by Clare Wichbold, MBE
Whilst undertaking my investigations of the suffrage campaign in Herefordshire, I came across two enigmatic folders at the archives which were catalogued as “Suffrage; Women; Clippings; Addresses (speeches); Photographs; Pamphlets”. One contained a copy of the Suffragette Roll of Honour, listing the names of women who went to jail for the cause, together with a notebook of suffrage speeches, some recorded in shorthand. The other contained an envelope posted from the Isle of Wight in 1954 marked: “WSPU Talk” and the instruction: “These suffrage papers are to be given to Hereford Museum and Library”. Fortunately, there was a name and a return address: CCR Cooke, 51 Argyll Street, Ryde, IOW.
The papers belonged to Constance Chellingworth Radcliffe Cooke who was born in London in 1877. She was the eldest daughter of Charles Radcliffe Cooke a solicitor who inherited Hellens Manor at Much Marcle, Herefordshire, in 1881, and went on to become an anti-suffragist MP representing Newington West and later Hereford. Constance had wanted to go to university and become a teacher, but her father Charles vetoed this plan. She instead pursued a long-time interest in home economics, supporting the early 20th century Welsh Home-Making Centres which taught girls domestic science, as well as developing her designs for a cook box and energy saving recipes.
Constance joined the WSPU in 1909, additionally donating 12s 6d to the Self-Denial Fund in the same year. She was in Droitwich, Worcestershire, in early 1910 after the salt workers riot, working with Bertha Brewster, a local WSPU member. In 1911, Constance was living at 11 Silverdale Road in Eastbourne and described herself as a “social reformer” on the government census survey that year. This was the venue for Elise Randall’s School of Cookery, which went on to become the Eastbourne School of Domestic Economy, “teaching young women how to live well”. Elise was a remarkable teacher and lifelong educationalist who was commemorated through an educational trust and a stained-glass window created by Rachel de Montmorency in the 1960s at All Saints Church, Eastbourne. The description of “social reformer” for Constance remained apt for the remainder of her life: she was a member of the Fabian Society, Women’s Cooperative Guild, Independent Labour Party, and CND. Her cooking box book was revised and reprinted during WW2. She also found time to campaign for public health reform, better living standards for agricultural labourers, and housing improvements in rural areas. Further research has revealed that Constance was a member of the Worker’s Educational Association on the Isle of Wight, giving lectures about her suffrage campaigning days, using the “props” in her envelope as we might use visual aids such as PowerPoint today.
It was following Constance’s death in 1963, that all her personal papers were given to the local museum and remain mostly uncatalogued. Fascinated by linguistics, her 13 boxes of linguistics research took a circuitous route via Keele University but are now housed together with the rest of the Radcliffe Cooke collection at Herefordshire Archives and Records Centre (HARC). The “suffrage papers” were sent from her summer home on the Isle of Wight when Constance was packing up in 1954 for a return to Herefordshire and permanent move to Monk’s Walk Cottage, Much Marcle. The contents of the envelope are a goldmine, including handwritten notes of Constance’s WSPU experiences; a copy of the infamous “Raided!” issue of the Suffragette; a length of green, white, and violet ribbon; and a picture of Christabel Pankhurst with a small piece of similar ribbon pinned to the top corner.
I have much more work to do on Constance’s personal papers, but sadly the closure of HARC under the Covid lockdown has meant that I have had a frustrating wait! I look forward to finding out more about this remarkable woman and her life of campaigning in due course.
Constance’s involvement in the suffrage movement forms a chapter of my book, Hard Work – But Glorious: Stories from the Herefordshire Suffrage Campaign, which is coming out soon. Keep an eye on my Twitter account, @CWichbold, for updates on progress towards publication.
Constance Cooke (WSPU) is now on our map - www.mappingwomenssuffrage.org.uk/suffrage-map
About the Author
Clare Wichbold is a professional fundraiser who has worked in Herefordshire for over 20 years, at Herefordshire Council, Hereford Cathedral, and now at The Courtyard Centre for the Arts. A former archaeologist, she became interested in the women’s suffrage campaign as chairman of the Hereford Three Choirs Festival centenary celebration of votes for women in 2018. Inspired, Clare has since authored a book (see above) and continues to champion local research.
NOTE: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are soley those of the author. Any views and opinions expressed do not necessarily represent those of Mapping Women's Suffrage, and/or any/all contributors to this site.