The local lass who made big movements nationwide
When daily life sweeps us up in its whirlwind of normality, we can often forget to step back and take stock of the circumstances in which we exist. While such terror and turmoil rages outside of our borders, it is vital to appreciate the liberties we enjoy and consider where such freedoms came from. In our age of self-proclaimed sophisticated ‘civility’, we can also forget just how recent many of these advancements of society are. The twentieth century brought us the automobile, Tupperware, cat’s eyes, and central heating. But aside from these lovely material comforts, it also saw vital battles being fought for civil rights and democracy.
Little more than a hundred years ago, at the dawn of the Edwardian era, these rights were determined by a select and privileged group of male property owners who were solely allowed to contribute to the political arena. Society at large: the working class, ethnic minorities and, of course, women, were denied the right to vote or stand for parliament, and some of them were getting a little ticked off with such a discriminatory narrative.
It was in 1980 that an enterprising pupil from Bristol posted an ad in a local paper requesting any new information on the subject of local suffragettes. A dock worker replied explaining that he was aware of an unclaimed trunk which he believed might contain items of interest. It transpired that this mysterious loot was the correspondence and speeches of Helen Watts, documenting her involvement with the suffragette movement in Nottingham. Permission was obtained to copy the documents, ensuring they were passed on to the Nottinghamshire Archives where they became a valuable source of information about the life of a suffragette campaigner, and the dramatic tale of a Lenton vicar’s daughter turned radical activist came to light.
Helen Watts was born in 1881 into a middle class family in Durham, and moved with her family to Nottingham in 1893 when her father became the Vicar of Holy Trinity in Lenton. Inspired to join the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) after hearing Christabel Pankhurst speak at a meeting in December 1907, Helen dedicated herself to the suffragette cause and became a key figure in establishing the Nottingham branch.
In post-Victorian England it was highly unacceptable for a woman to be involved in any public demonstration, and Helen initially disagreed with the use of confrontational tactics that were popular in some divisions of the suffragette movement. She soon became more active however, realising her independent lifestyle incurred little in the way of sacrifice compared to many of her comrades with family responsibilities.
In 1909, she was imprisoned in Holloway following her involvement with a demonstration outside the House of Commons. All first time offending suffragettes were offered the opportunity to pay a fine to avoid imprisonment, an opportunity which Helen, along with the vast majority of suffragettes declined. Sacrificing their freedom brought valuable publicity to their cause.
illustration: Christine Dilks
The news of her imprisonment made quite a splash back at home, and many of the archived letters were sent during this time. They reveal much about the strong network of friendship on which the activist group was formed, and the involvement and support of Helen’s own family. Indeed, many of the letters from fellow suffragettes and sympathisers were written not to Helen, but to her parents, praising the actions of their brave daughter.
Upon her release one month later, she was met with a heroine’s welcome back in Nottingham. Her modicum of fame left her in great demand as a speaker at meetings and events. Using her lively and practical mind to present a balanced and thoughtful view of the suffragette cause, she reminded audiences that most suffragettes were ordinary women with everyday concerns, and raised debates on many other issues including low wages, insurance and pension rights, and wider gender politics.
Far from scaring her straight, Helen’s time in prison only spurred her convictions, and it was not long before she met again with authorities. In September of the same year, she was arrested in Leicester for demonstrating outside a meeting at which MP Winston Churchill was due to speak. Police arrested the protesters on grounds of ‘disorderly conduct’, a claim which Helen ardently denied, arguing she had merely committed the offence of standing peacefully still when being told to move. Challenging the sentence of five days’ imprisonment, Helen refused to wear prison clothes and went on a hunger strike – a form of protest widely used by militant suffragettes to protest their categorisation as criminals rather than political prisoners. Despite being threatened with force-feeding, the barbaric retaliation commonly in use by authorities at the time, she seemed to avoid this indignity and was released.
In a speech she gave not long after, she spoke with impassioned eloquence about the importance of organisation and joining together in public solidarity to appeal to those she saw as the real sovereign power of this country – the people. In her own words, "Votes for women will not be won by drawing-room chatter... it has got to be fought for in the market-places, and if we don't fight for it, no one else will."
When the WSPU turned to increasingly militant tactics, including arson and vandalism, Helen left the group in favour of the non-violent Women’s Freedom League which had recently formed in response to the changing nature of the WSPU. Beyond her activism, little more is known of Helen’s life, but it is documented that she served as a nurse in Bath during the first world war and emigrated to Canada in 1965.
Although at a glance, British society has come a long way, the struggle to shape democracy fairly and provide equal human rights is, of course, still raging. To be represented fairly by those in power, whose decisions inevitably shape our communities, is crucial, but so is the need for ordinary people like Helen Watts, who stand as one in larger movements of countless individuals to ensure the voice of the people is heard.
The beauty of studying these historical characters is in the retrospective evidence that gradual change can be made. Today, thanks to the courage and determination of individuals such as Helen Watts, we are able to display our dissent without risking our families, homes and everyday security. Despite being accustomed to our fundamental freedoms, we should never abandon striving for the ideals of true democracy and equality, which although may never be fully realised, are still imperative to fight for.
The Dilettante Society Meeting, The Gladstone, Carrington, Monday 14 December, 7.30pm, free. All welcome – the more the merrier.
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