Evaline Hilda Burkitt, the fifth of nine children, was born to Laura Clews Burkitt (1843–1909) and Reuben Lancelot Burkitt (1847–1928) on 19th July, 1876. She lived with her wealthy paternal grandparents until 1902 when she moved in with her married sister, Christobel in Birmingham. (1)
Emmeline Pankhurst established the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) in October, 1903. "We resolved to limit our membership exclusively to women, to keep ourselves absolutely free from ant party affiliation, and to be satisfied with nothing but action on our question. Deeds, not words, was to be our permanent motto." (2)
The forming of the WSPU upset both the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). The main objective was to gain, not universal suffrage, the vote for all women and men over a certain age, but votes for women, “on the same basis as men.” This meant winning the vote not for all women but for only the small stratum of women who could meet the property qualification. As one critic suggested, it was "not votes for women", but “votes for ladies.” As an early member of the WSPU, Dora Montefiore, pointed out: "The work of the Women’s Social and Political Union was begun by Mrs. Pankhurst in Manchester, and by a group of women in London who had revolted against the inertia and conventionalism which seemed to have fastened upon... the NUWSS." (3)
The WSPU controversially began to use violence in their campaign to win the vote. On 23rd October, 1906, Emmeline Pankhurst organised a huge rally in Caxton Hall, and a deputation went to the House of Commons to demand the vote: She later wrote about this in her autobiography, My Own Story (1914): "Those women had followed me to the House of Commons. They had defied the police. They were awake at last they were prepared to do something that women had never done before - fight for themselves. Women had always fought for men, and for their children. Now they were ready to light for their own human rights. Our militant movement was established.'' (4)
In November 1907 Emmeline Pankhurst addressed an audience in Birmingham Town Hall. Soon afterwards Hilda and her sister Christobel joined the WSPU. Hilda was in charge of advertising meetings and distributing political material, such as selling Votes for Women. In 1908 she was a WSPU paid organiser in Birmingham. "Hilda held regular evening meetings in parks and on street corners to bring the movement to attention of residents on their way home from work." (5)
A large number of WSPU were imprisoned. On 25th June 1909, Marion Wallace-Dunlop was found guilty of wilful damage and when she refused to pay a fine she was sent to prison for a month. On 5th July, 1909 she petitioned the governor of Holloway Prison: “I claim the right recognized by all civilized nations that a person imprisoned for a political offence should have first-division treatment; and as a matter of principle, not only for my own sake but for the sake of others who may come after me, I am now refusing all food until this matter is settled to my satisfaction.” (6)
Wallace-Dunlop refused to eat for several days. Afraid that she might die and become a martyr, it was decided to release her. According to Joseph Lennon: "She came to her prison cell as a militant suffragette, but also as a talented artist intent on challenging contemporary images of women. After she had fasted for ninety-one hours in London’s Holloway Prison, the Home Office ordered her unconditional release on July 8, 1909, as her health, already weak, began to fail". (7)
Hilda Burkitt was first arrested in March 1909 at a demonstration in Wolverhampton. Two further arrests came in August in Hull and Leeds. In September Prime Minister Herbert Asquith arrived in Birmingham to hold a Budget Meeting at Bingley Hall. "As the meeting began, breaking glass outside signalled the beginning of the suffragette protest. Women had rented rooms around Bingley Hall and threw stones from the windows. Two women climbed onto the roof to dislodge slates and throw them at Asquith's car; they were eventually forced down by police soaking them with a fire hose." (8)
Hilda was arrested along with Charlotte Marsh, Laura Ainsworth and Mary Leigh. They 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 women by force. (9)
On the 20th September, 1909, Hilda declared in an official petition to the Home Office that until her political status was acknowledged, she would "refuse to take any Prison Food, & as far as is in my power I shall break all prison rules". She demanded that the Home Office "reply to my Petition at once, as if I should die through my fasting, my death will lie at your door." Hilda pointed out that she was "ready to lay down my life, to bring about the Freedom of my Sex." (10)
Hilda refused to eat any food. "Hilda was examined in the morning by the prison doctor and one sent especially by the Home Office. That afternoon, she was taken to the prison kitchen, where four wardresses, a matron and two doctors attempted and eventually succeeded in restraining her to a chair with a blanket. Hilda shouted 'I will not take food! I refuse! I will not swallow!' and continued to resist attempts to feed her from a cup. In response, the prison doctor declared that ‘illegal or not, I'm going to use it' and proceeded to attempt feeding by nasal tube. Hilda continued to resist and coughed the tube out twice.... The doctors then gagged her and used a stomach tube to feed her through her mouth. Afterwards, Hilda repeated what she had said to the wardresses - 'I'm broken, but not beaten'. These experiences were repeated throughout her month in Winson Green as she undertook three hunger strikes, lasting 86, 91 and 24 hours respectively. Suffering great pain, she only managed sleep for four nights out of the entire month." (11)
