Tag Archives: suffragettes

The Redoubtable Mrs Harrison Bell: campaigner and social reformer

This photograph of Florence Nightingale Harrison Bell , who was born and bred in Newcastle and lived on Hotspur Street in Heaton for over 20 years, is held by the National Portrait Gallery.

NPG x47718; Mrs F.N. Harrison Bell by Lafayette (Lafayette Ltd)
Mrs F N Harrison Bell  by Lafayette,  25 May 1929 courtesy of National Portrait Gallery
The gallery’s aim is ‘ to promote through the medium of portraits the appreciation and understanding of the men and women who have made and are making British history and culture’. What then was Mrs Harrison Bell’s contribution to our national life?

Tireless

Florence Nightingale Harrison Bell was one of the country’s leading socialist and feminist reformers in the early part of the 20th Century. She was a member of the Independent Labour Party from its inception in 1893; the ILP’s first Federal Secretary; and the first woman member of the party’s National Administrative Council, replaced in 1908 by the much better remembered Emmeline Pankhurst. She was the first socialist candidate of the Newcastle Board of Guardians in 1893 and a Director of the Newcastle Co-operative Society from 1902.

She was secretary of the Newcastle branch of the Women’s Labour League and member of the National League’s Executive Committee from 1913. She was an elected member of the Labour Party National Executive from 1918-25; represented Labour on the Standing Joint Committee of Industrial Women’s Organisations; was part of the British Labour delegation to the Congress of 2nd Internationale in Geneva in 1920, representing the TUC, Labour Party & the Fabian Society; and from 1921 was Treasurer of the International Federation of Working Women.

Yet none of that impressive CV even begins to describe the huge impact that she made on British social and political life throughout her life. She regularly spoke at local meetings and national conferences the length and breadth of the country, from Dundee to Truro, and was a tireless campaigner on issues including universal suffrage, women’s and child health, housing, unemployment and inequality.

She was born in Newcastle and until 1922 lived at 6 Hotspur Street, Heaton, yet today, despite the lasting impact of some of the changes she was instrumental in achieving and the currency of some of the issues she championed, she remains virtually unknown, without even a Wikipedia entry to her name!

Teacher

Florence Nightingale Harrison, named after Florence Nightingale, who was at the height of her fame, was born in Newcastle in 1865. One biography lists her father as a Dr Thomas Harrison, of whom we’ve been able to find no trace. However he seems to have died young, as by 1881 a 14 year old Florence is identified as the step-daughter of Thomas Thompson, an engine fitter of 87 Walker Rd, Longbenton. She lived with him, his wife Isabella and their two year old son, Alfred.

Florence studied English History & Economics at Armstrong College and in 1891 was still living with her mother and step-father at 30 Belvedere Street, Byker, where she is recorded as being an elementary school teacher.

On 28 July 1896, Florence married Joseph Nicholas Bell at St Augustine’s Church Newcastle, becoming Florence Nightingale Harrison Bell, widely referred to as Mrs Harrison Bell.

Joseph was born in London, but brought up, along with his older sister, May, by his grand-parents on a farm near Brampton in Cumbria, where his grandfather was a shepherd. As an adult, he moved to Newcastle, boarding in Elswick and working at North Eastern Railway’s Forth Banks Goods Yard, where he helped to organise the workforce into the National Amalgamated Union of Labour, of which he became General Secretary in 1896.

Although never as prominent in the life of the city as his wife became, Joseph was very politically active, chairing the Labour Party Conference in 1903 and unsuccessfully contesting a by election in Leith for Labour in 1914. In a rare interview for the Journal in April 1917, he expressed his grave concern about the potential impact that the number of women entering the workforce during the war would have on wages when the war was over. His solution was to ensure that the unskilled workforce would be properly represented, by bringing together the many disparate unions representing them and allowing wage negotiations to take place at a national level. This he achieved in July of that year, when he was elected vice chair of the Federation of General Workers, with a total membership of 500,000.

Activist

It’s difficult to say whether it was Joseph’s political activism that inspired Florence, or whether her own aspirations brought them into the same circle. However we do know that Florence was politically active before their marriage, becoming a member of the Independent Labour Party from its establishment in 1893 and the first socialist candidate for the Newcastle Board of Guardians. Responsible for the administration of the Poor law, Guardians were subject to annual elections.

