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Pethick-Lawrence Papers Trevelyan, George Macaulay (1876–1962), historian, public educator, and conservationist
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Letter from F. W. Pethick-Lawrence to Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence

Brixton Prison.—Encourages her with reflections on the ability of the human spirit to transcend material circumstances. Refers to his study of French and Italian, and his other reading, and describes a method of counting on the fingers.

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Transcript

Brixton Prison
19th June 1912

Dearest

How delightful it is to think that this actual paper will be carried to you & that I shall get a reply written by yourself! I have sent you in my thoughts many messages of love which I feel confident have reached you, just as yours have reached me bringing their rich benison with them; But the actual written word gives tangible shape & contact & certainty.

I have not been in any way anxious about you, & equally you have I am sure not been anxious about me. You know that the one thing, which alone always seems worth while to me, is that the human spirit should transcend the whole of the material world; & therefore you do not need to be told that not in the very smallest degree have I been dismayed or discouraged by my environment. Dearest, here in the stillness—that is, to me, essentially the stillness of earth life—I am conscious only of the great spiritual tie which binds us together & binds us to the great Power which guides us. These are days when one drinks of the deep wells of life & because the draft is pure & crystal it refreshes & invigorates far beyond any draft of ordinary daily life. Or again it is as though the noisy overtones which make the chords & discords of the work-a-day world were hushed, & the fundamental notes were heard alone in all their simple grandeur. Or again it seems to me as though of the beauty, which is in the outer world & which our senses detect, the spirit itself had become perceptible to our souls direct.

One of my great joys is to watch the sunlight in the evening on the walls of my cell; some-times the nights are dull & then I miss it, but more often the last hours are bright. It sinks below a house close by about a quarter past seven and is then shut off from sight; each evening the last rays go a little further on the wall than the evening before, but we are coming soon (next Friday) to the longest day & after that it will begin to go back again.

Now you will want to know all I have been reading; First let me say it is surprising how little time I seem to have though I scarcely miss a minute of the day. Nevertheless I have read a larger number of books since I came in. I haven’t made so very much progress in Italian so I daresay you will nearly have caught up to where I am reckoning in what I did before. In the Berlitz Book, which I think you have got also, I have got to page 50. For the last few days I have laid it aside for a study of French which has caught my fancy, but I shall come back to it again in a little while & then I shall probably go on until I finish the book. I have been fascinated with Trevelyans† story of the siege of Rome {1}. It is really the volume preceding the one on Garabaldi’s† Thousand, & it is in my judgment a good deal the finer of the two. Have you read it? I cannot remember. Then I have read over again the story of the Thousand & hope shortly to read the third volume which I understand is now out. I have also got Crispi’s account of the same events {2} but have not read it yet. I have also read a book on radium, & one on Faraday which have inter-ested me very much. During the last week I have been wrestling with Green’s history of England {3} & with a very ponderous life of Henry Newman {4} which though good is very heavy to di-gest. A great soul was Newman, but somehow I can’t help feeling that he lost his way; perhaps a wider understanding might make one see it differently. In addition to other things I have also read a good deal of lighter literature including Pecheur d Island† {5} which I think delightful & two books by Mark Twain—Tom Sawyer & Huckleberry Finn—which Annie gave me. You should get May to send them to you[;] they are full of delicious humour.

May has been very good to me, so thoughtful & kind, sending me everything I could possibly want.

I think you will be amused to know that once when I was taking exercise by walking up & down my cell, I started counting my walks on my fingers & arrived at the following:—it is of course said that on the fingers of the two hands one can count from one up to ten, but that is only by reckoning each finger of each hand to count one only; if the fingers of the left hand are allowed to have a different value from the fingers of the right, one can count all the way from one up to 35 (that is six times six less one), & if the thumbs of each hand are also allowed to count differently from the fingers, then one can count all the way from 1 up to 99. One may even go further but if I do so you will say I am becoming like I was on the top of the omnibus on that famous occasion! Anyhow I don’t think you will mind this little digression. Perhaps you will be able to work it out yourself!

Dearest how close we have been together all this month for all the physical barriers that have been between us. I have treasured your beautiful words about Whit Sunday in my heart & they have been a great joy to me. I have thought very much about you and shall be thinking of you so in the next few days, but they will not be thoughts of anxiety but of confidence & assurance. You well know that my spirit is behind yours sustaining you in all that you do, & I know & have the certainty that your spirit is behind mine; & so together we are very strong.

Dearest the sun is shining brilliantly, it is a gorgeous & magnificent day! I am full of radiant life.

My very great love to you

Your husband.

