Mary Leigh

Mary Leigh

Mary Brown was born in Manchester in 1885. She was a schoolteacher until her marriage to a builder named Leigh. In 1906 Leigh joined the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU).

During the summer of 1908 the WSPU introduced the tactic of breaking the windows of government buildings. On 30th June suffragettes marched into Downing Street and began throwing small stones through the windows of the Prime Minister's house. As a result of this demonstration, twenty-seven women, including Mary Leigh, were arrested and sent to Holloway Prison.

When they were released on 23rd August, they were greeted by a brass band and accorded a ceremonial welcome breakfast attended by the two main leaders of the WSPU, Emmeline Pankhurst and Christabel Pankhurst. After this Mary Leigh became the drum-major of the WSPU drum and fife band, which often accompanied their processions and demonstrations.

On 13th October 1908 she took part in another protest outside the House of Commons. During the demonstration she attempted to seize the bridle of a police horse, and was sentenced to three months' imprisonment. That year, she spent more than a total of six months in prison.

On 22nd September 1909 Mary Leigh, Charlotte Marsh, Rona Robinson and Laura Ainsworth conducted a rooftop protest at Bingley Hall, Birmingham, where Herbert Asquith was addressing a meeting from which all women had been excluded. Using an axe, Leigh removed slates from the roof and threw them at the police below. Sylvia Pankhurst later recalled: "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 (Charlotte Marsh) beside her. 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."

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."

Leigh, Rona Robinson, Charlotte Marsh and Laura Ainsworth were all sentenced to two weeks' imprisonment. On arriving at Winson Green Prison, on 22nd September, she broke the window in her cell in protest, demanding to be treated as a political offender. "Accordingly at nine o'clock in the evening I was taken to the punishment cell, a cold dark room on the ground floor - light only shines on very bright days - with no furniture in it." The four women 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 Charlotte Marsh had been fed by tube 139 times.

Mary Leigh later 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."

Mary Leigh as drum-major of the WSPU drum and fife band.
Mary Leigh as drum-major of the WSPU drum and fife band.

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. A few days after leaving prison, Mary Leigh, Emily Davison and Constance Lytton were caught throwing stones at a car taking David Lloyd George to a meeting in Newcastle. The stones were wrapped in Emily's favourite words: "Rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God."

The women were found guilty and sentenced to one month's hard labour at Strangeways Prison. The women went on hunger strike but once again the prison authorities decided to force-feed the women. The WSPU initiated legal proceedings against the home secretary, prison governor, and prison doctor on Mary Leigh's behalf, opening a defence fund in her name. The case was brought to trial in December 1909, and the jury found for the defence, upholding the defence's claim that forcible feeding had been necessary to preserve life and that minimum force had been used.

On her release Leigh continued to take part in WSPU protests. On 21st November 1911 she was again arrested, following the organized window-breaking campaign which accompanied another deputation to the House of Commons, and was sentenced to two months' hard labour for assaulting a policeman.

On 18th July 1912 she went to the Theatre Royal, Dublin, where Herbert Asquith had recently seen a performance, and set fire to the curtains, threw a burning chair into the orchestra pit, and set off several small bombs. She was convicted and sentenced to five years' penal servitude. Leigh undertook a hunger strike of six weeks, which left her in an emaciated condition, and she was released on licence.

Like other members of the WSPU, Mary Leigh began to question the leadership of Emmeline Pankhurst and Christabel Pankhurst. These women objected to the way that the Pankhursts were making decisions without consulting members. Leigh now joined the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELF), an organization formed by Sylvia Pankhurst. In October 1913 Leigh was badly injured during scuffles with the police at an ELF meeting at Bow Baths.

Mary Leigh continued to work with the ELF long after the WSPU's campaign ceased in 1914. During the First World War she applied for war service, but was rejected because of her criminal record. Using her maiden name, Brown, she gained a place on an RAC course to train as an ambulance driver.

In January, 1917, the House of Commons began discussing the possibility of granting women the vote in parliamentary elections. Herbert Asquith, the Prime Minister during the militant suffrage campaign, had always been totally against women having the vote. However, during the debate he confessed he had changed his mind and now supported the claims of the NUWSS, WSPU and the Women's Freedom League.

On 28th March, 1917, the House of Commons voted 341 to 62 that women over the age of 30 who were householders, the wives of householders, occupiers of property with an annual rent of £5 or graduates of British universities. MPs rejected the idea of granting the vote to women on the same terms as men. In 1919 Parliament passed the Sex Disqualification Removal Act which made it illegal to exclude women from jobs because of their sex.

