Suffragette: Constance Bryer
Constance Bryer was arrested for the first time on 29 June 1909. Under the auspices of the WSPU an attempt was made to approach the House of Commons to speak to the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith. It was estimated that over three thousand police were drafted in to secure the area. One newspaper describes the phalanx of police ‘as far north as the War Office in Whitehall, the south side of Westminster Bridge, the top of Victoria Street and the gates of St James’s Park’. The women gathered at Caxton Hall, where behind the speaker’s platform hung banners ‘Come on, Brave Soldiers’ and ‘Doubt not of the day’. Nine women including Emmeline Pankhurst and Emmeline Pethick Lawrence made up the deputation intent on conveying to the Prime Minister a resolution demanding Votes for Women.
While the police gave free passage to the deputation; the followers access was barred. One woman caused quite a stir by leaving Caxton Hall mounted on a horse sporting the WSPU colours. When Emmeline Pankhurst reached the door at the St Stephen’s entrance to the Houses of Parliament, she was handed an envelope inside which was a letter from Asquith stating he was unable to receive the deputation. The nine women refused to leave and were arrested. The following crowd repeatedly tried to approach Parliament Square, but the police attempted to move them towards Trafalgar Square. In the ensuing melee several windows were broken. Around one hundred people were arrested among them Constance who was described in Votes for Women as ‘always been a rebel against the unfair conditions of women’s life’. In an interview, after her arrest, Constance said of herself ‘not a bit of pluck’. The charges against her were discharged.
Constance Elizabeth was born in 1870, the daughter of Thomas, a bullion merchant, and Elizabeth. Baptised at St George’s Church, Tufnell Park, the family lived, at the time, at 2 Shaftesbury Villas, Hornsey Rise, a short walk away. Constance, a talented musician, was the eldest daughter preceded by a brother, Edgar of a family of nine children, eight of whom survived to adulthood. By 1901, the family were living in a substantial house, 30 Avenue Road, on the edges of Crouch End, north London. Ten years later, they had moved to 49 Tufnell Park Road, only a few miles away.
Constance’s father, Thomas, had joined his father’s, John, firm of watchmakers. During the 1870s John acquired a business refining and smelting gold and silver based at 53-54 the Barbican which he ran alongside a business making chronometers and watches. After his death, his three sons including Thomas continued. They rebuilt the premises in 1900 adorning it with a frieze depicting the process of gold refining which is preserved to this day. Thomas’s attitude or the census enumerator’s approach is reflected in both the 1901 and 1911 returns which lists the sons of the family first regardless of age and then the daughters.
Constance was charged with obstruction for her part in Black Friday but as with all the other participators the charges were dropped. She gave an account to Henry Brailsford and Jennie Murray. Constance described her injuries as ‘principally bruises on the arms, although I was knocked about all over really. The only remaining injury is a knock or strain on the shoulder, which seems to get no better’. She had intervened in Downing Street by pulling on a policeman’s belt ‘to relieve’ an arrested woman who was being taken ‘away with great unnecessary roughness’. Constance believed violence would not have ensued if the police had not deployed plain clothes officers misleading wearing Men’s League badges which she described as ‘an unspeakable act of meanness and treachery’.
Constance became secretary of the North Islington branch of the WSPU in December 1910 with many of the meetings hosted at her home. Some gatherings were held in the St Mark’s vicarage garden in Tollington Park, north London as guest of Reverend Finlay Green and his wife. Finlay went on to be the editor of the journal, Church League for Women’s Suffrage, first published in 1912 by the League of the same name. During November 1911, Constance was arrested and found guilty of breaking a window at a Local Government Office. She was fined five shillings or five days in prison. Charged and convicted alongside Mrs Eleanor Adams (see earlier blog) Constance said in court that ‘she did it because it was the only thing the Government understood’.
Early in 1912 the North Islington branch acquired premises at 19 St Thomas’s Road, Finsbury Park. Thanks are given in Votes for Women to the people who had helped to make the office habitable by providing a table, oil stove and curtains. Another benefactor pledged a shilling a week towards the rent. The article closes with a plea for more furniture and books for a proposed lending library. The following month Constance was sentenced to four months in prison alongside women discussed in earlier blogs such as Violet Aitken, Dorothy Bowker, Grace Branson, and Louise Archibald for maliciously damaging a window valued at £15 and another the property of the Raoul Shoe Company worth £30, both in Regent Street. Due to the sheer volume of women some, including Constance, were sent to Winson Green prison in Birmingham. Constance was allocated to Division III.
A report in the official files notes that Winston Churchill, the Home Secretary from February 1910, had instructed that ‘there was to be no squeamishness’ as to commencing force feeding which should be started after an examination by a medical officer to determine if the prisoner was deemed sufficiently fit to cope with the procedure. Churchill had suggested that force feeding should be commenced twenty-four hours after food had first been refused. However, it was pointed out that the procedure had to take place if it was decided it was a medical necessity and therefore it was for the medical officer to deem when the need for intervention arose. By 25 June twenty-two women at Winson Green were being force fed: sixteen with a tube; six with a cup, voluntarily or semi-voluntarily. Across four prisons including Brixton, where one male supporter was jailed, a total of fifty-seven were being fed by force including Constance although the files do not contain any specific details.
The issues of having suffragette prisoners foisted upon them is highlighted by the Visiting Committee at Winson Green which raised concerns at the presence of the women moved from London. The prison did not lend itself to being able to segregate the suffragettes from other women prisoners. The Committee observed that ‘with the suffragettes the discipline has been so relaxed, that only detention has been secured … the Suffragettes have been allowed to conduct themselves as they pleased, and this in the sight of other prisoners’. This, they felt, was ‘likely to create a feeling of discontent’ among the ordinary prisoners. Constance formed a lifelong friendship with Olive Wharry while in Winson Green who, on her death in 1948, bequeathed to Constance her hunger strike medal and a monetary annuity.
In 2012 an autograph book came up for sale in which, on 2 May 1912 while in prison, Constance wrote:
Suffragettes we sit & sew
Sew &sit & sit & sew
Twenty-five are we
Making shirts & socks for men
Cannot get away from them
Even here you see
Constance was released on June 29 1912. The picture below depicts Constance and Eleanor in the garden of St Mark’s vicarage. On the back is written ‘Miss Adams and Miss Constance Bryer’ after their release from Prison’. The two women lived close to each other in north London. The photograph is taken in the summer probably in July 1912.
Constance continued her work as secretary of the North Islington Branch which intended to stage weekly meetings outside Holloway Prison. Eighteen months later, in January 1914 Constance resigned as secretary but remained a member of the North Islington branch. Constance appeared in the newspapers for a matter unrelated to suffragette activities. A man was charged with committing a burglary at Constance’s family home. He had gained entry through the scullery window which Constance believed the burglar had broken the week before. The Magistrate questioned Constance as to whether she had actually seen the burglar break the window: ‘When was the window broken woman?’ Constance declined to respond to such a rudely worded question observing ‘You are very rude to me’. When the accused’s mother pleaded for clemency, she claimed her son had been influenced by suffragettes who lived in the same house as him. The women, his mother claimed, had declared ‘that capitalists were withholding [their] rights’ and had incited him to commit a crime. Interviewed by a medical officer at Brixton prison the defendant had stated that the suffragists had told him he ‘could take what [he] liked except human life’.
Constance, through her friendship with Finlay Green, was a member of the Church League for Women’s Suffrage. During the First World War Constance worked in Home Defence and munitions. Constance died in 1952 still living in the same area of London.
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