Inspired by the campaign to erect a statue of Leicester suffragette Alice Hawkins, feature writer Sally Jack looks at Alice’s life and discovers connections with two prime ministers, spells in prison and The One Show.
Alice Hawkins stepped up onto a soapbox at the Corn Exchange in Leicester Market and re-adjusted her Votes for Women sash. Not a bad turnout, she thought looking at the group gathered before her in their boaters, caps and shawls round their shoulders. “Get back to your family!” came a shout from the crowd. Gesturing to her husband Albert with their children at her side, Alice said: “But here is my family, they are here to support me.”
This incident one Sunday evening in 1907 sums Alice up: with the backing of her family she made a stand for what she believed in, speaking at rallies all over the country. So who was Alice Hawkins and how did a working class mother of six come to play such a big role in the politics of Edwardian society?
Born in 1863 in Stafford, she settled in Leicester working at Equity Shoes on Western Road. In the early 1900s women could not vote and historically, were expected to run the home and care for children. If they did work, it was for lower pay than men and often in ‘sweated labour’ or domestic service. Life was hard with no NHS or benefit system to fall back on.
However, Equity Shoes approved of trade unions, allowing staff time off for rallies and it was in this environment that Alice and many other women became active in radical working class politics. In February 1907 following a demonstration at the gates of the House of Commons Alice was arrested for disorderly conduct and spent seven days in Holloway jail, her first of five prison sentences.
She wrote of her experiences: “As for food it is just enough to keep a person alive providing they can eat it. Every morning we get a pint of tea and a small brown loaf of bread …tea time we get a pint of cocoa and a loaf of brown bread.” Night time was no better. “Lying on a hard mattress until every bone in your body aches and you are only too pleased to see the light so you may get on your feet again,” she described.
Alice also wrote a sharp letter from prison to her local MP (and future Prime Minster) Ramsay MacDonald, where she expressed disappointment at his criticism of the suffragettes’ tactics at Westminster and admonishes the Home Secretary, Herbert Gladstone. She wrote: “Woman thinks him a coward for ordering mounted police out to ride down women who would have come peaceable enough to see them, if they would allow them. No other civilised country would treat women in such a manner.”
Fuelled by her feelings of social injustice Alice was one of the founding members of Leicester’s branch of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1907, engaged in highlighting inequalities and poor conditions in the workplace as well as the right for women to vote.
She wasn’t afraid to argue her point, and was one of 80 women who addressed crowds estimated at up to 500,000 at Women’s Sunday in Hyde Park, June 21 1908. Alice was clearly a formidable and determined woman but her political activities were only possible thanks to the support of her husband Albert and their children.
Alice’s great grandson Peter Barratt remembers hearing many stories of his granny Alice as he grew up. He said: “Alice would never back down in a family argument, she would stand her corner and stick with it.”
A couple of run-ins with Winston Churchill, Home Secretary at the time, continue to be favourite stories of the family. Churchill came to Leicester in 1909 to speak at a public meeting and Alice, as a known activist, was barred. Alfred heckled the young Churchill on her behalf but they were arrested attempting entry to the Palace Theatre on Belgrave Gate. Alice spent another 14 days in jail.
In 1910 Alfred challenged Churchill during a speech in Bradford. “Alfred successfully sued the Liberal Party for £100 after stewards broke Albert’s leg. They threw him downstairs and he spent six weeks in hospital,” said Peter.
Alice became something of a celebrity as Peter describes another popular family memory of her close relationship with the Pankhursts, synonymous with the suffragette movement. He said: “Sylvia Pankhurst sent their chauffeur driven car to collect Alice to go on a rally. The car drove up and down the terraced streets around Tudor Road and when it finally pulled up it was being chased by hundreds of children. Alice emerged from her house in her suffragette finery, waved to her neighbours and was driven off through the city.”
In the years leading up to the First World War elements of the WSPU led by the Pankhursts turned to militant tactics. Hunger strikes, firebombing of stations and empty buildings were carried out to highlight their cause, with Blaby station suffering an arson attack in 1914. However, this lost public support with the feeling traditional family values were under threat and women were taking jobs from men. It became increasingly dangerous to speak in public and in 1913 Alice and her daughter were attacked by a mob after a meeting in Leicester Market.
Outbreak of war in 1914 brought suffragette action to an end and women became a vital part of the war effort in factories and farms around the country. Their contribution was recognised and from 1918 women over 30 and who owned property could now vote.
Peter now addresses the crowds himself having given hundreds of talks and interviews since 2003. He appeared in front of five million viewers on the BBC’s The One Show in 2008, sitting on the sofa next to Christine and Adrian and chatting about his granny Alice. Peter finds his own brush with celebrity often engages secondary school pupils, who are of course the voters of tomorrow, and is hopeful it will go some way to reduce voter apathy. “Parliament would be a different place if everyone voted. If you are prepared to play your part in society then your vote is part of that. Alice was a working class lady, she believed she could make a difference and stood up for what she believed,” he said.
It was only 1969 and over 20 years after Alice’s death in 1946, when all men and women over the age of 18 were given the right to vote, regardless of marital and financial status.
With the go ahead from Alice’s ancestors, city mayor Sir Peter Soulsby and the Leicester Civic Society, a proposal is now underway to commemorate Alice’s memory with a statue in Leicester Market. Councillor Adam Clarke is leading the campaign. He said: “We have quite a few statues of women but they are all anonymous. When Alice’s descendants announced they had been able to finally put a headstone on Alice’s grave last year, I thought if the family can provide a headstone, the citizens of Leicester should provide a statue. The best place for this statue would be the Market where she spoke to crowds and responded to vociferous opposition.”
Councillor Susan Barton spoke at Cycles and Suffragettes in November 2012 where cyclists took a tour of the blue plaques around the city dedicated to Leicester’s many suffragettes.
“A lot of younger women don’t realise the struggles their mothers and grandmothers had to go through. A statue would symbolise women’s campaigns, not just Alice and what she looks like, but what Alice symbolises,” she commented.
It seems right the last words should be from Alice, passed proudly down to her family to today: “You must use your vote, we suffered for it.”
Find out more about Alice and Albert Hawkins and see the family’s extensive range of suffragette memorabilia on Peter’s website www.alicehawkins.com. To find out more about the A Statue of Alice Hawkins Campaign visit the Facebook page of the same name or contact firstname.lastname@example.org
*All photos courtesy of Alice Hawkins’ family.