The independent London newspaper

Jill Craigie’s Suffragette suitcase

Film director's archive reveals how a mass movement was fired by militant activism

13 February, 2018 — By Tom Foot

Jill Craigie at her home in Hampstead with Michael Foot

JILL Craigie is often fondly remembered as this country’s first woman film director.

That isn’t altogether true, but she certainly was the first to achieve nationwide cinema distribution and critical acclaim for what were overtly political and feminist documentaries.

Her To Be A Woman was demanding equal pay rights way back in 1951.

For 50 years, she shared a home at 66 Pilgrim’s Lane, Hampstead with my great uncle Michael Foot – the Labour left- winger who she met while working on a film about Plymouth shortly after the Second World War .

Her first-floor study had two walls of women’s literature – dusty first editions of Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the like – with shelves crammed with actual letters between the Pankhurst sisters, personal papers, postcard albums, photographs, pamphlets and hunger strike medals.

A third wall was plastered in suffragette posters, depicting gruesome torture in prison, hand- stitched protest banners and newspaper cuttings. The other wall had a large window looking out over Hampstead toward the Royal Free Hospital, where Jill died of heart failure in 1999.

Michael in Jill’s study 

The study always felt like it should have been in a museum and, despite Michael preserving it for almost a decade after her death, 72 boxes – including more than 1,000 books and 300 “objects” – were donated to the Women’s Library, formerly the Fawcett Library, in London Met University’s east London campus.

I was living at the top of that house at the time and I remember how the loss of the room affected him, but he was happy that a small corner of the Women’s Library would be named after Jill.

In 2014, a campaign was launched after the library was threatened with closure and it eventually moved to the London School of Economics (LSE) in Holborn.

Much of Jill’s stuff is yet to be catalogued, but the new library curator, Dr Gillian Murphy, told me her “postcards and photographs are available already and people have been consulting them for years”, adding: “I’m showing one piece from Jill’s archive on the ousting of the Pethwick- Lawrences from the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1912 in our summer exhibition.

“The origins of the Women’s Library can be traced back to the women’s suffrage movement and the 1866 women’s suffrage petition. This marked the beginning of the organised campaign for the vote which ended in 1928 when women achieved equal voting rights with men in the Equal Franchise Act.” From April until the end of August, there is an exhibition there – called At Last! – which has exclusive archive material relating to The Representation of the People Act 100-year milestone.

A young Jill Craigie

Arguments continued to rage in Jill’s house about the role of various suffragette leaders and policy of WSPU. I remember not long after her death, my dad, Paul Foot, trembling in trepidation in the clapped-out brown Mini he used to drive having  recently taken a draft of the Women chapter of his book, The Vote, round for Michael to read. He knew it all clashed with Jill’s strongly-held views on the Pankhursts, and the book also called out the Labour Party for its general failures against capitalism over the years.

Like most socialists, Paul idolised Sylvia Pankhurst over her mother and sister, Emmeline and Christabel, who he felt had sold out during the First World War. They had called for votes for women on the same terms as men had at the time – property owners only. Sylvia, who was expelled from the WSPU by her mother and sister, demanded a general adult suffrage.

Paul pitched the 1918 women’s movement victory as a high point in this country’s history of democracy. But he also saw it as a turning point from which the vote would slowly lose out to the power of big business over elected governments.

Paul Foot

After Michael died in March 2010, we had to clear all the history-packed rooms in the house in just a few weeks. The vast majority of the books, papers and letters had been promised away to various archives around the country in his will.

I remember finding a battered old suitcase of Jill’s at the top of the stairs that was overflowing with tattered Suffragette newspapers. Mass produced at the time, and not really worth anything financially, the Women’s Library said they didn’t want them and so I kept a few.

A front page of 1913 Suffragette paper

Reading them now, I’m struck by the array of high-end adverts, for Debenhams and Jermyn Street tailors. Luxury Regent Street stores promote silk fur coats and winter shoes next to a lacerating three-page feature called “Militancy in 1913”. In the same issue, the old John Barnes Finchley Road (now Waitrose) advertises its quality stocks – “Fire and Life” insurance deals next to calls for insurrection.

There are notices for campaign meetings and demonstrations all over our patch of London – in Hampstead, Highgate, “North Islington”, Holborn, Bayswater, and even Kensington. One update says: “Suffragette going well but more sellers needed for Finchley Road pitch.”

There is criticism of doctors “applying forcible feeding and cat and mouse” torture treatment, and also “Liberal toadies posing as suffragettes”.

News in brief about women jailed for ‘burning a house’

The papers are evidence of how a real mass movement was  fired by the kind of political activism that is even today misinterpreted as “intimidation” by some politicians.

One 1914 Suffragette paper opens: “The unrest amongst women can no longer be ignored. The militant acts committed by women are now of a kind too serious to be permanently endured by any civilised community.”

And so it proved.


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