Rachel Barrett, the daughter of Welsh-speaking parents, Rees Barrett, land and road surveyor and Anne Barrett, née Jones, was born on 12th November 1874 at 23 Union Street, Carmarthen. Educated at a private school in Stroud, she later won a scholarship to Aberystwyth College, gaining a BSc (London) in 1904. After graduating with an external degree in 1904 she became a science teacher in Penarth. (1)
Barrett explains in her autobiography that she was a supporter of women's suffrage: "In 1905 I became a science mistress at Penarth County School and taught there two years, and it was during this time that I became interested in the new movement for womans suffrage. In 1906, like everybody else, I read in the newspapers of the campaign of the militants and felt for the first time that they were doing the right and only thing. I had always been a suffragist - since I first began to think of the position of women at all - but with no hope of ever seeing women win the vote." (2)
In the Autumn of 1906 Barrett heard Nellie Martel address a audience in Cardiff. At the end of the meeting she joined the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). The following year she helped Adela Pankhurst when she arrived in Cardiff as the WSPU organiser for Wales. (3) " I helped her in her work, speaking at meetings, indoors and outdoors, and falling into great disfavour with my headmistress who considered all public work of that kind unsuitable for a woman teacher, more especially when her science mistress was reported in the local papers as drenched at an open-air meeting at the Cardiff docks." (4)
In 1907 Barrett resigned from her teaching post and enrolled as a student at the London School of Economics. She also helped the WSPU in the by-election campaign at Bury St. Edmunds. Later that year Christabel Pankhurst asked her to become a full-time WSPU organiser. Although sorry to give up her studies she noted that "it was a definite call and I obeyed." In 1910 she was appointed WSPU organizer for Wales and moved to Newport, Monmouthshire. (5)
The WSPU organised a mass meeting to take place on 21 June 1908 called Women's Sunday at Hyde Park. The leadership intended it "would out-rival any of the great franchise demonstrations held by the men" in the 19th century. Sunday was chosen so that as many working women as possible could attend. It is claimed that it attracted a crowd of over 300,000. At the time, it was the largest protest to ever have taken place in Britain. Speakers included Rachel Barrett, Gladice Keevil, Emmeline Pankhurst, Christabel Pankhurst, Adela Pankhurst, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, Mary Gawthorpe, Jennie Baines, Rachel Barrett, Marie Brackenbury, Georgina Brackenbury, Annie Kenney, Nellie Martel, Marie Naylor, Flora Drummond and Edith New. (5a)
In January 1910 she led a deputation to see the Chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd George. "When the truce to militancy was decided upon during the time of the Conciliation Bill I was sent to the constituency of the chief opponent, Mr Lloyd George. There I interviewed his supporters, organised meetings and finally led a deputation to him of women from the constituency. We were received in house in Criccieth where we spent 2 1/2 hours around his dining table arguing hotly. We left, I more convinced than before of his determined opposition to the WSPU and the insincerity of his support of the suffrage, and the other women (mostly liberal and not WSPU members) with their eyes very much opened." (6)
The discussion with David Lloyd George convinced her of the insincerity of his support for the suffrage cause. She had also trust in the Liberal government headed by Herbert Asquith. Barrett was now considered to be one of the most important member of the WSPU and Annie Kenney described her as "an exceptionally clever and highly educated woman, she was a devoted worker and had tremendous admiration for Christabel Pankhurst." (7)
In early 1912 Christabel Pankhurst decided to run WSPU operations in France in order to avoid arrest. Annie Kenney was put in charge of the WSPU in London. She appointed Rachel Barrett as her assistant. Every week Annie travelled to Paris to receive Christabel's latest orders. Fran Abrams has pointed out: "It was the start of a cloak-and-dagger existence that lasted for more than two years. Each Friday, heavily disguised, Annie would take the boat-train via La Havre. Sundays were devoted to work but on Saturdays the two would walk along the Seine or visit the Bois de Boulogne. Annie took instructions from Christabel on every little point - which organiser should be placed where, circular letters, fund-raising, lobbying MPs... During the week Annie worked all day at the union's Clement's Inn headquarters, then met militants at her flat at midnight to discuss illegal actions." (8)
