Hilda Burkitt –

by Lauren Hall, Great Great Great Niece

Hilda Burkitt in 1901, aged 25, sitting at ‘The Warwick Art Company’ a studio owned and ran by her sister Lillian, also a Suffragette. Image Credit Lesley Cain, Jane Wood & Lauren Hall ( Great, Great / Great Nieces )

When I was seven years old, I have a vague memory of my mother ending a phone call with her father and coming in to tell me that my great-great-great aunt Hilda Burkitt was a suffragette – ‘She burned down a hotel and was forcibly fed’. Child me was not particularly impressed. I had grown up reading Horrible Histories, and as far as I was concerned, the past was completely bizarre and made up completely of strange behaviour. Everybody probably had arsonist ancestors. However, since my early 20s, I have been researching Hilda and her time as a militant suffragette and realised that this is not necessarily the case. Hilda Burkitt spent 7 years as a member of the WSPU and, during this time, gave her life to the movement. She would eventually become an active and violent militant, going further than many others in her actions. 

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.

Image Credit Lesley Cain, Jane Wood & Lauren Hall ( Great, Great / Great Nieces )

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.

This is not to say that Lillian and Christobel were any less committed to the women’s suffrage cause. Indeed, they may have spurred Hilda on. On the 11th February 1908, a deputation of women attempted to hold a “Women’s Parliament” at Caxton Hall in London. Lillian and Christobel were amongst over 50 women arrested, and both served six weeks in Holloway prison. After her release, Lillian, under her stage-name, published a ‘message of encouragement’ in Votes for Women, urging her suffragette sisters that ‘to have helped, even in ever so small a way, towards the common cause of womanhood is not to have lived in vain’. 

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.

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. An air horn was sounded to try and drown out Asquith’s voice inside, as he was heckled by WSPU-sympathetic male attendees.

When I was seven years old, I have a memory of my mother telling me that my great-great-great aunt Hilda Burkitt was a suffragette – ‘She burned down a hotel and was forcibly fed’.

If Mr McKenna [the Home Secretary] does not release me I shall die in prison, in which case I shall then be the victor, because I shall not have served the sentence. You can give me liberty or death.’

Lillian Burkitt (Hilda Burkitt’s elder sister), sitting at her Perry Barr photography studio, the Warwick Art Company

Whilst I may not admire her later actions, I can understand why she did what she did. I do admire her indefatigable commitment to early feminism and the emancipation of women. With all her imperfections, she should at least be remembered.

Credit Lesley Cain, Jane Wood & Lauren Hall ( Great, Great / Great Nieces )

Four generations of Burkitt men. Left to right – Reuben Lancelot Burkitt (Hilda’s father), Charles Arthur Lancelot Burkitt (Hilda’s elder brother) and Charles Burkitt (Hilda’s grandfather) holding Hilda’s nephew Charles Norman Burkitt. Taken around 1899.

Image Credit Lesley Cain, Jane Wood & Lauren Hall (Great, Great/Great Nieces)

Laura Burkitt (née Clewes), Hilda Burkitt’s mother as a young woman

Image Credit Lesley Cain, Jane Wood & Lauren Hall (Great, Great/Great Nieces)

Image Credit Lesley Cain, Jane Wood & Lauren Hall ( Great, Great / Great Nieces )

Image Credit Wayne Bennett

George Meadows was near the Bath Hotel at 7am when [Felixstowe] was blazing fiercely, and saw Hilda and Florence at the scene: ‘two ladies there who were laughing, one was tall and the other short.’ Hilda and Florence were still at their lodgings when Superintendent John Lingley of Woodbridge police arrived after lunch. Lingley arrested them and searched their rooms before taking them into custody. Enraged at his lack of a search warrant Hilda lost her temper when he pulled items from under her bed: ‘Do you consider it right to pull women’s things about?’ Two boxes of matches, four candles, a glazier’s diamond, four copies of The Suffragette newspaper, a lamp, a hammer and pliers were found.

Diane Atkinson, Rise Up, Women! The Remarkable Lives of the Suffragettes, Bloomsbury, 2018.

Hilda’s career as a militant suffragette has almost been forgotten. Her name does not appear among the frequently referenced characters of the WSPU. For the past few years, it has been my mission to rediscover her and her activism.

Prime Minister Herbert Asquith was met by a similar mass of people as he arrived at Birmingham New Street to return to London by train. As he boarded, Hilda and another Birmingham woman, Ellen Barnwell, pushed through the crowd. Hilda threw a stone and broke a window in the final carriage as it began to pull away. Although nobody was injured, at their trial the following day, the judge decried their actions and sentenced the two women to a month each in the Second Division of Winson Green prison. 

