For many years the historiography of the British women’s suffrage movement was based, in the main, on collections of primary material left by members of suffrage societies, both militant and constitutional, augmented by published memoirs and autobiographies. In my Introduction to The Women’s Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide, 1866-1928 (Routledge, 1999) I dwelled briefly on the way in which the availability and nature of archival material shapes the writing of suffrage history (indeed, of course, any history). In order to break new ground with The Reference Guide I was keen to employ tools (for instance, genealogical information – such as wills and census returns – artefacts, postcards, films, novels, plays etc) other than those readily accessible. My intention was to dig deeper below the surface of minutes and annual reports in order to breathe a measure of life back into the individual women (and men) who had devoted so much time and energy to their Cause but who had not left a convenient record of their engagement. But what of those minor suffrage societies about which very little information had survived in the archives? Without a cache of documents to use as a basis for its construction, it is very much more difficult to piece together a coherent history of a society than it is that of an individual.
In the dim and distant pre-internet days of 1995 I had begun my research by writing to every archive and library in Britain in order to establish their holdings of suffrage-related material. The world has now changed; search engines can uncover material, from all manner of sources, that twenty years ago we would have had no hope of recovering.However, no amount of remote searching can conjure up information residing within the pages of a voluminous diary piled in boxes in a dank north London cellar. That falls to chance and in June 2009 that chance came my way.
The diary in question, contained in over 60 volumes and replete with an archive of associated ephemera, was the lifetime work of Kate Parry Frye (later Collins, 1878-1959). From it I have been able to draw a fuller picture than exists anywhere else of one of those previously shadowy suffrage societies – the New Constitutional Society for Women’s Suffrage. My Reference Guide entry on the NCS – based in the main on the only archival material that survived of the Society – three annual reports held in the Women’s Library – runs only to about 500 words; Campaigning for the Vote: Kate Parry Frye’s Suffrage Diary, my edited version of her diary, covering in detail the years 1911-1915, a time when she was working as a paid organizer for the NCS, to about 120,000.
This published edition of Kate Frye’s diary allows those interested in political and suffrage history to accompany her as she works as an NCS organizer, not only at the London headquarters, but also in Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, Kent, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire and Sussex as she knocks on doors, arranges meetings, trembles on platforms, speaks from carts in market squares and deals with the egos and foibles of her fellow suffragists.
Although from her teenage years in the 1890s, when her father was an MP, Kate Frye had taken some interest in politics, she showed no real curiosity about the suffrage movement until 1906. From then the diary traces her growing involvement. In February 1907 she took part in the first National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) procession through London, her diary providing the longest account by a participant that I have yet read.
‘We flew up as far as Piccadilly Circus…The crowd began to gather and we were nearly swept away by the first part – a swarm of roughs with the band – but the procession itself came – passed along dignified and really impressive. It was a sight I wouldn’t have missed for anything – and I was glad to have the opportunity of seeing it as well as taking part in it. We stood right in front so as not to miss our contingent – and I asked if they knew where it was. Miss Gore Booth said it was coming and we were fearfully excited and I was so anxious not to miss our lot. The crowds to see us – the man in the street – the men in the Clubs, the people standing outside the Carlton – interested – surprised for the most part – not much joking at our expense and no roughness. The policemen were splendid and all the traffic was stopped our way. We were an imposing spectacle all with badges – each section under its own banners. Ours got broken, poor thing, […] I felt like a martyr of old and walked proudly along. I would not jest with the crowd – though we had some jokes with ourselves. It did seem an extraordinary walk and it took some time as we went very slowly occasionally when we got congested – but we went in one long unbroken procession. There were 3,000 about I believe. The mud was awful. Agnes [her sister] and I wore galoshes so our feet were alright but we got dreadfully splashed. It was quite a business turning into the Exeter Hall. A band was playing merrily all the time.’ [Extract, 9 February 1907]
Kate played her part at numerous fund-raising suffrage bazaars and dances (palm-reading was her speciality), attended meetings of the Actresses’ Franchise League, marched in all the main spectacular processions, stewarded at meetings, and bore witness to the ‘Black Friday’ police brutality in Parliament Square on 18 November 1910:
‘Then from there [Caxton Hall] we were turned into the street and I waited there, chatting with different women, till about 12.40 when the 1st deputation left the Caxton Hall for Parliament Square. They were soon swallowed up in a seething mob and I simply flew with many other women by short cuts to Parliament Square where I landed more or less by chance in the thick of it. One could hardly see the plan of it all and, oh, the hurly burly, excitement, shouts, laughter, applause & rushes of the enormous crowd which grew every minute. I was almost struck dumb and I felt sick for hours. It was a most horrible experience. I have rarely been in anything more unpleasant – it was ghastly and the loud laughter & hideous remarks of the men – so called gentlemen – even of the correctly attired top-hatted kind – was truly awful.’ [Extract, 18 November 1910]
What she had witnessed caused her resign from the London Society and join the WSPU. But shortly afterwards, in early 1911, as her family’s finances collapsed, she took up an offer of employment as an organizer for the NCS and it is this period on which I have chosen to concentrate in the published edition of Kate’s diary. If interested, you will find posts relating to Kate’s earlier suffrage activity, when she had the luxury of giving her services freely to the cause, on my website – Woman and Her Sphere – together with an article, ‘Kate Frye and the Problem of the Diarist’s Multiple Roles’, discussing an associated issue – the ethics of ‘mining’ a diary to present only one episode drawn from a long life.
Since writing the entry on the NCS in the Reference Guide, no other information on the Society has surfaced and I think we can be reasonably certain that all the records created by the NCS were destroyed when the Society disbanded in 1918, its work, as its leaders saw it, accomplished by the passing of the Representation of the People Act. I would contend that, at the moment, Kate Frye’s diary represents the major primary source on the NCS.