Mary Leigh, who went on hunger strike with Hilda, described what it was like to be force-fed: "On Saturday afternoon the wardress forced me onto the bed and two doctors came in. While I was held down a nasal tube was inserted. It is two yards long, with a funnel at the end; there is a glass junction in the middle to see if the liquid is passing. The end is put up the right and left nostril on alternative days. The sensation is most painful - the drums of the ears seem to be bursting and there is a horrible pain in the throat and the breast. The tube is pushed down 20 inches. I am on the bed pinned down by wardresses, one doctor holds the funnel end, and the other doctor forces the other end up the nostrils. The one holding the funnel end pours the liquid down - about a pint of milk... egg and milk is sometimes used." Leigh's graphic account of the horrors of forcible feeding was published while she was still in prison. Afraid that she might die and become a martyr, it was decided to release her. (12)
Hilda was released from Winson Green on the 18th October. Votes for Women reported that she was soon back campaigning. "Miss Hilda Burkitt released only last week from Winston Green Gaol, informs us that since her release three of her friends have promised to buy Votes for Women every week, and she hopes when she is strong enough to get about again to be able to persuade three or even six more to buy it regularly, "and so help to carry out our dear leader's wish". (13)
Hilda and the other women who went on hunger strike were presented the WSPU's "For Valour" medal by Christabel Pankhurst. Hunger-strikes now became the accepted strategy of the WSPU. In one eighteen month period, Emmeline Pankhurst endured ten hunger-strikes. She later recalled: "Hunger-striking reduces a prisoner's weight very quickly, but thirst-striking reduces weight so alarmingly fast that prison doctors were at first thrown into absolute panic of fright. Later they became somewhat hardened, but even now they regard the thirst-strike with terror. I am not sure that I can convey to the reader the effect of days spent without a single drop of water taken into the system. The body cannot endure loss of moisture. It cries out in protest with every nerve. The muscles waste, the skin becomes shrunken and flabby, the facial appearance alters horribly, all these outward symptoms being eloquent of the acute suffering of the entire physical being. Every natural function is, of course, suspended, and the poisons which are unable to pass out of the body are retained and absorbed." (14)
Hilda Burkitt was arrested in March 1912 for breaking windows in New Bond Street. A report of her case appeared in Votes for Women: "In addressing the jury she pointed out that anything she had done was not malicious. She said she did not think it was not much good saying anything in court, for she knew her sentence was already decided, but it was time this fight was put a stop to, they did not want to spend their lives in prison, but they did want to remove the stain and stigma on women. She refused to be bound over, saying she would consider it a disgrace to womanhood to do so." Hilda was sentenced to four months' imprisonment. (15)
In July 1912, Emmeline Pankhurst gave permission for Christabel Pankhurst, to launch a secret arson campaign. She knew that she was likely to be arrested and so she decided to move to Paris. Attempts were made by suffragettes to burn down the houses of two members of the government who opposed women having the vote. These attempts failed but soon afterwards, a house being built for David Lloyd George, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, was badly damaged by suffragettes. (16)
As Fern Riddell has pointed out: "From 1912 to 1914, Christabel Pankhurst orchestrated a nationwide bombing and arson campaign the likes of which Britain had never seen before and hasn't experienced since. Hundreds of attacks by either bombs or fire, carried out by women using codenames and aliases, destroyed timber yards, cotton mills, railway stations, MPs' homes, mansions, racecourses, sporting pavilions, churches, glasshouses, even Edinburgh's Royal Observatory. Chemical attacks on postmen, postboxes, golfing greens and even the prime minister - whenever a suffragette could get close enough - left victims with terrible burns and sorely irritated eyes and throats, and destroyed precious correspondence." (17)
The WSPU used a secret group called Young Hot Bloods to carry out these acts. 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. (18) During the trial, Barrett said: "When we hear of a bomb being thrown we say 'Thank God for that'. If we have any qualms of conscience, it is not because of things that happen, but because of things that have been left undone." (19) It has speculated that this group included Hilda Burkitt, Helen Craggs, Olive Hockin, Kitty Marion, Lilian Lenton, Mary Richardson, Miriam Pratt, Norah Smyth, Clara Giveen, Olive Wharry and Florence Tunks. (20)
