Brighton was a centre of Suffragette activity with a dynamic branch of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). A particularly brave member was Mary Jane Clarke, (1862 – 1910), an organiser of the branch. As a preview to the talk by the Mary Clarke Statue Appeal being held as part of the International Women’s Day event today at 11am, social historian Louise Peskett introduces the fierce and determined suffragette Mary Jane Clarke.
Originally from Manchester, Mary Jane was the sister of Emmeline Pankhurst and at the heart of the Suffragette movement from the beginning. A decorative artist by profession, she was appointed an official WSPU organiser as early as 1907. In 1909 she was arrested for leading a group to Downing Street and imprisoned for one month. By summer 1909 she had become a paid organiser for Brighton, working in the offices at Brighton’s clocktower now commemorated by a blue plaque, responsible for running the campaign for the January 1910 general election. On 18 November 1910 Mary was caught up in the notorious events of what became known as ‘Black Friday’.
This was an initially peaceful demonstration in London in which 300 women marched to the Houses of Parliament to show their protest at Prime Minister Asquith’s about-turn on the Conciliation Bill which would have given the vote to a million women. The women met an unprecedented level of violence metered out by the police and male bystanders. Several Suffragettes were beaten, punched and thrown to the ground.
Chillingly, a huge number of women reported being sexually assaulted during this six hour marathon of violence. Although the police arrested 115 women – over a third of the number attending the march – only four men were arrested. Interviews afterwards described assaults such as breast pinching and groping but calls for a public enquiry were dismissed by Home Secretary, Winston Churchill.
Mary Jane was one of the women arrested that day, on a window smashing charge. Like many Suffragettes, while in Holloway Prison, she endured force-feeding. This extremely dangerous practice, far from being the safe medical procedure that the government presented it as, was brutal, violating and dangerous, giving the women who endured it years of medical problems to come. When Mary Jane was released on the 23rd December she died two days later from a brain haemorrhage attributed to her force-feeding. She was just 48 years old. She was described in her obituary by fellow Suffragette, Emily Pethick Lawrence, as ‘the first woman martyr who has gone to death for this cause’. In January 1911 a memorial service was held for her in the Royal Pavilion.
The Mary Clarke Statue Appeal, started in 2018, is a local campaign to build a statue of Mary Clarke with well-known Sculptor Denise Dutton engaged to make an initial bronze model in the hope that funding can be raised.
For more information please contact https://maryclarkestatue.com
The Mary Clarke Statue Appeal will be talking about Mary Jane Clarke and the Suffragettes at 11am in Brighton Museum’s Education Pavilion. All welcome, please do come along.