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Researching the suffragette movement


Women have struggled to gain equal rights for centuries. The question of women’s voting rights finally became a core issue in the 19th century, with the struggle particularly intense in Great Britain and the United States. The suffragette movements of the late 19th and 20th Century were perhaps the most compelling of all. The women at the front of these protests propelled their cause with incredible bravery and achieved hard-fought success. Genealogy research into the suffragette movement is a hot topic today, but finding out how and where to begin is often a struggle.

If you are trying to locate a suffragette, or suffragist, ancestor, your first port of call should be The National Archives (TNA). It has several records relating to the suffragist movement, located mainly within its Metropolitan Police and Home Office collections. For example, in the former collection, there is a list of suffragette complaints against the police in 1911, and a history of the suffragette movement.

In the Home Office papers, there are details of the suffragettes’ treatment in prison, and the remission of some of their prison sentences, dating from 1922. There is also a report on the picketing of Downing Street by women who were subsequently convicted of obstruction, and the raiding of a suffragette’s flat in Maida Vale, West London, which was being used as the headquarters of the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1913.  Not all of the records relate to the capital; there are details of the imprisonment of nine suffragettes in Birmingham’s Winson Green Prison in September 1909, following their protests when Prime Minister Herbert Asquith visited the city. One of the women involved in this protest was Laura Ainsworth, who was then sent to Winson Green for fourteen days, during which time she went on hunger strike. The authorities deliberately released her early in the morning of 5 October – just before 7 a.m. instead of the usual 8.30 a.m. – in order to avoid her receiving publicity or support from other suffragettes.

Although The Times noted that, despite having undergone forced feeding, ‘she appeared very little the worse for her experience’, the statement was somewhat undermined by the subsequent comment that she was taken straight from prison to a nursing home to recuperate. Her first forced feeding involved being placed in a chair ‘and her head forcibly held back, her mouth was forced open, four or five wardresses held her in the chair and milk was poured down her through a feeding cup’. The next day, she refused to take the cup and so a tube was ‘pushed into the mouth and down the throat; a cork gag was placed between the teeth so as to keep the mouth open, and four wardresses held her’. This was carried out twice a day, with meat extract forced through her teeth at lunchtimes.

Newspapers – both national and local – can also be an invaluable source of information about individual suffragettes and their actions. The Times Digital Archive, accessible through local libraries, is a useful first site, as is the British Newspaper Archive.

This is an edited extract from a feature by Nell Darby about the suffragettes in ‘Discover Your Ancestors’ periodical ( a monthly digital family and social history magazine.

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