Sarah Jane Carwin was born on 16 August 1863 in Bolton, Lancashire. Her father was John, a carder who disentangled wool ready for spinning. John and Sarah’s mother, Jerusha, had two sons who died young. Three daughters followed: Ethelina, Mary and Sarah. In 1865 they had a son, John. The family were Methodists who worshipped at the Bridge Street Chapel. There in November 1865 John was baptised. Russia had a burgeoning textile industry which relied on the import of machinery from England and the provision of a workforce with the skills to, not only, construct and install the equipment but train the Russian workforce. It appears that John, his wife and four small children made the journey to St Petersburg; adapting to Russian life must have been very hard for the family. In 1866 Russia had an outbreak of cholera which killed ninety thousand, probably among them was Jerusha and her youngest son, John.
Another son was born in St Petersburg in 1868, John William, who was baptised at the Bridge Street Chapel in August 1871, the family residence is recorded as Russia. Three years later, Sarah’s father married Elizabeth Berry. John and his wife may have returned to Russia as their son is at boarding school at the time of the 1881 census. Seven years later Sarah’s father died.
The first time Sarah appears on a census return is 1891, by which time both of her sisters had married. Sarah joined the Wesleyan Methodist Sisterhood which in a newspaper article assured an interested women that no vows were imposed only an undertaking to give three months’ notice of any intention to quit so ‘the work may not suffer.’ The women wore a plain grey suit described as of ‘a peculiar cut’ spending their time caring for the sick, aiding the poor or teaching children. Sarah left and by the time of the 1891 census return is living with Hilda Tindall in Marylebone part of a worker’s dressmaking cooperative.
From 1893 to 1896 Sarah trained as a nurse at Great Ormand Street. The 1901 census records Sarah, living in Caterham caring for five children under three in her home for illegitimate babies. Later, Sarah worked as a nurse at the Passmore Edwards Settlement. Founded in 1897 and based at 36-37 Tavistock Square, adjacent to Great Ormand Street which is probably how Sarah became aware of their work, the settlement provided adult education, provision for children while parents worked or help with invalid children. It is, today, more widely known as the Mary Ward centre. In 1903 a visitor to the settlement wrote of a visit to the Invalid School at dinner time: ‘Nurse Carwin … kept order and moved from diner to diner, encouraging delicate appetites and looking after things from the medical point of view’. The children were collected in a ‘roomy ambulance’ under the care of Sarah. Twice a day Sarah and the driver made three journeys to Somers Town, Clerkenwell and Soho to collect and return the children.
Sarah was first arrested during February 1912 along with twenty -eight others including Emmeline Pethick Lawrence. A group had attempted to present the Prime Minister, Asquith, with a petition at the House of Commons. Sarah was charged with obstruction. In the witness box she gave a lengthy speech which garnered a round of applause from the public gathered to witness the trial. Sarah commented that ‘the duty of the police was to protect the weak against the strong, but they were now engaged in protecting the strong man, Mr Asquith, against the weak women.’ Found guilty, Sarah refused to find sureties and was sentenced to one month in Holloway Prison. In an interview for Votes for Women, Sarah commented that she ‘was roused to take militant action on hearing of Mrs Pethick Lawrence’s determination to go to the House of Commons.’
The authorities found themselves in a quandary. The women were clearly anticipating the same treatment as Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst had received before them making requests for a newspaper, visits, or exercise with each other. The request for a newspaper was declined. A letter on file accepts that the Pankhurst were granted this privilege, but it was ‘very exceptional circumstances’. It continues ‘there are not the same exceptional reasons in the present case; and having regard … to the inadvisability of allowing such very special privileges … I do not think I ought to repeat the permission’. On another page there is a handwritten note ‘It was allowed to the Pankhursts only on special medical grounds’. The Governor of Holloway wrote requesting guidance on the question of exercise as ‘it will be remembered … that the prisoners Pankhurst [were] … allowed to exercise together without any restriction as to talking’. A report considering the letter is robust ‘To accede to it or any part of it would … at the root of prison discipline and lead to endless trouble in the future…. The case of the Pankhursts was exceptional and easily be distinguished’. The writer reasons that the Pankhursts were related, and Emmeline was ill.
Sarah was released along with others on 26 March. A crowd greeted the prisoners dressed predominately in suffragette colours, seven ‘draped and decorated’ carriages and a band, who as the women stepped through the small door in the prison gates, struck up the Marseillaise. A procession formed headed by Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney followed by the band, four women representing each country of the United Kingdom, nine women riders on white horses and then the carriages. They wended their way from Holloway to High Holborn to the Inns of Court Hotel for breakfast. In the evening, the WSPU held a celebratory dinner at the same venue. Sarah informed the assembled company that while in prison she had written ‘Glorious Christabel’ on every spoon she could.
Sarah returned to the fray soon afterwards. During a demonstration, a policeman knocked Sarah to the ground. William Hutcheon came to her rescue and was himself arrested and charged with assault. Called as a defence witness Sarah testified that, perhaps, she had been knocked down by accident but either way William had assisted her by pushing the policeman away. The magistrate ruled that Sarah had contradicted William ordering him to be bound over to keep the peace.
