I’m working today in a box office in a West End theatre and took the opportunity to come into Blackfriars station and then walk into town along Fleet Street – it’s so quiet on a Sunday and it was a pleasure to enjoy the buildings and the sunshine.
As I approached Clements Inn and the Aldwych I couldn’t help thinking about the WSPU and the Coronation March of 1911 – as well as the 1911 Census boycott and all the history of the suffrage campaign in and around the Aldwych, including the theatres there. Preparing, writing and performing the Stage Rights! Walk really brought alive that part of the city for me – thinking of the Census boycott I walked past Clements Inn this morning somewhat dreamily imagining the journey from there to the Aldwych Rinkeries where the Actresses’ Franchise League performed and from the site of the Rinkeries to the Gardenia Restaurant on Catherine Street where the skating Suffragists had breakfast at 3am before heading back to the Rinkeries until 5am. There are so many historically resonant buildings along Fleet Street going into the West End – it seems such a shame that the WSPU offices and site of the Rinkeries are now completely obliterated by the LSE buildings. Of course it’s ridiculous to regret that – what would I do if the buildings were there? Stand and stare at them in a reverential way and imagine the hustle and bustle, the women and men going in and out, the slogans in the windows - trying to half close my eyes and bring the black and white images of the WSPU offices at Clements Inn to life in colour to match the streets around me. I want the buildings to be standing so I can engage with them viscerally – “The Suffragettes Stood Here” - more like the close encounters of the imagination available to visitors at the fantastically evocative Dennis Severs House in Spitalfields than the neater, more anonymous spaces of National Trust properties (although I love visiting those too!).
The Stage Rights! Walk was all about “The Suffragettes Stood Here” - and here was everywhere on the streets of London and in the hearts and minds of the performers, audience and passers by. Engaging emotionally with buildings and physical historical sites is of course a nostalgic pleasure - however what I found most moving this morning was that I couldn’t project that urge to connect to the past onto physical buildings – instead it is within myself, stirring my emotions and thoughts and colouring my encounters with the city.
It’s exactly the same along Robert Street just off the Strand – the site of Adelphi Terrace House where the Actresses’ Franchise League and the Women’s Freedom League had their offices. George Bernard Shaw, Richard D’Oyly Carte and J.M. Barrie had property there, and the Minerva Press occupied the same building. Unfortunately it was destroyed in the 1930s, and only a few black and white pictures remain of the original building. For me this area is the most evocative – standing there knowing that the area was buzzing with Suffrage activities and picturing the Actresses’ Franchise League offices with the embroidered banners in the windows makes me a silly, sentimental fool, I know!
Suffragettes were visible everywhere on the streets of London and many other cities – selling newspapers on the streets, selling branded goods outside and inside Suffrage Shops and offices and protesting, demonstrating, marching, engaging with the public on many levels. Because many of the buildings they occupied so visibly only a hundred years ago are not there it is hard to come across traces of their presence unless you know where to look – I can’t walk up Charing Cross Road without thinking of the Women’s Press bookshop there and wondering what it would have looked like in real life. I also remember the Silver Moon bookshop and mourn the loss of another obviously feminist bookshop along that street.
The loss of the Women’s Library building is also sad, memories for me of precious, exciting time spent there catching glimpses of researchers and feeling humbled and impressed, but also thrilled and so lucky to be in their space, learning too. I’m sure the new location at the LSE will be great, but it’s such a shame to lose that connection with the immediate past – the passion and drive of the people that set up the Women’s Library building and the layout of the reading room made me feel part of something, part of a respectful attitude to studying, collecting and preserving the history and lives of women as well as influencing my own research and behaviour. Ah well. That’s enough sentimentality for one Sunday, I think!
Do take a walk around whatever city you are in next with the Votes for Women movement in mind. I’ll bet you there were Suffragists standing where you are standing, meeting, laughing, shouting, speaking and making the campaign impossible to ignore.
Thoughts, reflections, bits of research