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Kate Parry Frye’s Suffrage Diary

April 19, 2013
by Elizabeth Crawford

Elizabeth Crawford, bookdealer and writer specialising in the Women’s Suffrage Movement, reveals how she discovered Kate Parry Frye’s Suffrage Diary, telling the forgotten story of one woman’s contribution to the campaign for Votes for Women which took place in the East End a century ago.

Kate Parry Frye (1878-1959)

Operating from 321 Roman Rd, Sylvia Pankhurst’s ‘East London Federation of Suffragettes’ is the most famous of the groups in the East End who backed George Lansbury, the Labour MP, when he resigned his Bromley & Bow seat to fight a by-election on the ‘Votes for Women’ issue in the autumn of 1912. Yet, also knocking on doors and holding meetings was the ‘New Constitutional Society for Women’s Suffrage’ about which very little was known, until now.

In 1912, the diarist, Kate Parry Frye, was out on the streets of Bow canvassing for Lansbury and she also took part in a short, sharp Whitechapel campaign, a year later. Her voluminous diary has only recently come to light, replete with an archive of associated ephemera, recording her efforts to convert the men and women of  Southern England to the cause of ‘Votes for Women.’ Her diary entries, written while she was a paid organiser for the Society, bring to life what was – in her eyes – the alien territory of the East End.

I discovered the diaries piled in boxes in a dripping North London cellar while working in my capacity as book dealer. Loath to reject this record of one woman’s entire life, however unsellable the soaking volumes appeared, curiosity got the better of my common sense and I purchased them. Once they were dried out, I began to read them and the existence of the diarist took shape – or, rather, Kate reshaped herself as she came to life.

Her story is not extraordinary in outline, but extraordinary in the engrossing details of life that she committed to paper. Where another diarist might select only the highlight of a day, Kate gives us train times, meal times, details of the contents of those meals, details of lodgings, landladies, restaurants, tube lines, parties, palm readings, clothes-buying, dog-walking, dentist and doctor visits, attendance at election meetings, Suffrage campaigning – both as a volunteer and as an employee – and of play-going and play-writing.

Kate, a well brought-up daughter of the ‘grocerage,’ had been a devotée of the stage, pursuing acting until she realised the theatre would never pay. And being able to pay her way became increasingly important when her father, who in the eighteen-eighties developed a chain of grocery shops, forsook his business for politics, holding the North Kensington seat as a radical Liberal MP. Beguiled by Westminster, he subsequently lost control of his family business and, eventually, even of his home – which led to Kate taking up work as a paid organiser for the New Constitutional Society.

It is extraordinary that, even after a hundred years, new primary material such as Kate Parry Frye’s Diary has surfaced, allowing us access to the experience, without the interference of hindsight, of the life of a Suffragette. Recognising the value of Kate’s experience, I decided that rather than selling the manuscripts of her diaries I would edit the entries for 1911-1915 as Campaigning for the Vote: Kate Parry Frye’s Suffrage Diary.

With Kate as a guide, readers may trace the ‘Votes for Women’ campaign day by day, as she knocks on doors, arranges meetings, trembles on platforms, speaks from carts in market squares, village greens, and seaside piers – enduring indifference, incivility and even the threat of firecrackers under her skirt. Her words bring to life the experience of the itinerant organiser – a world of train journeys, of complicated luggage conveyance, of hotels and hotel flirtations, of boarding houses, of landladies, and of the quaintness of fellow boarders. No other diary gives such an extensive account of the working life of a Suffragette, one who had an eye for the grand tableau as well as the minutiae, such as producing an advertisement for a village meeting or, as in the following entries, campaigning in Whitechapel.

Saturday September 27th 1913

Another boiling day. On top of a bus to Whitechapel. A meeting of women and girls who had been before – and a tea given by Miss Raynsford Jackson who afterwards addressed them and could not be heard beyond the first row, I should say, and in any case was very tedious. However one girl ended by playing the piano and made a deafening row. Miss Mansell, Miss McGowan’s nice friend, was there – she is a dear – she did all the tea. I chatted and handed round. The girls were so nice – nearly all Jewesses. The pitiful tales they tell of the sweated work is awful – and they are so intelligent – and quite well dressed. The Jews are an example to the gentile in that way.