The other women who had protested at Bingley Hall – Mary Leigh, Charlotte Marsh, Laura Ainsworth, Mabel Capper, Leslie Hall and Patricia Woodlock – received similar or longer sentences the following Wednesday.In June 1909, Marion Wallace Dunlop had adopted the Russian-dissident inspired tactic of hunger-striking, to protest her lack of recognition as a political prisoner. Being in the First Division afforded an inmate privileges, such as being allowed one’s own clothes, books and exemption from prison labour. Unable to risk death by  starvation, prisons had released Dunlop and those who followed her lead early, thus inviting criticism that the suffragettes were being treated leniently.

Hilda had emphasised the political motive behind her stone-throwing before and during her trial on the 18th September. Like those before them, she and Ellen Barnwell were not recognised as having committed acts of political civil disobedience. So, as soon as the two arrived in prison, they began a hunger-strike. Hilda also smashed three panes of glass in her prison cell. On the 20th September, 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 was ‘ready to lay down my life, to bring about the Freedom of my Sex’.

 In response to Hilda’s petition, the Home Office sent a confidential memo to Winson Green prison authorizing the use of forcible feeding. The following day, after she continued to refuse breakfast and lunch, 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.

I’ve been in prison since April 28th,’ she wrote, ‘and have been forcibly fed during the whole time, 292 times so far.

Image Credit Public Domain UK – Torturing Women in Prison, Wikipedia Commons.

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.

Image Credit Lesley Cain, Jane Wood & Lauren Hall ( Great, Great / Great Nieces )

Her family remembered her as quiet and gentle. The only memory of Hilda ever showing anger was when she was refused a mortgage because of a lack of male income. She was understandably furious.

Having been carried back to her cell by the wardresses, Hilda then said, “This, I think, will kill me sooner than starving ; I can’t stand much more of it, but I am proud you have not beaten me yet.” A further attempt was made to feed her by cup, with similar resistance. 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. The other imprisoned women were also forcibly fed in the same way.

Hilda was released from Winson Green on the 18th October.  A local newspaper reporter was present amongst the small crowd that waited for Hilda and Ellen to emerge from the prison gates. At around 7:30am, ‘the voice of Miss Burkitt came floating through the portcullis. “Votes for women,” she screamed’ in response to cheers. Hilda rushed out, ‘laughing and still uttering her war cry’ and was met with hugs and kisses from her sisters and friends, before being taken to a Nursing Home to recover via the WSPU headquarters. Ellen Barnwell was met by her father, who quickly took her by the arm and led her away. At a meeting on November 5th in Birmingham Town Hall, Hilda and the other former prisoners (apart from Mary Leigh and Charlotte Marsh, who were still in Winson Green), were presented the WSPU’s ‘For Valour’ hunger-strike medal by Christabel Pankhurst.

It was not long before Hilda was back on the front-line of suffragette organising. Just over a month after her release from Winson Green, she and a local member Eva Dixon attempted to stage a meeting in Walsall. As she tried to speak, Hilda was met with frequent interruptions from a hostile crowd. They eventually pushed her off the chair that she was standing on and threw rotten apples at her.

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.

As World War 1 broke out and the WSPU declared a truce with the government, Hilda wrote a petition declaring that she would give up militant action in exchange for a peaceful life. She was released on August 6th and returned to Birmingham, having been forcibly fed 292 times.

Hilda’s actions during the first four months of 1914 are uncertain. From a coded diary that was later seized by police, it seems that, paid by WSPU, she was travelling up and down the country, potentially committing acts of arson before moving onto the next location. On the 17th April, Hilda, using the surname ‘Byron’, and a younger WSPU member Florence Tunks bombed the Britannia Pavilion in Great Yarmouth. 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. Their final action, one of the last and most serious militant attacks in England, occurred on the 28th April. Having taken rooms in Felixstowe, Hilda and Florence broke into the (closed for renovation) Bath Hotel and burnt it to the ground. They were apprehended the following day.

The arson of an important business in Felixstowe caused a great local scandal. Standing trial, the two women continued to ‘make scenes’. Hilda frequently sarcastically responded to the prosecution, judge, or witnesses. One witness, who Hilda and Florence alleged had behaved inappropriately towards them, angered the pair so much that they threw their shoes at him and had to be restrained. The trial ended with Florence being sentenced to 9 months and Hilda two years. In her final remarks, Hilda ended a speech with ‘Whatever sentence you impose I shall not serve, because I have made up my mind that I will not take any food or drink while I am in prison […] if Mr McKenna [the Home Secretary] does not release me I shall die in prison, in which case I shall then be the victor, because I shall not have served the sentence. You can give me liberty or death.’

Whilst serving their sentences, Hilda and Florence were eventually moved from Ipswich Gaol to Holloway. Hilda was forcibly fed four times a day. As World War 1 broke out and the WSPU declared a truce with the government, Hilda wrote a petition declaring that she would give up militant action in exchange for a peaceful life. She was released on August 6th and returned to Birmingham, having been forcibly fed 292 times.

