Friday, 6 March 2015

Flower Shows, Doctors and Window Breakers

This week we have another post by Jo Vietzke for International Women’s Day on 8th March.  
International Women's Day logo
When researching a defined period such as the First World War, it is all too easy to fall into the trap of seeing Aug 1914-Nov 1918 as a separate period; existing by itself and disconnected from everything around it.

Recently, I’ve been reminded on a couple of occasions that this is not the case.   One of our volunteers at Darlington has done an amazing job of indexing the Northern Despatch for the Local Studies Library.  When talking about what she had found one of the most remarkable things that struck her was the normality.  The newspaper carried on reporting the local flower shows and listing the entertainments to be seen at the theatre and cinema.  Life carried on.

The other instance was sparked by an article which I stumbled upon in the Durham Advertiser (December 18, 1914) with the headline: “Suffragists and the War: Helpful Work for Women”.  Most of the literature on the women’s suffrage movement notes that the struggle by groups such as the Women’s Social and Political Union was suspended for the duration of the war and that their focus changed to supporting the war effort.  While this might be true in general, the full picture is more varied and complex.

Mention suffragettes and most people think of radical women throwing themselves under horses or chaining themselves to the railings of Downing Street.  London, as the political capital of the country, was undoubtedly the focus of the calls for women’s suffrage but the North East also saw a certain degree of militant action.  During the summer of 1914, just weeks before the beginning of war, an arsonist who left suffrage pamphlets at the scene tried to set fire to Cocken Hall, the house that the Durham Pals later used as a training centre.  The Newcastle Journal reported in June 1914 a supposed attempt to set fire to a train and the disruption of services at Newcastle Cathedral.

Doctor Ethel Williams' Suffragette banner, by permission of the Librarian, Robinson Library, Newcastle University
Doctor Ethel Williams' Suffragette banner, by permission of the Librarian, Robinson Library, Newcastle University
These actions clearly grabbed the headlines but other women chose different tactics.   The Durham Advertiser article from 18 December 1914 mentioned a woman named Dr Ethel Williams (Ethel May Nucella Williams, 1863-1948).  A little bit of scratching below the surface revealed an extraordinary person.  In July 1914, when the militants were trying to fire-bomb trains, Dr Williams presided over a debate at the Durham Miners’ Gala for the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS).  She chaired the North Eastern Federation of the NUWSS and at the outbreak of war joined the Women’s Executive of the Patriots League of Honour.  The banner above belonged to Williams and is held at the Robinson Library Special Collections, Newcastle University.  You can read more about it here:

The period of the war saw Dr Williams lecturing on sex education, campaigning against prostitution and for the better treatment of women and children in detention.  All of this whilst also working as Newcastle’s first woman doctor.  One heart-breaking story in the Newcastle Journal names her as the doctor called out to a suicide of a woman whose husband was away (possibly at war) and who had just given birth.  Her work to better the lives of the women of the North East didn’t stop because the country was at war, even if the NUWSS had suspended its suffragist activities.

No comments:

Post a Comment