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Revealing the untold story of Huddersfield rebel girls.

Byline: Tony Pogson ,

Huddersfield is at the very core of self-styled "suffragette detective" Jill Liddington's brilliant new book Rebel Girls, the forgotten (or perhaps, rather, never previously told) story of the Yorkshire suffragettes.

Up to now interest in the suffragette story has focused mainly on the enigmatic Pankhurst family - Emmeline and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia - and the Women's Social and Political Union that was set up in 1903. This was most obvious in a moving 1970s TV serialisation Shoulder To Shoulder.

As Jill, senior research fellow at Leeds University, points out, that is to ignore the contribution of the much bigger, less militant National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies formed in 1897 and run by Mrs Millicent Fawcett; and the 1907 WSPU breakaway the Women's Freedom League, under Teresa Billington-Greig. It was also to ignore the contribution of another Pankhurst sister, Adela, who spent much time working feverishly in Yorkshire.

On the cover of the book is Dora Thewlis, a young Huddersfield weaver who was dubbed "baby suffragette" when she appeared on the front page of the Daily Mirror on March 21, 1907, "struggling in the grasp of two burly constables" after being arrested at a WSPU march on Parliament, taken to Holloway prison and remanded in custody for six days.

Curiously, when she appeared in court - apparently just one of 75 arrests during a WSPU attempt to get Lancashire and Yorkshire clogs resounding on the floor of the House of Commons - the magistrate was most distressed to be told she was 17 (she was in fact only 16) and insisted on sending her home, much against her wishes, with money from the Poor Box and accompanied by an elderly wardress as chaperone!

Strange tenderness from a legal system that was later to condone force-feeding of suffraggettes and the infamous Cat and Mouse Act which allowed them to recover and then be re-arrested.

Dora, the daughter of mill workers James and Eliza Thewlis, of first Slaithwaite and later Hawthorn Terrace, Huddersfield, later emigrated to Australia. Her mother, originally from Woodbridge in Suffolk, was a founder member of the Huddersfield WSPU branch committee, who in 1907 was asked to resign.

They are among 11 Huddersfield "community suffragettes" who get honourable mentions in the book.

It seems to have been an accident of local by-elections that brought Huddersfield to the centre of the story around 1906 just at the time when a Liberal landslide at the general election in January of that year raised hopes of a more sympathetic government response.

It was not to be and by November of that year Huddersfield's Liberal MP resigned and the vote provoked the release of suffragette prisoners and brought leading suffragettes Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, Mary Gawthorpe, Annie Kenney and Hannah Mitchell to town.

The Examiner's pro-Liberal government stance led it to impose a blanket ban on suffragette stories until it could no longer ignore the activities of local suffragettes.

Even so, it did carry a WSPU advertisement urging "Working men of Huddersfield, will you allow the Liberal Government to treat the women of this country so unjustly."

It did illustrate the different ideas of the way forward. Many members of the NUSSW were also members of Yorkshire's thriving Liberal Associations and pinned their hopes there. The more militant WSPU tended to side with the Labour Party or the Independent Labour Party.

Some were suffragists, rather than suffragettes - believing that men's and women's voting rights should be dealt with together.

The story moved on through the 1907 Colne Valley by-election- which saw the victory of the short-lived pro-suffragette Labour maverick Victor Grayson - and a later vote in Holmfirth.

Colourful times and the temptation is to believe that ultimate success and votes for women over 30 by 1918, for over 21s a decade later, was won by law-breaking and direct action alone - those who smashed windows, set fire to postboxes and empty buildings, chained themselves to railings, attacked the Tower of London and even threw themselves under the king's racehorse.

That was the WSPU way and in 1906 Huddersfield had one of the most active branches in the country. Fortunately, Jill's researches have found meticulous notes of both WSPU and NUSSW activities in this town.

Many of the town's leading suffraggettes were "comers-in". Take Edith Key, daughter of Bradford mill owner Joseph Fawcett.

By 1885 she was at Huddersfield Board School which she left at 13. She lived at Almondbury and worked as a knotter. Later she married Frederick Key, a blind musician,and they had family shop on West Parade, Huddersfield.

As well as being secretary of Huddersfield WSPU branch, leaving efficient minutes to posterity, she was a member of Huddersfield Choral Society and at times hid suffraggette "mice" fleeing from the law in her West Parade attics.

Reflecting the NUSSW story is Florence Lockwood, Plymouth-born daughter of a navy doctor, ex-Slade and Univerity College, London.

She came to Huddersfield after visiting her sister and meeting and marrying Josiah Lockwood of Black Rock, Linthwaite.

She met Emmeline and Adela Pankhurst at the 1907 Colne Valley by-election and went on to join the Women's Liberal Association and Huddersfield NUWSS branch.

A later vice-president of Huddersfield Arts Society, in about 1910 she designed the beautiful Huddersfield NUWSS branch banner which can still be seen at Ravensknowle Museum, and in 1912 wrote the pamphlet The Enfranchisement of Women.

When she was widowed in 1924 she left paintings to Huddersfield and went to live in London.

Jill Liddington says much useful information came to her via a course she gave in Huddersfield and on an International Women's Day walk in 2000.

When the book is launched at Huddersfield Town Hall tomorrow, she will be accompanied by the descendants of Elizabeth Pinnace and Edith Key and on show will be Florence Lockwood's banner.
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Copyright 2006 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Huddersfield Daily Examiner (Huddersfield, England)
Date:May 9, 2006
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