That afternoon’s local derby at Roker Park, and how it would be affected by the gales which had disrupted shipping all week, were no doubt among the big topics of conversation in Heaton on Saturday 8 March 1913. But by the next day all that had changed. It was an incident in Heaton Park itself which was on everyone’s lips and was front page news across the country and even beyond.
According to the newspaper reports, at half past midnight Constable John Smith, who lived with his wife and two young children in Trewhitt Road, had noticed smoke while on his beat along Jesmond Vale Road, which separates Heaton from Armstrong Park. He alerted the park superintendent who lived on site and together they investigated. A large shelter and ‘bowls house’ was ablaze, the flames fanned by the strong winds. Although Red Barns Fire Brigade was quickly on the scene, the shelter was soon a charred ruin. (A photograph of the building taken when it was new can be seen in Alan Morgan’s book: Heaton: from farms to foundries.)
What made the incident so newsworthy was the policeman’s apparent discovery between the railings around the bowling green of a piece of card which bore words along the lines of ‘No peace until votes for women’. Women’s footprints were also said to be visible in the soft ground. Newspaper accounts of the wording, the size of the card and even the names of the park superintendent, Robert or Richard Brown, and the name of the bowling club, variously Heaton and Armstrong, vary so historians need to treat the detail with some scepticism but it seems to have been agreed that hundreds of pounds worth of damage was done. Besides the building, highly prized bowls valued at two to five guineas a pair, many won in competitions, along with canvas shoes and ‘goloshes’ (as they were spelt in 1913) were reportedly destroyed. Many people were said to have visited the site of the ‘outrage’ later that day.
Women had campaigned for the vote since the mid 19th century but the term ‘suffragette’ was apparently first used in the Daily Mail in 1908 to describe militant ‘suffragists’. The suffragettes, under the leadership of the Pankhursts and others, had increasingly resorted to violence, at first mainly stone throwing, to get their message across. In November 1912, they began to target post boxes, apparently burning 2,000 letters in Newcastle alone.
In January 1913, after a proposal to give women the right to vote was defeated in parliament for the 20th time, the suffragettes further upped the ante. Some women went on hunger strike and they also began to target sporting clubs and venues. The Heaton Park incident was one of the first arson attacks in a campaign which culminated in Emily Davison being killed by the King’s horse during the 1913 Epsom Derby. The suffragettes’ activity was only suspended on the outbreak of WW1. Following the war, in July 1918, women over 30 were given the vote; the same September they were allowed to stand for parliament and finally in 1928 women over the age of 21 were, like men, eligible to vote.
From a local history perspective, it’s interesting to speculate about who might have been among the large crowd that gathered in the park that Sunday:
Jack Common, the writer, was nine years old and lived at 44 Third Avenue. In his autobiographical novel, Kiddar’s Luck, he wrote about his solitary Sunday walks through the park to Jesmond Dene: ‘two bowling greens… watched by a terrace on which stood a huge aviary holding up the dial of a southward facing clock, flower beds of painfully formal calceolaria, scarlet geranium, lobelia’ The excitement must surely have drawn a crowd of street-wise boys there that day.
John Thomas Gilroy was 14 years old and lived with his mother, father and seven brothers and sisters at 25 Kingsley Place, only yards from the park. He had already won a scholarship to study at Armstrong College Art School and by the following year was a cartoonist for the Evening Chronicle. He went on to a hugely successful career as a commercial artists and was most famous for the ‘Guinness is good for you’ advertising campaign. Did he or his father, also an artist, sketch the scene?
Newcastle United footballer, Colin Veitch lived on the other side of the park at 1 Stratford Villas. He had played in the 0-0 cup draw at Sunderland and, according to the local press, the next day the players visited North Shields for ‘brine baths’. He may well have walked through the park to catch a bus or tram and, as both a political activist and sportsman, he will surely have expressed his views about both women’s suffrage and the plight of the bowlers.
Finally what role, if any, did the evocatively-named Florence Nightingale Harrison-Bell play? She was the first woman member of the Independent Labour party’s national administrative council (replaced in 1898 by Emmeline Pankhurst). In the early 1900s she was a key member of Newcastle and District Women’s Suffrage Society. In January 1911 at the Women’s Labour league Conference at which she was the delegate for Newcastle, she moved a resolution in favour of adult suffrage. She lived at 6 Hotspur Street, with her husband, Joseph Bell, later to be elected MP for Newcastle East. If she wasn’t involved, who was? We will probably never know.
Heaton History group has been invited by Beamish Museum and Northumberland Archives -Woodhorn to take part in a project on the suffragette movement. If you’d like to help us find out more about the incident or about the suffragettes of the area and disseminate the information to a wider audience, please get in touch. firstname.lastname@example.org