Emmeline and Frederick Pethick Lawrence
Emmeline Pethick Lawrence (1867-1954)
Emmeline Pethick was born in Bristol in 1867, the eldest daughter of a commodities importer. She grew up in Weston-super-Mare and at the age of 23 left for London to volunteer with the West London Methodist Mission, where she met lifelong friend, Mary Neal. In 1895 she and Mary founded the Esperance Girl’s Club in an attempt to improve the lives of slum girls working in the textile trade. They went on to launch Maison Esperance, a dressing making business which offered the girls a living wage and other benefits generally unknown in the low-wage textile business. In 1901 she married Frederick Lawrence, taking the name Pethick Lawrence. The couple bought a Lutyens-designed house in Holmwood, south of Dorking, which they named ‘The Mascot’, as well as a London flat.
In 1906 Emmeline became treasurer of Emmeline Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) which was struggling to establish itself in London. Mary Neal also became a member of the London committee. The Pethick-Lawrences’ London flat at Clement’s Inn became the organisation’s first London office. For the next six years Emmeline was always at Mrs Pankhurst’s side at meetings, marches and events. She brought business experience, money and a wealth of contacts to the organisation, recruiting regional leaders from her family and social circle. (All four of her sisters and several cousins involved themselves in the campaign in one way or another.) Emmeline was also an accomplished public speaker, and an innovative fundraiser. She believed it was her role to give the organisation a firm financial basis. She was also responsible for coming up with organisation’s distinctive purple, white and green colour scheme, and became something of a mother figure to younger women. With her husband, she launched and edited Votes for Women magazine which spread the WSPU message across the country.
Christabel Pankhurst lived with the Pethick Lawrences for five years in London and in Surrey, and ‘The Mascot’ became known to the press as the ‘country home of the suffragettes’. Every weekend Emmeline, Fred and Christabel (the day to day WSPU leadership) and other key figures (among them Annie Kenney, Flora Drummond and Lady Constance Lytton), would retire to Holmwood to plan campaigns whilst walking on Holmwood Common and in the Leith Hill area. Labour leaders Keir Hardie, George Lansbury and Ramsay Macdonald, the future Prime Minister, were also guests.
In 1906 Emmeline was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct after trying to speak in the lobby of the House of Commons, leading to the first of six spells of imprisonment. Her husband took over many of her duties as treasurer while she was in prison. She found prison a deeply disturbing experience and it was three years before she determined to get herself arrested again. While she was in prison in 1909 Mrs Pankhurst and Christabel paid fulsome tribute to their ‘beloved’ treasurer, acknowledging her key role in establishing the organisation in London, and urging members to donate to a collection to buy her a car in suffragette colours to carry out official business. When Emmeline emerged from prison she was greeted by crowds of supporters and driven to the customary celebratory breakfast at the Criterion restaurant where she gave an inspirational speech, calling Holloway Prison the women’s ‘university’.
In 1912, as the militant campaign turned to stone throwing and window breaking, Emmeline and her husband were arrested and charged alongside Mrs Pankhurst (Christabel had escaped to Paris), with conspiring to commit criminal damage and inciting others to do so. They were tried together at the Old Bailey. Both had a sense that this this was their moment of destiny, expressed in highly emotive letters between them. All were convicted and sentenced to nine months. Fred and Mrs Pankhurst were also required to pay the costs of the trial under a new sanction against those convicted of conspiracy. As a matter of principle Fred refused to pay.
Emmeline was imprisoned alongside Mrs Pankhurst in Holloway. She was released early from her sentence after undergoing forced-feeding. After their release, Fred and Emmeline met with Mrs Pankhurst and Christabel (who had not returned to England to stand trial) in Boulogne. There was a difference of opinion over the Pankhursts’ proposal to step up the campaign’s attacks on property damage, and in particular over the use of arson as a tactic. Fred and Emmeline felt that this would alienate the public and squander the sympathy and support generated by the Old Bailey trial. Whilst the couple were recuperating with Emmeline’s brother in Canada, Fred was sued by property owners whose windows had been broken and the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) began proceedings to recover the costs of the trial. Mrs Pankhurst urged them to transfer their assets to Canada and to lead the fight for the vote there. She feared both the Pethick-Lawrences’ potential opposition to an escalation in property damage, but also the prospect of Fred repeatedly being prosecuted, sued, and possibly bankrupted, which might cause women to think twice and to refrain from committing acts of property damage. On their return from Canada, Fred and Emmeline not only found that their house was occupied by bailiffs appointed by the DPP, pending a sale of their assets to pay the court costs, but that they had also been ousted from the WSPU. Both were deeply hurt by what they saw as Mrs Pankhurst’s betrayal of their trust.
