Mabel Capper was arrested on numerous occasions. She was baptised Mabel Henrietta, two months after her birth, in June 1888. Mabel’s father, William, was a drysalter, a supplier of salts and chemicals. The family lived in Chorton on Medlock; an area now dominated by the University of Manchester. Two years after Mabel’s birth, her mother, Elizabeth, gave birth to a son, William Bently who was also to become involved in the campaign for women’s suffrage. A campaign that Elizabeth also supported regularly donating to the WSPU. In 1907 the Warrington Examiner appointed Mabel as its first female journalist.
Mabel joined the WSPU in 1905, in part influenced by an aunt who had resigned her membership of the Women’s Liberal Federation to join the WSPU. The first mention of Mabel in Votes for Women is in May 1908 when she chaired a meeting of the Manchester branch. Mabel organised fundraising events such as whist drives, sold tickets to gatherings and generally rose awareness of the cause. When Emmeline Pankhurst was due to speak, in Manchester, at the Queen’s Theatre Mabel and two others hit on a unique method of advertising. They climbed the steps of the Queen Victoria Memorial in Piccadilly, Manchester attaching to the base of the statue a card decorated with the WSPU motto, fresh flowers and details of the speaker, venue, and time. The police ordered the removal of the placard. After some discussion, the police had to admit it was acceptable to lay floral tributes on the steps. So slowly, one by one, the women laid the flowers before finally removing their advertisement. The whole endeavour gave plenty of time for the words to be read and the press to record their antics.
Mabel’s first arrest was in 1908; the charge obstruction. She appeared in court wearing an outfit entirely in the colours of the WSPU topped with a hat on the band of which read Votes for Women. Mabel asserted the police had obstructed her in the performance of her duty. Found guilty, she was bound over to keep the peace with a fine of £30. When she declined to pay Mabel was committed to Holloway Prison for one month. This, the magistrate informed the court, would have been two months if it were not for Mabel’s youth. The WSPU in Manchester held a meeting to protest that the prisoners, currently in Holloway, had not been accorded the status of political prisoners. She was released on 13 November. Met by supporters, Mabel and the other seven women travelled to the Inns of Court Hotel for a celebratory breakfast. Emmeline Pethick addressed the gathering presenting each released woman with an illuminated address. Mabel recollected that when she had heard a suffragette cheer through her cell window, she had used a plank from the bed to catch a glimpse through the bars.
On her return to Manchester, crowds feted Mabel. At the time the suffragette, Cicely Hamilton’s play was on stage in the city. A handbill, inspired by the production, was distributed among the theatregoers leading to a well-attended homecoming celebration. Mabel informed the assembled company that Emmeline Pankhurst was being poorly treated in prison. Early in 1909, Mabel and others travelled to Halifax to protest at a meeting to be addressed by the politician, Richard Haldane. The gathering was heavily policed. The first woman ejected was Mabel. Interviewed by a journalist, who described her ‘as a rather good-looking brunette’, Mabel explained her expulsion arose from asking the speaker, who was talking about freedom, why he did not make women free. Asking questions at meetings such as this was the only way to engage with the Government as they refused to meet with the suffragettes.
Mabel was arrested on 29 June when a deputation attempted to present a petition to the Prime Minister. The eminent barrister, Robert Cecil represented Emmeline Pankhurst and Evaline Haverfield who appealed against their sentences on the grounds that a subject had the right to petition the Prime Minister. Pending the hearing of the appeal, the magistrate adjourned the other cases including Mabel’s. Emmeline and Evaline lost their appeal, but the authorities decided not to pursue the charges against the other women. Mabel was arrested early in July 1909 for her part in a demonstration in Bedford during a visit by Herbert Samuel. All those arrested were released without charge. Mabel returned to the northwest of England and resumed her work. One of her fellow campaigners was Florence Clarke who in 1919 married Mabel’s brother and supporter of the fight for suffrage, William. Both women along with several others travelled to Leigh to protest at a meeting to be addressed by Lewis Harcourt, a member of the Liberal Cabinet. The venue was the Co-operative Hall where a policeman stood guarding the door. The women tried to rush past him. The officer claimed in court that Mabel’s future sister-in-law, Florence, had assaulted him which led to her arrest. The gathered crowd surrounded the other women preventing their arrest. Votes for Women reported that the crowd the rioted.
