Constance Bray, full name Mary Constance, was born in 1876 to Patrick, an architect, and Mary Auld whose maiden name was Bray. This explains why one official record notes her surname as Bray/Auld. A sister, Winifred, was born in 1879. Their father, Patrick, died in 1889. By 1901 Mary, Constance and Winifred are living in Queen Street in the City of London. Winifred worked as a soprano soloist and violinist who often performed in concerts. While Constance played the piano, both sisters were active supporters of the suffragette movement and lent their musical skills to raise awareness or funds, ‘by playing violin in the street.’
Winifred was the first to be arrested in 1907. She was sentenced to fourteen days in prison for her part in an attempt to gain access to St Stephen’s entrance at the Houses of Parliament. Following her release Winifred, as part of the Willesden and Kensal Rise branch of the WSPU which she, her sister and Louie Cullen founded, addressed a meeting accompanied by Minnie Baldock (see earlier blog). Winifred was heckled during her speech, which was described in the press as ‘amusing’, by shouts of, ‘Woman’s place is in the home’. Minnie interjected, pointing out that many women did not even have a home.
The following year Winifred was arrested for attempting again to enter the House of Commons. Votes for Women, 15 October 1908, included a report from the Evening Standard of a woman found in an underground passage near the House of Commons who, when detected, made a rush for the St Stephen’s entrance. The woman, Votes for Women reported, was Winifred. The initial hearing was adjourned and as Winifred, wearing a Votes for Women sash and a sailor-style hat with a band of suffragette colours left the courtroom she shouted out ‘You shall not have any of my money. I shall go to prison.’ At her trial, Winifred was sentenced to one month.
When Winifred and the twelve women sentenced alongside her were released from Holloway Prison, they were greeted by a large crowd who processed with the women to the Inns of Court, headquarters of the WSPU, for a celebratory breakfast. Winifred recounted to the assembled women a dream she had in prison. Rather than a clergyman in the pulpit, Winifred had dreamt that the Chief Magistrate at Bow Street, Henry Curtis Bennett, who had sentenced her stood in the vicar’s sted reading from the 22nd Psalm ‘As for me, I am a woman and no man.’ All her fellow prisoners were in the congregation and responded ‘Hear, Hear.’ Finding that someone had inscribed the prison cutlery with ‘Votes for Women’ Winifred had added ‘Down with Asquith’ and ‘Long live Christabel’ referring to Christabel Pankhurst.
Constance was first arrested in July 1908 and charged with obstruction in connection with an attempt to enter the Houses of Parliament. She was one of twenty – eight women arrested. At court Constance shouted ‘The police arrested me in the execution of my duty. We demand justice, we demand votes for women.’ Constance was bound over to keep the peace or in the alternative one month in gaol.
When Constance was released along with fourteen other women, they were greeted by a reception committee and taken to Queen’s Hall accompanied by banners and flags for a celebratory breakfast. Each woman received a bouquet of purple and white sweet peas along with purple heather, the suffragette colours. Mrs Pethick Lawrence addressed the crowd expressing the Women’s Social and Political Unions gratitude for their service. Constance addressed the gathering. She reported that the prison chaplain had asked if she was paid to be in prison; a suggestion she ‘repudiated …but said it was an insult, and said so in plain language.’ She showed her notebook which she had used as a diary. At one point it had been removed for inspection. Forwarned Constance had spent several hours erasing her ‘individual impressions of prison life.’ Each cell had the Bible, a Prayer Book, a Hymn Book, and copy of A Healthy Home and How to Keep it which the prisoner wardresses insisted were always kept on the shelf provided and in a specific order. Other books from the library were brought round in a basket. Constance selected Shakespeare’s Plays; the Strand and the Cornhill magazines as well as several novels.
Mary Auld, their mother, who had moved to Willesden, noted on the 1911 census in red ink across the return ‘Taxation without representation is Robbery. If, in this great and glorious nation we do not count on Polling Day. It gives us pain and irritation to count when there is a tax to pay. For these, ‘twill somewhat recompense us not to be counted in the census. Bow Wow!’
Both sisters were arrested in 1912. Constance was charged with wilful damage alongside the Brackenburys. She was sentenced to be bound over or in the alternative one month imprisonment. Winifred was charged with maliciously damaging five windows, the property of the London Stereoscopic & Photographic Company in Regents Street valued at £50. She was sentenced to four months in Holloway Prison. Due to the numbers imprisoned Winifred was transferred to Birmingham Goal. On 27 May Winifred and seventeen other women refused food in protest against the allocation of Emmeline Pankhurst to the second division of prisoners and the denial of the rights of a political prisoner. An inquiry into the treatment of political prisoners, particularly in respect of force-feeding, was demanded. A request that the Home Secretary rebuffed.
In an internal memo it was noted ‘If prisoners refuse to take food so as to endanger health, compulsion becomes necessary.’ Winifred was fed by both gastric and nasal tube which she described as ‘much smaller … but it is fiendishly painful, and the back of the nose swells up from ear to ear, and becomes inflamed, and the pain even extends up the sides of the head to the brain.’ The following year a report was filed which noted that during 1912 102 women held in four prisons were force-fed. Winifred was released on 25 June following a diagnosis of a weak heart coupled with a history of rheumatic fever.
In 2012 the Guardian published an article about a suffragette autograph book which had come up for auction. One of the entries was written by Winifred whilst at Winson Green. Titled Holloway it reads:
The Suffragette who plays to win
Will break a window to get in
The hapless ‘Drunk’ with joy would shout
Could she, by breaking one, get out! (Guardian 6 December 2012)
In July 1914 Mary, their mother, passed away, an announcement was placed in the Suffragette. Constance died the following year and Winifred in 1932.