Hilda Burkitt's first partner was Clara Giveen. On 25th November 1913 Hilda was arrested with Clara Giveen for attempting to set fire to the grandstand at the Headingley Football Ground the property of The Leeds Cricket, Football and Athletic Company. The Yorkshire Evening Post reported that Clara Giveen had "escaped from the supervision of the police in Birmingham, to which town she went on Saturday, just before the expiration of her licence." (21)
Hilda went on the run before joining up with Florence Tunks, a 22 year old bookkeeper in Cardiff, to carry out a series of arson attacks. On 11th April 1914 they 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." (22)
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." (23)
Burkitt and Tunks 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." (24)
Instead of going to the theatre, Burkitt and Tunks, 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, 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." (25)
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." (26)
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. (27)
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." (28)
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 White. (29)
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." (30) In prison she was force-fed 292 times. (31)
Mary Richardson was in prison with Burkitt and Tunks 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." (32)
Recently-released prison records detailed how much food was force-fed, the attitude of the prisoner, their overall health and weight and any other occurrences. "Hilda Burkett was generally in good health, apparently, despite regular complaints of chest pain at night (said to be due to indigestion). Her decreasing weight was noted. By the middle of July, her weight had gone down to 98 lbs, 16 lbs below average weight for her height". (33)
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". (34)
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." (35)
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!". (36)
As part of the deal all suffragettes were released from prison. On 6th August 1914, Hilda Burkitt became a free woman. Hilda married Leonard Mitchener in 1916, and ran a café in St Albans. However they had separated by the 1930s. Eventually, Hilda moved to Birmingham and cared for an ailing aunt, before joining her sister Lillian in Morecambe in 1948. (37)
Evaline Hilda Burkitt died on 7th March 1955. The Morecambe Guardian reported: "The lively days of agitation for women's suffrage are recalled by the death, which occurred last week in the Royal Lancaster Infirmary of Mrs Hilda Mitchener, 48, South Road, Morecambe, at the age of 78. Ardently associated with Mrs Pankhurst's campaign, Mrs Mitchener, who was well-known by her maiden name of Hilda Burkitt helped to organize the Women's Social and Political Union, and was the victim of personal attack and even suffered imprisonment. During her imprisonment she frequently went on hunger strikes. She was a native of Wolverhampton and had been in Morecambe seven years. She is survived by her husband, Mr Leonard Mitchener, two sisters and a brother." (38)
Miss Hilda Burkitt released only last week from Winston Green Gaol, informs us that since her release three of her friends have promised to buy Votes for Women every week, and she hopes when she is strong enough to get about again to be able to persuade three or even six more to buy it regularly, "and so help to carry out our dear leader's wish".
Miss Hilda Burkitt was sentenced to four months' imprisonment for breaking windows at 102 and 103, New Bond Street. Mr. Beaton put the damage at £17 12s. and £18 respectively. In addressing the jury she pointed out that anything she had done was not malicious. She said she did not think it was not much good saying anything in court, for she knew her sentence was already decided, but it was time this fight was put a stop to, they did not want to spend their lives in prison, but they did want to remove the stain and stigma on women. She refused to be bound over, saying she would consider it a disgrace to womanhood to do so.
Clara Giveen 25 years of age, "has escaped from the supervision of the police in Birmingham, to which town she went on Saturday, just before the expiration of her licence... Hilda Burkett, who after her release from Armley Goal went to a friend's house in Bradford, has also disappeared.
At the Leeds Quarter Sessions, Miss Hilda Burkett and Miss Clara Giveen failed to appear when charged with attempting to fire a football stand. They had been released on licence.
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 laughed, 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.
The lively days of agitation for women's suffrage are recalled by the death, which occurred last week in the Royal Lancaster Infirmary of Mrs Hilda Mitchener, 48, South Road, Morecambe, at the age of 78.
Ardently associated with Mrs Pankhurst's campaign, Mrs Mitchener, who was well-known by her maiden name of Hilda Burkitt helped to organize the Women's Social and Political Union, and was the victim of personal attack and even suffered imprisonment. During her imprisonment she frequently went on hunger strikes.
