UK suffragette records tell amazing stories about the women and men who fought the British government for women’s voting rights a century ago. Nathan Dylan Goodwin, the popular Genealogy Gems Book Club author, shares three of his favorite sources for discovering suffragette stories like the one that unfolds in his new short story, “The Suffragette’s Secret.”
Thanks to Genealogy Gems Book Club author Nathan Dylan Goodwin for contributing this guest blog post.
My new short story, “The Suffragette’s Secret,” features a fictional main character, Grace Emmerson, a suffragette living on the South Coast of England in Brighton. But many of the events and supporting characters described in the story are real. In the story, forensic genealogist Morton Farrier uses real historical documents while working in the modern day to uncover Grace’s suffragette past. Many of these historical records (over 55,000 of them) are now available online in the FindmyPast Suffragette Collection.
Morton and I would recommend spending some time browsing this fascinating collection from a pivotal moment in women’s history. Even if your own ancestors did not make the headlines, they may have been involved at a more local level. And the lives of both women and men in your family may have been affected by suffragette activity, whether or not they are mentioned by name in the records. So it is a collection definitely worth exploring.
UK suffragette records I love
1. Suffragette Amnesty register (HO 45/24665)
With the threat of war and its having become inevitable in August 1914, most of the dominant suffragette organizations, including the Women’s Social and Political Union suspended all militant activity. In response, the British government gave an amnesty to more than one thousand women (and some men) who had been arrested for the cause. Their amnesty records are part of the Findmypast Suffragette Collection and also searchable at Ancestry.com (if your subscription includes UK records).
Alongside the names of those arrested comes the date and court where the charge was originally brought – an excellent starting point for further research.
In “The Suffragette’s Secret,” I referenced the real-life case of Nellie Godfrey. In the Amnesty Register of 1914, her name and references appear thus in the image shown here (the links lead to Google Maps references of the Bow Street magistrate’s court):
Taking the second reference as an example of where this record can lead, this shows that Nellie appeared on the 8th December 1909 before Bolton Magistrate’s Court.
Searching for these criteria in Findmypast’s Suffragette Newspaper Collection brings up the following story: ‘Nellie Godfrey, of London, was charged at Bolton yesterday with throwing a missile at a motor car in which Mr [Winston] Churchill rode to his meeting on Tuesday night, and was fined 40s or seven days. Defendant went to prison. It was stated that the missile thrown was a piece of iron wrapped in a paper bearing the words “Thrown by a woman of England as a protest against the Government’s treatment of political prisoners.”’
For most of these records, further information exists at the National Archives. Prefixing the reference number with HO (for Home Office) and typing it into the document search box (HO 186626) on the National Archives website brings up a link to a document which details Nellie’s arrest and time in prison. (Unfortunately, these records are not yet digitized, but can be ordered.)
2. Calendar of Prisoners
These records, about suffragette prisoners who were tried in the London courts between 1911 and 1914, feature some of the prominent names from the movement, including the famous Pankhursts (one of whom is shown in the Calendar of Prisoners image below):
One record found in Crim 9/58 is that of Emily Wilding Davison, shown here. She was killed when she threw herself under the king’s horse at Epsom on 8th June 1913. Among several interesting details found in a document pertaining to an earlier arrest in December 1911 are to be found the following facts:
Emily Wilding Davison, 36, a tutor, arrested for ‘unlawfully and maliciously placing in a Post Office letter box a dangerous substance likely to injure the same and its contents and attempt to commit like offence.’ She was jailed at Holloway for six months.
This type of militancy, placing dye or some other kind of corrosive liquid into a letter box in order to render the letters inside illegible, was common among suffragettes and an act often making the local newspapers, which can be read about as part of the Suffragette Collection.
Further records for Emily Wilding Davison exist in the FindmyPast Suffragette Collection, including HO 144/1150/210696, which details several of her actions and subsequent convictions.
3. Suffragettes’ Complaints against Police (MEPO 3/203)
During my research for “The Suffragette’s Secret,” I visited the National Archives and accessed the Suffragette’s Complaints against Police, which was then not available online. At 286 pages, “Complaints against Police” provides an illuminating account of how the police handled a large group of suffragettes who had converged on Downing Street, intent on gaining access to the Prime Minister’s (Herbert Asquith) residence. A sample appears here, to the right.
The file includes several accounts from the perspective of the police involved, in which they all strenuously deny any harsh treatment of the women whom they encountered there. In contradiction to this are the numerous and varied statements from men and women involved in the altercation in which physical abuse and violence by the policemen was described as wide-spread, as this statement from the file attests:
‘About 2.15 in Parliament Square PC A.R.82 struck a Women’s Social & Political Union member in the face. At about 2.30 between Parliament Square and Cannon Row, almost opposite Palace Chambers, PC R.R.21 twisted the arm of and shook furiously a lady he had arrested. She was not resisting arrest. During the raid in Downing Street yesterday evening PC 449B got his knee into the middle of one woman’s back and knocked her down. PC 456E afterwards banged the same woman’s head repeatedly against the railings. I can produce my witness at any inquiry.’
This Suffragette Collection from FindmyPast contains a wealth of information useful to genealogists, social historians and those interested in women’s history. Other records available include cabinet papers, the treatment and force-feeding of political prisoners and various actions and imprisonments of the women men and men involved in the fight to gain the ability to vote.
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Last week was the anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Among the amazing women in World War II was a reporter whose story of the bombing of Honolulu was so vivid the editor wouldn’t publish it. She went on to become a spy.
