Occasionally I trawl the online Oxfam book shop looking for Noel Streatfield books to add to my collection. One recent find was a book called The Day Before Yesterday, Firsthand Stories of Fifty Years Ago published in 1956. Noel was the editor, not the author but, curious; I nonetheless bought what turned out to be a serendipitous find.
The book is divided into chapters; each covers a topic from the nursery to waterways; from mining to entering society as a debutante. Noel Streatfield wrote a prelude to each, for example for the chapter Introducing a Boy Miner she explains that Jack Jones’s recollections were included not only because of his memories of being a child working in a mine but ‘because of what he writes about his mother who, as you will read, was a very great woman.’ She concludes her introduction ‘Now read what Jack Jones writes, and I think you will find you have a lot to think about.’ In others, Noel mixes her recollections with her views.
One chapter is called Introducing Suffragettes. Helen Atkinson, who I wrote about in a blog last November, shares her experiences. The blog below is the revised Helen entry using her own words and recollections. Noel introduces the chapter. She opens by recounting that while suffrage was a subject discussed in her home ‘, it was definitely a ‘not before the children’ subject.’ While out for a walk with her sister a family acquaintance asked the two little girls if they would like ‘to wear white frocks and sashes of purple and green’ to present bouquets to two important women called the Pankhursts. Enchanted with the idea of dressing up, excitedly the sisters told their father who informed them ‘Purple, green and white … were colours no respectable brought up child might wear.’ It was clear that ‘over [their] father’s dead body’ would they present bouquets ‘to those dreadful women.’
Noel recollects that ‘abysmal ignorance’ of the wider world particularly current affairs was not, in her experience, unusual before the First World War, among children. She marvels at the fact that she was oblivious of even ‘a minor skirmish’ when the women, such as governesses, she encountered, may not have smashed windows, but ‘must have admired and sympathised with those who did.’ Describing it as akin to a civil war Noel observes that a reasonable request for the vote was brushed off so frequently that ‘passions were so inflamed that there was nothing women would not do to fight for their cause.’ She approached Helen to write her story as Noel ‘felt we should get a truer picture if I chose one of the thousands who fought like tigers, but of whom few have heard’ rather than a ‘great name in the Suffrage Movement.’
When the two women met Noel was struck by the smallness and frailty of Helen, who ‘seemed swallowed up in the chair in which she sat.’ As they talked Helen, who had ‘a small soft voice to match her size’ said ‘You have no idea how it hurts to be beaten with a policeman’s rolled-up mackintosh.’ An observation Noel writes she would never forget. Her encounter with Helen cured her from ever contemplating not voting.
Helen, born in Manchester in 1873, felt that she ‘unconsciously imbibed a sense of liberalism in its most genuine aspect’ being born in the cotton city of the north. She was the daughter of John Bernard, a journalist for the Manchester Guardian, and Mallie Atkinson. She was the second eldest of six children. The youngest, Lucy, was born in 1885 and very soon afterwards, Mallie died. By the census, in 1891 the family had moved south to Stoke Newington, north London when John was transferred to the newspaper’s London office.
Shortly after the family’s move south, Helen and her brother began attending meetings of the City of London Debating Society. To Helen’s surprise, she was asked to open a debate, a request never previously made of a woman. Eagerly accepting the challenge, Helen opted to speak about women’s enfranchisement, a subject her audience considered to be ‘dry and academic.’ She then joined the National Women’s Suffrage Society where Helen met women who had researched constitutional history forming the opinion that the political role of women had regressed rather than progressed as early Parliaments had been attended by the Abbesses of convents. This led them to fight for the franchise for women.
On a personal level, Helen was driven by a sense of injustice. She recounts the case of a man brought before the courts. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children alleged he had ill-treated his child; a course of action which was taken as it was believed it would be more successful than bringing charges for the mistreatment of his wife. The man was found guilty and sentenced to eighteen months. His lawyer raised an objection on a point of law, and the sentence was overturned, and the man freed. Helen called it an injustice. It is a common misconception that women wanted the vote for its own sake but many, like Helen, fought to obtain the vote to give women a voice against such injustices or poverty or inequality.
Three years later, Helen, while visiting a married sister in Manchester, heard of the ‘wild women’ such as Annie Kenney and Christabel Pankhurst; ‘these women and what they had done, and intended to do, changed the course of my life.’ Helen abandoned the Suffrage Society and joined the WSPU. Helen’s father recollected Emmeline’s husband as a man who was ‘much liked’ but was regarded as a ‘crank’ by ‘hardheaded Northerners’ as he liked to be called Citizen Pankhurst and advocated free education; land nationalisation and the disestablishment of the church. Her father, who loathed the use of ‘lavish adjectives,’ described Emmeline as a ‘fascinating person,’ high praise which made Helen appreciate the undoubted ‘force of her natural charm.’ Over the years, Helen felt that this attribute, combined with Emmeline’s eloquence were the two factors that led to her ‘near-adoration’ by hundreds of women.