A bill was introduced in March 1928 to give women the vote on the same terms as men. There was little opposition in Parliament to the bill and the 1928 Equal Franchise Act became law on 2nd July 1928. As a result, all women over the age of 21 could now vote in elections.

Mary Leigh joined the Labour Party and every year she made the pilgrimage to Morpeth, Northumberland, to tend the grave of Emily Wilding Davison. According to her biographer, Michelle Myall: "Little is known of Mary Leigh's life after this time. She apparently took part in the first Aldermaston march (1958), and as a committed socialist regularly attended the May day processions in Hyde Park."

In 1965 she gave an interview with David Mitchell where she recalled with pride her days in the WSPU, and stood by her actions as a suffragette. It is not known when she died.

Primary Sources

(1) 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.

(2) Mary Leigh was forced-fed in September, 1909. The WSPU was able to get her account published in a pamphlet while she was still in prison.

I was then surrounded and forced back onto the chair, which was tilted backward. There were about ten persons around me. The doctor then forced my mouth so as to form a pouch, and held me while one of the wardresses poured some liquid from a spoon; it was milk and brandy. After giving me what he thought was sufficient, he sprinkled me with eau de cologne, and wardresses then escorted me to another cell on the first floor, where I remained two days. On Saturday afternoon the wardresses forced me onto the bed and the two doctors came in with them. 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 alternate days. Great pain is experienced during the process, both mental and physical. One doctor inserted the end up my nostril white I was held down by the wardresses, during which process they must have seen my pain, for the other doctor interfered (the matron and two of the wardresses were in tears), and they stopped and resorted to feeding me by the spoon, as in the morning. More eau dc cologne was used. The food was milk. I was then put to bed in the cell, which is a punishment cell on the first floor. The doctor felt my pulse and asked me to take food each time, but I refused.

On Sunday he came in and implored me to lie amenable and have food in the proper way. I still refused. I was fed by the spoon up to Saturday, October 2, three times a day. From four to five wardresses and the two doctors were present on each occasion. Each time the same doctor forced my mouth, while the other doctor assisted, holding my nose on nearly every occasion. On Monday, September 27, I was taken to a hospital cell, where I was fed by spoon in similar fashion. On Tuesday, the twenty-eighth, a feeding cup was used for the first time, and Benger's Food poured into my mouth for breakfast and supper, and beef-tea mid-day.

On Tuesday afternoon I overheard Miss Edwards, on issuing from the padded cell opposite, call out, "Locked in a padded cell since Sunday." I called out to her, but she was rushed into it. I then applied (Tuesday afternoon) to see the visiting magistrates. I saw them, and wished to know if one of our women was in a padded cell, and, if so, said she must be allowed out. I knew she had a weak heart and was susceptible to excitement, and it would be very bad for her if kept there longer. I was told no prisoner could interfere on behalf of another; any complaint on my own behalf would be listened to. I then said this protest of mine must be made on behalf of this prisoner, and if they had no authority to intervene on her behalf, it was no use applying to them for anything. After they had gone I made my protest by breaking eleven panes in my hospital cell. I was then fed in the same way by the feeding cup and taken to the padded cell, where I was stripped of all clothing and a night dress and bed given to me. As they took Miss Edwards out they put me into her bed, which was still warm. The cell is lined with some padded stuff-india-rubber or something. There was no air, and it was suffocating. This was on Tuesday evening.

I remained there until the Wednesday evening, still being fed by force. I was then taken back to the same hospital cell, and remained there until Saturday, October 2, noon, feeding being continued in the same way. On Saturday, October 2, about dinner time, I determined on stronger measures by barricading my cell. I piled my bed, table, and chair by jamming them together against the door. They had to bring some men warders to get in with iron staves. I kept them at bay about three hours. They threatened to use the fire hose. They used all sorts of threats of punishment. When they got in, the chief warder threatened me and tried to provoke me to violence. The wardresses were there, and he had no business to enter my cell, much less to use the threatening attitude. I was again placed in the padded cell, where I remained until Saturday evening. I still refused food, and I was allowed to starve until Sunday noon. Food was brought, but not forced during that interval.

Sunday noon, four wardresses and two doctors entered my cell and forcibly fed me by the tube through the nostrils with milk. Sunday evening, I was also fed through the nostril. I remained in the padded cell until Monday evening, October 4. Since then I have been fed through the nostril twice a day.

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.

