15 June 2009

Mary Gawthorpe, 5 Melville Street

A Leeds 6 double-whammy here - not only a local hero but a major local event.

Mary Gawthorpe (January 12 1881-March 12 1973) was a militant suffragette born and brought up at 5 Melville Street, Woodhouse. She organised and addressed perhaps the largest rally Woodhouse Moor has ever seen, a suffragette demonstration over 100,000 strong on 26 July 1908.

The rich pictorial treasure trove, Leodis, has a picture of her house which, like much of lower Woodhouse, was demolished circa 1970. Her family was political with her father being - eek - the political agent for the local Conservative MP.

She won a scholarship to high school, but the family's poverty meant she was taken on as a pupil-teacher. She became a professional teacher, and her Socialist convictions led her to work for the National Union of Teachers, leading a campaign for school meals.

She attended the local Labour Church (whatever that was), and met TB Garrs, a socialist journalist for a local newspaper. From here, she ended up editing the womens page of Labour News.

In 1906 she became a full time organiser for the Womens Social and Political Union. Like many in the movement, she was arrested several times and imprisoned.

There was a mass demonstration in London’s Hyde Park on ‘Womens Sunday’, Sunday 21 June 1908, addressed by Mary Gawthorpe. Drawing a crowd of quarter of a million, it was one of the largest demonstrations the country had ever seen.

Manchester suffragist Helena Swanwick described Mary as having a ‘big fog-and-frost’ voice. Mary was a teacher; a militant suffragette; from Yorkshire. Any one of these is likely to give someone a strong declarative tone. The combination of all three must have been like an oratory blacksmith at work.

After the huge success of London, Mary went to Manchester to implement some successor rallies. She started with that city less than a month later, addressing a rally of 150,000 at Heaton Park on 19 July. A week later she moved on to a park she probably knew better than any other.

One can only imagine the particular excitement she must have had coming to Woodhouse Moor. It was not just her home town but her childhood neighbourhood. Standing on the Moor overlooking the streets she grew up on, Mary Gawthorpe addressed a crowd of 100,000.

In 1909 she heckled Winston Churchill and was badly beaten by his bouncers. After she retired from the WSPU in 1911 due to ill health (I get the impression it was activist burnout), she teamed up with Dora Marsden to co-edit The Freewoman magazine. Whilst it drew submissions from such luminaries as HG Wells and Ezra Pound, it was nonetheless avowedly radical. Not only did it have a strong feminist line and counselled women not to marry, but it advocated free love and tolerance of homosexuality and suggested communal childcare and co-operative housekeeping.

The WSPU Women's Press published a pamphlet by Mary called Votes For Men, in late 1907 or early 1908 I think.

Strangely, she published a completely different - and hilarious - pamphlet with the same name in America in 1913. A specialist publisher in Montana reprinted that one last December.

She emigrated to New York in 1916, and immediately became an agitator and organiser. She continued to show her joined-up political thinking campaigning for a range of social justice issues in the feminist and labour spheres, ending up working full time as a union official.

She belatedly published her autobiography of her childhood and early adult years up until her imprisonment in 1906, Up Hill To Holloway, in 1962. Only 6000 were printed, it's long out of print and the only copy I can find is 300 quid. Sheesh.

After her death her relatives left her papers to an archive in New York who provide an online inventory but sadly not the documents themselves. They do have an excellent potted history of Mary's life in the 'biographical note' section, though.

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