Mrs Pankhurst's trophies

Mrs Pankhurst's trophies
Designing the material culture of the suffrage movement
22 February 2017

Work is underway to provide improved access to the suffrage material in the Bessie Rischbieth collection, a project made possible by very generous donors to the 2016 tax time appeal. It is a multi-faceted approach to improving access – delivering an enhanced finding aid, selective preservation treatment, and digitisation of a portion of the collection. All of these stages are works-in-progress, so until then, you can sample some of the highlights of the collection via a few existing images, supplemented, unfortunately, by my own amateur photography. I look forward to revealing the fine work of our Digitisation and Photography team down the track.

The material culture of the suffrage movement was collected to a small degree by Bessie Rischbieth as she assembled her collection on women’s suffrage and other campaigns for women’s rights with the help of her vast network of activist peers.

Useful, wearable, or collectible memorabilia was an effective way for women’s suffrage campaigns to raise awareness of their cause, encourage women to identify with the cause, and to fundraise in support of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). Items were also exchanged as gifts across the vast network of organisational alliances as women travelled to participate in conferences and congresses. Some items were specially produced in limited numbers as honours bestowed upon those who had contributed significantly to the cause. 

Even this small collection gathered by Bessie reveals creativity, powerful symbolism, skilled design and/or craftsmanship, and other social values inherent in the small economy of campaign memorabilia.

As a result of working closely with Bessie’s collection, I am rediscovering links between some of the objects in the collection and the letters that describe their provenance and symbolism. The following examples all celebrate the activities of the WSPU, who were known as the militant “suffragettes” in the UK. Certain women over 30 achieved voting rights in the UK in 1918, and the vote was extended to all women over 21 in 1928. By that time, UK women had spent decades campaigning for their enfranchisement.

Letitia Withall’s Hunger Strike Medal

The Library holds the medal presented to Letitia Withall (also known by the name Leslie Hall) in recognition of her imprisonment and subsequent hunger strikes. As treatment, or more likely, retribution, for the hunger strikes, many strikers were forcibly fed. This process was painful in itself, but often undertaken with additional force and violence.

Letitia Withall's Hunger Strike Medal

[Hunger strike medal presented to Letitia Withall by the Women's Social & Political Union], #A40006832. Photo: National Library of Australia. 

Withall describes her medal in a 1961 letter to Bessie Rischbieth: “The plain silver bar means an imprisonment but no ‘Hunger-strike’. The coloured bars show the arrival of that form of protest when I managed to carry out, one of many others, as you know.” (MS2004/3/37a). She goes on to write, “One is so proud and glad that she was able to share in that great movement and able to endure those rigours. I was, of course, very ill afterwards.”

Letter from Letitia Withall to Bessie Rischbieth

Letter from Letitia Withall to Bessie Rischbieth, 1961, MS 2004/3/37a. Photos by author.

The back of the Withall’s medal reveals that she was first forcibly fed during a hunger strike on 21 December 1909. Engraving on the back of the enamel bar in the middle tells she was previously force fed on 17 September 1909. The silver bar above it, which is dated “AUG 11TH 1913” on the front, has a faint etching “Cat & Mouse” on the back, suggesting that she again undertook a hunger strike in prison, but was released from prison to recover (usually granted at a point where the women were extremely weakened) and was to be rearrested. This practice of release and recapture was allowed under a law colloquially known as the “Cat and Mouse Act”, named for the way a cat toyed with its prey. 

Rear of medal

Rear detail of [Hunger strike medal presented to Letitia Withall by the Women's Social & Political Union], #A40006832. Photo by author.

Lead-free china

I’ve been investigating a small mystery, which has led me to also discover something interesting (although not surprising) about the far-reaching social consciousness of the suffragettes.

First the mystery. A letter from Louisa C. Cullen, a friend of Miss Basil McLellan (both WSPU suffragettes), advised of the proposed donation to Bessie Rischbieth of Miss McLellan’s plate from a set designed by Sylvia Pankhurst (MS2004/3/33). A later letter from Mary Howard to Bessie Rischbieth reported that Howard has forwarded a bundle of Miss McLellan’s items to Bessie. The letter mentioned the donation of a plate, once part of a set, but missing its tea cup and saucer (in fact, part of a much larger set, the majority of which was returned to Miss McLellan’s sister). The tea set was thought to be “specially made for the big rally”, and “each member was given a set (or purchased one)” (MS2004/3/40b). Bessie notes receipt of this plate, and other items from Mary Howard.