After the fact, Hilda and her sisters spoke little of their involvement in the WSPU. Younger family members knew about their imprisonment and that Hilda had undergone forcible feeding. They didn’t know, however, that she had been imprisoned for arson. Hilda led a quiet but busy life. She 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. She died, at the age of 79, in 1955.

Her family remembered her as quiet and gentle, fond of reading, gardening and domestic animals, a completely different woman to the one who had smashed windows, burned buildings, acted out in court and prison and suffered for a political right that was now taken for granted. The only memory of Hilda ever showing anger was when she was refused a mortgage because of a lack of male income. She was understandably furious.

Hilda’s career as a militant suffragette has almost been forgotten. Her name does not appear among the frequently referenced characters of the WSPU. For the past few years, it has been my mission to rediscover her and her activism. After all, whilst her militancy often pushed the boundaries of ethical acceptability, she also devoted many years of her life to tireless organising. Countless hours were spent standing on the streets or in parks, selling newspapers or making the case for votes for women. Even when she experienced physical violence at the hands of the public or the government, she continued. Whilst I may not admire her later actions, I can understand why she did what she did. I do admire her indefatigable commitment to early feminism and the emancipation of women. With all her imperfections, she should at least be remembered.

 

Their final action, one of the last and most serious militant attacks in England, occurred on the 28th April. Having taken rooms in Felixstowe, Hilda and Florence broke into the (closed for renovation) Bath Hotel and burnt it to the ground. They were apprehended the following day.

Photographs by Luca Bailey Award Winning Photographer – Birmingham & London.

Written by Lauren Hall, Great Great Great Niece

Thanks to the kind permission for use of photographs from relatives Lauren Hall, Jane Wood, Lesley Cain

Image Credit Lesley Cain, Jane Wood & Lauren Hall ( Great, Great / Great Nieces )

On the 26 May, Burkitt and Tunks were charged with ‘feloniously, unlawfully and maliciously’ setting fire to two wheat stacks at Bucklesham Farm, worth £340 on the 24 April; destroying a stack, worth £485 on 24 April at Levington; and setting fire to the Bath Hotel in Felixstowe, causing £30,000 worth of damage 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. Hilda got two years and Florence nine months. Hilda told the judge to put on his black cap ‘and pass sentence of death or not waste his breath’. She said she either wanted liberty or death. In prison she was force-fed over two hundred times and was released a month after the outbreak of war.

Diane Atkinson, Rise Up, Women! The Remarkable Lives of the Suffragettes, Bloomsbury, 2018.

Image Credit Lesley Cain, Jane Wood & Lauren Hall ( Great, Great / Great Nieces )

One hundred years on, great-great-auntie Hilda watches beside my work table as liberal democracies are again under threat worldwide.  She reminds me that we can never become complacent.  Respecting the legacies of Hilda and all her suffragette sisters challenges us all to remain politically aware, engaged and exercise our vote wisely.

Women won that precious vote.  Now we must keep it – and we must keep it FAIR.

Jane Wood, Great Great Niece

Pleasure and Regret – by Wayne Bennett

Wayne Bennett wrote a book dedicated to the lives of Evaline Hilda Burkitt and Florence Olivia Tunks to their devotion to help obtain female emancipation. Felixstowe’s Last Bath Night ( A tale of Two Suffragettes ) by Wayne Bennett 

Uncovering and documenting Hilda’s courageous story has resulted in both pleasure and regret:

A hundred years ago the vast amount of Felixstowe’s townsfolk treated Hilda with scorn and hostility, herself and her suffragette comrade had torched a grand hotel at the seaside resort to the ground in what was to be the last major outrage of the movement’s national campaign. Moving on to today and the town’s view of the events has turned full circle. Hilda and her deed are now commemorated in the form of a blue plaque situated at the site of the attack. Heretic to heroine equals vindication. My efforts in tracing her story was to far down the line to have met her personally. I have so many questions I would have liked to ask her.

Words by Wayne Bennett, author of Felixstowe’s last Bath Night ( A Tale of Two Suffragettes )

Sources

‘Rise Up Women!: The Remarkable Lives of the Suffragettes’ by Diane Atkinson. Read more here

‘Hilda Burkitt: Suffragette who spoke up about force feeding’ BBC News Video Journalist Louise Brierley

‘Fight for the Right’ by Nicola Gauld History West Midlands

‘Suffrage Stories: ‘From Frederick Street to Winson Green’: The Birmingham Women’s Suffrage Campaign’ by Nicola Gauld

‘Felixstowe’s Last Bath Night (A tale of Two Suffragettes)‘ by Wayne Bennett 

Text from Lauren Hall, Hilda’s Great Great Great Niece

Photos from Lesley Cain, Jane Wood & Lauren Hall (Great, Great/Great Nieces); and photographer Luca Bailey

‘New Outrages by Mad Women’ Lauren Hall 

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