The Hollowayettes

Museum of London

Meet five of the 80 women whose embroidered signatures make up the spectacular Holloway Prisoners' banner...

Holloway Prisoners Banner
One of the most emotive objects in the museum’s Suffragette collection is the WSPU Holloway Prisoners banner.  Designed by Ann Macbeth, head of embroidery at the Glasgow School of Art, the banner includes the embroidered signatures of eighty Suffragette hunger strikers.  

It was originally designed as a traditional friendship quilt. Ann, also a Suffragette, donated the quilt to the WSPU Scottish Exhibition and Bazaar held in Glasgow in 1910 to raise funds for the campaign.

The Votes for Women newspaper described the donation: 'A suffrage linen quilt, with a beautiful design in the colours by the well known artist, Ann Macbeth, and containing the embroidered names of hunger strikers, forms an interesting memento, and will be sold for £10'.

A following entry notes that '...the quilt embroidered with the names - in their own handwriting - of all the hunger strikers... has been bought by one of the leaders, Mrs Pethick Lawrence'.

Converted into a banner it was first publicly revealed in the 'From Prison to Citizenship' procession in June 1910. Carried as part of the Prisoner’s Pageant it made a striking and emotively powerful impression on both spectators and participants.

The banner symbolises the spirit of comradeship that gave Suffragette prisoners the strength and courage to endure hunger strike and force-feeding and ‘face death without flinching’.

But behind this political message lies the highly personal story of 80 individual Suffragettes who each made a unique contribution and sacrifice for the militant votes for women campaign. Here are the stories of five of these Suffragettes.

Mary Leigh (1885-?)
Mary was married to a builder and served her first term of imprisonment in March 1907 for taking part in a deputation to the House of Commons. 

On 30 June 1908, enraged by witnessing 'violence and indecency' inflicted on Suffragettes by the police in Parliament Square, Mary and Edith New went to 10 Downing Street and threw stones at a window.

This was the first act of physical militancy carried out by Suffragettes.

Imprisoned a third time, the same year, for taking part in the rush on the House of Commons, Mary spent more than six months of 1908 in Holloway.

In 1909 Mary became drum-major of the newly formed WSPU drum and fife band.

She continued to undertake militant acts and was repeatedly imprisoned between 1909 and 1912.

In 1909, whilst serving a term of imprisonment in Winson Green, for throwing slates from the roof of a hall in Birmingham in which Prime Minister Asquith was speaking, Mary became one of the first Suffragette hunger strikers to be force-fed.

In July 1912, Mary pursued Asquith to Dublin and set fire to a box at the Theatre Royal.

Sentenced to five years penal servitude for this offence, she was released on a 'ticket of leave' on 21st September only to take part in the WSPU window-smashing campaign in November.

Vera Wentworth (1890-1957)
Born Jessie Spink, Vera previously worked in a shop where she became active in trade unionism. She joined the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1908 and became a member of The Young Hot Bloods: a group of young Suffragettes, fiercely loyal to Emmeline & Christabel Pankhurst.

This secretive group, dedicated to carrying out 'danger duty', met every Saturday at 4.30pm in Alan's Tea Rooms in Oxford Street and were used by the WSPU to lead protests, organise parliamentary demonstrations and harass government ministers.

Vera was imprisoned several times for militancy between 1908 and 1912. In September 1909, together with WSPU colleagues, she harassed the Prime Minister, Asquith, while he was staying in Lympne, Kent for the weekend, even pursuing him to the golf course.

Vera served her last term of imprisonment in 1912 for window smashing. Sentenced to 6 months in Holloway, she again went on hunger strike and was force-fed.

On her release, Vera achieved her ambition of studying at university by leaving London for St Andrews, where she stayed until 1914.

Emily Wilding Davison (1872-1913)
Prior to joining the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1906 Emily had studied at Holloway (now Royal Holloway) college and St Hugh's Hall, Oxford, and worked as a governess and school teacher. In March 1909 she served her first term of imprisonment for taking part in a deputation from Caxton Hall to Parliament.

A committed militant, Emily went to prison seven times for a range of offences, including obstruction, stone throwing, window smashing, and assaulting a man she mistook for the Cabinet Minister David Lloyd George.

In December 1911 Emily initiated a new form of militancy: setting fire to pillar boxes, for which she received her longest prison sentence of six months.

Pillar box work was subsequently adopted as a tactic by other Suffragettes.

On 4 June 1913 Emily ran onto the Epsom racecourse during the Derby, in an attempt to stop the race.

Seriously injured by a horse owned by King George V, she never regained consciousness, and died four days later.

Emily's spectacular funeral procession through the streets of London, organised by the WSPU’s leaders, raised Emily to the status of martyr, and she remains one of the most famous Suffragettes.

Lady Constance Lytton (1869-1923)
Constance joined the WSPU in January 1909 and, just one month later, was sentenced to a month in Holloway for taking part in a deputation. She spent most of her sentence in the hospital ward, aware she was being accorded special treatment due to her aristocratic background and known heart condition.

Arrested a second time in October 1909 for throwing a stone at a car she believed was carrying Lloyd George, Constance returned to prison and immediately went on hunger strike.

On once again being released early she resolved to disguise herself in future as a working class Suffragette.

Whilst working in Liverpool during the WSPU's general election campaign, in January 1910, Constance was arrested using the disguise of a working girl, 'Jane Warton'.

Sentenced to two weeks in prison, with no special privileges, she went on hunger strike and was force-fed.

Constance’s treatment sparked fury within the WSPU. On her release Constance became a paid organiser of the WSPU.

Despite suffering a stroke in 1911, she took part in the window-smashing campaign and returned to Holloway, although she was quickly released after an anonymous benefactor paid her fine.

Following a second stroke in 1912, Constance was unable to resume an active role in the militant campaign.

Elsie Howey (1884-1963)
A close comrade of Vera Wentworth, Elsie Howey was also a member of the Young Hot Bloods. Both girls were referred to affectionately by Mrs Blathwayt as ‘the two Hooligans we know’. Elsie travelled the country as a salaried WSPU Organiser and, in 1910, was arrested in Liverpool with Constance Lytton, disguised as ‘Jane Warton’, for breaking a window of the Governor’s house at Walton Prison. Elsie served six terms of imprisonment for militancy. In 1908 she spent a total of 18 weeks in Holloway. 

In 1912 Elsie served two terms of imprisonment, with hunger strike and force-feeding, for smashing a window in Liberty and setting off a fire alarm.

In a letter written by her mother in 1931, now in the museum’s collection, it was claimed that Elsie required four months medical treatment to recover from force-feeding. 'Her beautiful voice was ruined.'

Elsie also memorably rode a white horse, while dressed as Joan of Arc, beside the coffin of Emily Wilding Davison during her funeral procession through London.

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