Towards the end of July, Mabel was arrested and charged with obstruction during a protest at an address by Lloyd George in Limehouse. Found guilty, Mabel was sentenced to twenty-one days in prison. Due for release from Holloway on 20 August Mabel was freed early on medical grounds. She wrote about her experiences in an article for Votes for Women. When the women arrived at Holloway prison the Governor agreed that the women could retain their clothes and luggage so long as they accepted, they would have to appear before the Visiting Magistrates. Mabel swiftly found out that the prisoner governor had reneged when the matron ordered her to remove her clothes and submit to a search. The reason for his decision was the women’s mutinous behaviour. Mabel decided to comply if granted privacy to undress. She swiftly realised this was not acceptable when her cell filled with female wardresses who forcibly removed her clothes. Mabel estimated there were up to twelve women who, also, tried to goad her into retaliating but she ‘bit [her] lips and did not take any notice’.
The official files include a report by the visiting magistrates who charged Mabel and others with misconduct for their behaviour on arrival at prison. The cause of their protest was their allocation to the second division rather than the first division as political prisoners. Notes on the files indicate that the medical officers were ‘anxious’ to commence force feeding while the prisoner governor was less keen feeling it would give the women a new grievance and advertisement for the cause.
Dragged before the governor Mabel was informed, she could go to a regular cell if she undertook not to break the windows. She refused, a refusal which condemned her to a punishment cell for seven days as decreed by the visiting magistrates. Mabel observed ‘I was struck by the intense gloom … the light coming through very thick glazed windows. Over the door the light from a gas jet outside entered by a small window … I soon perceived the totally inadequate means of ventilation’. The normal practice was to supply mattress and bedclothes at bedtime which were removed in the morning but as Mabel had a foot injury, she was permitted to retain hers. This meant she could spend all day in bed as her refusal to take any food began to take its toll. After a couple of days, the authorities provided Mabel with library books, but the poor light made it difficult to read. She took to sustaining herself by singing songs. As time passed Mabel recollects being ‘in a semi-conscious state’. Six days into her sentence an order for her release was granted. In a report the visiting magistrates pointed out the dilemma faced by the authorities ‘We venture to point out that if these cases are treated as similar prisoners recently dealt with and release from prison follows as a result of their insubordination in refusing to take food, the example set by these women will be followed’.
The following month, September, Mabel was arrested in Birmingham, alongside nine others including Laura Ainsworth, Hilda Burkitt and Ellen Barnwell, for their actions at Bingley Hall. Mabel was sentenced to one month in the second division. Sent to Winson Green the women went on hunger strike and were force-fed, among the first that this treatment was metered out to. This new strategy caused a furore. In Manchester, Emmeline Pankhurst and Mary Gawthorpe spoke at a rally in support of militant tactics and the treatment of the hunger strikers. Those already released joined them on the platform wearing the WSPU Victoria Cross, a decoration awarded to recognise their bravery. Letters from relatives of the women still in Winson Green were read, among them was Mabel’s brother.
Mabel refused food for three and half days before force feeding commenced. Alternatively fed by tube and spoon; as she grew weaker Mabel was less able to resist the process. A report by the medical officer comments that Mabel was ‘well and [her] physical condition is well maintained’. Examined on release, Mabel was declared to be free of injury. In answer of enquires Mabel said ‘I have nothing whatever to complain of with reference to the medical treatment here. I am grateful for the gentle and kindly way in which the medical officers have treated me throughout. I feel in perfectly good health’. The report is written and signed by the medical officer who notes that Leslie Hall, another suffragette prisoner, said almost the exact same thing to him.
Mabel was soon arrested again in Birmingham along with seven others. The charges brought against Mabel were disorderly conduct and obstruction. The police had issued an order making it illegal to hold meeting in two squares in the city. Mabel nonetheless mounted the steps of the statue in Victoria Square addressing a growing crowd. After a few minutes she was ordered down. Mabel refused and a struggle ensued. The local newspaper reported that Mabel’s antics drew a crowd of over four thousand people completely blocking the road. The magistrate adjourned the case for twenty-one days.
Awarded the Victoria Cross by the WSPU, Mabel strenuously worked throughout the 1910 election campaign[i] In Southport, accompanied by Mary Gawthorpe and Dora Marsden, Mabel traversed across the town from one polling booth to another. Arriving at one, the suffragette flag was ripped from their car. Mary was violently pushed, and Mabel was deposited headfirst back into the car. The three brought assault charges against the men involved which the magistrates dismissed.
