Women's suffrage movement: The story of Kate Harvey

A medal marking the 1913 imprisonment of the women's rights campaigner has been sold at auction. Paul Vallely reveals how she inspired thousands to stand up against the male-dominated system

Thursday 24 November 2005 01:00

Metalwork and Miscellanea - under a heading of such cold abstraction was a remarkable life subsumed. And someone bought it yesterday for just £840.

The catalogue of the auctioneers, Bonhams, summarised it thus: "Of Suffragette Interest: the evocative Holloway Prison badge awarded to Kate Harvey, circa 1870-1946". In that footnote to history an extraordinary story lies, only half uncovered.

The badge is cast in the form of a shield on which is depicted the entrance to Holloway Prison. On the reverse is a card inscribed in a faint hand: "Given to Mrs K Harvey By Women's Suffrage After She Had Been In Prison For Tax Resistance."

Kate Harvey was a remarkable woman, even without the incident which lies at the heart of the commendation. She was, for a start, a professional woman in what was very much the man's world of late Victorian Britain. She was, moreover, a professional in that most daring of new disciplines - physiotherapy - about which the British Medical Journal was raising concerns. To many respectable Victorians this biomechanical view of the body in health and illness sounded uncomfortably like a euphemism - physical contact which might get rather too close to the sexual - a view which altered only after spinal injury units and orthopaedic hospitals were introduced after the First World War.

But she was not just a physiotherapist, she was also deaf.

Search the archives of the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscript and you find reference to Ms Harvey not under politics or medicine but under the British Deaf History Society.

Yet the medal was in connection with none of this. The mother of three daughters, Mrs Harvey was widowed early and took up good work among the poor. She opened a home for handicapped children in Bromley. There she came into contact with another young widow, Charlotte Despard, who had taken a similar turn towards good works after the death of her husband, opening a social services centre for the needy in Wandsworth.

Now, the women might have been described as a couple, though such things were not spoken of in those days. In her diaries Despard recorded their first meeting on 12 January 1912 and later characterised the date as " the anniversary of our love".

Despard is the better-known of the two figures. She was born in Kent but developed radical political views when she moved to London and was shocked by the poverty she saw. She made her living writing romantic novels until she penned A Voice from the Dim Millions, which dealt with the problems of a poor young factory worker. But when no-one would publish it, she dedicated herself to the poor. She left her luxurious house in Esher for London where, in 1894, she was elected as a Poor Law Guardian in Lambeth.

Over the next few years she became friends with George Lansbury and Keir Hardie, two of the Labour Party's earliest and most radical leaders. Into this world she drew Kate Harvey and inevitably the pair became involved in the movement to win votes for women.

But, like all movements driven by idealism rather than political pragmatism, the movement was prone to fracture. Charlotte Despard had been a big figure in the Women's Social and Political Union, led by the prominent suffragettes Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst. Despard was arrested and imprisoned for her activities, but she was too radical for the autocratic Pankhursts. In 1907 she led 70 other women in breaking away from the WSPU in protest at the Pankhurst's high-handed and dictatorial style.

They formed a more democratic organisation, the Women's Freedom League, with Despard as its President and Harvey - playing Alastair Campbell to Despard's Blair - its Honorary Press Secretary. The new organisation took a more militant, though non-violent approach.

In 1909 Despard met Gandhi and fell under the influence of his theory of "passive resistance". She urged upon their members a campaign of civil disobedience, calling on women not to pay the newly-introduced National Insurance tax on servants' wages.

Some 10,000 women declined to pay the new tax. They were not all suffragettes; several were simply women who ignored or disliked the business of buying a weekly stamp for servants. A few, who were self-employed, refused to buy their own stamps, and some were bankrupted by the Inland Revenue for their protest. Around 100 women were sent to prison for refusing to pay.

The most notorious of these was Mrs Harvey. After many months of refusing to buy a stamp for her servant, in 1912 the authorities issued a warrant for the seizure of goods in lieu of payment. She responded by barricading herself into her house. An eight month stand-off passed before bailiffs finally broke in using a crowbar. But a year later she still refused to pay, declaring "I would rather die first". She set about building better barricades. This time the bailiffs needed battering rams to get in.

Her long battle drew the attention of the press, not least because, serendipitously, the name of the servant whose weekly National Insurance stamp Mrs Harvey refused to buy was called Asquith - which also happened to be the name of the Prime Minister. The authorities decided to make an example of her and sent her to prison for two months.