The 1901 Census shows the Bells living at 6 Hotspur Street, where their son Edward Percy was born in 1902. Being a mother did not seem to slow Florence down. That same year, she became a Director of the Newcastle Co-operative Society and shortly afterwards her name began to appear regularly in the press as a speaker, first at local events – the Women’s Suffrage Committee at Bedlington; a meeting of Socialists at North Seaton Colliery; the Blyth Independent Labour Party, but soon spreading further to places as far flung as Portsmouth and Coventry. The main focus of her early speeches was female emancipation. Under the auspices of the Newcastle and District Women’s Suffrage Committee, she set up regular meetings in Fenwicks’ Drawing Room Cafe, where women would meet to hear speakers and discuss political issues. Among her fellow group leaders was Ethel Bentham, a local doctor who would become one of the first women Labour MPs.

Below is the 1915-16 programme of Heaton’s Bainbridge Memorial Church Ladies Literary Society. which shows Mrs Harrison Bell speaking on ‘The Women’s Movement: its Moral Aspect’.

 

Bainbridge Chapel Programme

Does she appear on this 1909 film of a suffragette demonstration in Newcastle, held by the BFI? We think we may have found her but can’t be sure. Let us know what you think.

However, women’s suffrage was far from her only interest. She spoke movingly about the importance of a home life, contending that neither those living in slums nor the aristocracy had a proper home life and that ‘the only party that showed any desire to deal with the emancipation of women was the Labour Party’. She also showed a keen interest in unemployment, speaking at a right to work rally in Portsmouth in 1908. Unemployment and the right to work were to become a more significant theme in her work during the depression of the 20s and 30s.

What is interesting, in reading the huge amount of press coverage of Mrs Harrison Bell’s political life, is that none of the articles feel the need to explain who she was, suggesting that her name was already well known in an age before today’s mass media. However, her appearance on the national stage, including membership of Labour’s National Executive Committee, Executive Committee member of the Women’s Labour league and membership of the Standing Joint Committee of Industrial Women’s Organisations, didn’t mean that she neglected local social issues. The Journal reported on 12 December 1916 that a meeting of the Newcastle Sanitary Committee received a deputation from the Women’s Helpers’ League, led by Mrs Harrison Bell. They urged the establishment of a municipal clinic for the treatment of infants. In 1917, she was co-opted to the Newcastle Food Control Committee Food Distribution Sub Committee, a wartime Committee established to manage the chronic problem of food shortages caused by the war. In 1918, the Coventry Evening Telegraph listed her among a list of women intimating their intention to stand for parliament, how far her bid progressed is unclear, but it was not successful.

Her husband Joseph, however, was more successful in his bid to become an MP, although his tenure was tragically short-lived.  In 1922, the Bells moved to 90, Friern Park Road, North Finchley, London, in anticipation of Joseph becoming an MP. In the General Election on 15 November, he gained the seat of Newcastle East with a majority of 3,085. Tragically, he died a little over a month later on 17 December, aged 58, at Finchley Cottage Hospital, following two unsuccessful operations for Lymphadenoma, a tumour of the lymph nodes. His obituary noted that he had served on several Home Office committees of inquiry and on the panel of arbitration in industrial disputes and had been predicted to become the first Labour Home Secretary.

The Dundee Evening Telegraph reported several days later that ‘If Mrs Harrison Bell accepts the invitation of Newcastle East Labour to contest the seat so briefly held by her husband, she will stand an excellent chance of election.’ Going on to note that ‘so well known has she been indeed that it became the fashion in Labour circles to speak of the late J.N. Bell as husband of Mrs Harrison Bell.’ Florence clearly chose not to stand, as the seat was successfully contested by Arthur Henderson, General Secretary of the Labour Party.

Ahead of her Time

One might have thought that at the age of 57, having just lost her husband and having achieved her goal of women’s emancipation (women over 30 meeting a minimum requirement for property ownership gained the vote in 1918), Florence may have taken a lower public profile. Not so the redoubtable Mrs Harrison Bell. In fact the 1920s seem to have been the most productive time in her political career.