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

When Asquith visited Dublin, on July 18, Irish suffragists met hiin by boat at Kingstown, and shouted to him through megaphones. They rained Votes for Women confetti upon him from an tipper window as he and Redmond were conducted in torchlight procession through the streets, but when they attempted poster parades and an open-air meeting close to the hall where he was speaking, a mob attacked them with extraordinary violence. Countess Markievicz and others were hurt; every woman who happened to be in the streets was assailed. Many unconnected with the movement had to take refuge in shops and houses. The Ancient Order of Hibernians was abroad, determined to punish womanhood for the acts of militant women from England. Mary Leigh had rushed to the carriage in which John Redmond and the Prime Minister were riding and had dropped into it a small hatchet. She was mobbed, but escaped, and afterward she and Gladys Evans had made a spectacular show of setting fire to the Theatre Royal, where Asquith was to speak. They had attended a performance at the theatre, and as the audience was dispersing, Mary Leigh, in full view of numbers of persons, had poured petrol onto the curtains of a box and set fire to them, then flung a flaming chair over the edge of the box into the orchestra. Gladys Evans set a carpet alight, then rushed to the cinema box, threw in a little handbag filled with gunpowder, struck matches, and dropped them in after it. Finding they all went out as they fell, she attempted to get tinder the wire fencing into the box. Several small explosions occurred, produced by amateur bombs made of tin canisters, which, with bottles of petrol and benzine, were afterward found lying about.

Declaring it his duty to pass a sentence calculated to have a deterrent effect, Justice Madden sentenced both Mary Leigh and Gladys Evans to five years' penal servitude. He expressed the hope that when militancy were discontinued the term would he reduced. "It will have no deterrent effect upon us," responded Mary Leigh in defiant tones.

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

On reaching London we at once summoned a general meeting of the Federation. The members at first declared they would not be "thrown out" of the W.S.P.U., nor would they agree to a change of name. I persuaded them at last that refusal would open the door to acrimonious discussions, which would hinder our work and deflect attention from the cause. The name of our organisation was then debated. The East London Federation of the Suffragettes was suggested by someone, and at once accepted with enthusiasm. I took no part in the decision. Our colours were to be the old purple, white, and green, with the addition of red - no change, as a matter of fact, for we had already adopted the red caps of liberty. Mother, annoyed by our choice of name, hastened down to the East End to expostulate; she probably anticipated objections from Paris. "We are the Suffragettes! that is the name we are always known by," she protested, "and there will be the same confusion as before!" I told her the members had decided it, and I would not interfere.

In the East End, with its miserable housing, its ill-paid casual employment and harsh privations bravely borne by masses of toilers, life wore another aspect. The yoke of poverty oppressing all was a factor no one-sided propaganda could disregard. The women speakers who rose up from the slums were struggling, day in, day out, with the ills which to others were merely hearsay. Sometimes a group of them went with me to the drawing-rooms of Kensington and Mayfair; their speeches made a startling impression upon those women of another world, to whom hard manual toil and the lack of necessaries were unknown. Many of the W.S.P.U. speakers came down to us as before: Mary Leigh, Amy Hicks, Theodora Bonwick, Mary Paterson, Mrs. Bouvier, that brave, persistent Russian, and many others; but it was from our own East End speakers that our movement took its life. There was wise, logical Charlotte Drake of Custom House, who, left an orphan with young brothers and sisters, had worked both as barmaid and sewing machinist, and who recorded in her clear memory incidents, curious, humorous, and tragic, which stirred her East End audiences by their truth.

Melvina Walker was born in Jersey and had been a lady's maid; many a racy story could she tell of the insight into "High Life" she had gained in that capacity. For a long period she was one of the most popular open-air speakers in any movement in London. She seemed to me like a woman of the French Revolution. I could imagine her on the barricades, waving the bonnet rouge, and urging on the fighters with impassioned cries. When she was in the full flood of her oratory, she appeared the very embodiment of toiling, famine-ridden, proletarian womanhood.

Mrs. Schlette, a sturdy old dame, well on in her sixties, came forward to make a maiden oration without hesitation, and soon was able to hold huge crowds for an hour and a half at a stretch. Mrs. Cressell, afterward a Borough Councillor; Florence Buchan, a young girl discharged from a jam factory, the reason being given by the forewoman: "What do you want to kick up a disturbance of a night with the Suffagettes"; Mrs. Pascoe, one of our prisoners, supporting by charing and home work a tubercular husband and an orphan boy she had adopted-but a few of the many who learnt to voice their claims.