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
Click to follow
Indy Politics

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