Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Article - The vicar's daughter jailed for her part in battle for the vote (suffragettes)

NOTTINGHAM vicar's daughter Helen Kirkpatrick Watts was prepared to do whatever was needed to help win the vote for women and if that meant going to prison, so be it.

Helen, who was a key figure in establishing the city branch of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), once wrote in an article that women's suffrage "will not be won by drawing-room chatter... it has got to be fought for in the market-places, and if we don't fight for it, no one else will".

With that sort of determination, it probably came as no surprise when Helen was arrested.

Helen had gone to London to attend a meeting of the National Women's Social and Political Union at Caxton Hall.

Feelings were running high and it seems that around 30 of them, wearing the union's colours of purple, green and white, demanded to take their case to Liberal Prime Minister Herbert AsquithHouse of Commons. at the
Police, however, had different ideas and wanted the meeting split up.

Helen was one of a number of women taken into custody, causing a sensation which hit the headlines.

She wrote home from her cell: "I'm afraid it will come as a great shock to you to see my name in the paper. I was the second to be arrested."

Helen's mother was not surprised by her daughter's actions.

She wrote back: "I couldn't say that your letter was altogether a surprise to me, for it had crossed my mind more than once before that you might think it your duty to do as you have done."

Helen was hauled before the bench, and Bow Street Magistrates demanded she should stand surety for her future "good behaviour".

She refused, on the grounds she was likely to continue protesting.

So she was sent to Holloway Prison for a month.

She returned home to Nottingham a heroine of the cause, feted by around 50 suffragettes who were waiting for her train at the Midland Station, while her father the Rev Allan Watts, vicar of Holy Trinity in Lenton (1893-1917), stood quietly in the background.

She told the gathering: "One of the chief things I have to complain of was the hot and stuffy atmosphere of the cell. There was no proper attempt at ventilation, and, of course, I was unable to open the window. That made me feel run down.

"Most of the suffragettes were rather unwell in prison."

Helen was true to her word.

The demonstrations continued and only six months later she was arrested again, this time in Leicester in September 1909, after taking part in a demonstration outside a meeting being held by Winston Churchill.

After going on hunger strike for 90 hours in Leicester Prison she was released.

Although she often spoke at public meetings, Helen Watts was not arrested again until January 1910 when she took part in a demonstration outside a meeting being held in Nottingham by Herbert Samuel.

On this occasion she was released without charge.

According to fellow suffragette Emily Blathwayt: "She (Helen Watts) is a nice girl, but difficult to talk with because besides being very deaf herself she speaks so that it is very difficult to understand her."

In 1912 the WSPU began a campaign to destroy the contents of pillar-boxes.

By December, the government claimed that more than 5,000 letters had been damaged by the WSPU.

In July 1913 attempts were made by suffragettes to burn down the houses of two members of the government who opposed women having the vote.

These attempts failed but later, a house being built for David Lloyd George, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, was badly damaged by suffragettes.

This was followed by arson attacks on such male bastions as cricket pavilions, racecourse stands and golf clubhouses.

Helen Watts disagreed with this arson campaign and resigned from the WSPU to join the Women's Freedom League.

During the First World War she was a nurse at the Mineral Water Hospital in Bath and she also worked in both the War Office and the Ministry of Labour.

Little is known about her later life, but one theory is that she emigrated to Canada towards the end of the First World War.

If so, she would not have been alone. Quite a few suffragettes, tiring of the unending battle, elected to leave Britain behind.

However, in the early 1980s, documents relating to Helen Watts were found in an unopened trunk at Avonmouth Docks and lodged with the Nottingham Archive Office.

The Helen Watts Archive contains 23 letters (dated 1900-1914) to Helen or her family concerning her activism and eight of her written speeches (dated 1909).

It has subsequently been expanded with inclusion of articles from the Nottingham Evening News and Nottingham Guardian (1908-11).


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