Olive Wharry's scrapbook
Jailed for her fire attack on Kew Refreshment Pavilion in 1913, suffragette Olive Wharry recorded her time in Holloway prison with defiance, as her scrapbook shows
Olive Wharry's scrapbook, 1913
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What was women's position before the suffragettes?
Radical or not, most reform campaigners from the 17th century onwards argued for the rights of men, not women. The view was widespread that women's interests would be adequately safeguarded by the votes of their fathers or husbands.
The terms of the 1832 Reform Act specifically excluded women from the vote. Attempts to include them in subsequent reform bills failed, although in 1869 women of property were granted the vote in local elections. The campaign to extend the franchise gathered pace and in 1897 the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) was formed in an attempt to unite the movement under a single umbrella.
The NUWSS campaigned using constitutional methods such as lobbying, petitions and public meetings. However, it came under increasing pressure from more militant women (dubbed 'suffragettes' by the newspapers), who argued that such methods were too slow and direct action was needed.
What action did the suffragettes take?
In 1903 the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) was formed, and this soon became the focus for an increasingly militant campaign. Suffragettes disrupted meetings, broke windows and burned post boxes to publicise their cause.
Many women were tried and imprisoned for their actions and many of these went on hunger strike in protest. The authorities ordered force-feeding but use of this brutal procedure prompted a public outcry. In 1913 the 'Cat and Mouse Act' notoriously allowed the government to release hunger strikers, only to re-arrest them once they had recovered their health.
Who was Olive Wharry?
Olive Wharry was born in 1886 to a middle-class London family and became an art student. By November 1910 she was active in the WSPU and was a member of the Church League for Women's Suffrage. She was imprisoned for her part in various WSPU window-smashing campaigns; in jail she went on hunger strike and managed to smash her cell windows.
On 7 March 1913 she was sentenced, as 'Joyce Locke', for setting fire to the tea pavilion at Kew Gardens, causing £900 worth of damage (the approximate annual salary of a solicitor). She was released on 8 April after being on hunger strike for 32 days, supposedly unnoticed by the warders; she said her weight had plummeted from 7st 11lbs to 5st 9lbs (49.5kg to 36kg). More arrests followed (some under the name 'Phyllis North'), along with more broken windows, more jail, and more hunger strikes.
In 1914 she was sentenced to three months in Holloway, under solitary confinement. Some doctors thought she was insane, but her scrapbook which documents her time in prison here suggests otherwise. It is full of engaging drawings of prison life, satirical poems, and a photograph of her trial for that arson of 1913. The pages here record her weight loss on release. They also have newspaper cuttings of a policeman dutifully carrying her bags, and of her handiwork on Kew Pavilion. She died in 1947.
When did the suffragette campaign stop?
With the outbreak of War in August 1914, and Parliament still unyielding, the suffragettes agreed to stop their campaign provided all prisoners were freed.
When did women actually get the vote?
The contribution made to the war effort by millions of women probably did more to convince MPs to grant women the vote than any protests. The Representation of the People Bill passed through both Houses in 1917 and became law in 1918. It gave the vote to the majority of men over 21 and to all women over 30 - over eight million women.
Soon after the law also allowed women to stand for Parliament. The first woman elected was Countess Markievicz, a Sinn Fein MP, but she did not take her seat because Sinn Fein had boycotted Parliament and she was in prison. Nancy Astor, who was American by birth, was the first woman to enter Parliament in December 1919.
It was not until March 1928 that further legislation gave the vote to all adult women.