Bessie Rischbieth's letters: Part 1

Bessie Rischbieth's letters: Part 1
The process of creating better access to collections on Women’s Suffrage
17 May 2017

“My dear dear Olive,”…

MS 2004/1/7

Image: A snippet of Bessie's letter to her sister Olive Evans, dated 23 May, 1913. (MS 2004/1/7)

This is one of a few existing letters from Bessie Rischbieth’s 1913 trip to the UK, where she was brushing shoulders with the women of the British suffrage movement, and beginning to establish a network of activist contacts that would eventually span the globe. 

Bessie was a prominent Western Australian women’s rights activist. While staying in the UK with her husband Henry, she pursued a rather full schedule of attending lectures and gatherings on topics of interest.

As the times required, Bessie was also devoted letter writer, and kept in regular contact with her sister Olive Evans. As a witness to some of the suffragette movement in Great Britain, Bessie had much to write home about.

In May 1913 she attended a speaking event by renowned speaker Charlotte Perkins Gilman at the London Pavilion, where Perkins Gilman was a guest of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). Bessie described Charlotte Perkins Gilman as:

“a marvel of logic and interest… She is a great humanitarian in her views and speaks along her own line of study, the “biological”, showing how we have erred in emphasising sex, as we have made women economically dependent on man.”

As Bessie recounted to Olive, the theatre was “pretty well crammed!” She wrote:

“The meet was arranged by [the WSPU] & there was a host of banners from many of their branches upheld by women dressed in white on the platform. So I thought oh this is alright!”

However, Bessie’s letter to Olive also touches on the popular idea that British press were printing false information about the Suffragettes and their deeds. Bessie wrote that contrary to her own observation of a full and enthusiastic crowd, the weekly paper reports that the Pavilion was “half-full & at no times was there any enthusiasm…” and includes “no mention of Mrs Gilman at all, one of America’s leading speakers & scientists”. She explores this matter in greater detail in a letter to Anna Donnelly, a close family friend (MS 2004/1/6).

Bessie's 1913 correspondence reveals her to be an avid and sympathetic observer of the militant suffrage movement, albeit from a careful distance. She was present in the UK when the “Cat and Mouse Act” was in play, and commented to Olive that W.S.P.U. leader Emmaline Pankhurst was seen to be in a fragile condition following a hunger strike and period of recovery in hospital, but was nevertheless arrested again upon her release from hospital (see MS 2004/1/8).

Cat and Mouse poster

Image: W.S.P.U. propaganda poster against the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill Health) Act 1913, also known as the Cat and Mouse Act. (MS 2004/3/251)

While Bessie did not pursue militant means in her own work - rather, she built relationships with influential figures of government and her network of contacts using persuasive argument and diplomacy - she was nevertheless deeply inspired by the militant suffragettes and their gutsy tactics.

Her collection reveals that she followed the actions of these women closely through the press and correspondence, and took great pride in collecting and exhibiting mementos of and from the women. The collection also includes many portraits of suffragettes and postcards, several police arrest notes, and examples of the cherished medals, china, and even an embroidered tablecloth that were exchanged amongst the militant suffragettes in commemoration of the sacrifices that their methods entailed. Many of these have been lovingly attached to an “exhibit” label – part of Bessie’s vision to create a museum devoted to these women.

Image: Two iterations of exhibit labels for the “militant section”. (Top MS 2004/3/63; bottom MS 2004/3/66)

But Bessie’s correspondence with Olive is particularly special in that these letters between sisters give insight into Bessie’s personality.

When Bessie received news of the arrival of a baby girl within the family, Bessie and Olive refer to her only as the "little suffragette". It is telling of the warm relationship between the sisters, but also their shared interest in the advancement of women’s rights that they could share this little joke. It is clear from Bessie’s letters to Olive (unfortunately few of Olive’s letters to Bessie are held in this collection) that Bessie valued the advice of her sister, and relied on Olive to keep matters on various peoples’ agendas, and to assist with administrative and editorial matters for The Dawn newspaper during her long overseas absences.

So many of her sign-off remarks reveal the deep affection she held for her family and the network of peers she worked closely with.

“…Your loving sister Bess”

Creating access to women’s suffrage materials

This powerful little letter, from Bessie to her sister Olive in May 1913, demonstrates the kind of treatment that Bessie’s collection can receive, thanks to the generous donations to the Library’s 2016 Tax Time Appeal.

The Suffrage Collection project brings together the work of Pictures and Manuscripts staff, with colleagues in Preservation Services, and Digitisation and Photography. It is fair to say we have all found ourselves a little in awe of the contents of Bessie’s collection, which is the main focus of the project.

Because we love this letter so much, we were keen to share our different perspectives on its treatment. Below, you’ll see inside the Finding Aid (descriptive) work. In Part 2, you’ll learn about one of the preservation challenges with this collection of letters. In Part 3, you’ll see into the digitisation process of this precious item. 

Finding Aid

The project is managed by the Pictures and Manuscripts Branch because collection stewardship is the responsibility of the collection area. One of our key goals is enhancing access to the collection.

An important outcome is the delivery of an enhanced Finding Aid, which assists researchers to locate useful resources within a collection. As the Project Officer, I’ve had the incredible pleasure of undertaking the descriptive work on this collection, including additional research to establish its provenance and context.

Image: The desk of an archivist, also known as Fortress Rischbieth.

We use an application called ArchivesSpace to manage archival collections, including creating descriptive information about a collection’s contents, from which we can generate a Finding Aid that can be viewed online.

Image: A view of the ArchivesSpace working environment showing Series 1 of MS 2004.

This is a necessary step for digitisation of a collection of personal papers, as it also creates a meaningful structure that digital images can be uploaded against. For example, for a folder of materials (such as correspondence), the description created in ArchivesSpace is exported to the digital image database where the digital images of the correspondence are stored. These elements then come together in the Trove delivery environment, where the images of the pages of correspondence can be viewed below the folder title/description.

In effect, we can now deliver a digital experience that is similar to browsing through a file of papers. See the “work in progress” finding aid here: MS 2004.

Image: A glimpse of the Guide to the Papers of Bessie Rischbieth with digitised images appearing.

Prior to digitisation, however, some of these letters required some work by our Preservation team, and so Part 2 of this blog investigates the cause of "lacing" (holes) that were seen in some of Bessie's letters. 

The Suffrage Project has been made possible by donations from National Library Patrons and Supporters.

Thank you for interesting blog that relates to militant Bessie. Very interesting to learn about behind the scene set up.
Thank you for interesting blog that relates to militant Bessie. Very interesting to learn about behind the scene set up.
Lisa Thankyou for a really interesting description of this collection. I especially liked the technical details about the use of ArchivesSpace for entering item details and the way images and descriptions are linked to inform the online Finding Aid. Many thanks
A really great blog Lisa. I'm learning more about the Suffrage movement now.