For The Forgotten Women Podcasts we were keen to focus on some lesser-known women’s suffrage campaigners. The group researched these women at the Bishopsgate Institute under the guidance of historian Michelle Johansen. I decided to weave the factual information about how some of these women spent the night of the 1911 Census into my drama script.
Among the real people featured or mentioned in my play are:
Agnes Dawson (1873 – 1953) – a constitutional suffragist. The suffragists protested and campaigned by legal and peaceful means. The term ‘suffragette’ was coined by the Daily Mail to describe women who took more direct action, including marching, vandalism, arson, etc. Agnes Dawson was clear that the only militant act she ever undertook was to sit up all night at a friend’s house during Census night 1911.
Agnes Dawson had two sisters – Clara Dawson Follett and Elizabeth Dawson Tidswell. All three were teachers and members of the NUT. By 1917 Agnes was head teacher at Crawford Street Infants’ School in Camberwell, at a time when women teachers were few indeed. She also authored a pamphlet calling for nursery school building in order to assist working-class women. Agnes campaigned for the NUT to support women’s suffrage and equal pay. In 1925 she stood successfully for the London County Council as a Labour Party candidate for North Camberwell, later becoming chair of the powerful Finance and General Purposes sub-committee. She persuaded the leader, Herbert Morrison, to remove the marriage bar on women teachers in 1935.
Decima Moore (11th December 1871 – 18th February 1964) was an English singer and actress who performed as a soprano with the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company. In 1908 she was a founder member of the Actresses’ Franchise League supporting the women’s suffrage movement through plays, readings and lectures.
Dame Ethel Smyth, (22nd April 1858 – 8th May 1944) from Sidcup was an English composer and member of the women’s suffrage movement. Her father, a Major General in the Royal Artillery opposed her making a career in music, but she studied with a private tutor, then attended the Leipzig Conservatory. In 1910 she joined the WSPU and ‘The March Of The Women’, written in 1911 became the anthem of the women’s suffrage movement. In 1912, she, Emmeline Pankhurst and 100 others were arrested for breaking windows. Ethel Smyth served two months in Holloway Prison, where she leant from a window conducting with a toothbrush, as suffragettes marched and sang in the square below.
Marie Lawson was an important figure in the Women’s Freedom League. They formed a census resistance group under the slogan ‘We don’t count; we won’t be counted.’ She was instrumental in organising the event at the Aldwych Skating Rink, featured in my script. The WFL hired the venue for the night, and as she later recalled ‘…we spent the night on roller skates and there was no one to declare us and when we went away in the morning we were very weary, very tired with our roller skating but we felt we had done the government out of so many names on the census resistance.’
Marie Dawson later said of the Aldwych event, ‘It was advertising really’ and the women’s suffrage movement was very sophisticated its use of PR and advertising. The various organisations published posters, newspapers and pamphlets as well as organising headline-grabbing events. At the Bishopsgate Institute we examined artefacts bearing the purple, white and green suffragette branding including a sash, belt and playing cards. We also viewed a WSPU china tea service designed by Sylvia Pankhurst, which also gave me inspiration for my podcast script.