P.S Your dear delightful letter has just come; you seem to have been able to write a day earlier than me. I have read it through with such pleasure & shall read it and reread it many times; but I am so anxious to get this off without any delay so that you may have it soon. Blessings on you for all your dear words. Ever thine

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One folded sheet. At the head is printed, ‘In replying to this letter, please write on the envelope:— Number 7294 Name Lawrence F W. P.’, the name and number being filled in by hand. The word ‘Prison’ of the address and the first two digits of the year are also printed, and the letter is marked with the reference ‘C1/12’ and some initials. Strokes of letters omitted either deliberately or in haste have been supplied silently.

{1} Garibaldi’s Defence of the Roman Republic, by George Macaulay Trevelyan (1907), the first book of a trilogy which also comprised Garibaldi and the Thousand (1909), and Garibaldi and the Making of Italy (1911).

{2} Probably The Memoirs of Francesco Crispi (2 vols., 1912).

{3} A Short History of the English People, by J. R. Green, first published in 1874, or perhaps his expanded History of the English People (4 vols., 1878–80).

{4} The Life of John Henry, Cardinal Newman, by Wilfrid Ward (2 vols., 1912).

{5} Pêcheur d’Islande (An Iceland Fisherman), by Pierre Loti (1886).

Copy of a letter from Lord Pethick-Lawrence to G. M. Trevelyan

Explains his view of the historical importance of the women’s suffrage movement (in response to views expressed by Trevelyan).

(Carbon-copy, with handwritten alterations.)

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Transcript

3rd. October, 1949.

My dear Master,

You may remember that when I had the honour of dining in Trinity last June {1} I mentioned to you that I should like some day to have a talk with you about the woman’s militant movement for the franchise at the beginning of the century. Thinking it over I have come to the conclusion that it will probably suit you better if I put what I have to say in writing.

I must begin by apologising for troubling you at all about the matter but as you know I have been for a great part of my life a propagandist and I am still incorrigible in my old age. I do not like to think that you, our foremost British historian, should have, as it seems to me, the wrong slant on this movement which I hold to have been of considerable historic importance. The fact that I played a prominent part in it myself entitles me to speak on its behalf though I am free to admit that it also entitles you to charge me with bias. But then you have said (and I agree) that even an historian is none the worse for bias.

My case is:— 1) that any section of the community that has no political rights should endeavour to win them by reason and argument, but that if prolonged peaceful agitation fails to influence those who have the power, then it has no alternative but to use extraordinary and extralegal methods unless it is prepared to acquiesce in its own subjection.

2) that such methods should be designed so as a) to rouse the largest number of the unenfranchised section to a consciousness of their subjection b) to create the greatest difficulties for the Government, and c) to win the support of the bulk of the population by casting odium on the Government for its repressive counter measures.

3) that the militant suffrage agitation acted broadly on these lines (though it naturally made some mistakes), and that it was instrumental—though not exclusively—in creating a situation from which there was no escape except by conferring a measure of enfranchisement on women.

I do not think you will substantially disagree with me on either of the first two points which are borne out by countless examples, the latest of which come from Asia—India and Indonesia, in the former of which I was acting for the Government—but I gather that you do not accept my version of the facts as to the third.

It is to this point therefore that I will specially devote myself.

I was brought up, like you, in the Liberal fold and I still think that we owe much of our national democratic heritage to the great Liberal statesmen of the 19th century. Nevertheless I think that the Liberal Party bungled the case of the women and of the working man and lost its prestige and pre-eminence by so doing. By the time that the militant suffrage movement began women had grown tired of asking politely for the vote and being fobbed off it by discreditable political devices; and some younger spirits had become rebellious.

The militants directed the spear-head of their attack upon the members of the Liberal Government because they were the most vulnerable in that it was contrary to Liberal principles to deny enfranchisement to a section of the community which paid taxes and was subject to the laws made by a parliament in which they were not represented. In the earlier stages of the agitation they abstained from violence and concentrated on questioning Cabinet Ministers, campaigning against Liberal candidates at by-elections and committing technical breaches of the law. As a consequence they were subjected to considerable violence at the hands of stewards at meetings and of the police in the streets and they suffered terms of imprisonment.

I think it is indisputable that in this way they succeeded in rousing the sympathy of a very large number of their own sex. Many thousands enrolled themselves in the militant organisations. They included such prominent women as Dr. Garrett Anderson the Mayor of Aldeburgh, Mrs. Saul Solomon widow of the Cape Premier, Lady Constance Lytton, and leading actresses, novelists and others. Funds were contributed running into hundreds of thousands of pounds. The paper Votes for Women the weekly organ of the movement had a circulation of 30,000 to 40,000. About a thousand women served terms of imprisonment. Moreover after militancy began (and in my opinion, and in the publicly expressed opinion of Mrs. Fawcett the leader of the “constitutional” suffragists, largely in consequence of it) the membership of the non-militant suffrage societies showed a marked and rapid increase.

