminist Leader in Cheltenham’. She was described as having held ‘a very individual part in the life of the community’ – ‘a personality’ who ‘will be remembered chiefly for her own kindliness to and interest in others.’