Just four days after Joseph’s death, the Ministry of Labour announced a ‘committee to inquire into the present conditions as to the supply of female domestic servants’ of which Florence was to be a member and by March 1923, she was back on the public speaking trail. In 1923 alone she was a delegate at the International Federation of Working Women Congress is Vienna; became Chairman of the Standing Joint Committee of Industrial Women’s Organisations and its subcommittee on birth control; represented the Standing Joint Committee on the Overseas Committee and a deputation on housing to the Minister of Health and presided over the Annual Parliament of Labour Women in York, where the Burnley Evening news described her as a ‘lady who combines a unique degree of womanly homeliness with a penetrating insight into the larger affairs of local and national government.’

Amongst the resolutions carried at the Parliament were:

– One condemning London County Council’s decision to dismiss women teachers on marriage as being ‘inimical to the cause of education’;

– A proposal of one person one vote at the age of 21, which came to be in 1929;

– A proposal that elections should take place on Saturday rather than Thursday and that municipal elections should take place in May not October.

The only one of these resolutions that did not come to be was the call for elections to be held on Saturdays. Remarkably, this pattern is followed in many of Mrs Harrison Bell’s other political and social crusades, where she was clearly far ahead of her time and the things she called for ultimately came to be, as the NHS and the welfare state developed over the coming decades. Sadly she did not live to see all of these changes.

The focus of her public speeches during this period was often the home – ‘we stand for a home in which family life can be lived; a home which is fit for children to be born in’ she said at a speech in Truro in March 1923. In that same speech she also called for provision of sickness benefit and nursery school provision for all children. So far ahead of her time was she that she was accused, in calling for universal nursery school provision, of breaking up the home!

Increasingly though, her focus was on unemployment, which became a growing problem throughout the 20s as the Great Depression started to build.  In that same speech at Truro, she said ‘If women ran the home on the same lines as the Government was running the nation, there would be no home at all. An economical Government was paying one million pounds in unemployment benefit to the men in the building trade and had not a single house to show for it.’ She returned to that same theme the following year, when following a snap election, Labour was in power with a minority administration. Supporting calls for a Capital Levy, she said ‘I never realised the vulgarity of wealth until I went to London and saw little shops selling ladies’ handkerchiefs at £20 a dozen…. Those shop owners and the people who buy their goods are the people who will have to pay’. How little has changed!

Royal Commission

In 1924, with Labour in power, albeit briefly, Florence was drawn into two major government inquiries.

The first was an inquiry into child settlement in Canada. In what we’d now regard as a barbaric practice, Dr Barnardos, the Salvation Army and other charities routinely sent child orphans to Canada to live, effectively as slave labour on farms. She sailed to Canada on the Empress of Scotland in September 1924 along with Miss Margaret Bondfield, one of the first female MPs and Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour. They found that while the children were undoubtedly better fed than their counterparts at home, the farmers would prefer to have adults. As a result of their inquiry unaccompanied children being sent to Canada was stopped, although it appears that the practice continued elsewhere as in a speech in Portsmouth in 1930, she spoke of the continuing scheme for emigrating girls to the dominions for domestic work.

The second was a Royal Commission established to inquire into the National Health Insurance Scheme. This was a major piece of work which took two years to take evidence and make recommendations. The conclusion of the Commission, published in 1926, was that with a few minor changes the scheme, which was based heavily on the 19th Century Poor Law, worked satisfactorily.

However, that was not the conclusion of all of the Commission’s members. A minority report was produced by four of the members, including Mrs Harrison Bell. This report called for, amongst other things:

– The abolition of approved societies – insurance companies that managed the scheme, with local authorities taking on their role;

– Recognition that investment in health care would repay itself through improved health of the workforce, rather than simply attempting to contain the scheme within the prescribed resources;

– The provision of a complete remedial and treatment service including access to consultant and specialist care;

– Dental, optical and maternity care;

– Medical benefit for the dependents of injured people;

– An increase in sickness benefit and a new benefit for disabled people;

– Maternity benefit;

– Co-ordination of maternity and child welfare services with local authorities; and

– Re-arrangement and extension of maternity care, in particular, addressing the high maternal death rate.

