Florence Clarkson was born on Christmas Eve 1882 to Alfred, a bookbinder and Sarah. Florence’s birthplace was Leeds, but by the 1891 census, the family had moved to Strong Street in Broughton, a suburb of Salford. She was one of seven children. Ten years later, the family moved to Alfred Street. Florence became a costume maker, the same as her sister, Lillie.
She was first arrested in July 1908 and charged along with twenty-six others with obstruction. A deputation had, supported by a large crowd, made its way from Caxton Hall to the Houses of Parliament. Found guilty, Florence was bound over to keep the peace with a surety of £20 – a failure to agree would lead to one month in goal. Refusing to pay, Florence was sent to Holloway prison.
A large crowd, brass band, numerous police officers and a bouquet of flowers greeted Florence and the fourteen others upon their release on 31 July. The women were conveyed to Queen’s Hall for a breakfast provided by the WSPU. Florence returned north, continuing her activities with the Manchester WSPU. One of her fellow members was Mabel Capper, whose campaigning brother William Florence went on to marry in 1919.
Florence, occasionally, wrote the branch reports for publication in Votes for Women. During August, Florence, alongside Letitia Fairfield, held an open-air meeting. When the lorry, from which the two women were to address the crowd, failed to materialise, they commandeered a ladder from which Letitia addressed the throng. Over the following months, Florence continued to campaign. Towards the end of November, Florence recounted her experiences at the protest held in Scarborough, when the member of Parliament, Sir Edward Grey, visited the town.5
During May the following year Florence and her future sister-in-law, Mabel, were two women honoured at the Albert Hall with the presentation of a memento badge to mark their time in prison.6 A few weeks later, Winston Churchill was to address a meeting. Florence told the press that she and a companion hid themselves in a small recess between a door and a partition inside the venue. Despite several searches of the building to ensure there was no one hiding, Florence and her companion managed to stay hidden, surviving on chocolate, for nine hours – springing out to heckle the gathering.
Two months later, Florence, along with her future sister-in-law, Mabel, and several other women stood outside the Co-operative Hall in Leigh where Lewis Harcourt, a Liberal Cabinet minister, was due to address a meeting. A policeman stood in front of the closed entrance door. The women attempted to rush past him and Florence was arrested. The policeman attested in court that Florence was the only one arrested because she had assaulted him, knocking off his hat twice, pushing a book into his face and hitting him five or six times. Florence denied hitting him, but the Chief Constable and another officer corroborated his evidence. Florence argued that if there had been an offence, ‘it was a political’ one. She was fined 20 shillings or 14 days in prison in the second division. Votes for Women reported that the others had not been arrested as the crowd had surrounded them and that after Florence was taken away a riot ensued.
Florence was sent to Strangeways prison. Each evening a group of women gathered outside the gates to sing the Marseilles and hold a protest meeting. The prison authorities attempted to outwit any potential reception by releasing Florence early, but the organisers expected this and arrived ahead of the planned schedule. During the reception at the Grotto Cafe, Florence recounted her refusal to wear prison clothing and to eat for sixty-five hours. Taken to see a stomach pump, Florence ‘dreading such an outrage’ elected to take infirmary food but continued to protest by not wearing a prison number or undertaking any work. This garnered her ‘a good supply of books and an armchair.’
Florence swiftly returned to the campaign. Richard Haldane, Secretary of State for War, travelled to Liverpool to address a meeting. As he spoke, there was a sound of breaking glass – bricks and slates were being thrown from the roof of an adjacent empty house. The police forced entry to discover six women passing missiles to a seventh on the roof. They arrested all of them including Florence and Bertha Brewster (see earlier blog). They charged Florence with wilful damage. Bailed on the Saturday, the funds being paid by a supporter; the women refused to accept the terms and were sent to Walton Goal. The court granted bail again when they appeared on Monday. At the subsequent trial, the judge found Florence guilty and sentenced her to two months in prison.
