Charlotte Marsh

Charlotte Marsh

Charlotte Marsh, the daughter of Arthur Hardwick Marsh (1842-1909), an artist, was born in 1887. She was educated at St Margaret's School, Newcastle upon Tyne, and Roseneath, Wrexham, and then spent a year studying in Bordeaux.

Marsh joined the Women Social & Political Union in March 1907 but did not become an active member until she finished her training as a sanitary inspector a year later.

According to her biographer, Michelle Myall: "She was one of the first women to train as a sanitary inspector but, appalled by the insight her work gave her into the lives of many women, gave up a promising career to join the women's suffrage movement in 1908, to give women a voice in public affairs." On 30th June 1908 she was arrested with Elsie Howey and charged with obstructing the police. She was found guilty and sentenced to a month's imprisonment in Holloway Prison.

A wealthy supporter of the WSPU donated money to buy Emmeline Pankhurst a motor car so that she could travel the country in comfort. According to Martin Pugh, the author of The Pankhursts (2001), Marsh applied for the job of driving the car. However, Vera Holme, got the post, but there were occasions when she worked as Pankhurst's chauffeur.

On 22nd September 1909 she was arrested along with Rona Robinson, Laura Ainsworth and Mary Leigh while disrupting a public meeting being held by Herbert Asquith. As Michelle Myall has pointed out: "The police attempted to move the two women by, among other methods, turning a hosepipe on them and throwing stones. However, Charlotte Marsh and Mary Leigh proved to be formidable opponents and were only brought down from the roof when three policeman dragged them down."

Marsh, Robinson, Ainsworth and Leigh were all sentenced to two weeks' imprisonment. They immediately decided to go on hunger-strike, a strategy developed by Marion Wallace-Dunlop a few weeks earlier. Wallace-Dunlop had been immediately released when she had tried this in Holloway Prison, but the governor of Winson Green Prison, was willing to feed the three women by force.

C.P. Scott wrote to Asquith complaining of the "substantial injustice of punishing a girl like Miss Marsh with two months hard labour plus forcible feeding." According to Elizabeth Crawford, the author of The Suffragette Movement (1999): "The Prison Visiting Committee reported that at first she had to be fed by placing food in the mouth and holding the nostrils, but that she later took food from a feeding cup." Votes for Women, on her release, reported that she had been fed by tube 139 times. Although her father was seriously ill, the authorities refused to release Marsh early. Marsh left Winson Green Prison on 9th December, 1909. She immediately dashed to her family home in Newcastle upon Tyne but he was already unconscious and he died a few days later.

In February 1910 Charlotte Marsh was WSPU organiser in Oxford. She then moved onto Portsmouth and in September 1910 she ran a WSPU holiday campaign in Southsea. During this period a fellow suffragette described her as "a tall young woman, of quiet, resolute bearing." The Times reported that she was "strikingly beautiful with blue eyes and long corn-coloured hair." Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence described her as one of the "saints of the Church Militant".

Marsh visited Eagle House near Batheaston in April 1911 with Annie Kenney and Laura Ainsworth. Their host, was Mary Blathwayt, a fellow member of the WSPU. Her father Colonel Linley Blathwayt planted a tree, a Picea Polita, in her honour in his suffragette arboretum in a field adjacent to the house. Mary's mother, Emily Blathwayt, commented in her diary: "Miss Marsh planted her tree. She greatly dislikes her first name Charlotte and all her friends call her Charlie. Her label will be C. A. L. Marsh. (She also goes by the name of Calm). We liked very much what we saw of her. She is very fair with light hair and a pretty face. She is very tall ... She has a wonderful constitution and seems very well after all she has gone through. She has begun the late custom of not taking meat or chicken. She seems a very nice quiet girl."

Mary Blathwayt, Charlotte Marsh, Annie Kenney and Laura Ainsworth at Eagle House.
Mary Blathwayt, Charlotte Marsh, Annie Kenney and Laura Ainsworth at Eagle House.

In March 1912 Charlotte Marsh took part in a window-smashing campaign in London. It is claimed that she alone smashed nine windows in the Strand during this demonstration. Emily Blathwayt wrote in her diary: "Linley had a nice letter from C. A. L. Marsh in Holloway awaiting her trial as they all refused bail. His birthday letter to her begging her not to take part in violence followed her there. Like the rest, they all think it their duty to take a large share of suffering." As she had previous convictions she was sentenced to six months' in Aylesbury Prison. She took part in the hunger-strike and was forcibly fed.

On her release she was sent to Switzerland to recuperate. On her return she was WSPU organiser in Nottingham. She also spent time in London working alongside Grace Roe. In June 1913 she was the Standard Bearer at the funeral of Emily Wilding Davison.