It would be another 20 years before this vision was realised in the birth of the welfare state

Florence would return repeatedly to the issue of maternal health over the coming years. In 1924, she called, at the National Conference of Labour Women for public health authorities to provide information and advice on birth control, despite being heckled by a mother of 11 who declared that she was against the general teaching of birth control to working women.

In 1928 she spoke at a meeting to discuss maternal mortality at Central Hall Westminster. The resolution, which was carried was – ‘To work in all ways for the reduction in continued high death rates of mothers in childbirth. Steps to include:

– Medical enquiry into each maternal death

– Training of medical students & GPs in midwifery

– Committee on training and employment of midwives

– Provisions of National Health insurance Act adjusted so that medical and midwifery services should be available for mothers ante-natal and after confinement.’

All of which ultimately came to be.

It’s not clear whether Florence continued to work as a teacher alongside her highly public campaigning and political work, but it seems unlikely that she would have had an independent source of income. Although she started her career as an elementary school teacher, she did at some point work in adult education and as a lecturer for the Co-op movement. While living in London, she was the Secretary of the Central London Branch of the Teachers Labour League, so it is possible that she was still in the profession.

A brief biography notes her hobbies as reading, walking and motorcycling.

Public Figure

Florence continued to be a prominent public figure throughout the 1920s and into the early 1930s, continuing to campaign on the issues of inequality, unemployment and maternal and child welfare. In 1927 as Director of London Labour Party’s Summer School for Women at Guildford, she said ‘They don’t send the fool of the family into the diplomatic service, for high qualifications are needed. The great fault with this service is that the upbringing of those in it prevents them from being in touch with the class whom they were sent to serve. They have no knowledge of working class conditions.’ In the early thirties, she also started to call for nationalisation of key industries, pointing out, in particular, the high death rates in coal mining as justification.

In 1929, at the age of 64, she stood unsuccessfully for parliament, in the first election where Labour formed a majority government. Standing for Labour in Luton, she came a poor third behind the Liberals and Unionists. Her son Percy also stood for Parliament in 1929 and again in 1931 for the seat of Wood Green. Both attempts were unsuccessful and he continued as a school teacher. However, in 1964, he become the Labour party member for Newham and later Newham South in the Greater London Council, a seat he held until the age of 79 in 1981, carrying on the family tradition. He died in 1987.

Legacy

Florence herself seems to have taken a lower public profile beyond the mid 1930s, or at least was less reported in the press. That doesn’t mean though that she didn’t continue to take an active interest in politics. In 1946, at the National Conference of Labour Women in Hastings, a gathering she had initiated, there was a call for equal pay for women amongst other things. The Western Daily News reported ‘As the conference ended the oldest delegate, 81 year old Mrs Harrison Bell said: “We get a good deal more space in the press nowadays. We are very grateful for the work they have done’.

Florence Nightingale Harrison Bell died two years late on 8 September 1948 at Whipps Cross Hospital London, having left a huge, and now largely forgotten, legacy to the causes of feminism, inequality, healthcare and her much loved Labour party. She left a total of £190 6s to her son Percy.

Amazingly, given her prominence during her lifetime, we have not, as yet, been able to find a newspaper obituary let alone any permanent local or national memorial. Perhaps now is the time for Heaton History Group to help put that right? We call on the National Portrait Gallery to set the ball rolling by giving her photograph the prominent position on its walls we believe she deserves.

Can you help?

If you have information, anecdotes or photographs of Florence Nightingale Harrison Bell or Joseph or Percy Bell, that you are willing to share or have any comments on this article we’d love to hear from you. Please either write direct to this page by clicking on the link immediately below the article title, or email chris.jackson@heatonhistorygroup.org.

Acknowledgements

Researched and written by Michael Proctor, Heaton History Group, as part of our Historic England funded ‘Shakespeare Streets’ project.