She was a native of Wolverhampton and had been in Morecambe seven years. She is survived by her husband, Mr Leonard Mitchener, two sisters and a brother.
Two women once branded "terrorists" have been honoured in a seaside town 100 years after being condemned for burning down a hotel.
Suffragettes Evaline Burkitt and Florence Tunks were convicted of arson after setting fire to the Bath Hotel in Felixstowe, Suffolk, on 28 April 1914.
It was part of the campaign to get the vote for women, which happened in 1918.
A plaque was unveiled on what remains of the building, at the site of the former Bartlet Hospital.
Dick Moffat, author of the book A View of Felixstowe from the Bath, said: "At the time, people might have viewed them in the same way that today we might view terrorists and arsonists.
"I applaud the suffragettes' cause, but I don't approve of them burning down the most important building in Felixstowe's history."
The hotel was built in 1839 at a time when planners were attempting to establish the Suffolk town as a spa resort, and it had hot and cold sea water baths. No-one was in the hotel at the time of the fire.
Burkitt, who was 37, and Tunks, who was 22, were jailed for two years and nine months respectively following a trial in May 1914, but released under a general amnesty not long after the outbreak of World War One in August 1914.
The cost of the damage was £35,000 at the time, estimated to be the equivalent of £2.6m today.
Phil Hadwen, from the Felixstowe Society, said: "The two women had come to Felixstowe and it was interesting that they had set fire to a pier in Great Yarmouth pier earlier in the week.
"All the suffragettes wanted to make a name for themselves and the two big targets in Felixstowe would have been the pier and the Spa Pavilion, but they hired night-watchmen, so the Bath Hotel, which was still closed for the season, was the target.
"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'."
Mr Moffat said: "Towards the end of the 19th Century, other prestigious hotels had popped-up, so it's difficult to quantify the effect the arson would have had on the town."
Evaline Hilda Burkitt was the fifth of nine children born to Reuben and Laura Burkitt in Wolverhampton. Hilda grew up living with her wealthy paternal grandparents, Charles and Clarissa, whilst her parents and siblings relocated to Birmingham in the 1890s. The Burkitts were politically progressive and educated their daughters (those in Birmingham attended King Edward V Girls Grammar). Hilda was a bright young woman and enjoyed reading, needlework and gardening.
In 1901, aged 25, Hilda had joined her family in Birmingham. She lived with her elder married sister Christobel, the husband Frederick and their baby daughter Kathleen in Aston. Most of the Burkitt siblings had remained in Birmingham, however the eldest daughter, Lillian, had left school and become a music hall actress, performing under the stage-name ‘Ida Cunard'. She also later ran a photography studio, called ‘The Warwick Art Company', out of her father's home.
In 1907, leading Women's Social and Political Union figure Annie Kenney's sister Nell arrived in Birmingham and succeeded in drawing like-minded locals to the movement. The WSPU had existed for 4 years, with their ‘militancy' taking a dramatic turn in 1905, when Annie Kenney and Christabel Pankhurst were arrested for disrupting a political meeting. In November, Emmeline Pankhurst addressed an audience in Birmingham Town Hall. These efforts must have attracted the Burkitt sisters, as they became subscribing Union members in late 1907.
She had a paid position at the Birmingham WSPU headquarters, newly rented in Ethel Street (near New Street Station). Hilda was in charge of advertising meetings and distributing political material, such as selling newspapers. She was made ‘captain' of the area of Small Heath and Sparkbrook, where she and other members of her family lived.
Hilda threw herself into organising work. A year later, she held a paid position at the Birmingham WSPU headquarters, newly rented in Ethel Street (near New Street Station). These rooms were the result of keen fundraising; the Birmingham women had excitedly reported in Votes for Women that they would soon be decorated with wallpaper and matching curtains in ‘the colours' (purple, white and green). Hilda was in charge of advertising meetings and distributing political material, such as selling newspapers.
Hilda soon began to hold more responsibility within the Birmingham WSPU. She was made ‘captain' of the area of Small Heath and Sparkbrook, where she and other members of her family lived. Hilda held regular evening meetings in parks and on street corners to bring the movement to attention of residents on their way home from work. Apparently the locals were always keen to see them, greeting their arrival with ‘Here they come; three cheers for the Suffragettes'.