Charlotte Despard was distraught. With her friend jailed she pined and her ability to work evaporated. Her diary recorded the pain of the estrangement: "The miss of my darling always greater ... I think of her first at noon and latest at night ... sad and first thoughts always of her, my darling ... feelings of deep depression. The days are dragging, very hard to realise she has not been in for a fortnight."

In the event Mrs Harvey was released after just a month. The damp cell at Holloway made her so ill that the authorities feared that she might die and let her out a month early. Mrs Despard's diary recorded the moment they were reunited: "Then at last the dear face, it seemed changed, she has suffered cruelly ... I was so glad it was all over."

When the First World War broke out the main suffragette organisations called off their campaign. But Despard and Harvey refused. Most members of the Women's Freedom League were pacifists and refused, unlike other women's organisations, to become involved in the British Army's recruitment campaign.

Instead, believing that the British government was not doing enough to bring an end to the war they supported the campaign of the Women's Peace Council for a negotiated peace. Despard even stood, unsuccessfully, in the 1918 General Election, in protest, as well as on a suffragette platform which demanded that women should have the vote on equal terms with men; that all trades and professions be opened to women on equal terms and for equal pay and that women should be allowed to serve on all juries.

Throughout it all Kate Harvey and Charlotte Despard remained close. Their common interests even extended to theosophy - the movement of mystical spiritualism which thanks to Madame Blavatsky was so fashionable at the time.

Mrs Harvey's home for illegitimate, sick and handicapped children - some of whom were paid for by Charlotte Despard - was renamed the Brackenhill Theosophical Home School. It also featured a vegetarian diet, self government and a Montessori department.

How it all ended is unclear. In 1921, after nine years together, Charlotte Despard, who had been prominent in the Irish Women's Franchise League and was something of a Sinn Feiner, moved to Ireland and transferred her affections to Maud Gonne MacBride. The magical years were over. Kate Harvey lived until 1946 and then the medal commemorating her moment in history passed into the possession of her daughter Rita, now dead too, and hence into the hands of the yesterday's auctioneers.

They placed an estimate on it of between £300 to £500. In the event it sold for £840, plus premium and tax. Along with it went a souvenir brochure for the International Suffrage Fair, Chelsea Town Hall, "some pages missing, some incorrectly numbered".

Slipped in among them was a newspaper. It reported on "the eagerly expected performance of Mrs Harvey's dramatic version of Longfellow's Hiawatha". There had been, it said, a "splendid welcome for Mrs Harvey who appeared in public for the first time since her imprisonment and subsequent illness". Of Hiawatha, and of Minnehaha, it said no more.

The Suffragettes

Christabel Pankhurst

She was born in Manchester in 1880 and co-founded the Women's Social and Political Union in 1903 with her mother, Emmeline, and sister Sylvia. She was arrested after disrupting a Liberal Party meeting in 1905. To gain publicity for her cause she got herself arrested and went to prison rather than pay the fine. After the Qualification of Women Act 1918, Pankhurst was one of 17 women who stood in the post-war election. She died in 1958.

Lady Constance Georgina Lytton

After seeing suffragettes in Holloway prison she joined the Women's Political and Social Union in 1909. She was jailed after throwing rocks at an MP's car. She suffered a heart attack in August 1910 after she was freed and was part-paralysed. She forced herself to write and produced Prisons and Prisoners, her account of prison. She died in 1923.

Dame Ethyl Smyth

Joining the cause in 1910, Ethyl Smyth was a militant, organising publicity stunts and speeches with Pankhurst. Pankhurst had gone into hiding, and Ethyl delivered messages between England and France. She had studied music and composed "The March of Women" in 1911. The song became the suffragette anthem. She volunteered in the First World War, hunted and golfed, and took lovers such as Emmeline Pankhurst and Virginia Woolf, documented in her autobiography. She died in 1944.

Emily Davison

Born in 1872, Emily Davison became a martyr for "the cause". In 1909 she was jailed for throwing rocks at the carriage of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. In prison she went on a hunger strike. The government responded to prison hunger strikes by freeing the prisoners until they regained their strength enough to return to finish their sentences. Following several suicide attempts, Davison grabbed George V's horse and was trampled. She died days later, in 1913.

Emmeline Pankhurst

Born in 1858, Emmeline Pankhurst formed the Women's Social and Political Union in Manchester in 1903. She perfected the use of publicity and spectacle with the disruption of public meetings, vandalism and publicised hunger strikes. Pankhurst, a widow and lecturer, was most noted for her ability to mobilise and her charisma. But she died in 1928, estranged from her friends after becoming increasingly conservative.

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