THE ROCK SISTERS
Dorothea and Madeline Rock were sisters from Ingatestone, Essex who were both active in the suffrage movement. Edith Dorothea Marlet was born in November 1881; her sister Madeline Caron, often known as Caron, was born in May 1884. The two sisters were the only children of Edward, an East India merchant and his wife, Isabella. The family settled at the Red House, a substantial property close, to the railway station providing Edward with easy access to his work in London. It was a comfortable upbringing with a governess, several maids and a children’s nurse accompanied by the usual range of suitable activities for girls of their age and background - running the refreshment stall at a village event for the soldiers of the Essex Regiment serving in South Africa; assisting at a rummage sale or helping out at a fundraiser for the church choir.
Dorothea, at the time, an art student, was prompted to join the WSPU during the campaign for the Chelmsford by-election in 1908, and Caron followed suit. The sisters arranged a ‘very successful’ WSPU meeting in the village; a newspaper article describing Dorothea and Caron as ‘keen supporters of the movement. Caron became a regular feature in Chelmsford on market day selling Votes for Women. During March, the following year, Isabella and her two daughters organised a rummage sale at their home to raise funds for the WSPU. ‘An enthusiastic meeting’ was held in the village during September 1910; its success credited to Dorothea and Madeline’s energy. Everyone in the village turned out; the vicar lent an acetylene lamp which was placed on top of the water pump to illuminate the proceedings and demand was so high the suffrage literature supplied by the WSPU head office ran out. Caron wrote poetry and her first collection; A Legacy and other Poems was published in 1910.
The Conciliation Bill 1910, intended to give a limited number of women the vote, passed the House of Commons in July of that year and it was referred to a committee for fine-tuning. While the Bill was drafted and debated the suffrage movement agreed to refrain from any militant action. Asquith, the Prime Minister, then made it clear he had no intention of supporting the Bill, and it would be shelved. Emmeline Pankhurst led over three hundred women to the House of Commons in protest, which led to the violence which has become known as Black Friday. Both Dorothea and Caron joined the protest and along with many others were arrested. The charges against all the women were dropped. An investigation by Henry Brailsford and Jessie Murray gathered testimony from the participants at the hands of the police. It has been quoted from extensively in earlier blogs. Paul Foot, in his book the Vote published in 2005 observes that the resultant report provides ‘irrefutable testimony not just of brutality by the police but also of indecent assault’. Winston Churchill, Home Secretary, refuted all the allegations against the police and ‘was at pains to show that whatever injuries and indignities the women suffered, were the outcome of their invitation to all and sundry to assemble and make common cause against the Government. Their sympathisers included undesirable and reckless persons, quite capable of indulging in gross conduct, and for their presence in Parliament Square the women were themselves responsible’.
About a month later one of the sisters and Joan Dugdale were at Victoria station seeing off some friends when they spied Lloyd George. Seizing their opportunity, the two women asked him questions about the progress of the Conciliation Bill and women’s suffrage. Lloyd George refused to answer, and ‘scuttled away with most undignified haste’. A second Conciliation Bill was introduced with some amendments from the first. Many saw this as progress and a positive step; others, such as the WSPU did not. The Women’s Freedom League led a campaign to boycott the 1911 census which received the support of other suffrage groups such as the WSPU and the Tax Resistance League. At a meeting of the Chelmsford Branch of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage, one of the sisters gave a spirited explanation of census resistance arguing that it would show the Government how women ‘would submit no longer to being treated as mere chattels.’ A member of the NUWSS countered arguing that resistance to the census ‘was a destructive, and not a constructive policy.’ She proposed a resolution in support of the Bill and against boycotting the census; it was seconded as ‘The vote was bound to come’. The resolution passed.
The 1911 census was taken on Sunday 2 April. Edward, perhaps, because he did not wish to become embroiled in his daughters’ plans stayed that night at the Great Eastern Hotel by Liverpool Street station. Dorothea wrote across the form: ‘I, Dorothea Rock, in the absence of the male occupier, refuse to fill up this Census paper as, in the eyes of the law, women do not count, neither shall they be counted.’ Someone else, presumably, the enumerator, has noted Mrs Rock, Dorothea, and Caron along with three unnamed servants. The ages of all five occupants are given along with their marital status. The servant’s occupations are noted, but the section is blank for Isabella and NK (not known) is entered for Madeline. Against Dorothea, it records ‘News Vendor News Agency Worker’, a role which may refer to her selling Votes for Women.