Mabel wrote a moving article for Votes for Women about imprisonment and force-feeding. While fictional it clearly draws on her own experiences and it would have left no one in any doubt on what they might face if they were imprisoned. During October 1910, the Men’s Political Union for Women’s Enfranchisement founded a branch in Manchester; one of the debut speakers was Mabel’s brother who spoke a few weeks later at a WSPU meeting. The following month Mabel was arrested in London for her part in a demonstration which included a deputation to Downing Street. Mabel, in court, claimed she was knocked around by the police who ‘swung [her] right and left … [and] had her by the throat.’ In protest, she smashed windows at the residence of Lewis Harcourt, a Cabinet minister. Eleanor Fagg, confirmed Mabel’s evidence as to her treatment by the police, that she had struck the officer involved which had led to her appearance in court. While being held in the environs of the court Mabel mentioned to some of the other women that she had a pain in her chest. They urged her to seek medical advice from Dr Frances Ede, a suffragette supporter. The Inspector agreed. Following an examination Frances Ede noted that Mabel had a bruise on her chest – ‘not serious’. Mabel was sentenced to fourteen days in her absence.
On her release, Mabel continued to work tirelessly. She and her brother both spoke at Men’s League events during the Autumn to draw attention to the votes in West Salford, which had the only anti-suffrage member of Parliament in Manchester and Salford, the meaning of the Conciliation Bill. She was arrested at the end of November 1911 in Bath, an arrest which is not noted in the amnesty record. Lloyd George was in the city to speak; the suffragettes were banned from entering the meeting. In protest, Mabel smashed four panes of glass at the Post Office valued at £4. Found guilty and refusing to pay a fine the sentence was a month in the second division.Sent to Shepton Mallet gaol, Mabel was released just before Christmas. In 1932 Mabel revisited the city and gave an interview to the local paper joking that she had not been to the court on this occasion. Recollecting her time in prison Mabel commented that ‘Everyone treated me very nicely. The warders and matron were … greatly concerned about my health, and often wanted to supplement the food which friends brought me with tasty bits of their own making’. Mrs Russell Hamilton visited her nearly every day, ferrying her to the station to catch a train on her release.
In July, the following year, Mabel was arrested along with Gladys Evans, Mary Leigh and Lizzie Baker charged with conspiring to commit grievous bodily harm and malicious damage by intending to cause an explosion at the Theatre Royal in Dublin. Mabel was the only one not remanded in prison after her companions confirmed that she had only arrived in Dublin on the Thursday evening and knew nothing of the protest. Printed in Votes for Women, 9 August 1912, the picture, at the beginning of this blog, had the headline ‘Panic Sentences! Mrs Leigh 5 Years Penal Servitude, Miss Evans 5 Years Penal Servitude, Mrs Baines 7 Months Hard Labour.’ Underneath in small letters: ‘Miss Capper -Discharged’; the charges against Mabel withdrawn by the prosecution.
Mabel returned to Manchester and then travelled to London for rehearsals at the Court Theatre of her play ‘The Betrothal of Number 13’, a tragedy in one act. The review in the Referee described it as ‘a cleverly and powerfully written playlet.’ In November 1914 Mabel joined the British Red Cross Volunteers working half days either in the kitchen or as a junior nurse. She resigned in April 1915. Her leaving report reads: ‘Miss Capper was very willing while on duty but had to leave Manchester for a time doing for secretarial work’. During the last year of the war Mabel attempted to buy a jar of jam from Liptons which they refused to sell without the production of a ration card. Mabel must have complained leading to the prosecution of Liptons with Mabel giving evidence. By 1920 Mabel was working as a special correspondent on the Daily Herald.
In 1921 Mabel married Cecil Chisholm, a journalist and biographer of Sir John French. When asked if she regretted her militant actions Mabel responded ‘No, it was our militant methods that focussed public attention on a grave injustice to women… And this undoubtedly helped us to win’. Mabel died in 1966.
[i] Mabel’ medal can be seen on the BBC webpage: A History of the World WSPU hunger strike. An image from Mabel’s diary can viewed at http://www.co-curate.ncl.co.uk