At a meeting in France, Christabel Pankhurst told Frederick Pethick-Lawrence and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence about the proposed arson campaign. When they objected, Christabel arranged for them to be expelled from the the organisation. Emmeline later recalled in her autobiography, My Part in a Changing World (1938): "My husband and I were not prepared to accept this decision as final. We felt that Christabel, who had lived for so many years with us in closest intimacy, could not be party to it. But when we met again to go further into the question… Christabel made it quite clear that she had no further use for us." (9)
As a result of this expulsion, the WSPU lost control of Votes for Women. They now published their own newspaper, The Suffragette. Although Annie Kenney was the official editor, Rachel Barrett was given control over the publication of the newspaper. (10) According to her autobiography she thought it was "An appalling task as I knew nothing whatever of journalism. However, after terrible struggles and some mistakes I was able to carry on to the satisfaction of the editor in Paris, whom I went over to see every now and then and to whom I often talked on the telephone when I could always hear the click of Scotland Yard listening in." (11)
In 1912 Christabel Pankhurst decided to start an arson campaign. The historian, 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." (12)
On 30th April 1913 the police raided the WSPU's office at Lincoln's Inn House. As a result of the documents found several people were arrested including (editor of the The Suffragette), Edwy Godwin Clayton, Flora Drummond, Annie Kenney, Harriet Kerr (office manager), Beatrice Sanders (financial secretary), Geraldine Lennox (sub-editor) and Agnes Lake (business manager). (13)
When he was arrested Clayton said: "I think this is rather a high-handed action. I am an extreme sympathizer with the Suffragette causes. What evidence have you against me?" He confirmed he had written the letter but refused to comment on the contents. The letter read: "Dear Miss Kenney, I am sorry to say it will be several days yet before I can be ready with which you want. I have devoted all this evening and all of yesterday evening to the business without success. Evidently it is a difficult matter, but not impossible. I nearly succeeded once last night and then spoilt what I had done in trying to improve upon it. By next week I shall be able to manage the exact proportions, and I will let you have the results as soon as I can. Please burn this." (14)
During the trial Matthias McDonnell Bodkin read extracts from a document headed "Votes for Women" and underneath "YHB". Bodkin claimed that YHB stood for Young Hot Bloods. The label was derived from a taunt thrown at Emmeline Pankhurst in one of the newspapers, which ran: "Mrs Pankhurst will, of course, be followed blindly by a number of the younger and more hot-blooded members of the union". (15) As a result of them being single women one newspaper described the Young Hot Bloods as "a spinsters' secret sect". (16)
Bodkin claimed that the police seized a great number of documents, that showed according to Bodkin that Clayton "put his knowledge and his brain at the Union's disposal for the purpose of carrying out crimes and of producing the reign of terror in London." Receipts for money he had been paid by the union were produced in court. (17)
The most incriminating evidence was a letter sent by Edwy Godwin Clayton to Jessie Kenney in April 1913 that was found inside a book on the 1831 Bristol Reform Riots. Bodkin said: "We did not know until these documents were seized at their offices that they had an analytical chemist in their service – a man who, as we know, written a secret letter which the vain folly of Miss Kenney causes her to leave in her bedroom. the letter he tells her he had been experimenting, and was on the brink of success. Clayton ended his letter: "Burn this letter." (18)
Bodkin provided other documents written by Clayton. One document in Clayton's writing was headed "Various Suggestions" and read "Scheme of simultaneously smashing a considerable number of street fire-alarms. This will cause tremendous confusion and excitement and should be as especially a good idea. It should be at once easier and less risky to execute than some other operations". Particulars as to timber yards and cotton mills also followed, as well as a plan for burning down the National Health Insurance Office. (19)
In his summing up Justice Walter Phillimore, remarked that it was one of the saddest trials in his experience of nearly sixteen years as a Judge. "How in morals and how in good practical sense could such things, if they be true be justified? It was said that great causes had never been won without breaking the law. That might be true of some cases; it was very untrue of others. If every recorded act of anarchy, then, as history proceeded on its long course, the human race would reach a position of absolute savagery, and the only chance of salvation would be the obliteration of memory." (20)