It seemed likely that these letters referred to the iconic tea set designed by Sylvia Pankhurst for the Women’s Exhibition of 1909, with her “angel of freedom” design stamped on each piece. Tea was served with the china at the exhibition, held at Prince’s Skating Rink, Knightsbridge, and sets were sold afterwards to raise funds. The Library holds two examples of this china in the Bessie Rischbieth collection:

[Saucer and plate belonging to Mrs. Pankhurst, presented to Bessie Rischbieth by the Suffragette Fellowship London], [manufactured by] Williamsons, Longton, England, #A40006891. Photo: national Library of Australia. 

Bessie’s own labelling of these items describes them collectively as, “Original cup & saucer belonging to Mrs Pankhursts tea service – Presented to Mrs B.M. Rischbieth by The Suffragette Fellowship London” and “The indefatigable Suffragettes! A plate belonging to that period”, hence our catalogue record for the two pieces of china. Nevertheless, correspondence between Bessie Rischbieth and Stella Newsome, Secretary of the Suffragette Fellowship, clarifies that the smaller saucer was a gift from the Fellowship, and the plate was received earlier from Mrs McLellan (MS2004/3/12 and MS2004/3/13). Bessie often refers to the tea set in her notes as “Mrs Pankhursts original tea set”, likely referring to the leader of the WSPU presiding over the exhibition for which it was designed.

Perhaps more interestingly, the letters from both Louie Cullen and Mary Howard about the plate also mention the belief that the plates were commissioned from a company that would use lead-free glaze, in the interest of protecting the health of the manufacturing workers. Sylvia Pankhurst’s awareness of the use of lead glaze and its dangers for the pottery workers was a subject explored in her work as a painter. The letters from Mrs Cullen and Mrs Howard help to link Pankhurst’s interest in women’s rights and workers’ rights to practical actions that encouraged responsible consumerism. 

A tantalising first-hand account of the 1909 Women’s Exhibition, including the beautiful wares available, and the impressive green-white-and-purple decoration of the Prince’s Rink venue can be found in Votes for Women newspaper, Friday, May 14, 1909, Issue 62, p.657.

Needle book

This needle book “in the colours” was purchased at a fundraising fair noted as being held at the Hyde Park Hotel in 1912. It is handmade from silk ribbon, and has a thin cushion of coarse fabric stitched inside that allows for safe-keeping of needles. Bessie has pinned it to a descriptive label, which she created as part of her exhibit of international suffrage materials, thought to be displayed at select events and gatherings before the collection was given to the Library. The WSPU’s fundraising fairs and bazaars were opportunities to buy all manner of wearable and collectible items.

Needle book

Needle book in the colours of the Women’s Suffrage and Political Union, MS 2004/3/153. Photo by author. 

Whether or not it is the same fair described in Bessie’s label, an article in Votes for Women Friday, August 2, 1912, Issue 230, p.714 gives a call to action to prepare for a Christmas Fair in December:

“How often are we told of the large number of sympathisers who would so gladly work for the Cause, but cannot, for one reason or another, take part in militant action. Here is their chance! … this scheme offers plenty of congenial occupation to needlewomen, embrioderers, lacemakers, bookbinders, makers of children’s clothes, curio collectors, &c., &c., who will thus be able to work for the Cause of Votes for Women in the way that pleases them. It is important that if there is to be a W.S.P.U. Fair of Christmas Presents the presents should be the kind that people really like to receive and not the kind that serve no purpose and give no pleasure.”

It goes without saying that sewing was a useful skill and popular activity in the period in which the suffragettes fought, but it was also manipulated into a tool of communication –articles handstitched with political messages were a medium that could often bypass the scrutiny of male authorities. More on this in another blog, when I can reveal a few items currently receiving some preservation treatment. 

Deep gratitude to Lisa for work thus far ...Bessie's collection is amazing, from the Gandhi ashram fabric, to the Letitia Withall medal re. force feeding & the cat & mouse policy - what those women endured was heroic!, to the Sylvia Pankhurst's angel of freedom lead-free china set - knowing the dangers of lead then, makes me wonder why it's been so long for the general public to catch up with this poisoning of our air, our children, the workers and so on..... so much enjoyed reading about all these matters, and makes me appreciate even more the extraordinary struggles undertaken by women...on their shoulders we stand!
Thank you for the kind words, Jo. The powerful stories and objects within the collection have certainly moved me to shed the occasional sneaky tear.
Letitia, or Letty, was my great Aunt & was a lovely person. She often stayed with us & after my Father died, my Mother went to Broadstairs & stayed with her. She was much loved by my Father as she was a cricket fan & played in our garden!