 

Hens That Want To Crow: Suffragists and Suffragettes of the North East of England, 1866-1918

For most people, the story of the struggle for votes for women conjures up images of suffragettes chaining themselves to railings, haranguing crowds of hostile men – or, here in Heaton, arson attacks on Heaton Park bowls pavilion and Heaton Station – but the campaigning actually started at least half a century earlier. The fight was slow and complex, with flurries of activity at certain key dates and hopes raised and dashed several times before the eventual victory after the First World War. Our January 2015 talk addresses the movement’s long history through an exploration of significant events and individuals, concentrating on the north-east of England, between the mid 1860s and 1918.

Bowling green, Heaton Park

Bowling pavilion, Heaton Park, burnt down by suffragettes

Heaton Station, 1972

Heaton Station, scene of alleged suffragette arson attack

Elizabeth Ann O’Donnell, a former history lecturer in further and higher education, works as an oral historian for Northumberland County Archives, Woodhorn, Ashington. Her doctoral thesis examined the north-east Quaker community in the 19th century and she has published a number of articles on the subject. Her research interests include the origins of first-wave feminism, the anti-slavery movement and the development of social services in the late 19th and early 20th century.

The talk takes place at The Corner House, Heaton Road NE6 5RP on Wednesday 28 January at 7.30pm (Doors open at 7; you are advised to take your seat by 7.15pm).FULLY BOOKED but add your name to the reserve list by contacting maria@heatonhistorygroup.org /07443 594154.

Heaton Station: a whistle-stop tour

Heaton’s place in history is bound up with railways so we thought we’d chug along its stations’ timeline to see what we could find. The original Heaton Station was on the first railway to pass this way – the line from Newcastle to North Shields and later Tynemouth, which opened on 18 June 1839. The station was situated just to the North East of what later became called Heaton Road. The precise construction date is a little uncertain but there are press adverts which mention trains stopping at a station at ‘Heaton Hall Lane’ as early as 1841.

Mention of Heaton Hall Lane Station, May 1841

Advert in ‘Newcastle Journal’, dated 15 May 1841

The first mention we have so far found in news reports dates from 1844 when a passenger walking home from the station after dark fell from the bank by the lead factory into the Ouseburn. By the mid 1840s, there were already plans for a new line to Berwick, which meant that Heaton was destined to become an important junction. The stretch from Heaton to Berwick opened on 29 March 1847. This illustation dates from that time. Thank you to Alan Morgan in whose book ‘Heaton: from farms to foundries’ it appears.

Drawing of the original Heaton Station, 1847

Drawing of the original Heaton Station, 1847

Royal visit

Here is a selection of news stories featuring Heaton Station in its early years.

On Friday 28 September 1849,  Queen Victoria travelled down the new east coast line on her return from holiday in Balmoral. A public holiday was declared in Newcastle and although the weather was inclement,  the crowds were undeterred:

‘Heaton Station was the point at which her majesty entered the borough of Newcastle, and here was a profuse display of flags and ornamental devices in flowers and evergreens.’

‘Commencing at Heaton Station a long and dense crowd lined the railway to the Ouseburn Bridge and even the hills some distance from the line were covered with spectators.

While she was here, she opened the new High Level Bridge. This picture of the royal train that day is from the Illustrated London News.

Queen Victoria's train in Newcastle

In August the following year, there was another local public holiday when the queen and her family again passed through Heaton, this time after after stopping in Newcastle to open the new Central Station on their journey North.

New station

In 1861 advertisements inviting tenders to build a new station and station master’s house at Heaton appeared in the press. This would explain why the next photograph, dated 1886, looks quite different from the much earlier drawing.

Advert for tendeer for new station and station-master's house

Newcastle Journal, 6 May 1861

The original Heaton Station

Heaton Station, 1886

This photograph is published by kind permission of Beamish Museum and John Moreels of Photo Memories.

Then on 6 November 1886, when the track was also widened, The Newcastle Courant announced that work had begun on a completely new station which

‘is situated to the west of the present one. … bridge building will be necessary as the platform will be intersected by lines of rails. These works are giving work to a large number of men, and as a large amount of house-building is going on in the locality, that part of the town presents quite a brisk appearance.’

On 1 April 1887, the old station closed and on the same day the new one opened on on North View on the opposite side of Heaton Road. Again the photograph below is published with the permission of Beamish Museum and John Moreels of Photo Memories.