During the trial, Rachel 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." (21) Barrett was described by one of the prosecuting barristers at the trial as "a pretty but misguided young woman". (22)
After an absence of an hour the jury found all the prisoners guilty, with strong recommendations for leniency of sentence in the case of the three younger women, Rachel Barrett, Geraldine Lennox and Agnes Lake. The Judge said: "I agree with you, gentlemen of the jury, in the discrimination which you have made between the younger and elder men and women… which I propose to show in their sentences: As I have said, I assume you have been animated through out by the best motives. It is not merely that some of you have committed organized outrages, but I am more concerned with the incitement that has been given to young and irresponsible women, whose actions are not always balanced by their reason to do things which you are sure to regret." (23)
Barrett was sentenced to six months in prison but Annie Kenney was sentenced to eighteen months and Edwy Godwin Clayton got twenty-one months. Barrett immediately began a hunger strike in Holloway Prison. After five days she was released under the Cat and Mouse Act. Barrett was re-arrested and this time went on a hunger and thirst strike. When she was released she escaped to Edinburgh. where she was looked after by Dr Flora Murray. (24)
While working at The Suffragette Rachel Barrett met Ida Wylie, the Australian novelist, who was a contributor to the paper, and they are thought to have become lovers (25). Together they visited Christabel Pankhurst in Paris. On her return Barrett had surgery and lived under a pseudonym (Rachel Ashworth) to avoid re-arrest. (26)
A number of significant figures in the WSPU left the organisation over the arson campaign. This included Elizabeth Robins, Jane Brailsford, Lillian Dove Willcox, Laura Ainsworth, Eveline Haverfield and Louisa Garrett Anderson. Leaders of the Men's League For Women's Suffrage such as Henry N. Brailsford, Henry Nevinson and Laurence Housman, argued "that militancy had been taken to foolish extremes and was now damaging the cause". (27)
Hertha Ayrton, Lilias Ashworth Hallett, Janie Allan and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson stopped providing much needed money for the organization. Colonel Linley Blathwayt and Emily Blathwayt also cut off funds to the WSPU. In June 1913 a house had been burned down close to Eagle House. Under pressure from her parents, Mary Blathwayt resigned from the WSPU. (28)
In February 1914, Christabel Pankhurst expelled Sylvia Pankhurst and Adela Pankhurst from the WSPU for refusing to follow orders. Beatrice Harraden, a member of the WSPU since 1905, wrote a letter to Christabel calling on her to bring an end to the arson campaign and accusing her of alienating too many old colleagues by her dictatorial behaviour: "It must be that... your exile (in Paris) prevents you from being in real touch with facts as they are over here." (29)
Henry Harben complained that her autocratic behaviour had destroyed the WSPU: "People are saying that from the leader of a great movement you are developing into the ringleader of a little rebel Rump." (30) According to Martin Pugh "she had fallen into the error of all autocratic leaders; her power to manipulate personnel was so complete that it left her increasingly surrounded by sycophants who lacked real ability." (31)
Rachel Barrett remained loyal to Christabel Pankhurst. (32) 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. This 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". (33)
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." (34)
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!". (35)
It would seem that Rachel Barrett did not agree with this policy and she left her role at The Suffragette in August 1914. Barrett and Ida Wylie traveled to America. They bought a car and roamed around the country, from New York to San Francisco. (36) Both women were close friends of Radclyffe Hall and gave her support during the obscenity trial following the publication of her lesbian novel, The Well of Loneliness (1928). Hall lost the case and all copies of the novel were destroyed. (37)
Rachel Barrett and Edith How-Martyn established the Suffragette Club (later the Suffrage Fellowship) in 1926 in order "to perpetuate the memory of the pioneers and outstanding events connected with women's emancipation and especially with the militant suffrage campaign 1905-1914, and thus keep alive the suffragette spirit".