The Society had been founded in early 1910 by, among others, Alexandra and Gladys Wright, Kate’s friends and Kensington neighbours, to take a position between that of the ‘militant’ Women’s Social and Political Union and that of the ‘constitutional’ National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. The founding members of the NCS, many of whom had previously been Liberals and NUWSS supporters, thought that the NUWSS had become ineffectual and, although they were not prepared themselves to break the law, did not condemn WSPU tactics and actively supported its policy of campaigning at elections against government (Liberal) candidates.
Over and above the information it provides about the internal workings of the NCS, Kate’s diary provides us with an inimitable record of her efforts to convert the men and women of England to the cause of ‘votes for women’. There is no other primary source that provides such a coherent picture of the life of an organizer. Although other ‘suffrage diaries’ survive in the public domain, most were written primarily because that involvement represented a singular experience – often imprisonment – a highpoint in the diarist’s life. Kate’s diary is valuable because, writing without the benefit of hindsight, she records the inconsequential daily details of, say, finding a chairman for a suffrage meeting in Maldon or dealing with an imperious speaker in Dover, or spreading the suffrage message in the East End of London
as well as the rather more momentous suffrage occasions, such as waiting on the platform at King’s Cross station as the train carrying Emily Wilding Davison’s coffin is about to leave for Morpeth.
‘Near King’s Cross the procession lost all semblance of a procession. We lost our banner – we all got separated and our idea was to get away from the huge crowd of unwashed unhealthy creatures pressing us on all sides. We went down the Tube way… through to the other side finding ourselves in King’s Cross station. Saying we wanted tea we went on the platform and there was the train – the special carriage for the coffin – and, finding a seat, sank down and we did not move until the train left. Lots of the processionists were in the train, which was taking the body to Northumberland for interment – and another huge procession tomorrow. To think she had had to give her life because men will not listen to the claims of reason and of justice. I was so tired I felt completely done. We found our way to the refreshment room and there were several of the pall bearers having tea.‘ [Extract, 14 June 1913]
In Women of the Right Spirit – paid organisers of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), MUP 2007, Krista Cowman draws material from a wide range of interesting sources in order to analyze the working life of Kate Frye’s WSPU equivalents. Kate’s diary adds another dimension, allowing us not only to observe her work but to share her experience.
We can see first-hand how a society campaigning in a constitutional manner to raise awareness of the necessity for ‘votes for women’, backing in particular the Conciliation Bills that were before parliament for much of the time that Kate was organizing in the country, was affected by the activities of the militants, of how it became increasingly difficult to hold meetings, find lodgings, or make and keep members who were appalled by the methods of the WSPU. For instance on 2 December 1912, while working in Dover, Kate remarked, ‘I went out to see Miss Robinson, whose uncle was going to give a Suffrage party and now won’t owing to the letter box demonstrations.’
Kate’s words bring to life the world of the itinerant organizer – a world of train journeys, of complicated luggage conveyance, of hotels (and hotel flirtations), of boarding houses, of landladies, and of the ‘quaintness’ of fellow boarders. Although not a world into which she was born, it was one with which she was not totally unfamiliar. For Kate, a gently brought up daughter of the ‘grocerage’, was a devotee of the theatre and from 1904-6 had been a member of a repertory theatre company, touring the provinces.
Although she had wanted to earn sufficient to support herself – to be a ‘working woman’ – when she discovered that acting did not pay, it was entirely natural that she should return to life as a daughter-at-home. However by 1911 Kate’s father, Frederick Frye, once North Kensington’s Liberal MP and a businessman of some standing, had suffered financial catastrophe and it was against the background of the impending loss of the family home that Kate began her work for the NCS. Her diary sheds a clear light on the precarious reality of the long Edwardian summer; one year she could take for granted a life of boating and regattas, dressmakers, cooks and maids, the next she was living in dingy digs, attempting to raise money by hawking the family jewellery and old clothes.
It is ever surprising that new primary material such as Kate Frye’s collection continues to surface. There is an argument to say that nothing happens by chance and although, when I bought the diaries, I had not the faintest thought that they would provide material for a book, I did not actually stumble into that cellar uninvited. The diaries had been offered, c. 2007, to the Women’s Library, one of whose archivists had subsequently viewed the collection and had written a report recommending acceptance, while commenting on the very poor condition of many of the volumes and associated ephemera. With reluctance the Library decided that it was unable to accept the offer, the expensive of conserving the collection to archival standards being too great.
It was two years after the initial offer that, in my capacity as a bookseller specializing in women’s history, I was alerted to the diary’s existence by the Women’s Library archivist. Thus it was as a bookseller that I viewed the soaking-wet, mildewed volumes. They did not look appealing, but I was loath to reject out-of-hand this record of one woman’s entire life. Moreover, glancing inside some volumes I could see that the diarist had laid in quantities of ephemera. Just as history has its ‘turns’ – be they imperial, linguistic, cultural, postmodern, or digital – so bookselling, thanks to digitization, internet selling and printing-on-demand, is experiencing an ‘ephemeral’ turn and, at one with the zeitgeist, I find ephemera – suffrage or otherwise – increasingly appealing. Curiosity got the better of commonsense and the soaking volumes were purchased.
Once the volumes had dried, the reading began. Kate Frye reshaped herself, drawing me into her world. Recognizing that what she had to tell us of her suffrage days was both invaluable and engaging, the idea of publishing her experiences as Campaigning for the Vote took hold. Publication of this new primary material will, I hope, be useful not only to ‘suffrage scholars’ but also those more generally interested in early-20th-century social history.