Florence Tunks, the eldest of four daughters of Gilbert Samuel Tunks (1863–1933) and Elizabeth Hall Tunks (1866–1947) was born in Newport on 19th July 1891. The family moved to Cardiff in 1894 where Gilbert ran a mechanical and electric engineers and oven builders. (1)
Florence became a bookkeeper and in 1913 she joined the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). Soon afterwards she became a member of a secret group called the Young Hot Bloods that carried out acts of arson. No married women were eligible for membership. The existence of the group remained a closely guarded secret until May 1913, when it was uncovered as a result of a conspiracy trial of eight members of the suffragette leadership, including Flora Drummond, Annie Kenney and Rachel Barrett. (2)
Tunks joined the Young Hot Bloods. It has argued that this group probably included Helen Craggs, Olive Hockin, Kitty Marion, Lilian Lenton, Miriam Pratt, Norah Smyth, Clara Giveen, Hilda Burkitt and Olive Wharry. (3)
Florence was paired with an experienced fire-bomber, Hilda Burkitt, who was on the run at the time after working with Clara Giveen in Yorkshire. On 25th November 1913 Burkitt was arrested with Giveen for attempting to set fire to the grandstand at the Headingley Football Ground the property of The Leeds Cricket, Football and Athletic Company. However, both women managed to escape and went into hiding. (4)
On 11th April 1914 Tunks and Burkitt arrived in Suffolk for two weeks of arson. "They then moved through Suffolk, riding bicycles across the countryside and leaving phosphorus in haystacks, which would combust a day or so after they had left." (5)
On 17th April they bombed the Britannia Pavilion on the pier in Great Yarmouth had been reduced to "a shapeless mass of twisted girders and charred woodwork." The owner of the Pavilion received a letter bearing one word, "Retribution", and a "Votes for Women" postcard was found on the sands with comments about Reginald McKenna, the Home Secretary: "Mr McKenna has nearly killed Mrs Pankhurst. We can show no mercy until women are enfranchised." (6)
Tunks and Burkitt then travelled to Felixstowe where they took a room at Mayflower Cottage, the home of Daisy Meadows, whose father, George Meadows, was a bathing-machine proprietor. Daisy remembered the woman arriving with six cases of luggage and a bicycle. Two days later they said they were going to the theatre in Ipswich. Daisy said in court: "I didn't see them go out and didn't see them again until about five minutes to nine next morning." (7)
Instead of going to the theatre, Tunks and Burkitt, had carried out an arson attack on the Bath Hotel, the oldest in the town. The hotel had been built in 1839 at a time when planners were attempting to establish the Suffolk town as a spa resort. No-one was in the hotel at the time of the fire as it was closed for the season. The cost of the damage was £35,000 at the time, estimated to be the equivalent of £2.6m today. They left a few clues: labels on the bushes saying "votes for women" and there was a banner that said "there will be no peace until women get the vote." (8)
George Meadows was near the Bath Hotel when it was set on fire. He saw "two ladies there who were laughing, one was tall and the other short." He identified them as Burkitt and Tunks and they were arrested the next morning at Mayflower Cottage. The police searched their rooms before taking them into custody. They found two boxes of matches, four candles, a glazier's diamond, four copies of The Suffragette newspaper, a lamp, a hammer and pliers. (9)
On 26 May 1914 Burkitt and Tunks were charged with "feloniously, unlawfully and maliciously" setting fire to two wheat stacks at Bucklesham Farm, worth £340 on 24 April; destroying a stack, worth £485 on 24 April at Levington; and setting fire to the Bath Hotel in Felixstowe, on 28 April. The women refused to answer any questions in court, sat on a table with their backs to the magistrate, and chatted while the evidence against them was presented. (10)
During their trial at Suffolk Assizes the women refused to behave in the appropriate manner. The clerk was reading the the indictment when Burkitt shouted out, "Speak up, please, I can't hear." Asked to plead she replied "I don't recognise the jurisdiction of the Court at all. I don't recognize the Judge, or any of these men." While the Jury were being sworn Burkitt shouted "I object to all these men on the jury." Both women "giggled" and loudly laughed, and cried "No surrender." Tunks commented I don't recognize the Court at all.turned her back to the Court". Tunks turned her back to the Court, but was forcibly brought back by the wardresses. Burkitt shouted: "I am not going to keep quiet: I have come here to enjoy myself. I object to the whole of the jury. I am not going to listen to anything you have got to say." (11)
Richard White, a commander in the Royal Navy, gave evidence that he had been standing outside the Bath Hotel at ten o'clock, just hours before the fire broke out. "I had my suspicions aroused... I knew that suffragettes were about. I had it at the back of my mind that probably that's what they might be." Hilda shouted abuse at Commander White, accusing him of trying to seduce them and threw her shoes at him. In court Gilbert Tunks told the court he had no knowledge of his daughter being a member of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU): "She told me she was going to Belfast to assist in an office there, organising." (12)