The WSPU often met on street corners or in tiny local halls; meetings advertised by chalk writing on walls or pavements. This means of promotion led to Helen’s first arrest. It had rained, and Helen and her friend had waited for some time for the pavement to dry sufficiently to allow them to chalk out their message. As soon as they started a policeman arrested them, an arrest which does not appear in the amnesty record. In court the policeman testified that the area was covered in numerous chalk messages, a fact the magistrate, Helen felt, chose to ignore given the torrential downpour beforehand. Ticked off the magistrate dismissed the case.
Helen recollects Frederick Pethick Lawrence promising to pay ten pounds to the cause for every day his wife, Emmeline, spent in prison. This prompted an entry to a fancy dress ball in a costume adorned with Emmeline’s face and the ditty:
Ten pounds a day
He said he’d pay
To keep this face
It won first prize.
The arrests of women led others to be ‘shaken out of their complacency’ and face up to the fact that other women’s lives were intolerable. In Helen’s view, women were implanted with an ‘inferiority complex’ which rapidly ‘gave way to resentment and determination that there should, in future, be equality.’ Campaigning at a by-election, Helen found herself called upon to address the waiting crowd as the planned speaker was delayed. Inwardly quaking she mounted the lorry addressing the crowd on women’s rights and how women had as much stake in the welfare of the country as men did. The crowd were dubious and losing interest. Helen asked the assembled people who had been the country’s champion when the Romans invaded. After a long pause, a small child shouted out ‘Boadicea.’ From there on, Helen felt the crowd was with her.
Helen, who worked as a shorthand typist, dedicated a week’s holiday to campaigning in a Liberal stronghold constituency in Yorkshire. She canvassed, carried sandwich boards culminating in attending a Liberal meeting on the eve of the poll with six others. They carefully spaced themselves across the venue having agreed beforehand in which order they would stand up and ask their questions. Helen was the last. Each ejection was met with increasing tension. When the sixth was forcibly removed the man sitting next to Helen ‘waggled his shoe’ commenting that is what he would give them. With a feeling of dread, Helen stood up. The man, as threatened, kicked her and she received ‘many knocks before the police got me outside.’
Helen attended a WSPU deputation to the Houses of Parliament. Arrested, again this is not included in the amnesty record, she appeared at Bow Street magistrates court. Her father was present in court along with two fellow journalists supportive of the suffrage movement. When Helen was found guilty, all three advised her to take a taxi to Holloway prison. Helen declined. Below is a sketch of the wagon; originally intended to convey fourteen prisoners: men and women destined for Pentonville or Holloway prisons it was often overcrowded. As Helen writes ‘I was scarcely inside before horror seized me. Nausea, claustrophobia – I was almost unconscious.’ She never overcame her ‘intense repugnance’ even though Helen was transported several times.
Helen describes her cell in F Block as ‘horrible … one had to be very exalte to ignore such squalid surroundings.’ In her cell, a previous occupant called Norah had scratched on a brick ‘Norah got six weeks for stealing’; this inspired Helen to scratch poetry on the bricks. The food ‘appalled’ Helen who, as she notes, was not used to particularly grand cuisine following the death of her mother. The highlight of each day was exercise when the women could mingle and chapel. But hopes of meeting prisoners other than suffragettes were dashed as the women were hidden behind a curtain.
Helen later joined another deputation which became known as Black Friday. She recollects ‘an overwhelming display of savagery. We were beaten on the breast, struck with fists and knees, knocked down and kicked.’ Another deputation followed which started in Grosvenor Place. The procession marched as far as the Quadriga, known today as the Wellington Arch, before being intercepted. The police halted the women. One attempted to detain Emmeline Pankhurst, so Helen put her arms around her. The two were beaten by rolled up police waterproof capes which made ‘a truly formidable weapon.’ Emmeline turned out to be well able to look after herself, so Helen let go. Immediately she was bundled into one of the guardrooms in the monument. Helen describes the women as being ‘thrown in like sacks.’ When peace was restored the police marched their prisoners across the parks to Cannon Row police station. Dispatched in the wagon to Holloway prison, Helen passed out. She came round to find herself on the floor in prison.
Helen resolved not to take any food or water. When a prisoner decided on this course of action, no exercise was permitted, and the women were left in solitary confinement. Helen, as she did the first time, scratched poetry on the bricks:
A shipwrecked sailor, buried on this coast,
Bids you set sail,
Full many a gallant barque, when we were lost,
Weathered the gale.
As the days passed, she describes growing feeble and feeling as if she was ‘becoming moribund’. Helen was released under the Cat and Mouse Act. She did not return to prison on the appointed day and was ‘at large’ when the First World War broke out. Despite the amnesty, Helen concludes whether as she was still at large, she was ‘pardoned or not!’
She died in 1955, shortly after she wrote this piece, on the way to visit her youngest sister in hospital. When the book was published, a year after Helen’s death, on reviewer commented on her ‘moving resume of the Suffragette movement;’ another that ‘her account of her experiences as a suffragette [were] particularly valuable.
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