In the run up to the auction sale at ‘The Mascot’ in September/October 1912, the WSPU held a six-week campaign of meetings and events in Dorking and the surrounding villages. On 31 October hundreds of supporters in suffragette colours attended and many bought back personal items to return to Fred and Emmeline. Both made speeches before the sale and Emmeline commemorated the event with a plaque in the hallway of ‘The Mascot’ (now known as ‘The Dutch House’) which reads ‘O Liberty, thou choicest treasure!’.
On leaving the WSPU Emmeline and Fred took Votes for Women magazine with them and edited it, with Evelyn Sharp, as an independent suffrage magazine. Emmeline was imprisoned for a final time in 1913, with Evelyn, after protesting at the use of the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill-health) Act on her erstwhile comrades – it was Fred who dubbed this the ‘Cat and Mouse’ Act. There were some calls in 1913 for Emmeline to return as treasurer to the WSPU but in 1914 she joined the United Suffragists, a broad militant grouping of male and female suffrage campaigners.
On the outbreak of war, Emmeline Pethick Lawrence embarked on a speaking tour of the United States and became involved in the women’s peace movement there. She was one of only three women from Britain who was able to attend the Women’s Peace Conference in The Hague in 1915 and she spent the rest of the war campaigning for a negotiated peace with the Women’s International League. In 1918 she stood unsuccessfully for Parliament in Rusholme, Manchester. She went on to lead a campaign against the naval blockade on Germany in 1919, leading a march on Parliament accompanied by ex-soldiers, and was instrumental is exposing atrocities committed in Ireland by the Black and Tans.
In the 1920s the Pethick Lawrences moved to the village of Peaslake where Emmeline gathered around her a coterie of ex-suffrage campaigners, including Mary Neal. From 1926 to 1935 she led the Women’s Freedom League which continued to campaign for the vote to be granted to women on equal terms with men. She remained a prominent speaker on peace and women’s issues throughout her life and collaborated with Lady Rhondda (later a neighbour at Shere) and her Six Point Group, which sought to open women’s access to the professions and promoted equal pay and equal legal rights in a range of areas. She remained close to Sylvia Pankhurst, supporting her in her campaigns, and becoming Godmother to Sylvia’s son, Richard. In 1937 Emmeline Pethick Lawrence published her autobiography, My Part in a Changing World. She died in Peaslake in 1954.
Frederick Pethick Lawrence (1871-1961)
Frederick William Pethick Lawrence was born into a wealthy family in London in 1871 and he inherited a substantial fortune after his father died young. Educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, he was called to the Bar but he never needed to work professionally. He undertook voluntary work, offering legal advice to the poor whilst at Cambridge, and met Emmeline Pethick whilst working as voluntary treasurer for the Mansfield House project in London. His paternal uncles were all Liberal MPs but Fred renounced his candidacy as a Liberal parliamentary candidate after Emmeline converted him to the cause of Socialism; he spent the rest of his life in the Labour movement. Fred took over funding and the editorship of The Echo, a political magazine which was not successful, and when that folded he went on to edit the Labour Record and Review.
Frederick Lawrence married Emmeline Pethick in 1901 and he added her name to his in recognition of her separate identity; he also gave her a London flat of her own above their Clement’s Inn apartment, to which he did not retain a key, in recognition of her independence. Fred, as he was known, became involved with the Votes for Women campaign when Keir Hardie approached his wife to become treasurer of Mrs Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). With Hardie he paid off the organisation’s debts so that it could establish itself in London. Over the next six years he put large amounts of money into the campaign, accompanying Emmeline at her fundraising meetings where he would often be the first person to pledge money in support.
Fred became known to the women as ‘Godfather’ for his activities visiting women in police cells after arrest, where he would advise them of their legal rights and what to say in court. He is reckoned to have stood personal bail for about 1,000 women, including Dame Ethel Smyth. When Emmeline was imprisoned in 1906 Fred took over the role of treasurer and thereafter he did much of the behind the scenes work. He was joint editor of Votes for Women magazine and launched the Women’s Press to raise funds. Though as a man he was unable to join the WSPU, he was acknowledged as part of the leadership and in later years his name appeared as joint treasurer on WSPU headed paper alongside that of his wife.
After the conspiracy trial in 1912 (see above entry for Emmeline Pethick Lawrence), Fred was imprisoned in Brixton and Wormwood Scrubs, where he underwent force-feeding. On his release he was the target of government action to deter funders of the militant suffrage movement. He refused to pay the costs of his trial on the grounds that the government had now taken the fight into the financial plane, stating that as he had risked life and health for the cause, he would not back down because of threats to his property. Many of his personal possessions were sold at auction to cover the bill but as sufficient funds were not raised from to meet all the costs, he was declared bankrupt and the monies taken from his accounts. (The Pethick-Lawrences’ home had been transferred to his brother-in-law to keep it out of the hands of his creditors.) He was also sued for large amounts of money by the owners of shops which had been targeted by women with hammers and stones, and whose actions he had defended during his trial. Even for a wealthy man, the sums involved were significant.