Wednesday October 1st 1913

Bus to Piccadilly Circus – lunch at [Eustace] Miles [a vegetarian restaurant] – by train from Charing Cross to St Mary’s [the nearest railway station to the Whitechapel Committee room], getting there at two o’clock. I need not have hurried as we did not start out on our Poster Parade until three o’clock. Miss McGowan, Miss Simeon, Miss Goddard and myself, with Miss Mansell to help give out bills. It was a great success – the Whitechapel folks were very entertained and very few were rude and rough. We got back about five all very tired – it is tiring work, the pace is so slow and one has to be so keenly on the lookout for everything – and the mud and dirt in the gutter is so horrid. Then after tea I went off to Mark Lane again to give out bills. Had some sardines on toast at Lyons and to the Committee room 136 Whitechapel Rd at 7.45pm where I was joined by Mrs Merivale Mayer and Mrs Kerr and we all went off to Mile End Waste for an open-air meeting at eight o’clock. I gave out hand bills and chatted to the crowd. Some of our girl friends were there – they are so affectionate and nice. I was simply dead from standing and did not get home until 10.45pm. I was so tired I wept as I walked from the station.

Kate Frye’s account of the activities of the New Constitutional Society is the fullest that exists. Nothing of the Society’s archive has survived, presumably destroyed when the society dissolved in 1918, once the vote was won and its work done. Although she never again had reason to venture into the East End, the Suffrage movement had opened Kate’s eyes to the deprivations endured by its people and gave reality to her hope that after women got the vote ‘something would be done’..

Members of the New Constitutional Society for Women’s Suffrage in their workroom.

“It was all simply magnificent, 70,000 of us, five abreast, and some of the sections were just wonderful  – a real pageant and I enjoyed myself tremendously. It started at 5.30pm and it was not much after 6pm when we were off. We were in a splendid position. The end had not left the Embankment before we started the meeting at 8.30pm, seven miles, a thousand banners and seventy bands. We were just behind one and it was quite lovely marching to it. We all kept time to it and at least walked well. Several of the onlookers I heard say that ours was the smartest section. We went along at a good steady pace – not nearly so much stopping about as usual and it was lovely to be moving, though I had not found the wait long. Such crowds – perfectly wonderful – there couldn’t have been many more and they must have waited hours for a good view. The stands were crowded too and one could see the men lurking in the Clubs – some of them looking very disagreeably.”

Kate Parry Frye’s Diary entry for Thursday May 21st 1914

Kate kept one of the handbills that she distributed around Whitechapel – The New Constitutional Society translated their message into Yiddish. Thursday, October 2nd 1913 “To Whitechapel at 10.30am. Miss Goddard was the only one who turned up till afternoon so she and I went off to the Docks to give out handbills. We had a funny morning, as I got arrested twice. The first time by a young and foolish Policeman for holding a Public Meeting where it was not allowed. ‘Now then young woman come out of this,’ with a most savage pull at my arm, nearly knocking me over. It was so absurd.”

13th June 1908 saw a spectacular summer procession with magnificent banners designed by the Artists’ Suffrage League and Kate was proud to carry one for North Kensington, even though it was tiring work. After the long march from the Embankment she described how “I got in the [Albert] Hall about 5.10pm and they started the meeting just as I sank down. I must own to feeling completely done when I left the banner. I got cramp in both feet at once and felt a thousand but I dashed into the Hall found the seat in my box with the Wrights – and Alexandra, like an angel, got me a cup of tea. She, Gladys and another girl looking most awfully charming in cap and gown.”

In February 1910, Members of the House of Commons formed what was termed the Conciliation Committee to prepare a private member Conciliation Bill acceptable to all parties. The Bill passed its first reading on 14th June and, in order to give the campaign maximum publicity, the Women’s Social & Political Union and another militant society, the Women’s Freedom League, joined together with other societies to mount a spectacular procession through London. Kate, to her delight, marched with the actresses,“Everyone was interested in us and sympathisers to the cause called out ‘Well done, Actresses.'”

