Force feeding, violence and moral conflict – the story of Nottinghamshire’s history-changing suffragettes

Britain marked the 100th anniversary of of women gaining the right to vote last week. The fight for something resembling equality was often darker than the images of composed protesters holding placards make it appear. Kate Chaplin uncovers the story of a Nottinghamshire woman who was among those who gave the most. 

It took 50 years of struggle before women in Britain even got partial suffrage – and the struggle that went on within in the movement itself before change was finally achieved is one of its untold stories.

Suffragettes are often remembered mainly for chaining themselves to railings and breaking windows, but these acts were just a few of the tactics used and often caused heated debate between supporters themselves.

After around 1912, some forms of campaigning moved outside the law and away from peaceful protest. Activism grew to include planting bombs, smashing shop windows and acts of arson.

Many women were imprisoned and it was the shifting focus of the movement that conflicted people like Helen Watts. She distanced herself from action which included arson, but she was determined to make her voice heard.

Watts was born in 1881 and moved to Nottingham in 1893. From a conservative background, her father was the vicar for Holy Trinity Church in Lenton, which survives to this day.

Helen Kirkpatrick Watts. The vicar’s daughter became a leading member of the movement.

She went from this seemingly ordinary and authoritative upbringing to become one of the most active members of the movement, facing time in Holloway Prison. She also received the Suffragette Medal for going on hunger strike.

“She was born during the Victorian period which we know was very conservative in terms of women’s dress and the way women were supposed to behave,” explains Ruth Imeson,¬†Nottinghamshire Archives Manager and County Archivist.

“We can see from the speeches that she gave after she’d been to prison, saying to other women in the movement, ‘friends, many of you have made me feel ashamed of myself in the past with my half-hearted support of our splendid ideas and principles, and I would have felt it a lifelong disgrace had I not taken my chance of taking part in the militant action of the union.”

Watts goes on to add she previously had a ‘holy horror’ of suffragettes but changed her view of the movement over time.

She later moved to Canada but continued to write letters home to family members, copies of which are kept at Nottinghamshire Archives.

Watts’s actions put her life at great risk at the time. Hunger strikers were shown no mercy or sympathy in prison.

“The authorities often force fed them, if you imagine they are forcing tubes down your nose, and some women had damage done to their voice boxes because they were not gentle with them,” added ruth.

“If food went into the lungs instead some would catch pneumonia.”

This led to the cat and mouse act, an Act of Parliament meaning the authorities would release women on hunger strike when they became very ill, then re-arrested them when their health improved to serve the rest of their sentences.

Tellingly, women were even treated differently even within this form protest. Men who supported Suffragettes and joined them on hunger strike were not re-arrested after release.

About six million women, all over 30 and in certain sets of financial and social circumstances, were eventually granted the vote in 1918. Watts died in 1972 aged either 91 or 90, having moved back to England from Canada.

Ruth added: “It was still quite a limited franchise, and in fact there was a campaign that began a year or so later for women over 21 to be given the vote.

“If they had given the vote to younger women in 1918, then there would have been more women able to vote than men because so many men were involved in the First World War. It was very carefully manipulated.

“But it changed everything for this country a lot of women worked in factories during the war, and it was a real step forward from having absolutely no voice and no equality to a feeling they were getting somewhere.

“It was the first real step showing the Government were taking us seriously.”

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