On 29th May, 1914, Hilda Burkitt was sentenced to two years' imprisonment, and Florence Tunks to nine months. Hilda told the judge to put on his black cap "and pass sentence of death or not waste his breath". Tunks "vowed that she would be out of prison before long, and that victory would be hers." (13)
Mary Richardson was in prison with Tunks and Burkitt and wrote a letter about them that appeared in The Suffragette. "In wing C, within calling distance is Hilda Burkitt who is very weak now. She has lost a stone. She is sick with each feeding. She has been fed four times a day for over a fortnight at nine, twelve, four, and eight o'clock. Next to her is Florence Tunks. She has lost twenty-seven and a half-pounds, has had two teeth broken, is generally exhausted, and cannot stand without giddiness for more than a few minutes." (14)
The British government declared war on Germany on 4th August 1914. Two days later, Millicent Fawcett, the leader of the NUWSS declared that the organization was suspending all political activity until the conflict was over. Fawcett supported the war effort but she refused to become involved in persuading young men to join the armed forces. The WSPU took a different view to the war. It was a spent force with very few active members. According to Martin Pugh, the WSPU were aware "that their campaign had been no more successful in winning the vote than that of the non-militants whom they so freely derided". (15)
The WSPU carried out secret negotiations with the government and 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. Christabel Pankhurst, arrived back in England after living in exile in Paris. She told the press: "I feel that my duty lies in England now, and I have come back. The British citizenship for which we suffragettes have been fighting is now in jeopardy." (16)
After receiving a £2,000 grant from the government, the WSPU organised a demonstration in London. Members carried banners with slogans such as "We Demand the Right to Serve", "For Men Must Fight and Women Must Work" and "Let None Be Kaiser's Cat's Paws". At the meeting, attended by 30,000 people, Emmeline Pankhurst called on trade unions to let women work in those industries traditionally dominated by men. She told the audience: "What would be the good of a vote without a country to vote in!". (17)
As part of the deal all suffragettes were released from prison. On 6th August 1914, Florence Tunks became a free woman. Tunks studied for a certificate in nursing between 1915 and 1918 at the Derbyshire Royal Infirmary in Derby and qualified as a nurse in London in 1923. After her retirement Tunks is listed on the Nursing Register as living with her widowed mother in the family home at Bisham Gardens in Highgate. (18)
Florence Tunks never married and died in Glindon Nursing Home on Lewes Road in Eastbourne, East Sussex on 22nd February, 1985, aged 93. (19)
A Suffolk Assizes at Bury St Edmund's yesterday, Hilda Burkitt was sentenced to two years' imprisonment, and Florence Tunks to nine months, for setting fire to the Bath Hotel, Felixstowe. Both pleaded not guilty.
There was something of a scene in court, the judge having to warn persons in the gallery. Burkitt suggested to the judge that he should put on the black cap and pass sentence of death and not waste breath. She defied Mr McKenna, and asked for "liberty or death".
Tunks vowed that she would be out of prison before long, and that victory would be hers. There were previous convictions against Burkitt, who is awaiting trail for setting fire to a football grand stand at Leeds.
At the Suffolk Assizes held at Bury St Edmunds, Mr Justice Bailbache, Hilda Burkitt (31) and Florence Tunks (26) were indicted for causing the fire at the Bath Hotel, Felixstowe, and other fires in the district. The accused had been identified as women who were in Yarmouth when the Britannia Pier Pavilion was destroyed by fire on the 17th April…
The Clerk of Arraigns was reading the the indictment when Burkitt shouted out, "Speak up, please, I can't hear." Asked to plead she replied "I don't recognise the jurisdiction of the Court at all. I don't recognize the Judge, or any of these men."
Tunks – And I don't recognize the Court at all.
While the Jury were being sworn Burkitt shouted "I object to all these men on the jury." Both women "giggled" and loudly laughe, and cried "No surrender."
Tunks turned her back to the Court, but was forcibly brought back by the wardresses.
Burkitt shouted: "I am not going to keep quiet: I have come here to enjoy myself. I object to the whole of the jury. I am not going to listen to anything you have got to say."
In wing C, within calling distance is Hilda Burkitt who is very weak now. She has lost a stone. She is sick with each feeding. She has been fed four times a day for over a fortnight at nine, twelve, four, and eight o'clock. Next to her is Florence Tunks. She has lost twenty-seven and a half-pounds, has had two teeth broken, is generally exhausted, and cannot stand without giddiness for more than a few minutes.