Black Friday‚ 18th November 1910. At a meeting in Caxton Hall, members such as Kate, heard the news that, with the two houses locked in a battle for supremacy, Parliament was to be dissolved. This meant that the Conciliation Bill would be killed. In retaliation, the WSPU immediately ended the truce it and prepared to resume militant tactics. A deputation of three hundred women, divided into groups of ten, set out from Caxton Hall for Parliament and in Parliament Sq met with violence such as they had never previously encountered. This day has gone down in Suffrage history as Black Friday. As Kate reported, “I was almost struck dumb and I felt sick for hours. It was a most horrible experience. I have rarely been in anything more unpleasant. It was ghastly and the loud laughter & hideous remarks of the men – so-called gentlemen  – even of the correctly attired top-hatted kind, was truly awful.”

Saturday, July 3rd 1926, Mrs Pankhurst addressing the last Suffrage Demonstration –  to persuade the government to give votes to women at twenty-one‚ and for peeresses in their own right to be given a seat in the House of Lords. “[After lunch] changed, off with John‚ bus to Marble Arch and walked to Hyde Park Corner. Sat a little then saw the procession of women for equal franchise rights and to the various meetings and groups. Heard Mrs Pankhurst and she was quite delightful.”

Photograph of Kate Parry Frye at Berghers Hill in the thirties.

Campaigning for the Vote: Kate Parry Frye’s Suffrage Diary – edited by Elizabeth Crawford can be ordered direct from the publisher Francis Boutle and copies are on sale in bookshops including Brick Lane Bookshop, Broadway Books, Newham Bookshop, Stoke Newington Bookshop and London Review Bookshop.

8 Responses leave one →
  1. Greg Tingey permalink
    April 19, 2013

    Their fight is not over yet …
    There are STILL City firms who will/rather get in a hugely expensive MAN, from outside, rather than promote one of, or even both of the perfectly competent women they already have – at lower cost, incidentally.
    ( Hint – it odesn’t help if this firm is infected with Catholicism )
    And, yes, I am speaking of a specific case – BUT – no names, no libel suits or summary dismissals out of misogynistic spite, either.

  2. Carolyn Badcock - nee Hooper permalink
    April 19, 2013

    What a brilliant find this diary was! Imagine how many other wonderful items/books etc are hidden away in basements or old trunks dying to be found. I feel enormously privileged to own my mother’s autograph book which her mother gave her for Christmas 1937. It has entries done by so many relatives including my great-grandmother from Roscommon, Ireland. To me it’s priceless.

    Thanks, gentle author – yet again.


  3. Peter Holford permalink
    April 19, 2013

    The hope is that all such documents are valued for this sort of insight they can give to the events of the time. The primary resources are always very rewarding. My gg-grandmother’s brother emigrated from Bethnal Green to the USA in about 1830 and his autobiography, written in about 1850, turned up in a loft in Virginia. It gave some great insights into the bald facts of our family history.

  4. April 19, 2013

    Wonderful to read. I also really liked the rest of the stuff. Tickets, posters and programmes, etc. Really brings the diaries to life. I do the same almost 100 years later. I am proud to be feminist and diary keeper too today.

  5. Libby Hall permalink
    April 20, 2013

    What a magnificent job Elizabeth Crawford has done in selecting and transcribing Parry Frye’s not-always-easy handwriting, and in sharing with us an historic treasure.

    How exciting finding that damp hoard must have been!

    I can’t wait to get my copy of the book.

  6. Elaine Whittaker permalink
    April 21, 2013

    What a wonderful find and fantastic that women (and men) can read of the struggles for equality in the not so distant past. Unfortunately in some parts of the world today the struggle goes on and we must never stop fighting for equality for all people.

  7. April 21, 2013

    What an amazing find for me! I’m in the middle of writing my latest novel, set through WW1, Suffragettes, and the Halifax Explosion. This is wonderful. Thanks.

  8. Catofstripes permalink
    April 23, 2013

    Thank you for this, it’s fascinating.

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