Taking a ‘Stand’: Suffragette activity at Glasgow’s Duke Street Prison

Taking a ‘stand’ against their confinement: Suffragette activity at Glasgow’s Duke Street Prison

Jennifer Stewart

Ethel Moorhead: the bane of the Scottish Constabulary; militant and arsonist; the woman who threw an egg at Winston Churchill; the one who attempted to blow up Burns’ Cottage; the cayenne pepper wielding, prison cell destroying, hunger striking suffragette. When arrested (a regular occurrence) in 1913 for militancy and sent to Duke Street Prison, Glasgow she not only knocked the prison governor’s hat straight off his head, but instructed the prison commissioner to remind the authorities that it is not their ‘duty to endeavor to tame the suffragettes and quite a hopeless task to undertake during their stay in HM prisons’.[1]

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Fast-forward to the late 1950s, when an Edwardian iron umbrella stand is salvaged from the rubble of the recently demolished Duke Street Prison, appearing to be painted in the colours of the Suffrage Movement (we’ll forgive the substitution of the purple for pink, it’s a prison not art school after all). Now, if the painting of an umbrella stand (that hallmark of British civility) supposedly by imprisoned suffragettes is not tame behavior then I don’t know what is. There is no concrete proof that the suffragettes painted the stand, and if so which inmates and when, but the mental picture of the scene is too good not to allow this speculation. These women were martyrs to the Cause, violent and non-cooperative in their fight for women’s suffrage, in many cases having chosen imprisonment over payment of a fine in order to use their incarceration as a political statement. And yet given the opportunity they just NEEDED to do something about the drab décor?

It’s been suggested that the governor of Duke Street prison was more sympathetic to the Cause, or perhaps he saw too much similarity in the class and social situations of many of the suffragette inmates (largely married and middle class – though certainly not all!) to his own and thereby was more lenient in his treatment.[2] An ally of the suffragettes’ cause moving in the guise of their own jailer is a poignant tale, and sheds some light on the opinion towards the suffrage campaign within the bastions of the patriarchal hierarchy. Could this umbrella stand, and the chance of a diversion from their prison experiences, be the Governor’s show of solidarity, or peace offering? If so it does seem surprising that hardened, determined, political women like Ethel Moorhead would have taken him up on the offer. After all, they wished to capitalise on the grimness of the prison environment, using it as a means of shaming the authorities and making despots out of the British government – comparing them to Tsarist tyrants and their own treatment as ‘inferior in some respects to that which Russian political prisoners are receiving today’.[3] Would the from ‘shab to fab’ umbrella stand transformation not undermine this? There are so many questions I want to raise about this artefact, and that’s not even including why the prison authorities thought it would be a good idea to give cell-destroying militants a heavy metal object.

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Suffragettes outside Duke Street Prison 

Between 1905 and 1914 1,000 suffragettes were arrested and imprisoned in the United Kingdom[4]; almost all saw themselves as political prisoners, and many protested strongly against the denial of this status with their hunger strikes. In comparison to the ‘medieval torture’ of force-feeding carried out by the government to counter this, the umbrella stand seems a much more soft and modern approach to the problem, yet makes sense when considering Duke Street Prison’s rejection of ‘artificial feeding’.[5] In March 1910, the government enacted Rule 243a which allowed the Secretary of State to approve forms of ‘amelioration’ for the imprisoned suffragettes in their prison experience and gave them a certain amount of distinction from the common criminal, but in no way was this the full political prisoner status that they hoped for.[6] Was the stand therefore an attempt to ‘ameliorate’ the imprisonment of the suffragettes at Duke Street?

Or perhaps it was merely a distraction technique, a means of sedating their violent passion for the Cause? But really! Could the governor be so optimistic in his reformative tactic, not to see the obvious flaw in the plan? Did he really expect politically motivated women given paint and a ‘canvas’ NOT to use the opportunity to make the closest thing to a political banner as possible, and decorate the very place of their suppression with it? By painting the stand in the colours of their movement these women appropriated an object of the everyday and politicised it. Smooth move ladies.

This blog seems to be peppered with questions and not many solid truths, but unfortunately the umbrella stand remains an enigma. At the end of the day, this could not be a Suffrage umbrella stand, at the end of the day someone may just have had closeted dreams of interior decoration yet very poor taste in colour. Is it just another myth regarding the suffrage movement, a result of our feminist interest in their legacy: our desire to identify with them and award them significance and space within the history of the early 20th century? Whatever it may be, the speculation is fun, and adds another layer to our understanding of suffragette behavior and how the establishment dealt with them. To see the stand, and speculate about it yourself, visit Glasgow Women’s Library and peruse the vast array of suffrage and feminist artefacts they hold in their extensive archive. GWL’s Donna Moore was so intrigued by the object that it acted as the inspiration behind her short story centering on suffragette experiences at Duke Street, which can be heard by following the link to GWL’s podcast: http://womenslibrary.org.uk/2013/07/21/21-revolutions-podcast-donna-moore-the-mouses-umbrella/

[1] Leah Leneman, A Guid Cause: The Women’s Suffrage Movement in Scotland (Edinburgh: Mercat Press, 1995) p.153/notes to p.153 (pg239)

[2] Padraic Kenney, ‘”I felt a kind of pleasure in seeing them treat us brutally”: The Emergence of the Political Prisoner, 1865-1910’, Comparative Studies in Society and History 54(4) (2012) pp.872-873

[3] Votes for Women (16 July 1909) pg934 cited in Kevin Grant, ‘British Suffragettes and the Russian Method of Hunger Strike’, Comparative Studies in Society and History 53(1) (2011) p.129

[4] Jane Purvis, ‘The Prison Experiences of the Suffragettes in Edwardian Britain’, Women’s History Review 4(1) (1995) p.103

[5] Ethel Moorhead on force-feeding, cited in Leneman pp.178-179

[6] Purvis, pp.120

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