Hilda's first arrest came in March 1909 in Wolverhampton, with two (within three days) occurring in August in Hull and Leeds. The moment that would in part send WSPU militancy to further extremes came in September. On the evening of the 17th, Prime Minister Herbert Asquith arrived in Birmingham to hold a Budget Meeting at Bingley Hall. Women were not allowed to attend and the police were instructed to scrutinise all ticket holders in case a woman tried to disguise herself as a man to get in. The Birmingham WSPU had taken this opportunity to stage a spectacular protest. In the days before, they handed out leaflets and put up a placard urging people to come and show their support and warning of possible danger. Likely because of the suffragette promise of unrest, crowds of people swarmed outside the Hall, which had been barricaded and surrounded by extra police in preparation for any trouble.
Despite all its chaos, 1909 was just the beginning for Hilda's suffragette career. Over the next five years, in line with WSPU militancy, her actions became more and more extreme. In 1912, she was sentenced to four months in Holloway, London, for her part in the March 1st mass window-breaking demonstration. She continued to organise, and was, for a few months at the beginning of 1913, responsible for establishing a stronger WSPU presence in Stoke-on-Trent. However, by the end of that year, she had become more intricately involved in the WSPU tactic of damage to (empty) property. In December 1913, she and another suffragette, Clara Giveen, were caught in the act of attempting to set fire to a football grandstand in Headingley, Leeds. They were released, due to hunger-strike, and required to return to stand trial in January. Like many suffragettes released under what became known as the ‘Cat and Mouse Act', Hilda disappeared from Leeds.
Suffragette Hilda Burkett with her colleague Florence Tunks burnt down the Bath Hotel in Felixstowe as part of the Votes for Women campaign. She was sentenced in May 1914 to two years imprisonment, and was transferred from Ipswich prison, where she had been force-fed throughout the remand period, to Holloway.
There are several accounts by suffragettes of the agonies they suffered through force-feeding. Already weak from refusing to eat or drink, they would be taken against their will to a medical room within the prison, tied to a reclining chair and gagged whilst a tube was pushed up their nose into their stomach and a milky food poured through a funnel into the tube. This was repeated three or four times a day, for weeks at a time. Remarkably, it served in many cases to increase the determination of these brave women.
A suffragette released from Holloway at the end of July 1914 reported that Hilda Burkett was being force-fed daily. She ‘suffers agonies with her nerves … She is sick after every feeding … Her throat is in a terrible condition.'
Recently-released prison records, shown to me by Dick Moffatt, author of A View of Felixstowe from the Bath, detail the force-feeding process from a different perspective. Each day, a report was made detailing how much food was force-fed, the attitude of the prisoner, their overall health and weight and any other occurrences. Hilda Burkett was generally in good health, apparently, despite regular complaints of chest pain at night (said to be due to indigestion). Her decreasing weight was noted. By the middle of July, her weight had gone down to 98 lbs, "16 lbs below average weight for her height". .
In terms of her mental state, it was often reported that she was "hysterical" whilst being force-fed, which would sometimes happen four times in a day. At times she would vomit on each occasion and the amount would be measured (between 2 and 5 fluid ounces). It is not said whether her vomiting was due to the physical effects of food being poured through the tube inserted into her stomach, or whether it was an act of resistance.
On 7th August 1914, Hilda Burkett petitioned the Home Office for release. "I've been in prison since April 28th," she wrote, "and have been forcibly fed during the whole time, 292 times so far." She was released soon afterwards.
I am the great-great-great niece of one of those suffragettes to whom Kensit referred. Hilda Burkitt, my distant aunt, was an important figure in the Women's Social and Political Union and left her job to become the Birmingham branch's paid secretary, but her voice has been largely silenced by history.
In 1909, she was jailed with several others for throwing stones at the train of the prime minister, Herbert Asquith, and three days later became the first suffragette to be (illegally) force fed with a nasal tube. The Home Office was petitioned, but refused to interfere with the prison's authority. In 1913, she was put under surveillance for trying to set fire to a grandstand in Leeds. In 1914, she and her companion Florence Tunks burned down the Bath Hotel in Felixstowe, which was empty for refurbishment. The press was horrified by the two suffragettes, who threw their shoes at one of the witnesses in the courtroom (he claimed to have seen them, they claimed that he only talked to them to try to "molest" them), then refused to sit still and had to be restrained by two policemen.
You'd think that I'd have grown up in the shadow of such an influential foremother, but I didn't know about her activities. Neither did my grandfather, her great-nephew, who would have met her. A month into her two-year sentence, in 1914, she was released as part of the suffragette amnesty. Then in her late 30s, she married, then divorced, settled in Lancashire and never spoke of her suffragette past to her family again.