On 4th August, 1914, England declared war on Germany. The leadership of the WSPU began negotiating with the British government. On the 10th August the government announced it was releasing all suffragettes from prison. In return, the WSPU agreed to end their militant activities and help the war effort.

Emmeline Pankhurst announced that all militants had to "fight for their country as they fought for the vote." Ethel Smyth pointed out in her autobiography, Female Pipings for Eden (1933): "Mrs Pankhurst declared that it was now a question of Votes for Women, but of having any country left to vote in. The Suffrage ship was put out of commission for the duration of the war, and the militants began to tackle the common task."

Charlotte Marsh initially accepted this policy and worked as a motor mechanic before becoming the chauffeur of David Lloyd George "accepting his suggestion that the relationship would promote the victory of the cause of women's enfranchisement". She also worked as a member of the Women's Land Army in Surrey.

Marsh became increasingly critical of the way that Emmeline Pankhurst and Christabel Pankhurst were running the WSPU during the First World War. Questions were also being asked about the funds of the WSPU. According to Martin Pugh, the author of The Pankhursts (2001): "The accounts had not been rendered since February 1914 when an annual income of £46,000 had been recorded. Moreover, the conviction that this money had been misappropriated for the Pankhursts' own purposes continued to rankle for many years." In March 1916, Charlotte Marsh set up the Independent WSPU.

After the war Marsh worked for Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. According to Elizabeth Crawford: "She then spent some time with the Department of Social Work in San Francisco and then with the Overseas Settlement League. By 1934 she was working with the Public Assistance Department of the London County Council." Marsh was also, along with Margaret Haig Thomas and Theresa Garnett, an executive member of the Six Point Group. She was also vice-president of the Suffragette Fellowship.

Charlotte Marsh, who never married, died at her home, 31 Copse Hill, Wimbledon, on 21st April 1961.

Primary Sources

(1) Emily Blathwayt, diary entry (5th March, 1911)

Miss Marsh planted her tree. She greatly dislikes her first name Charlotte and all her friends call her Charlie. Her label will be C. A. L. Marsh. (She also goes by the name of Calm). We liked very much what we saw of her. She is very fair with light hair and a pretty face. She is very tall ... She has a wonderful constitution and seems very well after all she has gone through. She has begun the late custom of not taking meat or chicken. She seems a very nice quiet girl. Annie and Jessie Kenney very happy but a trifle wild.

(2) Emily Blathwayt, diary entry (13th March, 1912)

Linley had a nice letter from C. A. L. Marsh in Holloway awaiting her trial as they all refused bail. His birthday letter to her begging her not to take part in violence followed her there. Like the rest, they all think it their duty to take a large share of suffering.

(3) Sylvia Pankhurst, The Suffrage Movement (1931)

Mary Leigh and her colleagues, who were organising there, began by copying the police methods so far as to address a warning to the public not to attend Mr. Asquith's meeting, as disturbances were likely to ensue, and immediately the authorities were seized with panic. A great tarpaulin was stretched across the glass roof of the Bingley Hall, a tall fire escape was placed on each side of the building, and hundreds of yards of firemen's hoses were laid across the roof. Wooden barriers, nine feet high, were erected along the station platform and across all the leading thoroughfares in the neighbourhood, whilst the ends of the streets both in front and at the back of Bingley Hall were sealed up by barricades. Nevertheless, inside those very sealed-up streets, numbers of Suffragettes had been lodging for days past and were quietly watching the arrangements.

When Mr. Asquith left the House of Commons for his special train, detectives and policemen hemmed him in on every side, and when he arrived at the station in Birmingham, he was smuggled to the Queen's Hotel by a back subway a quarter of a mile in length and carried up in a luggage lift.

Meanwhile, tremendous crowds were thronging the streets and the ticket holders were watched as closely as spies in time of war. They had to pass four barriers and were squeezed through them by a tiny gangway and then passed between long lines of police and amid an incessant roar of "show your ticket." The vast throngs of people who had no tickets and had only come out to see the show surged against the barriers like great human waves, and occasionally cries of "Votes for Women" were greeted with deafening cheers.

Inside the hall there were armies of stewards and groups of police at every turn. The meeting began by the singing of a song of freedom led by a band of trumpeters. Then the Prime Minister appeared. "For years past the people have been beguiled with unfulfilled promises," he declared, but during his speech he was again and again reminded, by men, of the unfulfilled promises which had been made to women; and, though men who interrupted him on other subjects were never interfered with, these champions of the Suffragettes were, in every case, set upon with a violence which was described by onlookers as "revengeful" and "vicious." Thirteen men were maltreated in this way.

