Alice Hawkins The Life of a Suffragette by Peter Barratt
When the role of the suffragette movement, at the turn of the last century, in gaining the right for women to vote is raised, many people immediately think of the Pankhurst family and their achievements. Whilst this, to a large extent is rightly so, there were many women of all social backgrounds who also supported the cause, and in so doing, suffered much hardship and imprisonment at the hands of an uncaring Government of the day.
My great-grandmother, Alice Hawkins, was one such lady. Born in 1863 into a working class background, Alice left school at thirteen to spend her working life as a shoe machinist, in the ‘boot and shoes’.
From her early teens, Alice realised that the working conditions and pay of women in industry was inferior to that of their male colleagues and so began a lifetime work of participation in the boot and shoe trade union to try to improve this. Alice was lucky in her early twenties, for she joined the Equity shoe factory which had been newly formed as an early workers co-operative. The Equity actively encouraged workers to participate in political organisations and allowed time off when necessary.
But by the early 1900’s Alice became increasing disillusioned with what could be achieved through the trade union movement, as the main focus lay in improving the conditions for male workers who were seen as the ‘breadwinners’ in the family.
Change came for Alice in February 1907 when she attended her first meeting of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in Hyde Park, followed by a march the same day to the House of Commons to demand the vote for women in society. That afternoon, mounted police charged down the women and Alice was arrested and imprisoned for the first time in her life. In the following 7 years, she was to be arrested with 4 terms of imprisonment in Leicester and Holloway jails.
Alice’s first term of imprisonment was to have a profound effect upon her and the next month, she invited Christobel Pankhurst to speak in Leicester. Shortly after the local branch of the WSPU was formed.
During the summer months of 1907, and at the invitation of Alice, Sylvia and Christobel Pankhurst spent much time in Leicester working and gaining the support of the women in the shoe industry. Later in years Sylvia wrote a personal account of the struggle; ‘at night I held meetings for the local WSPU, amongst whom, only Mrs Hawkins, as yet, dared mount the platform’
At this point, it is only right that mention should be made of her husband, Alfred. A committed socialist, Alfred fully supported his wife in the suffragette campaign and would often gain entrance to political meetings of Cabinet ministers when women were excluded.
One such occasion was in 1909 when a young Winston Churchill came to Leicester Corn Exchange to speak. Alice was refused entry for she was known to be a militant activist, so Alfred went in her place. Standing at the back Alfred chose his moment and interrupted Churchill’s speech with the words; ‘why don’t they (the Government) secure the vote of the women of the country – how dare you stand on a democratic platform’
With that, Alfred was ejected from the meeting and then together with Alice and other suffragettes besieged the main doors to try to regain entry. For that, they were all arrested and Alice, refusing to pay the fine, spent 14 days in Leicester jail.
The following year, Alfred followed Churchill up to a meeting at Bradford and again heckled him on the issue of women and the vote. This time, the stewards were far more aggressive and threw him down a flight of stairs breaking his leg. For this, the Liberal Party were sued by the Men’s Political Union, won the case and gained £100 compensation. A large sum in 1910!
In June 1907, perhaps Alice’s finest moment came when she spoke before a mass rally in Hyde Park. Known as Women’s Sunday and attended by over 250,000 supporters, Alice was reported as a keynote speaker the following day in The Times.
Although always one to attend national events in London, Alice worked endlessly amongst the shoe trade workers and would cycle out to towns and villages on a Sunday morning to campaign for support.
Unfortunately, not all men and not all women were sympathetic to the militant activities of the suffragettes and speakers at public gatherings were frequently heckled, harangued and physically assaulted.
Whilst speaking to a large crowd in Leicester market one Sunday evening, a man shouted to Alice, ‘get back to your family’. Alice replied; ‘but here is my family, they are here to support me’. And indeed they were with Alfred and their children (all teenagers) standing by her side.
Following crowd violence the suffragettes were requested in Leicester to cease such open-air meetings. Alice refused and future meetings were attended by a strong police presence.
The suffragette activity continued up to 1914 when the Great War broke out. The call came from the national leaders to cease all militant activities and support the nation through the War. And so ended Alice’s time as a suffragette. She continued after the war to support the local trade union and the labour movement up to the time of her death in 1946, at the age of 83.
Much of the information on Alice’s life has been documented in various publications and what a valiant woman she was! A determined lady, she stood up for what she believed in, and benefited from the strong support of her husband, her children and her employer, the Equity shoes.
But not all information on Alice’s life has been gained from the written word for Alice lived with her son (my grandfather) for the last ten years of her life. And so, my mother, Vera, lived with Alice in the same household and knew her well.
Mum is 88 now, and memories fade. But when we sit down for a cup of tea and I ask mum for her recollections of Alice, she always says; My grandmother said to me when I was a teenager, you must use your vote, we suffered for it and I always have
Let that be a lesson to us all.