While at court, the women told their friends that they had refused food while on remand in Walton Gaol. Witnesses reported that two of the women fainted while awaiting their case to begin. The police transported the women back to prison in a black maria. During the journey, they made the phrase Votes for Women visible by forcing a sunshade through the vehicle’s ventilator and unfurling it. Their lack of food did not diminish their power to protest as they broke prison windows; refused to wear prison clothes or undertake any work.15
Rona Robinson, one of the seven women, gave an account to Votes for Women of their time at Walton Gaol. The women refused to cooperate the moment they entered prison. One member of the prison staff told them they were ‘rotten in the middle.’ They placed those culpable in punishment cells described by Rona as ‘a cold, bare cell with its fixed board and tree stump for a seat.’ Rona writes of the women keeping their spirits up by singing the Marseilles and other songs. The prison guards stripped the women and forced them into prison garb. Steadfastly, they all refused food. Rona calculated that by the time of their release, the women had fasted for 123 hours.
Florence stated that after four days without food she awoke ‘with a feeling of suffocation, as if the walls and ceiling were pressing in upon her.’ Later that day, they took her to the prison hospital. The governor asked her ‘Was the game worth the candle?’; the doctor asked: ‘Was it worth the sacrifice of health and life?’ Florence answered both in the affirmative: ‘My conscience told me that sooner or later justice and truth were bound to win.’ The matron enquired as to the thoughts of Florence’s parents on her behaviour to which she responded ‘My parents know that right will prevail’ and while anxious as to her health ‘they never try to dissuade me from the path I will follow to the end.’16
Their refusal to eat led to the commissioning of a report into force-feeding, which is discussed in the blog for Bertha Brewster. All seven were awarded medals by the WSPU inscribed For Valour – hunger strike.17 Warrants were issued over a month after their release from prison for the damage caused to the prison. Florence’s was for damage to two panes of glass. Mary Leigh was spared an arrest warrant since she was already in prison, while the authorities issued arrest warrants for the other women. It was not until 10 December that the police arrested and brought that Florence before the court in Liverpool.20
The authorities refused bail and took her to prison despite a report on her medical state. The WSPU had asked Dr Helen Clark, a campaigner for women’s rights, to examine Florence because of the warrant for her arrest. The examination occurred early in December. Helen certified Florence is ‘in a very enfeebled general condition. In addition, there was extreme swelling and congestion of the back of the throat and tonsils. The voice was husky and at times failed entirely.’ Helen ordered bed rest; orders, which she believed Florence had ignored.
On 13 December Florence was sentenced to 14 days for damage valued at sixpence. The sentence was to be served in the third division. Protests broke out in court. The same day Florence’s mother wrote to the Home Secretary enclosing for his consideration a certificate ‘showing the state of her health.’ She described the offence as ‘trivial.’ The certificate stated Florence ‘is a sufferer from chronic tonsillitis and debility.’ Two days later, 15 December, Mary Gawthorpe, a committee member of the WSPU, wrote to the Home Secretary conveying a resolution passed at a meeting: ‘That this meeting expresses its profound indignation at the vindictive sentence passed on Miss Florence Clarkson in Liverpool yesterday, and in the interests of humanity and justice calls upon to the Home Secretary to order Miss Clarkson’s immediate release.’
The medical officer sent a telegram to the Home Office advising that in his opinion ‘Clarkson is not fit for the medical treatment usual in such cases. She is also weak and anaemic. Please now recommend.’ This prompted the prison governor to release Florence. Friends took to a nursing home in Liverpool. The medical officer included a more detailed report on Florence’s health in the files. He describes her as ‘a weak woman’ whom, the medical officer had been reliably been informed, took some three weeks to recover after her period of starvation in August. Now, on examination, ‘her heart is not robust, though free from disease.’ On the same day, Florence’s mother wrote to the Home Secretary, she also wrote to the prison medical officer enclosing the same report. The report from Dr Helen Gordon was also sent to the authorities.
It appears from the files that the amount of publicity the arrests of the women garnered caused concern at the Home Office. The Home Office proposed in a letter in May that any extant warrants should not be acted upon. The Home Office appointed doctors to ensure, in the future, external advisers did not exert undue influence.
By mid-January Florence returned to campaigning. Two months later she was presented with a bar to add to her medal in a ceremony in the Albert Hall.23 Little more is known of Florence’s activities after 1911.
Mabel Capper’s brother, William, a journalist, served in the First World War. It was reported in May 1918 that William, a journalist who served in the First World War, had been gassed and was in a hospital in France. A year later, he and Florence married. By 1939, the couple were living in Watford, where Florence sat as a magistrate. Both were ARP wardens during the Second World War. Florence died in 1955, William three years later in 1958.