Meanwhile, amid the vast crowds outside women were fighting for their freedom. Cabinet Ministers had sneered at them and taunted them with not being able to use physical force. "Working men have flung open the franchise door at which the ladies are scratching," Mr. John Burns had said. So now they were showing that, if they would, they could use violence, though they were determined that, at any rate as yet, they would hurt no one. Again and again they charged the barricades, one woman with a hatchet in her hand, and the friendly people always pressed forward with them. In spite of a thousand police the first barrier was many times thrown down. Whenever a woman was arrested the crowd struggled to secure her release, and over and over again they were successful, one woman being snatched from the constables no fewer than seven times.

Inside the hall Mr. Asquith had not only the men to contend with, for the meeting had not long been in progress when there was a sudden sound of splintering glass and a woman's voice was heard loudly denouncing the Government. A missile had been thrown through one of the ventilators by a number of Suffragettes from an open window in a house opposite. The police rushed to the house door, burst it open, and scrambled up the stairs, falling over each other in their haste to reach the women, and then dragged them down and flung them into the street, where they were immediately placed under arrest. Even whilst this was happening there burst upon the air the sound of an electric motor horn which issued from another house near by. Evidently there were Suffragettes there too. The front door of this house was barricaded and so also was the door of the room in which the women were, but the infuriated Liberal stewards forced their way through and wrested the instrument from the woman's hands.

No sooner was this effected, however, than the rattling of missiles was heard on the other side of the hall, and on the roof of the house, thirty feet above the street, lit up by a tall electric standard was seen the little agile figure of Mary Leigh, with a tall fair girl beside her (Charlotte Marsh). Both of them were tearing up the slates with axes, and flinging them onto the roof of the Bingley Hall and down into the road below-always, however, taking care to hit no one and sounding a warning before throwing. The police cried to them to stop and angry stewards came rushing out of the hall to second this demand, but the women calmly went on with their work. A ladder was produced and the men prepared to mount it, but the only reply was a warning to "he careful" and all present felt that discretion was the better part of valour. Then the fire hose was dragged forward, but the firemen refused to turn it on, and so the police themselves played it on the women until they were drenched to the skin. The slates had now become terribly slippery, and the women were in great danger of sliding from the steep roof, but they had already taken off their shoes and so contrived to retain a foothold, and without intermission they continued "firing" slates. Finding that water had no power to subdue them, their opponents retaliated by throwing bricks and stones up at the two women, but, instead of trying, as they had done, to avoid hitting, the men took good aim at them and soon blood was running, down the face of the tall girl, Charlotte Marsh, and both had been struck several times.

At last Mr. Asquith had said his say and came hurrying out of the building. A slate was hurled at the back of his car as it drove away, and then "firing" ceased from the roof, for the Cabinet Minister was gone. Seeing that they now had nothing to fear the police at once placed a ladder against the house and scrambled up to bring the Suffragettes down, and then, without allowing them to put on their shoes, they marched them through the streets, in their stockinged feet, the blood streaming from their wounds and their wet garments clinging to their limbs. At the police station bail was refused and the two women were sent to the cells to pass the night in their drenched clothing.

We knew that Mary Leigh, Charlotte Marsh, and their comrades in the Birmingham prison would carry out the hunger-strike, and, on the following Friday, September 24, reports appeared in the Press that the Government had resorted to the horrible expedient of feeding them by force by means of a tube passed into the stomach. Filled with concern, the committee of the Women's Social and Political Union at once applied both to the prison and to the Home Office to know if this were true but all information was refused.

(4) Michelle Myall, Charlotte Marsh (2004)

On 17 September 1909, along with fellow suffragette Mary Leigh, Charlotte was arrested in Birmingham after staging a roof-top protest at the Bingley Hall where the prime minister, H. H. Asquith, was addressing a meeting. The police attempted to move the two women by, among other methods, turning a hosepipe on them and throwing stones. However, Charlotte Marsh and Mary Leigh proved to be formidable opponents and were only brought down from the roof when three policeman dragged them down. For her part in this, Charlotte Marsh was sentenced to three months' hard labour at Winson Green gaol. In protest at the refusal of the authorities to treat her as a political prisoner Charlotte adopted the hunger strike and, one of the first suffragettes to be forcibly fed, was tube-fed 139 times. As she had previous convictions she was sentenced to six months' imprisonment, which she served in Aylesbury prison (Holloway was being redecorated). Once again she staged a hunger strike and was forcibly fed and released four and a half months into her sentence.

A beautiful and striking figure with long golden hair and an elegant poise, Charlotte Marsh was often chosen as standard-bearer for WSPU processions. In December 1908 she was the colour-bearer at the procession organized to celebrate the release from Holloway of Christabel and Mrs Pankhurst.