They succeeded also in directing the attention of the general public to the question. At one time from 100 to 200 meetings were being held every week, some of them vast open-air demonstrations, others in the largest halls of the country which were packed to overflowing. I do not suggest that all the members of the audiences were supporters though many were, but there was little or no hostility; and in the street demonstrations the crowds were mostly sympathetic. In fact in the so-called “raids on Parliament” the women counted on the crowd to protect them from the police.

How far electors were influenced at by-elections to vote against Liberal candidates by suffragette orators and canvassers can never be proved one way or the other but the press frequently alleged that they were, and there is no doubt that Cabinet Ministers were greatly embarrassed and hard put to to defend their attitude. Naturally, as is always the case when coercive action is taken by a Government, the British public opinion reacted against the Government.

During this period of the agitation there was a growing feeling among all parties in the House of Commons that the question of woman suffrage ought to be treated seriously and sympathetically and in 1910 an all-party committee devised a compromise proposal which came to be known as the “Conciliation Bill”. In order not to prejudice the chances of this compromise the militant societies were asked to desist from any militant action. They agreed; and for several months they carried out strictly constitutional and non-provocative activities. But in the end the Liberal Government made it quite clear that they would have nothing to do with the Conciliation Bill and Mr. Asquith remained adamant in his opposition. Militancy was therefore resumed in all its forms. Women continued to go to prison in increasing numbers and suffered violence in the streets and at Liberal meetings for their insubordination.

It was then that some militant women decided upon a change of tactics in the direction of actual violence against property. They were influenced to take this course 1) by the preference for being arrested quickly rather than after being knocked about and 2) by the taunts levelled against them by Cabinet Ministers that their rebellion was trumpery and not of the same account as the riots indulged in by men agitators in the 19th century. The form of violence adopted was that of breaking windows. At first the leaders of the militant movement opposed and tried to restrain women from taking this course but later they recognised it and organised it. A great shop-window breaking raid took place in London and created a sensation. The Government took action by arresting the leaders of the militant movement on a charge of conspiracy. I was one of those leaders and I made a speech in the dock at the Old Bailey in my own defence. I enclose with this letter, a verbatim report of it which you may feel disposed to read (not the biographical note which precedes it which has no relevance to the present issue.) It gives a number of further facts which I have not repeated in this letter. The trial, which was given immense prominence in the press, ended in our conviction, the jury appending a sympathetic rider, and we were sentenced to nine months imprisonment. At the same time several hundreds of the rank and file of the movement were also imprisoned. After serving part of our sentence the prisoners adopted the hunger strike. Some of us were forcibly fed and then released.

Subsequently there was a division in the leadership. Mrs. Pankhurst decided on new and more violent tactics which did not appeal to my wife and myself and we parted company. The Government also adopted new tactics and instead of applying forcible feeding the hunger strikers, took powers in a special Act of Parliament—The Cat & Mouse Bill—to release them and to rearrest them when they had recovered their health. The agitation continued with increasing bitterness on both sides up to the outbreak of the first world war.

Meanwhile of the purely political side there had been many developments. Supporters of woman suffrage did not succeed in inducing Mr. Asquith to support a woman suffrage measure. Instead, he promised that the franchise Bill which would be introduced to extend the male franchise would be open to amendment to include women. In the event the Speaker ruled that the Bill could not be so amended. This created an impasse in which it became evident that though the supporters of woman suffrage were not strong enough to insist on the passage of a Bill to enfranchise women they were strong enough to prevent the passage of a Bill to enfranchise more men from which women were excluded.

The external war brought a truce to the domestic militant campaign and during the war women rendered great services to the nation. When in the middle of the war a new registration and franchise reform measure became necessary a Speaker’s conference was constituted to frame the basis of its provisions and a partial enfranchisement of women was included among them and was accepted as a reasonable compromise and as such was enacted.

I am in no doubt that the women’s war service reconciled a large number of doubters to the inclusion of women in the future lists of electors. But I equally have no doubt that the prominence given to the question by the pre-war agitation made it impossible to ignore their claims and that, without it, gratitude to women for their help in critical hours might easily have fizzled out without the accordance of any tangible recognition of their right to participate in the future governance of their common country.

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{1} 21st. See PETH 6/279.