The new movie Suffragette shines the spotlight on women campaigning for the vote in London - but what about their protesting sisters in York? MAXINE GORDON shares their stories

POLICE brutally attacking women protestors outside the Houses of Parliament and bundling them, bloodied and bruised, into carriages bound for the cells is one of the many harrowing scenes in the new film, Suffragette.

The film portrays women's struggle for the vote through the eyes of Maud Watts, played by Carey Mulligan, a laundry worker in London's East End, who joins the suffragette movement at great personal cost.

York Press:

Actress Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst in the new film, Suffragette

Meryl Streep plays Emmeline Pankhurst, the enigmatic leader of the movement, and founder of Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), who espoused the motto: "deeds, not words". Frequently imprisoned for her actions, she urged supporters to carry out a campaign of civil disobedience in an effort to secure equal voting rights for women.

Away from the silver screen, York has its own suffragette stories to tell - some of them worthy of a movie in their own right.

Annie Seymour Pearson is the city's most prominent suffragette - and earned the respect of others by serving a spell in prison for her beliefs Mrs Seymour Pearson, known as Nancy or Nance to her friends, was a 40 year old mother of four who lived at 14 (and later 58) Heworth Green in a large terraced house. Her husband was a manager at the LNER and a suffragette sympathiser.

She was part of a delegation of 16 local suffragettes who travelled to London in January 1913 ahead of a key debate on suffrage in Parliament. When the bill failed, Mrs Seymour Pearson joined a protest at the House of Commons, where along with 30 others, she was arrested and sentenced to two weeks in Holloway jail.

She only served two days before being bailed by her husband - but news of her imprisonment spread quickly and she was hailed as a suffragette celebrity on her return north. Her friends in the local WSPU sent her a wire that read: "Fearfully proud, love from all."

After her time in Holloway, she vowed never to go back to jail, and began operating covertly, helping to organise the escape of wanted suffragettes and their supporters, or even harbouring them at her home in Heworth.

The most famous case involved that of Harry Johnson, who was sentenced to one year's hard labour for attempting to blow up a house near Doncaster. Johnson went on hunger strike and was released back to into the community under the Cat and Mouse Act, which allowed sick prisoners to return home, under round-the-clock police supervision, until they were well enough to resume their jail term. During his "release" from prison, Johnson, who was living in Doncaster, requested a visit toYork - to the home of Mrs Seymour Pearson. Once there, he gave police the slip, aided by Mrs Seymour Pearson, her husband and Violet Key Jones, the official WSPU organiser for York and Doncaster.

Miss Key Jones was fortunate not to be in jail herself. At the time of Johnson's arrest, detectives searching the grounds of the targeted property, found her name on a piece of paper alongside a copy of The Suffragette newspaper, two gallons of paraffin and a box of firelighters.

Miss Key Jones was the city's first and only WSPU organiser, who took up office in 1910 - one year after the official launch of the branch by Mrs Coultate, a school teacher from Nunthorpe Road. The organisation had offices firstly in Coney Street then later in Coppergate, staffed by volunteers working in shifts.

The branch built membership and raised funds by hosting "at home" meetings, where suffragettes could invite friends and members of the public.

They held whist drives, tea parties, jumble sales and sewed goods to sell to raise funds.

Copies of their newspaper, Votes for Women, and later, The Suffragette, were sold in Coney Street and in the market.

Miss Key Jones was not afraid to protest. She was ejected from a meeting of politician Philip Snowden - but only after tying herself to a chair.

The dramatic stories of these key players in York's suffragette history have been documented by Krista Cowman in a paper published by The Borthwick Institute.

Professor Cowman painstakingly pieced them together from an array of documents, including newspaper articles and the diary of Mrs Seymour Pearson.

In conclusion, she writes: "Small cities such as York produced their own militant suffragettes to rival the larger urban centres," adding the city contributed "a small, but nevertheless, significant part of a greater national movement."

York Press:

Suffragettes gathering to protest in London in 1910

A look back at the pages of the local press of a century ago also reveals some colourful accounts of suffragette activity.

The suffragette's campaign to set mail boxes of fire extended to York, with attacks at Castle Mills Bridge, Wigginton Road, Parliament Street and Balmoral Terrace.

Former York mail worker, Mr Hill, was a messenger earning a 5s a week in 1910. He told the local press how on one occasion when he had gone to collect mail from a post box, he found it on fire. Five others had been set alight the same day by suffragettes who dropped chemicals inside the boxes, on to the letters.

Suffragettes spread the word about public meetings and VIP visits by chalking on pavements, an activity that prompted one irate York resident to complain to the Press in 1911. "On Saturday morning about eight o'clock, I saw two women chalking something on the pavement. My curiosity led me to walk over to see what it was, and, to my surprise, I found that it was an advertisement that Mrs Pankhurst was to speak in York. Now, Mr Editor, why should the women be allowed to advertise in this way, defacing the pavement? If a poor tradesman or a theatrical company, or a small newsboy or, in fact, anyone else, did this the police would very soon be on their track, but these suffragettes seem allowed any liberty they like to take with public property. It is a very great eyesore, and I find the city is covered with these chalkings."

Mrs Pankhurst spoke in York in April 1911 and October 1912 - such events usually resulted in a surge in membership for local WSPU branches.

It was also reported that local suffragettes met with the Archbishop of York at Bishopthorpe Palace, although his views on universal suffrage were not recorded.

Suffragettes from Easingwold and York also greeted their comrades during a long march from Edinburgh to London. In Easingwold, they stayed at the George Hotel. In York, they were met at the city boundary by friends and a brass band.

Millicent Price (née Browne) was another prominent York suffragette. In the years before the First World War, she marched all over the country to campaign for women's right to vote.

York Press:

Emmeline Pankhurst being arrested by police, May 1914

She wrote about her adventures in a memoir in 1935 - the original, typewritten manuscript is held in the York archives. At one rally in Bristol, she recounts being pelted with potatoes and tomatoes. She also attended a trial of Emmeline Pankhurst in London. She wrote: “She took occasion to elaborate her demand for justice for women, and her faith in the methods of self-sacrifice in fighting for that justice. She was sentenced to a month’s imprisonment...” .

It wasn't until the end of the First World War that women won the right to vote, but only for those aged 30 and over. In 1928, the law was changed to give women aged 21 the vote - on an equal footing with men.

Thanks to the Borthwick Institute, York, for access to The Militant Suffrage Movement In York (Borthwick Paper No. 110), by Krista Cowman, Professor of History, University of Lincoln, which helped in researching this article.