Before I began to research her, I couldn't help but see Hilda as a vague copy of one of the few cultural depictions of a suffragette; the garrulous Mrs Banks in Mary Poppins, bedecked in her giant sash and annoying everybody with her raucous songs. The film presents Mrs Banks as an antagonist; her political pursuit of democratic equality means she doesn't fit into her female role and her children are thus neglected and miserable. We are made to feel sorry for her equally distant and chauvinistic husband in his high-tier bank job, while we laugh at her trying to prove she's not a second-class citizen.
However much of a caricature Mrs Banks is, there is one repeated line in her first song that is particularly poignant: "Our daughters' daughters will adore us /as they sing in grateful chorus / well done sister suffragettes!" How sad then, that suffragettes are falling through the cracks of our still-patriarchal history, and that this recent reference to them was made when talking about one of the most privileged women in the UK.
It's even sadder that nine million women didn't use their votes in the last general election; one million more than the number of women who qualified to vote under the Representation of the People Act in 1918. Less than a century ago, working-class, single women such as Hilda sacrificed their independence, bodily autonomy and their reputations so that they and those after them could exercise that basic democratic right.
There are a lot of comparisons we cannot draw between ourselves as feminists and our first-wave ancestors because women now have many more rights than they did, but all over the world women are still being oppressed by their male counterparts. We cannot emulate our forebears' struggle, but we can still remember and commemorate what they did, and make use of the right they worked so very hard for us to have. So it is with adoration and admiration that I shall say to myself when I drop my ballot paper into the box on 7 May: "Well done, great-great-great aunt suffragette!"
(1) Lauren Hall, Hilda Burkitt (2018)
(2) Emmeline Pankhurst, My Own Story (1914) page 36
(3) Dora Montefiore, From a Victorian to a Modern (1927) page 42
(4) Emmeline Pankhurst, My Own Story (1914) page 69
(5) Lauren Hall, Hilda Burkitt (2018)
(6) Marion Wallace-Dunlop, statement (5th July, 1909)
(7) Joseph Lennon, Times Literary Supplement (22nd July, 2009)
(8) Lauren Hall, Hilda Burkitt (2018)
(9) Roger Fulford, Votes for Women (1956) page 206
(10) Hilda Burkitt, petition to the Home Office (20th September, 1909)
(11) Lauren Hall, Hilda Burkitt (2018)
(12) Mary Leigh, statement published by the Women's Social and Political Union (October, 1909)
(13) Votes for Women (29 October 1909)
(14) Fran Abrams, Freedom's Cause: Lives of the Suffragettes (2003) pages 33-34
(15) Votes for Women (5 April 1912)
(16) David J. Mitchell, Queen Christabel (1977) page 180
(17) Fern Riddell, Death in Ten Minutes: The Forgotten Life of Radical Suffragette: Kitty Marion (2019) page 150
(18) Yorkshire Evening Post (8th May 1913)
(19) Nottingham Evening Post (8th May 1913)
(20) John Simkin, The WSPU Young Hot Bloods and the Arson Campaign (26th May, 2022)
(21) Yorkshire Evening Post (10th December, 1913)
(22) Lauren Hall, Hilda Burkitt (2018)
(23) The Times (18th April, 1914)
(24) Diane Atkinson, Rise Up, Women!: The Remarkable Lives of the Suffragettes (2018) page 477
(25) BBC News (29th April 2014)
(26) Diane Atkinson, Rise Up, Women!: The Remarkable Lives of the Suffragettes (2018) page 478
(27) The Times (30th May, 1914)
(28) Yarmouth Independent (6th June 1914)
(29) Diane Atkinson, Rise Up, Women!: The Remarkable Lives of the Suffragettes (2018) page 478
(30) Manchester Courier (30th May 1914)
(31) Lauren Hall, Hilda Burkitt (2018)
(32) Mary Richardson, letter, The Suffragette (7 August 1914)
(33) Joy Bounds, Hilda Burkett – Suffragette Force-fed to the End (8th August, 2014)
(34) Martin Pugh, The Pankhursts (2001) page 300
(35) The Star (4th September, 1914)
(36) Christabel Pankhurst, Unshackled (1959) page 268
(37) Lauren Hall, Hilda Burkitt (2018)
(38) The Morecambe Guardian (15th March 1955)