Suffragettes Under Surveillance

Museum of London

How the state used undercover photography to track the most hardcore of militant suffragettes.

Police surveillance
As Suffragette militancy increased, senior figures in the Women’s Social and Political Union came under increasing surveillance by the police. 

Undercover police from the Criminal Investigation Department attended Suffragette meetings, notebook in hand, to record any speeches that could be seen to ‘incite violence.’

These notes were often presented as evidence in conspiracy trials.

Incriminating documents and pamphlets were also seized during police raids of WSPU headquarters.

Undercover photography
The most notorious form of surveillance was the undercover photography of Suffragettes, both in public spaces and in prison. From 1913 a photographer, sitting in a van parked in the yard of Holloway prison, undertook covert images of the most hardened and extreme ‘career’ militants who'd been arrested for criminal damage, arson and bombing. 

The images were compiled into photographic lists of key suspects, used to try and identify and arrest Suffragettes before they could commit militant acts.

This police surveillance was made more challenging because many of the woman used aliases when arrested.

As well as being used by the police, the images were also issued to public organisations at risk of Suffragette attack, such as museums and art galleries.

Posted in the entrance of public buildings, any woman attempting to enter was compared to the images to prevent a potential incident.

The Museum of London holds over 60 surveillance images of Suffragettes, identified by their grainy quality.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the images is that, in many cases, they depict Suffragettes on hunger-strike, the debilitating effects of which are clearly visible.

The militant careers of these hardcore Suffragettes represent the courage and tenacity of the women, but also reveals why the tactics of ‘direct action’ continue to inspire, shock and divide opinion.

Here are the stories of five of the women whose surveillance images are held at the Museum...

Grace Marcon
Grace was the daughter of Canon Marcon of Norwich. In August 1913 she was arrested and charged with obstruction during a scuffle in Whitehall between the police and a group of Suffragettes. This was led by Sylvia Pankhurst, following a demonstration organised by the Free Speech Defence Committee. Although found guilty, Grace did not receive a custodial sentence and was 'bound over' to keep the peace. 

Rearrested in October, on a charge of obstruction and assault, Grace did on this occasion receive a sentence of 2 months in Holloway.

In May 1914, using the alias Frieda Graham, Grace was arrested for damaging five paintings at the National Gallery, including Giovanni Bellini's The Agony in The Garden and Gentile Bellini's Portrait of a Mathematician.

Found guilty at trial, she was sentenced to six-months imprisonment.

Released on 5 June, delirious from her hunger strike, she cut off the long hair seen in her surveillance photograph.

Grace later went to Canada and married the photographer Victor Scholey, who took the original photographs of the Siege of Sidney Street in 1911.

She returned to Norfolk in the 1930s as a single parent, and remained unmarried for the rest of her life.

Kitty Marion
Born Katherina Maria Schafer in Germany, Kitty came to England in 1886 at the age of 15 and soon started touring the country in variety theatre. From 1908, when she became a member of the Women’s Social and Political Union and the Actresses' Franchise League, Kitty combined her life as a militant with that of her music hall career as a 'vocal comedienne.' 

Kitty was arrested multiple times for militancy, the first in June 1909 for taking part in the WSPU deputation to the House of Commons.

She was also sentenced to five terms of imprisonment, her first in October 1909 when she and Dorothy Pethick were sent to prison for throwing a stone at a post office window in Newcastle.

Whilst in prison, Kitty went on hunger strike, was forcibly fed and set fire to her cell.

On her release in December she went on to perform in the Christmas pantomime season.

In March 1912 Kitty took part in the window smashing campaign, using a hammer to smash windows on Regent Street. Because Holloway prison was full, she served a 6 month sentence at Winson Green prison in Birmingham.

Here she is shown being arrested at the National Eisteddfod of Wales in 1912.

In 1913, Kitty and Clare Giveen were found guilty of causing a fire which destroyed the grandstand at Hurst Park racecourse.

The fire, which was one of several that Kitty claimed to be involved with, caused over £7000 worth of damage.

It is also assumed Kitty was responsible for the arson attack on the house of Arthur du Cros, the MP for St. Leonard’s in Sussex, as well as other arson attacks in 1913 and 1914.

During her last spell in Holloway for the grandstand fire, Kitty was released several times under the terms of the Cat and Mouse Act, and force-fed 232 times over a 14 week period.

Faced with deportation to Germany on the outbreak of World War I, Kitty eventually negotiated her passage to the USA, where she lived for the remainder of her life devoted to Margaret Sanger's birth control cause.

Olive Wharry
In December 1911 Olive was arrested for taking part in the WSPU window smashing campaign, and sentenced to two months imprisonment for breaking a window at the offices of the Law Land Company. At her trial she declared that she had never broken the law before, but considered it the duty of every 'self-respecting' woman to take part in the protests.

In March 1913, Olive was charged with setting fire to the tea pavilion in Kew Gardens. On arrest she used the alias Joyce Locke.

Found guilty of arson, Olive was sentenced to 18 months in the second division, for criminal prisoners.

Imprisoned in Holloway, Olive immediately went on hunger-strike and was released after 32 days under the terms of the Cat & Mouse act weighing just over 5½ stone (36kg).

Rachel Peace
In October 1913 Rachel Peace, using the alias Jane Short, was arrested, along with Mary Richardson, for setting fire to an unoccupied home in Hampton, Surrey. At her trial at the Old Bailey in November, Peace referred to the ordeal of the hunger-strike and force feeding she was currently experiencing whilst on remand. 

On hearing this emotional speech that revealed her fragile mental condition, four Suffragettes in the public gallery threw tomatoes and smashed glass in the court, resulting in their own arrest and subsequent imprisonment.

Rachel and Mary (who was absent from the Court trial due to ill health) were both sentenced to 18 months hard labour for the arson.

One month later, Suffragettes concerned about the mental state of Rachel set off a small bomb by the outer wall of Holloway prison in protest.

Mary Richardson
Mary Richardson was first imprisoned in the autumn of 1911 for window smashing. In 1913 she was arrested five times. The first instance was for police assault, which resulted in her being sentenced to two months in Holloway on 8th July. 

She was forcibly fed after hunger striking, and released under the Cat and Mouse Act before being re-arrested for committing a militant act.

This pattern was repeated several times until the 24th October, when she was released from Holloway with symptoms of appendicitis.

On 4th March 1914 Mary Richardson entered the National Gallery and inflicted seven 'wounds' across Velázquez's painting 'The toilet of Venus.'

The painting had only been acquired for the nation in 1906, for the considerable sum of £45,000. The fame, value, and recent acquisition of the painting all helped make this a particularly sensitive attack on a national art treasure.

Richardson's slashes were deliberately aimed at the torso of the nude Venus.

In her defence she declared: ‘I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the Government for destroying Mrs. Pankhurst who is the most beautiful character in modern history…

Justice is an element of beauty as much as colour and outline on canvas… until the public ceases to countenance human destruction, the stones cast against me for the destruction of this picture are each an evidence against them of artistic as well as moral and political humbug and hypocrisy.’

She was sentenced to 6 months in Holloway but, after forcible feeding, was released on the 6th April suffering again from appendicitis.

Richardson was arrested and imprisoned in Holloway twice more, each time being forcibly fed for the duration - between the 20th-25th May, and the 6th June-28th July 1914.

Her appendicitis was so severe after the last imprisonment that she needed to be operated on 2 days after her release.

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