'New'Heaton Station

‘New’ Heaton Station

Notorious murder

Moving into the twentieth century, an incident took place which brought Heaton Station to the attention of the whole country. On 18 March 1910, John Innes Nisbet, a colliery employee who lived in Heaton, boarded the 10.27am train at Central Station to deliver wages to Widdrington Colliery. When the train arrived at Morpeth, Nisbet’s dead body was found. He had five bullet wounds to the head.

A key witness was Nisbet’s wife, who had gone to Heaton Station to talk to her husband while the train was stopped there. She claimed that she saw the man later identified as John Dickman, the alleged murdererer, sitting in the same carriage as her husband. Dickman, who had also previously lived in Heaton, was found guilty on what many people believed to be unsubstantiated circumstantial evidence. He was hanged but long afterwards the case was cited by opponents of the death penalty.

Suffragettes

On 17 October 1913, suffragettes were reported to have attempted to burn down Heaton Station. According to contemporary press coverage, one of the porters had smelled burning: he saw smoke coming from the direction of the ladies’ waiting room and upon investigation found a large cardboard box behind one of the lavatory doors. It contained open tins of oil, fire-lighters soaked in oil and a piece of candle. It had been positioned in such away that, once alight, it would ignite the contents of the box and then the door. Had it not been discovered, the station may well have been destroyed as it was constructed almost entirely of wood. A few weeks previously Kenton Station had been burned to the ground and earlier that year, a bowls pavilion in Heaton Park destroyed. All three incidents were thought to have been perpetrated by suffragettes, who at this time were accelerating their campaign for womens’ right to vote. 

More information about Heaton Station

That takes us to 100 years ago. Heaton Station finally closed on 11 August 1980 in preparation for the extension of the Metro system. The following photographs are reporduced by kind permission of Alan Young, railway photographer and author, who was brought up on Meldon Terrace. They date from 1972.

Heaton stationHeaton StationHeaton Station, 1972 <

Further information and more images can be found at the Disused Stations website.

Can you help?
If you have information, memories or photographs of Heaton Station or Heaton’s railways, please get in touch.

Road to the Park exhibition

For the next 6 weeks (until Friday 16 August 2013)* EXTENDED INTO SEPTEMBER, there is an exhibition of photographs of Heaton Park Road and Heaton Park in Teasy Does It cafe (150 Heaton Park Road). The twelve photographs date from the late nineteenth century to the nineteen sixties and seventies. They comprise views of shops, houses and lost features of the park itself.

Many thanks to Newcastle City Library which supplied digital images and permission to display many of the photographs.

Here are a couple of tasters:

Heaton Park Road  by Laszlo Torday

Heaton Park Road by Laszlo Torday

Heaton Park Lake

Heaton Park Lake

Laszlo Torday (1890 – 1975) was a chemical engineer, industrialist and a keen amateur photographer. He originally moved to Tynemouth from Hungary in January 1940 and later moved to Newcastle. His photographs, the majority taken in the 1960s and 1970s, reflect his interest in the streets and people of Newcastle. He took many in Heaton. Two of his photographs of Heaton Park Road are featured in the exhibition.

The lake, part of the original Heaton Hall Estate which was landscaped in the eighteenth century, was filled in during the 1930s. The structure to the left enclosed a bear pit where a brown bear was kept for the amusement of the public. This was removed during the early 1900s. There are four other photographs showing lost features of Heaton Park, including the bowls pavilion which was burnt down by suffragettes, the temple, the park keeper’s lodge and the croquet lawn.

Other images show houses and shops marked for clearance in the 1930s, Beavan’s store on the corner of Heaton Park Road and Shields Road in about 1904 and 190 Heaton Park Road with its original balcony. Many of the photographs include people who lived, worked and played in Heaton.

If you have any knowledge of the history of the buildings, people and features which appear in the photographs, we’d love to hear from you. We’d also like to talk to anyone representing a venue which would like to host a future Heaton History Group exhibition. Please contact Chris Jackson.

Inflammatory Incident in Heaton Park

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.)

News reports

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.

Context

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.

Possible witnesses

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 greenswatched 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.

Further Research

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. chris.jackson@heatonhistorygroup.org