A first-time author - my research and writing journey
Jennifer Godfrey, Suffragettes of Kent, published by Pen & Sword Ltd, 2019
In 2019, I was thrilled when two-years’ worth of my research and writing was published by Pen & Sword Ltd resulting in my book, Suffragettes of Kent. The book forms part of a women’s suffrage series by them covering the whole of the United Kingdom. When I responded to their advertisement in the Writing magazine calling for writers for these books, I really had no idea of the journey I was about to embark on.
As a first-time author and not a historian, I had, and indeed have, much to learn. Whilst my legal training as a solicitor was extremely useful with researching and conveying the accounts and stories I uncovered, I was not prepared for the sheer volume of research material. This became quite overwhelming at times and inevitably I was faced with the unenviable task of cutting some sections of my work from the book. My findings included so many absorbing stories and journeys of hope, determination, courage, and sacrifice from those involved in the women’s suffrage movement in Kent. These stories were not all complete; there were many part stories. In some cases, in accounts of suffrage meetings, a name would be included that had not appeared elsewhere requiring a lengthy research project to uncover more. My love of detail and of providing as complete a picture of an event as possible, urged me to either undertake this lengthy research, or not include the name at all. I battled with this dilemma until I realized my book could be valuable to others wishing to undertake more localised or family history research, so that including only a name, could still be useful to someone.
By embracing this approach, my book soon became about people and community: the suffrage campaigners from Kent and those visiting or touring Kent; the Kent inhabitants that were impacted by the suffrage campaign, like the farmer and his family giving hospitality to the touring Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) van in 1913; and those who joined the 1913 National Union Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) Pilgrimage as well as those who offered the pilgrims food or boarding.
I feel honoured to have been given the opportunity to become an advocate for voices past, as I have so often for voices present as a solicitor. I was especially proud to tell the previously untold story of Ethel Violet Baldock. Ethel was a working-class maid from Maidstone, who by 1912 was in service and living in Tunbridge Wells. Having found the smallest reference to Ethel’s arrest at the WSPU window-smashing protest in March 1912, I was excited to then discover not only records of her arrest and court appearances in the National Archives, but to also connect with her descendants. Ethel’s great-great-niece, Gill Rose, was able to share with me some initial family details. Further family members were then kind enough to share photographs, stories and accounts of Ethel that enabled me to tell her story in more detail. Ethel’s granddaughters Eileen and Tricia tell some of the stories they learned about her from their father, Ethel’s son, in the film 'Sharing suffrage stories: Mapping Women’s Suffrage and ‘Our Ethel’ in Kent' - click here to view.
I felt so attached to Ethel that I dedicated Chapter One to her story and began calling her ‘My Ethel’. During my book launch interview, Ethel’s descendants were sitting in the front row and it dawned on me that I really couldn’t keep referring to her as ‘My Ethel’. I therefore explained that I would from then on refer to her as ‘Our Ethel’ on the basis that she wasn’t mine at all, she was all of ours. Symbolically for me, she represents all the people involved - however they contributed to the suffrage movement - whose story, part story, or names are often untold and that I have included in my book.
For any other first-time writer about to embark on a similar journey, I would say go for it! Embrace the challenges; harness the opportunities and enjoy the learning. I would also encourage you to be kind to yourself as it can be tough going. Stop, take breaks; reflect; chat to others; remind yourself what you are doing and why you embarked on this journey in the first place. If, like me, you have a dilemma, try to think through it from different angles and not just your usual one. By putting yourself in other’s shoes, even for just a moment, you often find an answer staring right back at you. This approach really helped me especially during my dilemma over the inclusion of incomplete stories.
I’ve now begun another journey with the Mapping Women’s Suffrage project which grabbed my attention because of its unique, visual way of sharing the stories and part stories of some of those involved in the suffrage movement - those like ‘Our Ethel’. I have already shared details with the project of some of the historic voices from my book. This required some additional research such as locating 1911 addresses from the census or elsewhere, a process I’ve really enjoyed. It’s encouraged me to look at the material again, finding many more connections are there to be made. For instance, since getting involved with Mapping Women’s Suffrage, I have also connected with other like-minded people looking to research and add information about suffrage campaigners in Kent to the project map. That Mapping Women’s Suffrage allows people to share local knowledge more widely and easily is fantastic as a celebration of the part local people played in the country’s wider suffrage movement – stories so often hidden from formal histories - but also as a tool to learn with and to assist ongoing suffrage studies.
So, aside from ‘Our Ethel’ among those I’ve shared with Mapping Women’s Suffrage are the two Tillard sisters Violet and Irene from Southborough who in June 1908 ran onto Southborough Common to greet Mrs Despard and Muriel Matters as they arrived on their WFL tour van. The sisters remained with the tour for the duration of its time in Kent, through to October 1908, and this forged their continued suffrage work. Violet and Muriel Matters became lifelong friends, even boarding together in London in later years, and were both involved in the demonstration at the Palace of Westminster in October 1908. Muriel and Helen Fox chained themselves to ‘the grille’ in the Ladies’ Gallery that obscured their view of parliamentary proceedings. Violet used string to attempt to lower a WFL proclamation ‘Women’s Freedom League demand votes for women’ to the floor of Parliament whilst two male supporters showered those in the House of Commons with WFL leaflets. They were removed from the House of Commons and later arrested for trying to break police lines. Violet served a month in Holloway Prison. Violet’s half-sister, Irene, was arrested in 1909 with Mrs Despard for picketing outside 10 Downing Street.
Violet Tillard was living in Lambeth, London by 1911, which is where she is located on the Mapping Women’s Suffrage map, but I’m still digging to find the whereabouts of Irene Tillard around that time. Violet resisted the census, could Irene have been evading?
Resisting the 1911 census and included on the Mapping Women’s Suffrage map are also Lydia Le Lacheur, Caroline Marchant and Sarah Reynolds, all at the same house in Tunbridge Wells. Lydia Le Lacheur was the Treasurer of the Tunbridge Wells Suffrage Society (NUWSS). Caroline, her nurse, gives her occupation as ‘nurse suffragist’. Sarah similarly is given as ‘cook suffragist’. Other Kent women included on the map are Women’s Freedom League (WFL) member Alice Rollinson a teacher from Gravesend, and Governess and Honorary Secretary of the NUWSS Matfield branch, Mabel Symonds.
Vera Conway-Gordon, President and Honorary Secretary of Rochester’s branch of the NUWSS, who was also an author and dedicated campaigner for women’s rights is also on the map and that brings things right up to date. The Friends of Rochester Churchfields & Esplanade (FoRCE) are currently fundraising to create a sensory garden, inclusive for all, to commemorate Vera’s life. The hashtag #rememberVera has now been coined as part of this campaign. For more information and/or to get involved in this fantastic project to remember another dedicated and determined woman campaigning for women’s rights, click here.
You can also visit my website https://jennifergodfrey.co.uk to learn how I am now involved with the campaign to create a sensory garden commemorating Vera and about my book ‘Suffragettes in Kent’ including details on how to order.
About the Author
Jennifer Godfrey is the author of ’Suffragettes of Kent’ published by Pen & Sword. Previously a Solicitor, Jennifer trained to accurately convey accounts of an event or situation and as a first-time author, she enjoys listening to and learning from other people’s stories. She has also worked for a mental health charity, using these skills to create resources for young people. Jennifer is currently working for a district council in Kent supporting residents and communities and is also an advocate for historic Kent voices.