In 1905 I became a science mistress at Penarth County School and taught there two years, and it was during this time that I became interested in the new movement for womans suffrage. In 1906, like everybody else, I read in the newspapers of the campaign of the militants and felt for the first time that they were doing the right and only thing. I had always been a suffragist - since I first began to think of the position of women at all - but with no hope of ever seeing women win the vote.
In the autumn of that year Mrs. Martel spoke in Cardiff. It was my first opportunity of joining the WSPU and I signed a membership card at the end of the meeting. Soon after, Adela Pankhurst came to Cardiff as WSPU organiser and I helped her in her work, speaking at meetings, indoors and outdoors, and falling into great disfavour with my headmistress who considered all public work of that kind unsuitable for a woman teacher, more especially when her science mistress was reported in the local papers as drenched at an open-air meeting at the Cardiff docks...
When the truce to militancy was decided upon during the time of the Conciliation Bill I was sent to the constituency of the chief opponent, Mr Lloyd George. There I interviewed his supporters, organised meetings and finally led a deputation to him of women from the constituency. We were received in house in Criccieth where we spent 2 1/2 hours around his dining table arguing hotly. We left, I more convinced than before of his determined opposition to the WSPU and the insincerity of his support of the suffrage, and the other women (mostly liberal and not WSPU members) with their eyes very much opened...
In the autumn I was asked to take charge of the new paper The Suffragette - an appalling task as I knew nothing whatever of journalism. However, after terrible struggles and some mistakes I was able to carry on to the satisfaction of the editor in Paris, whom I went over to see every now and then and to whom I often talked on the telephone when I could always hear the click of Scotland Yard listening in...
In April 1913 on Wednesday morning when we were making up the paper a group of CID men appeared and the staff of the paper were arrested together with Miss Kerr, Mrs Sanders and Annie Kenney. The police seized all the materials from printing the paper both at Kingsway House and the printers - but, owing to the efforts of Gerald Gould and the Daily Herald, The Suffragette appeared that week as usual though in a slightly attenuated form.
Rachel Barrett was recalled to London in the spring of 1912, following Christabel Pankhurst's flight to Paris, to help Annie Kenney run the national campaign. Later that year she was asked to become assistant editor of The Suffragette, the new weekly newspaper of the WSPU. Rachel Barrett's reaction to being asked to edit the paper was that it was 'an appalling task as I knew nothing whatever of journalism', but she took it on and with it the risks which the increasingly militant tactics of the WSPU involved. When she went to Paris to consult with Christabel, she had to travel under cover, and whenever they talked on the telephone, she 'could always hear the click of Scotland Yard listening in'. In April 1913 the WSPU offices were raided and the staff of the paper arrested on charges of conspiring to damage property. Rachel Barrett was sentenced to a month's imprisonment. She immediately went on hunger strike and was released five days later under the terms of the ‘Cat and Mouse Act'. She was subsequently re-arrested and released twice more and while out on licence for the third time had herself smuggled into WSPU offices in Kingsway House where she carried on bringing out The Suffragette. She lived there in secret for five months, but while she was away in May 1914, the offices were raided once again. In consultation with Christabel, it was decided that she should go to Scotland, where newspaper law was different from England, in order to publish the paper from there. She lived in Edinburgh under an assumed name, calling herself Miss Ashworth, and brought out the paper each week until the last number appeared on the Friday after the First World War was declared.
Rachel Barrett never married. While working at The Suffragette she met Ida Alexa Ross Wylie (1885–1959) the Australian novelist, who was a contributor to the paper, and they are thought to have become lovers. The couple figure in the 1920s as close friends of Radclyffe Hall and supporters over the trial of The Well of Loneliness in 1928. She died of a cerebral haemorrhage on 26 August 1953, at the age of seventy-eight at the Carylls Nursing Home in Faygate, Rusper, Sussex. Her death certificate describes her as a spinster and a teacher resident in Essex.