May or Mary Clarke was arrested three times between 1908 and 1910. Mary Jane Goulden was born in 1862 to Richard and Sophia. One of eleven children: six sons and five daughters, Emmeline, later Pankhurst, was her eldest sister born four years earlier. Rachel Holmes in her far-reaching and excellent, recently published biography, of Sylvia Pankhurst, observes that Mary was Emmeline's favourite sister. Both of their parents were socially and politically active. By the time, Mary was nine; the family had moved to Seedley, part of the Salford where her father ran a printing firm employing over two hundred and fifty people. Although, forward-thinking her parents set little store by girl's education. Mary attended Seedley Castle School, passing the Government Art Examinations in 1877.
Emmeline, by now married with four children, moved to London in 1886 and Mary joined them. The two sisters opened art furnishers and decorators, Emerson & Co. Alongside retailing furniture and soft furnishings, they offered art classes. In time for Christmas 1890, they printed and distributed a trade catalogue explaining their reasons for embarking on 'the tempestuous billows of commerce', the primary line was white furniture which the purchaser could decorate themselves. Trade, however, was not brisk and by 1893 the shop closed. Emmeline's husband had already returned to the northwest, and the family and Mary followed. Mary began teaching dressmaking.
Two years later Mary married John Clarke – the 1901 census describes his occupation as a credit draper working for himself. The couple settled in Camberwell in the south of London. It did not turn out to be a happy union. Rachel Holmes writes that John was abusive, and, on at least one occasion, Sylvia Pankhurst, Emmeline’s daughter, rescued her aunt. By 1904 Mary had fled for good, returning to the north of England and joining Emmeline to fight for women's votes.
On June 21st 1908 the WSPU organised Women's Sunday – a suffragette march followed by a rally in Hyde Park. It was estimated that half a million people attended. Women wore white dresses embellished with suffragette colours. Within the environs of the park, the speakers were allocated to platforms. Mary was assigned to platform 1 alongside Georgina Brackenbury, Nancy Lightman and Mrs Morris, a health visitor from Manchester.
Mary was first arrested the following month. Many campaigners gathered at Caxton Hall. After several resounding speeches led by Emmeline, they marched towards the House of Commons to present a petition to Herbert Asquith. Mary was one of twenty-nine women arrested. Emmeline and Sylvia attended the court at Bow Street when Mary and all but two of her fellow arrestees were brought before the courts. Found guilty, Mary was ordered to pay a fine or face one month in prison. All elected to go to prison. There are no reports of Mary's first time in prison in the official files online.
Mary and fourteen fellow prisoners were released from Holloway prison at the end of July. A large crowd greeted the women along with a brass band and a hefty police presence. The women travelled to central London for a welcome breakfast. Several spoke during the meal, including Mary, who observed how much she would miss the women she had left behind in prison.
In February 1909, Mary was arrested for a second time alongside Lucy Norris. The two went to Downing Street to try and have a meeting with Asquith. They repeatedly knocked on the door despite being informed he was away. Eventually, the police intervened arresting the two women. Charged with obstruction, the court found them guilty. As before Mary refused to pay the fine and was sent to prison for one month. Ada, her sister, wrote to the governor of Holloway Prison, requesting a visit to discuss a family matter – permission was granted. From prison Mary wrote a letter which was published in Votes for Women:
'Before we are set free, the Women's Parliament, which meets in Caxton Hall on February 24th will be over. I know our comrades will on that day do their duty as we have tried to do ours. Let our motto be 'Never let I dare not wait upon I would.'
