Sunday, 20 January 2013

The woman who burnt down Tunbridge Wells cricket pavilion

Before doing some clothes shopping yesterday, I slipped into Tunbridge Wells Library and Museum and found myself, magically transported to a hundred years ago, into the minds and lives of women, most of whom lacked the advantages that we enjoy today. I was, accidentally, at the opening day of a superb exhibition "Inspiring Women: Hidden Histories from West Kent".

At the end of the 19th century, women outnumbered men in Tunbridge Wells by 59% to 41%. Many women, those with some inherited money, or widows, had moved to this most 'genteel' place to buy property and to live on income from renting out spare rooms. This gave them financial independence, which was hard to achieve for women before the modern era. It was the pipe dream of working class women, those in service at the bottom of the social scale. Being in service, especially as a scullery maid, was physically exhausting. One started very early in the morning and not finishing until eight in the evening. Legislation to limit the working week to 60 hours with one half day of leave a week was passed only in the early years of the 20th century. Imagine looking forward to your one afternoon off once a week!

An interesting artifact was a 'spoiled' 1911 census form, with words to the effect that 'until women are given recognition as people under the law, we will not be filling in the census return'. The Votes for Women committee tried to persuade all women to refuse to fill in the 1911 census. Clearly, a lot did not obey or the country would have lost valuable 'family records'.

It was not entirely due to women's activism that women eventually got the right to vote in 1917. Women proved their ability to take over men's jobs and to do them just as well if not better than men. It was at the end of The First World War that the British Parliament voted to give women the vote. By then, only 55 male MPs voted against. In view of the intransigence of their own youth and the firmly patriarchal (and, in some cases, anti-feminine) attitudes of their fathers, this was a remarkable but long overdue change of heart.

I was interested to notice in a photo that the first great votes for women rally, in Hyde Park, was attended by as many men, as women. A whole train was hired from Tunbridge Wells to Charing Cross. The all seemed to wear straw boaters (hats) - both men and women.

Surprisingly, in Tunbridge Wells, famous for its conservatism and right-wing respectability, the women were so independent-minded and passionate that a few of them became criminals. In the only act of its kind, feminist activists burnt down the Nevill Cricket Pavilion in Tunbridge Wells as a political act announcing it was a symbol of "male privilege". I have researched this story as follows:

In April 1913 the Nevill Cricket Pavilion, Tunbridge Wells was set fire to by militant suffragettes because the club, like Kent CC, would not admit women. The fire started in the dressing rooms with a woman setting fire to nets and and soon spread to the whole pavilion. It took an hour to extinguish and the pavilion was burned to the ground - as can be seen in the photo here. Outside the charred remains, the female activist(s) had left suffrage literature and a picture of suffragette leader Emily Pankhurst. It is reported that a man had replied that "women were allowed into the club - to make the teas". Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes called the women “hooligans” and compared their rampage to killing "a blind man and his dog". The pavilion was soon rebuilt after much fervent, local fund-raising.  Did the Club then allow all women in, and not just tea ladies? Surely they did.

Incidentally, I am not advocating violent activism and particularly not arson, in any form. I am merely reflecting the desperation that women felt just one hundred years ago and the actions that some were willing to take.

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