Louie Cullen—part three

Louie Cullen—part three
The last of the suffragettes
1 July 2016

This is the third and final part of a series on the life of Louie Cullen, English suffragette and emigrant to Australia, revealed through material held in the collections of the National Library. 

Two earlier blogs, a life forgotten and life in Australia looked at Louie's early suffragette activism in England, and the continuation of her activities once in Australia. I now take a look at the final years of her life and try to answer the question ‘I wonder what happened to her?’. 

Later life

A quick search of online Electoral Rolls for 1958 (available on Ancestry) show that Louie, presumably in ill health, moved from her home in Lidcombe to a nursing home in Hammondville.

Trove was now of little use in revealing the trail of Louie's life, as digitised coverage of Australian newspapers largely ceases in 1954. I turned to printed and manuscript collections for clues.  

The remaining part of Louie’s life was filled in by references provided in the manuscript collection of Bessie Rischbieth.

A check of the index to the papers of Bessie showed that she had had some correspondence with Louie. These references, although unrevealing in themselves, were invaluable, as her correspondence referred to articles about Louie which appeared in People and Woman’s Day

Finding these articles without the aid of digitisation or online indexes, and allowing for the fading memory of an elderly woman, involved patient searching through years of print and microfilm. However, finally they were found. Two articles both titled ‘The last of the suffragettes’ (People January 23 1957 pp 13-15 and Woman’s Day August 25, 1958 pp 8-9, September 1, pp 8,84) outline the entire span of Louie’s life in her own words.

Here she told us of her early years, her militant activities and imprisonment in England, her emigration with her husband to Australia for health reasons, and her continuation of the championship of women’s rights in Australia. Sadly, she also notes the death shortly after she arrived in Australia of an adopted child. This could explain her continued attachment to supporting the rights of children.

Louisa Cullen holding illuminated address  1958, Papers and objects of Bessie Rischbieth MS 2004/3/312, nla.obj-250831564

The articles also reveal that even at the age of 80 she was engaged in a battle with authority. In this case a battle to leave her old home in Lidcombe, in defiance of the law, to the Children’s Library and Crafts Movement for use as a centre for the education and support of children.

Connection to the National Library

The manuscript letters between Louie and Bessie Rischbieth are important not just for those invaluable biographical articles, but also because they reveal her awareness of the importance of the souvenirs she has retained from her early suffragette life, and her concern that they are placed in a suitable repository before her own death.

Bessie, who was also involved in finding a suitable home for her own records (ultimately the National Library of Australia) recommended that Louie send her own mementoes there.  

On this advice, Louie offered her material to the Library. She also appears to have sent some items directly to Bessie where they became included in her own collection. By various means, eventually this small treasure trove of material recording the life of a most unquiet lady, came to the Library. Items held include the Holloway Prison badge, her ‘Votes for women’ sash, an illuminated address, photos, postcards and newspaper clippings.

Sash with inscription 'Votes for Women'

 Sash with inscription: Votes for women  1913, nla.obj-135770450

Death and final wishes

Shortly after the articles in Woman’s Day and People appeared, on 24 July 1960 Louie died.   

From the sources I have checked, her passing appears to have gone unnoticed in Australia. A check of funeral and death notices in the Sydney Morning Herald and Daily Telegraph after her death has been unsuccessful, as was a search of the free Ryerson index to deaths which covers many Sydney papers of this period.

Possibly this quiet passing was her intention, as with no family in Australia there were few left who knew her history. To the Woman’s Day she had expressed a wish that after her death her body be left to the School of Anatomy.

Fittingly however, her death did get noted internationally. The Singapore Free Press referred to her as a:

...pioneer of the British suffragette movement, who once led a group of women which stormed the House of Commons...

The London Daily Telegraph (30 July 1960) referred to her as a ‘Pioneer of (the) Suffragette movement…’

Success in her last battle to leave her home to whomever she wished was confirmed by a check of the Report and financial statement of the Children’s Library and Craft Movement for 1960-61: ‘The late Mrs Louie Cullen, an original suffragette, willed her cottage at Lidcombe to the (Children’s Library and Crafts) Movement for use as a Children’s Centre’. 

In one of her last interviews she noted that after her passing she would ‘like the newspapers to know, in the hope that coming young folk will remember how some freedoms are bought.’ Although it has been almost 50 years since her death, hopefully through this blog series the life of this militant suffragette has been remembered and her sacrifices acknowledged. 

Our women's suffrage appeal

Help uncover more stories like Louie's by contributing to our women's suffrage appeal. All funds raised will go towards preserving, digitising and improving access to our collection of women's suffrage material. Donate online, or phone the Development Office on 02 6262 1336 for more information. All donations over $2 are tax-deductable.

Dear Helen This has been a wonderful series - thankyou!
A great series, Helen! I've enjoyed coming back to it a few times as I've worked with the Bessie Rischbieth collection, and traced the documentation trail of Louie's offerings to Bessie. As you've shown, Louie contributed some particularly powerful items to the collection that gave insight into her experience of imprisonment, but also the beautiful material culture that was exchanged among the suffragettes in recognition of their sacrifices. We're lucky to have these treasures to remember them by!