A plaque celebrating the York suffragettes will be unveiled in Coney Street on Wednesday. STEPHEN LEWIS reports on the local women who joined the fight for the vote

TODAY, No 36 Coney Street is home to a bright new toy shop - The Entertainer - which opened last December, just in time for Christmas.

A hundred years or so ago, however, this inoffensive little building was a hotbed of political activism.

It was the headquarters of the York branch of the WSPU, the Women's Social and Political Union - or the suffragettes, as they have gone down in history.

From this office, and under the capable leadership of a Fulford woman, Violet Key Jones, the suffragettes campaigned for women to have the right to vote. They wrote letters, they spoke at political rallies, they sold copies of their own newspaper - The Suffragette - and they scrawled messages on pavements in chalk.

When these methods failed to see their cause being taken seriously by the ruling men of the day, the more courageous and militant of them took things further.

They set post-boxes on fire (including, in York, post boxes at Castle Mills Bridge, in Wigginton Road, in Parliament Street and at Balmoral Terrace); they disrupted public meetings by shouting and waving banners; they broke shop windows; and they even smashed works of art in art galleries.

York Press:

Emmeline Pankhurst driving a carriage plastered with 'Votes for Women' placards in 1910

One one memorable occasion, during the night of the 1911 census, several suffragettes hid out in the WSPU offices so that they wouldn't be at home when the count was made.

According to Bridget Vincent of the York Civic Trust, who wrote an educational resource pack for local primary schools about the York suffragettes, their motto on census night was a simple one: "They say I don't count, so I won't be counted". Another version of this motto, Bridget says, went: "No persons at this address, only women".

York's most prominent suffragette was undoubtedy Annie Seymour Pearson, who actually served a spell in prison for her beliefs.

Mrs Seymour Pearson, known as Nancy or Nance to her friends, was a respectable, middle class 40-year-old mother of four who lived at 14 Heworth Green in a large terraced house. Her husband was a manager at the LNER and a suffragette sympathiser.

Inspired by seeing Emmeline Pankhurst speak, in January 1913 she was part of a delegation of 16 local suffragettes who travelled to London 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 seems to have been remarkably unworried by the sentence, finding time to scrawl a postcard to her husband while she waited to be driven away to prison. "'I shall be in Holloway 'til a week Tuesday," she wrote. "It is now 5pm, and we are going to our lockups by motor car soon!"

She only served two days of her sentence 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”.

York Press:

Annie Seymour Pearson in later life, with her grandson. Photo courtesy The Camellia Collections

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 suffragette sympathiser 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 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 jail terms.

During his 'release' Johnson, who was living in Doncaster, requested a visit to York — to the home of Mrs Seymour Pearson. Once there, he gave police the slip, aided by Nance, her husband and Violet Key Jones.

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

Miss Key Jones was the city’s first and only WSPU organiser. 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 the public.

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

Another prominent York suffragette was Millicent Price (née Browne).

Millicent grandfather was Henry Wilberforce, a gentleman farmer near York thought to be related to the anti-slavery campaigner William.

Millicent seems to have inherited much of her famous relative’s courage and radicalism. In the years before the First World War, she became a suffragette, marching all over the country to campaign for womens’ right to vote.

She related her experiences with some glee in a memoir she wrote years later in 1935 - the original, typewritten manuscript of which is kept in the city archives at Explore York.

At one point she spoke at a Suffragette rally in Bristol, and recorded what happened next in her diary: “Hundreds of rough youths of Bristol... surged around me. I started to make a speech, but was pelted with potatoes and tomatoes, which I caught when I could and put down the front of my pinafore dress, facetiously thanking them for contributions towards our lunches...”

The suffragettes were not universally popular in their day. One irate York resident wrote to his local newspaper - yes, that would be the Yorkshire Evening Press - in 1911 to complain about them. “On Saturday morning about eight o’clock, I saw two women chalking something on the pavement. My curiosity led me to walk over, and, to my surprise, it was an advertisement that Mrs Pankhurst was to speak in York," he wrote.

"Now, Mr Editor, why should the women be allowed to advertise in this way, defacing the pavement? If a poor tradesman or theatrical company, or 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. I find the city is covered with these chalkings.”

So far as we know, none of the York suffragettes lost their lives for the cause - unlike Emily Wilding Davison, a suffragette from the south of England, who was trampled to death at The derby in 1913 after running out in front of King George V's horse.

But, as historian Professor Krista Cowman concluded in a paper published a few years ago by The Borthwick Institute, small cities such as York produced their own militant suffragettes who contributed “a small, but nevertheless, significant part of a greater national movement.”

That national movement eventually resulted in women getting the vote - although not until the end of the First World War, and even then only for those aged 30 and over. It was only in 1928 that the law was changed again to give women aged 21 the vote - on an equal footing with men.

The York suffragettes

The story of the York Suffragettes was told for the first time in the 2017 community production Everything Is Possible, presented by Pilot Theatre and York Theatre Royal.

And on Wednesday, their contribution to the development of civil rights will be recognised by the unveiling of a plaque at 36 Coney Street - the former headquarters of the York branch of the WSPU.

York Press:

The cast of York Theatre Royal and Pilot Theatre's 2017 community production about the suffragettes

The plaque has been prepared jointly by the York Civic Trust, Pilot Theatre and the Theatre Royal.

It is very welcome, says York Civic Trust's Bridget Vincent.

"It is hugely important that we remember the suffragettes," she said."They fought for something that we take for granted - and they changed the nature of society.

"The Britain we live in today would have been so different but for them. The battle for women's rights is still making the headlines today - we have things like #metoo - but it was these women who put the ball in play. And the York suffragettes played their part. Annie Seymour Pearson had a very comfortable middle class life, and yet she was willing to go to prison for her beliefs. We owe them so much."

  • The suffragettes plaque will be unveiled at 10.30am on Wednesday January 30 at 36 Coney Street. All welcome.