Mary was soon back on the campaign trail and was now the salaried organiser for the Brighton branch of the WSPU. In September, Joan Dugdale Clara Morden and Mary, addressed a meeting at the Council Rooms in Christchurch, Dorset, as part of a tour of the south coast. One newspaper described Joan’s speech as ‘most interesting’ but questioned whether the message was being dimmed by militant action. At Boscombe, Joan, Mary, and Clara were pelted with eggs, over-ripe bananas and tomatoes. The women took refuge in the Salisbury Hotel, leaving by a side entrance in the hope of avoiding the crowd which was loitering at the front. The women’s efforts were in vain and they were followed along the High Street forcing them to take refuge in a shop from where they left by taxi. The meeting the following day in Branksome was cancelled. Later Joan commented that the meeting had ‘ended rather disastrously’ and that the troublemakers ‘were rather rough with her,’ observing she was in awe of Mary’s fortitude.
Meanwhile, Joan returned to the south coast to attend an At Home organised by the Hove branch. Mary, Jane Brailsford and Joan Dugdale addressed an At Home organised by the Hove branch in January 1910. Joan closed the meeting with a recitation of ‘The home is her sphere.’ In July 1910, Mary again addressed a suffragette rally in Hyde Park from platform 16 speaking alongside Dr Christine Murrell, who in 1924 was the first woman appointed to the British Medical Association Council, and the Honourable Mrs Haverfield.
While organising the Brighton branch, Mary lived with Minnie Turner at Seaview, 13 Victoria Street. Minnie ran the house as a holiday bed and breakfast, a facility a suffragette could avail herself of to rest and recuperate. During September Mary arrived in St Leonards ahead of a visit by Emmeline Pethick Lawrence. To advertise the event, a parade was organised. Several women gathered in their carriages, one sporting a banner which read 'Women's Suffrage Propaganda League,' others were on foot. Elsie Bowerman headed the procession. She and the other women carried banners with messages such as 'No surrender' and Face to the Dawn.' Mary accompanied Mrs Darent Harrison, a member of the Tax Resistance League, in her carriage. The local newspaper reported that during the town's circuit, which took an hour and a half, there were few outbursts against their cause.
The following week the well-publicised meeting was held at the Royal Concert Hall. Before this, Emmeline and Christabel visited Mary, who was staying in the town. The Hon Mrs Haverfield whom Mary had occupied a platform alongside in Hyde Park chaired the meeting supported by Emmeline Pethick Lawrence and Mary who moved a motion in support of the Woman Suffrage Bill.
Mary was arrested again in November alongside Greta Allen, Laura Armstrong, Gennie Ball and Grace Chappelow (see earlier blogs) and charged with criminal damage. Emmeline requested to see Mary at Cannon Row Police Station. When the visit was denied, Mary broke a window. She was sentenced to a month in gaol.
Mary telegrammed the WSPU branch in Brighton 'I am glad to pay the price for freedom.' She was released on 23 December. A welcome home lunch was held in her and other released prisoners’ honour at the Criterion restaurant. Joan Dugdale, who had been in prison, at the same time as Mary but was released the week before also attended the lunch. It would be the last time the two campaigners saw each other.
Mary spent Christmas Day with Herbert, her brother, and his family at their home in Winchmore Hill. Sadly, Mary passed away during the evening. She was buried at Southgate Cemetery. One observer wrote 'Without approaching her sister's power as an orator, she did an immense amount of splendid service, and she was the leader of the women's franchise movement in Brighton.'
The 6 January 1911 edition of Votes for Women includes a memoir written by Emmeline entitled The Utmost for the Highest. She recollects being in Holloway prison at the same time as Mary was first imprisoned, describing her as a 'Prisoner of Hope' with her' extreme patience' and 'extreme gentleness.' Emmeline writes that Mary had been ill before she travelled to London to stand in solidarity with the women who had been ill-treated on Black Friday by throwing a stone to get herself arrested.
It has been widely written over the years that Mary was force-fed during her final time in prison. In her tribute, Emmeline alludes to the procedure but does not directly assert that Mary was subjected. The official files online are blank which, perhaps, in itself speaks volumes.
There is currently an appeal in Brighton to raise funds to erect a statue in her memory. https://maryclarkestatue.com/