Sarah was arrested for a second time at the end of June, again in connection with a demonstration outside the Houses of Parliament. In a report in Votes for Women, 2 July 1909, Sarah, now living in Letchworth, commented that after twenty years working with women and children she knew ‘how necessary it is that women should have the freedom to deal with social conditions’. Alongside Sarah, charged with damage to property for window smashing at the Board of Trade, were co-defendants Mary Allen, Eugenie Bouvier, and Kathleen Brown [see earlier blogs]. Sarah informed the court that ‘apparently women had no other means of getting political redress except by violence. It seemed to be the only language politicians could understand. In the past men had always had to resort to violence to gain their ends’. Sentenced to one month in prison, Sarah, whose conduct in prison was described as bad, petitioned, as a political prisoner, to be placed in the First Division and granted privileges in accordance with her status until this occurred, she would not abide by prison rules. The authorities declined her request: Sarah’s actions were ‘a political offence in the same sense that the assassination of … Lord Frederick Cavendish was a political offence – less reprehensible morally but more dangerous to society’.
When the prisoners arrived at Holloway, they collectively refused to wear prison clothes or be medically examined. Most, including Sarah, broke the windows in their cells – in part as a protest about the poor ventilation. In response the visiting magistrates convened a meeting to consider the women’s behaviour. Although only one is named specifically it appears that Sarah was among them as, on her release from prison, the press reported her time in solitary confinement – the punishment handed out by the magistrates. The women were charged with gross misconduct. As well as refusing to conform and smashing cell windows the women were disorderly, singing and shouting. A room close to Holloway Prison had been secured from where fellow suffragettes used a megaphone to communicate with the inmates. Tried separately; ‘all admitted the charges and gloried in their offences’. No one undertook to conform. In solitary for six days, Sarah refused food. She was released on 20 July. In September Emmeline Pankhurst sent to Sarah a gold badge decorated with flint; the accompanying letter read ‘This is in memory of the flinty message you sent through the Government windows on 29 June’.
Their refusal to take sustenance led to the consideration of force-feeding a process, thus far, metered out to ‘lunatics and weak-minded persons’. While it was considered that starvation and early release on health grounds actually constituted a more severe sentence than serving the full term the fear that this policy would release prisoners to offend again led to the adoption of force-feeding. Sarah was not active within the WSPU on a day-to-day basis preferring to join demonstrations and protests. Not unsurprisingly Sarah is not recorded on the 1911 census. She was next arrested for breaking a window at Black Rod’s residence valued at 1 shilling and 6 pence. She was discharged. Again, she was arrested for her part in Black Friday when the charges were dropped. Sarah gave an account of her experiences in the report prepared by Henry Brailsford and Jessie Murray. Present of the 18th and 20th of November Sarah did not receive any serious injury although her ‘arms were twisted backwards, and she was ‘crushed and banged about’. She pointed out that she had heard remarks by a policeman that ‘should only be applied to brood mares’ and had witnessed Mrs Cobden Sanderson being knocked down.
During March the following year Sarah was arrested and charged with breaking nine windows at four different premises valued in to total at £81, the press deemed her ‘one of the most successful of that night’s raiders’. In court Sarah said she ‘would like to repudiate the charge that the women were dupes in this matter. She was not the dupe of anyone. What she did was done with the firm conviction that there was need for such action’. Found guilty, she was sentenced to six months. Due to the number of prisoners some, including Sarah, were sent to Winson Green in Birmingham. One report states Sarah, refusing food, was suffering from nervous debility, weight loss and her condition was fair. Her probable date of release was 20 August but she was actually freed on June 25 when she was provided with a taxi to the station and a train ticket to Euston. Both Violet Aitken and Winifred Bray (see earlier blog) were released at the same time. Votes for Women, July 12 1912, included an article headed in bold capital letters The Roll of Honour beneath which was a quote for Reginald Mckenna, the Home Secretary: ‘It is impossible to allow any prisoner to determine the length of his own sentenced by setting him at liberty if he chooses to refuse food for a few days.’ Under his words it reads ‘This statement has been refuted by the following list of prisoners, all of whom have been released before the expiry of their sentences, in consequence of the hunger strike. It is a powerful message.
Sarah was one of five women brought before the court following a disturbance at a hearing the previous day. In the dock Sarah ‘kept up a running commentary during the evidence’. She was ordered to be bound over to keep the peace. She left the dock still protesting. This prosecution does not appear on the amnesty record.
Sarah died in Kent in 1933. Frances Unwin, an artist, was her executor and wrote a short biography of Sarah now held by the Museum of London. Diane Atkinson in Rise up Women: The Remarkable Lives of the Suffragettes writes that Sarah lived in the countryside with a friend to whom she was ‘devotedly attached’. After her friend died, Sarah lived in France and Italy before settling in Kent. Frances wrote ‘she spared herself nothing in the pursuit of her ideals … a few weeks before her death she said that if she could choose any part of her life to live over again she would choose the part she had devoted to the suffrage. It had seemed the most worthwhile’.