Fred was bitterly hurt when he and his wife were ousted from the WSPU by Mrs Pankhurst in 1912. With Emmeline and a number of high-profile male campaigners, he joined the United Suffragists in 1914. It was Fred who dubbed the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill-health) Act 1913, the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’.
During the First World War Fred acted as treasurer of the Union of Democratic Control (UDC), the leading anti-war movement. Standing as the UDC parliamentary candidate in Aberdeen in 1917 he was pelted with fruit and coal. He was conscripted at the age of 46 in 1918 but given an exemption as an objector on condition that he undertake work of national importance; he worked on a farm in Sussex. In 1918 he was forced to withdraw as the Labour candidate for Hastings as it was clear that his anti-war stance gave Labour no chance of success.
Fred Pethick Lawrence was finally elected to Parliament for West Leicester in 1923, beating Winston Churchill. This was some 20 years after having renounced his original candidacy and involving himself in the campaigns for the vote and against the war. His main political interest was in finance and the elimination of poverty but he never wavered on his commitments to women’s equality. He was at home in Parliament and served as Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury under Ramsay MacDonald but refused to serve in his old friend’s coalition government and lost his seat in the 1931 election. He was returned to Parliament for Edinburgh East in 1935. For many years he promoted the cause of an independent India, undertaking many extended visits and meeting several times with Gandhi. During the Second World War he acted as official Leader of the Opposition in the House of Commons during the coalition government, a role he shared with other senior Labour figures. In 1943 he published his autobiography, Fate has been Kind.
In Clement Attlee’s 1945 Labour government Fred was appointed Secretary of State for India and elevated to the House of Lords as Lord Lawrence of Peaslake. He was part of the team that negotiated the terms of Indian independence in 1946. He remained active in the House of Lords for the rest of his life, as well as writing and broadcasting on his causes. He remarried after Emmeline’s death, to Helen Craggs, an ex-suffragette for whom he had stood bail 50 years earlier. Frederick Pethick Lawrence died in London in 1961.
After Fred’s death, Clement Attlee said that it was given to few men to play a major part in two great movements of liberation, but that Fred had done that. A plaque erected on the headquarters of Dorking Labour Party in 1962 (itself named Pethick Lawrence House) claimed that the work of Fred and Emmeline for the emancipation of women and for world peace ‘would be remembered for countless generations’.
Contributed by Kathy Atherton for The March of the Women project.
Pethick Lawrence, Emmeline. My part in a changing world. Gollancz, 1938.
Pethick Lawrence, Frederick. Fate has been kind. Hutchinson, 1943.
Pethick Lawrence, Frederick. Women’s Votes and Wages. Forgotten Books, 2015.
Pethick Lawrence, Frederick. Women’s fight for the vote. Forgotten Books, 2015.
Atherton, Kathy. Suffragettes, Suffragists and Antis – the fight for the vote in the Surrey Hills. Cockerel Press, 2017
Atherton, Kathy. Suffragette Planners and Plotters: The Pankhurst, Pethick-Lawrence Story. Pen & Sword, 2019
Purvis, June. Christabel Pankhurst : a biography. Routledge, 2018.
Crawford, Elizabeth. The women’s suffrage movement : a reference guide 1866-1928. Routledge, 2001.
Crawford, Elizabeth. The women’s suffrage movement in Britain and Ireland : a regional survey. Routledge, 2008.
Ethel Smyth was called as a witness in the trial of the Pethick Lawrences in May 1912 (Woking News & Mail, 24 May 1912, p.5)
Read Kathy Atherton’s blog on how research into the Pethick Lawrences took over her life https://www.exploringsurreyspast.org.uk/pethick-lawrences-and-me-by-kathy-atherton/
The March of the Women project’s online exhibition features a panel on Fred and Emmeline Pethick Lawrence https://www.exploringsurreyspast.org.uk/themes/people/activists/road-to-the-vote/the-march-of-the-women-surreys-road-to-the-vote-online-exhibition/panel-6-leading-suffrage-supporters-in-surrey-peaceful-vs-militant/
Read Dorking Museum’s web page on the Dorking and Homwood suffrage campaign with the Pethick Lawrences https://www.dorkingmuseum.org.uk/the-dorking-and-holmwood-campaign/
Watch the film made about Fred and Emmeline as part of the Royal Holloway University of London’s Citizen’s 800 project https://dorkingmuseum.org.uk/emmeline-pethick-lawrence-citizens-800-project/