Dora Thewlis: The Lost Suffragette

Among the women battling for the vote in Edwardian England was Dora Thewlis, aged 16. Ian Herbert tells her story

From the doyenne of political agitators, Emmeline Pankhurst, to the martyr Emily Davison, killed beneath the king's horse at the 1913 Derby, the campaign for women's suffrage is sprinkled with the names of women whose part in the struggle has ascribed to them an indelible place in history. But no such privilege has been afforded to a young woman who briefly entranced the tabloid press with her part in the struggle a century ago.

She was Dora Thewlis, a teenage Yorkshire mill worker whose impoverished upbringing afforded her none of the sophistication of Pankhurst, a barrister's daughter. At the age of 16, Thewlis joined a suffragette mission to break into the Houses of Parliament, was thrown into prison and catapulted on to the front page of the Daily Mirror, where an image of her with dishevelled dark hair and skirts askew accompanied the headline: "Suffragettes storm the House". The girl's air of indignation before magistrates fascinated the reporters and paparazzi of the day, who followed her back to Huddersfield, west Yorkshire, and christened her the Baby Suffragette.

New research by Jill Liddington, senior research fellow at Leeds University, has uncovered how Thewlis and other poor, unschooled Yorkshirewomen are the forgotten heroines of the long struggle for the vote. Lilian Lenton, a 21-year-old dancer; Edith Key, a mill worker born out of wedlock and given away by her mother; Lavena Saltenstall, a self-taught journalist; Elizabeth Pinnace, a rug weaver; and Leonora Cohen, a seamstress's daughter, were among those who campaigned hard. They fought despite minimal schooling and the risk of censure and ridicule in west Yorkshire, then a stronghold of Liberalism and temperance.

Thewlis belonged to one of the many families which had migrated north from Suffolk in the late 1800s for a better life in the textile mills. They eventually alighted at Huddersfield, whose canal had made it a thriving economic centre.

Money was tight. Dora's elder sister, Mary, was 10 when she joined their mother at the mill, and Dora was soon called up there herself. But she also read the newspapers avidly, and by the age of 16 was ready to fly the suffragettes' purple, white and green colours.

Alongside her was Edith Key, née Proctor; uneducated and destined for a life of penury until she married Frederick Key, a marginally wealthier blind piano tuner. Edith Key's fastidious, handwritten minutes book of the Huddersfield Women's Social and Political Union have provided substantial evidence about the heroines, whose stories appear in a new book by Liddington, Rebel Girls.

Thewlis was part of the Yorkshire contingent in clogs and shawls - average age just 27; typical occupation tailor or weaver - which descended on Westminster in February 1907 to stage a "women's parliament", and left Manchester on the noon train to repeat the mission on 19 March.

A heady atmosphere surrounded their departure. "Mothers said farewell to daughters, aunts wished nieces well," Liddington says. The station was packed with supporters.

None of the more worldly suffragettes could have secured such vital publicity as the "little mill hand", as Thewlis was described by the papers after her arrest and appearance in court. In the dock, wearing her mill dress, she "looked a pathetic figure", with her face only partly visible but her "bright laughing eyes looking out at the magistrate". When the pompous London magistrate, Horace Smith, wrote to Thewlis's parents after sending their daughter back north, they wrote back, "incandescent with indignation at being so patronised," Liddington discovers.

In a letter to her daughter in prison, where she was taunted by officers, Eliza Thewlis said: "I am very proud of the way you have acted, so keep your spirits up and be cheerful." Attempts to spirit the girl out of the tabloids' clutches were unsuccessful, but Thewlis, by now 17, was undaunted when a reporter reached her. "Don't call me the 'Baby Suffragette'," she said. "I am not a baby. In May next year I shall be 18. Surely for a girl, that is a good age?" It was her finest hour.

The new research reveals that the more educated, sophisticated suffragette leaders held no fears for the young women, who had been fired by the Edwardian creed of self-education. "There was an informal system of borrowing books. They read," said Liddington. "The suffrage movement also provided these girls with an education in itself. It was a movement which cut across class."

The role played by Thewlis and her contemporaries was not limited to direct action. They also set off across the country on caravan tours to recruit women from the remotest villages and fishing harbours.

Edwardian men often did not take kindly to the women's boldness. Adela Pankhurst was pursued by aggressive hordes of young men. She was nearly trampled underfoot after one protest in Manchester, in 1906, which resulted in her imprisonment for two months. But after the Liberals were re-elected, the tactics became more extreme: window-smashing, hunger strikes and setting fire to pillar boxes to destroy their contents.

Not until 1918, after a serious shortage of able-bodied men during the war had shown women's usefulness to politicians, did these young women win their battle - legislation granted women over 30 the right to vote. But by then, those of humble backgrounds were disappearing from the scene - to be all but lost from the history books for a century. The famous Mirror picture of Dora Thewlis was turned into a comic postcard for southerners, inaccurately entitled "a Lancashire lass".

In search of escape from the mills, Thewlis emigrated to Australia before 1914. She married there four years later, and never came home to experience the suffrage she had fought for.

Rebel Girls, by Jill Liddington, Virago, £14.99

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
2015 General Election
May2015

Poll of Polls

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own