During the summer months, the Women’s Freedom League would campaign across various counties using caravans. Towards the end of August, a group pitched the caravan in Ingatestone, ‘a little paradise for suffragettes.’ Each day they were there Dorothea and Caron welcomed them into the Red House for baths and a meal – ‘Mrs Rock and her daughters proved themselves very real friends to the Cause, with their goodness to us, and canvassing their friends to get audiences for us.’ When the caravan moved onto Chelmsford Caron helped them find a suitable pitch, and she, Dorothea and Grace Chappelow, a close friend and fellow WSPU member, lent their assistance at the meetings. The caravan moved on to Witham, and again the sisters gave their support. Grace cycled over twice from Hatfield Peveral to visit. All three brought provisions with them: ‘fruit, honey, home-made jam and cakes, biscuits, bottles of coffee and limejuice; also two baked puddings’.
Early in May 1911, the Conciliation Bill passed with a majority of one hundred and sixty-seven votes. Lloyd George argued against the Bill, as the weeks moved on, as it would enfranchise women of property but not the working-class man. His real reason was though more political than for a desire for universal suffrage. Asquith announced the introduction of a bill to enfranchise men which could be amended to include women. The leaders of the WSPU had lost patience which led to the window-smashing campaign which the sisters joined. Caron was charged with breaking a window at the Board Trade valued at seven shillings and sixpence. She was sentenced to seven days. Dorothea was fined three shillings and ninepence and sent to prison for five days. Their friend, Grace, was fined the same but sentenced to an additional two days. While Votes for Women reported that like Caron, the windows broken were at the Board of Trade the official record is blank.
Dorothea, sometimes accompanied by Grace, was active, during this time, in the campaign in London; selling tickets for events or stepping in to address a meeting when the speaker was delayed. On that occasion, Grace recited The Song of the Shirt, a poem written by Thomas Hood, 1843, about the plight of a widowed seamstress who pawned the clothes she was paid to sew to feed her children. In March 1912 Dorothea, Caron who gave her occupation as poet, Grace and Fanny Pease were charged with breaking windows at the Mansion House in the City of London. When the four arrived at court, they each carried a bunch of violets and primroses. Dorothea spoke in defence for all of them. The magistrate inquired if the women had travelled from Essex ‘purposely for this little prank?’ Dorothea responded: ‘I came up to do my duty’. A policeman had recognised Caron as a regular seller of Votes for Women in the environs of the Mansion House. Describing the four women as ‘either criminals or lunatics’ the magistrate sentenced them to two months in prison with hard labour. By this point, Dorothea had also joined the Church League for Women’s Suffrage. One of the founders in 1909 was Maude Royston, a preacher and suffragist, with whom Dorothea was to become associated.
In July 1912 Emmeline Pankhurst, who was on licence under the Cat and Mouse Act, had failed to return to prison. She attended the Pavilion Theatre, where suffragettes typically gathered each week, for a meeting. Spied by a plainclothes police officer Emmeline was seized. A group of women attempted to confine the officer to the manager’s office, leaving Emmeline free to address the waiting crowd. In a swift response, the police blocked the auditorium, preventing anyone from going to support the group tussling with the officer. Meanwhile, in the office, two policemen tried to maintain their grip on Emmeline. One woman plunged the room into darkness, but the fracas continued with either side trying to either gain or retain control of Emmeline. Eventually, the police succeeded escorting Emmeline to a taxi and back to Holloway Prison. Many of the newspapers carried stories of blood pouring from head wounds, stabbings by hatpin or torn clothing. Six persons were arrested including Caron who, it was reported, had been hit over the head by a stick. She was charged with obstruction. In court, Caron denied any involvement declaring she had been ‘merely engaged in distributing literature’. While one defendant who provided the same explanation was discharged Caron and Maud West were found guilty and sentenced to a fine or twenty-one days in gaol. As Caron was led from the dock, she declared ‘We shall keep no peace until it is peace with honour. How long are we to be the tools of this tyranny? I am not going to keep any peace at any time’.
While in Holloway Prison Dorothea met Zoe Procter, who was serving six weeks. Zoe was a writer, poet, and private secretary. The two became life - long friends. Some of the suffragettes wrote poetry, which was smuggled out, and published in booklet form by the Glasgow Branch of the WSPU. It was entitled Holloway Jingles. Caron contributed Before I came to Holloway and Dorothea is widely believed to be the ‘D R’ of To D R in Holloway by Joan Guthrie. On 4 June 1913, Emily Davison died at Epsom. The WSPU with military precision organised the funeral procession. Dorothea was a group captain of one section of marshals.