Reporter Betty McIntosh was working for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin on December 7, 1941, when the bombs started falling. Pearl Harbor was the main target–and the one everyone remembers–but the city felt the attack, too. Civilians, including children, were among the casualties.
A week later, Betty wrote an article recounting the recent horrors. Her goal was to warn women what might be coming in other places, now that the U.S. was at war. But her editor killed the article, saying it was too graphic. That’s according to the Washington Post, which finally ran the article, in full, 71 years later.
“For seven ghastly, confused days, we have been at war. To the women of Hawaii, it has meant a total disruption of home life, a sudden acclimation to blackout nights, terrifying rumors, fear of the unknown as planes drone overhead and lorries shriek through the streets.”
That’s just the beginning. She goes on to recount that as soon as she heard the news on the radio that Sunday morning, she reported to work. (Click here to hear a radio broadcast announcement from Honolulu to the mainland, announcing the attack.)
Wikimedia Commons image. Click to view.
She saw the planes diving into the harbor and plumes of black smoke. Then, a nearby rooftop shot into the air.
“For the first time, I felt that numb terror that all of London has known for months. It is the terror of not being able to do anything but fall on your stomach and hope the bomb won’t land on you. It’s the helplessness and terror of sudden visions of a ripping sensation in your back, shrapnel coursing through your chest, total blackness, maybe death.”
(Click here to see images of the London Blitz, and here to see intense images from Pearl Harbor at the Huffington Post website.)
In the article, Betty goes on to describe the destruction to her neighborhood business district, and the chaos at the emergency room which she was assigned to cover. The aftermath wasn’t a calm after the storm, either:
“Sunday after dusk there was the all-night horror of attack in the dark. Sirens shrieking, sharp, crackling police reports and the tension of a city wrapped in fear….Then, in the nightmare of Monday and Tuesday, buy pinworm medication there was the struggle to keep normal when planes zoomed overhead and guns cracked out at an unseen enemy.”
Video Interview: Betty looks back at Pearl Harbor
The Response of Women in WWII
At the end of the article, Betty describes the frantic calls that began pouring in to the newsroom where she worked. They were from women, “wanting to know what they could do during the day, when husbands and brothers were away and there was nothing left but to listen to the radio and imagine that all hell had broken out on another part of the island. It was then that I realized how important women can be in a war-torn world.”
Betty McIntosh, reporter, spy, CIA employee
She ends by saying, “There is a job for every woman in Hawaii to do,” and names the Red Cross, canteens, and evacuation areas as places that needed women’s help. What Betty didn’t name was what she decided to do next: become a spy.
Witnessing the bombing of Honolulu and Pearl Harbor changed Betty, says the Washington Post. She became “restless,” wanting to do something different. So she joined the Office of Strategic Services and used her literary talents and knowledge of Japanese to spread misinformation to the enemy, including to enemy soldiers, to make them want to surrender more easily.
After the war, Betty went on to work for the CIA until she retired. You can read her biography, here. She died at age 100 in 2015.
What a story. What a woman!
“There is a job for every woman in Hawaii to do.” – Betty McIntosh
5 Posts to Help You Put Together Your Own Gripping Family Stories
Did you notice the many different sources threaded through this story? Images, news articles, oral histories, a YouTube interview, a radio broadcast clip? Your own family stories can often be fleshed out with all these different types of media. Click below for inspiring tips and how-tos.
Let’s look at why. But I’ll warn you, the reasons aren’t pretty. In the past, women had very few legal rights. None could vote. Married women had even fewer rights. Typically their legal identity disappeared when they married, enveloped by their husband’s. Married women did not handle legal matters in their own name, own property or keep their own money. Sometimes they did not even have legal liability for their actions. This was known as the legal principle of coverture.
In 1855, a law was enacted establishing that women who weren’t ineligible for other reasons (like race) were automatically made citizens when their husbands were naturalized. There was no extra paperwork or court costs. Their husbands’ papers (in combination with their marriage records) served as proof of the women’s citizenship, even though before 1906, you will not usually find the women’s names even listed on their husbands’ applications.
This represented a step forward for most married women, but not all. If a husband didn’t naturalize, the wife couldn’t naturalize without him. On the flip side, if a U.S.-born woman married a foreigner, she often lost her U.S. citizenship, whether or not she left the country. This problem wasn’t fully resolved until many years later; learn more about the laws and resulting paperwork in this article by the National Archives.
Naturalization laws were not applied evenly, and some women got their citizenship anyway. Eventually, as women won voting rights in various states in the early 1900s, men who applied to naturalize were sometimes denied because their wives, who would be granted citizenship and therefore voting privileges, didn’t speak English or meet other requirements. Men complained that their wives’ nationalities were getting in the way, a problem women had lived with for years!
Check out this interactive timeline on women’s right to vote in the U.S.
In 1922, women gained the right to naturalize independent of marital status. If their husbands were already citizens, they didn’t have to file declarations of intentions (the first step in the paperwork process), just a petition (the second step in the process). Otherwise, they had to fill out both sets of papers. Eventually even this link to their husbands’ citizenship disappeared, and they just filled out their own entirely separate paperwork.
My Great Grandmother’s Petition for Naturalization
What about unmarried women and widows? They could apply for naturalization, but in especially before the 1900s, they sometimes didn’t if they had no property. They could not vote and the law didn’t always treat them equally. They saw little benefit in investing the funds and time in applying for citizenship.
It’s fascinating how much we can learn as family historians about the status of women by the way they were handled in the records we research. The history of women in naturalization records reminds us to look past the paperwork to the reasons and intentions behind it. Unless we really understand the history of the laws and the culture at that time, we can’t be sure that we have exhausted all of the options.