Sylvia Pankhurst broke from the WSPU. A member of the Worker’s Socialist Federation for the East of London she founded the Women’s Dreadnought, a newspaper intended to raise awareness of the plight of poor women. Like, Grace, Dorothea made financial donations to the Federation. When war was declared, Christabel Pankhurst suspended the campaign for women’s suffrage instructing the members to focus on the war effort. Many women were dismayed at Christabel’s arbitrary decision. One resultant breakaway group was the Independent WSPU founded in 1916 which Dorothea joined. She signed a letter on behalf of the Independent WSPU calling upon the Government to meet with women’s groups to discuss the proposals to deal with a rise in venereal disease. The following year a proposed clause in the Criminal Law Amendment Bill caused outrage among women’s organisations. Clause III, as drafted, gave the authorities the power to examine women compulsorily. While many of the Committee, considering the proposed legislation felt it was unacceptable; others argued it was ‘a sanitary and curative measure’. At a meeting of the Women’s Freedom League, chaired by Charlotte Despard, Maude seconded a resolution condemning Clause III which went on to be signed by many women’s groups including those campaigning for suffrage. Dorothea was the signatory for the Independent WSPU; Bertha Brewster (see earlier blog) signed for the United Suffragists. Dorothea and Zoe became great admirers of Maude and her work.
Caron turned her focus to her writing, publishing in 1915 a second volume of poetry, Or In The Grass. The Chelmsford Chronicle reviewed her work describing the title as ‘bizarre’ but concluded that the poems ‘contain many charming thoughts clothed in graceful words.’ By 1920 Caron was living at 15 Great Ormond Street. Dorothea and Zoe settled at 81 Beaufort Mansions in Chelsea. At some point, they purchased Shepherds Corner in Beaconsfield; ‘a small period house occupying a uniquely secluded but central position’.
Maude along with Percy Dearmer, a liturgist, and Martin Shaw, a composer and organist, founded the Guildhouse in 1920. Based in a converted chapel in Eccleston Square it was led by an advisory council who saw it as ‘a clearing -house of thought … moral energy and intellectual enthusiasm’; a fresh way to view and consider Anglicanism. It was a venue for ecumenical worship, social enterprise, lectures and entertainment. From 1924 to 1935 speakers ranged from Gandhi to Oswald Mosley: from Julian Huxley to Lloyd George. A troupe of actors, known as the Guildhouse Players, put on, from time to time, theatrical performances. Described in the press as ‘an enthusiastic body’ the players often wrote their own material and made the costumes and scenery. Dorothea and Zoe were involved with the Players from 1926 onwards as actors and writers.
In January of that year, The Story of Tobit adapted from the Apocrypha by Doris Pailthorpe, Dorothea and Zoe was staged at the venue. Mimed in the Medieval style to a reading by Maude; Dorothea and Zoe both had roles. One reviewer observed that mime in such a style involved ‘stiff and formal gestures, with hands constantly pointed upwards.’ Published subsequently as a children’s story a review read: ‘This quaint medieval play requires a reader and several mummers to tell the story of Sars, whose lovers died as soon as she wed them, and of the lover, Tobias, son of Tobit, who broke the curse. ‘..those who are on the look-out for something fresh would do well to secure a copy.’ The following year Zoe joined by Caron performed in a staging of Mary Queen of Scots. Caron published another volume of poetry, that year, On The Tree Top.
In 1928 Dorothea and Zoe performed in The Likes of Her; a year later A Holy Mountain by Dorothea was performed. Another production was a series on one-act plays; one, Two Gentlemen of Soho by A P Herbert, stared Dorothea as the Duchess and Alfred Huxley as a sneak. The performance was preceded by a playlet entitled The Tower written by Dorothea. The fourth play was Symphony in Illusion written by James Wallace Bell in which Caron and Zoe performed. Later, Dorothea broadened her activities, contributing a children’s short story, The Snow People, to the Bobby Bear Club, the thriving junior section of the Daily Herald. The Little Worthing Players performed another play, The Weatherfriend, set in the Austrian Tyrol during January 1933.
The same year, that Caron passed an examination to be awarded the Gold Medal by the Poetry Society. One of her poems was selected for inclusion to be read during a radio program, Pilgrims Way; alongside poets such as Shelley and Tennyson. A founder member of The Galere, a group interested in poetry and music, Caron would, under its auspices, give recitals of poems.
Edward died in 1927. The Red House remained the family home. Both Isabella and Dorothea are recorded as living there in 1939. Madeline, by 1935 had moved to Lamb’s Conduit Street in Bloomsbury. Four years later Caron was living at Russell Court, where she lived for the remainder of her life, describing herself as a poet who also did odd jobs. She died in July 1954 appointing her cousin, Marjorie Potbury, a relative on her mother’s side. Isabella died eleven months after Caron aged ninety – eight at Dorothea’s home in Beaconsfield.
Zoe died in 1962 and Dorothea in 1964.
MR ROBERT W FLETCHER
12/10/2022 04:00:51 am
I am involved in the process of erecting a Blue Plaque for the sisters at Red House, Ingatestone as part of the Essex Women’s Commemoration Project to recognise their work in the WSPU.
12/10/2022 06:45:24 am
Amazing. They deserve recognition. Let us know if we can help.
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