'CANNING – May 19 at Richmond Place in this city, the wife of the Rev. Thomas Canning, of a daughter.'
This birth announcement above in the Hereford Times of Saturday 23rd of May 1863 is the first reference to Florence Mary Canning in the press. During research for my book Hard Work – But Glorious I found over 300 newspaper stories in relation to her early life, involvement in the suffrage campaign, her letter writing, speeches, and meeting attendance, to the outpouring of collective grief after her death from breast cancer at Brighton on 24 December 1914.
Florence was the oldest child of the Reverend Thomas Canning and his wife Eliza and was first seen in public when she was part of the ceremony on the 18th of July 1867 to lay the foundation stone for Tupsley Parochial School. The Hereford Journal of the 20th of July has her as being six years old, but she was a precocious four-year-old, ‘depositing into a prepared cavity in the stone a bottle containing an account of the school’s origins’. The school stood alongside St Paul’s Church where Thomas was the first vicar of the new parish of Tupsley on the outskirts of Hereford.
The school was the scene of performances to raise money for local good causes, and in January 1882 Florence and her younger sister Ethel performed piano duets for a concert in aid of Hereford Dispensary. In July 1882 Florence exhibited some terracotta plaques at an exhibition in aid of the Ladies Home Mission at the Bishop’s Palace in Hereford. She also performed in a concert in Worcester in 1889 under the tutelage of Dr Wareing, playing piano, but nothing else is seen of Florence apart from Census records, living at home with her family in Hereford. She finally reappears in the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) Annual Report, donating 10s 7d in March 1908 as part of Self Denial Week. A tribute to Florence from the 1st of January 1915 in Votes for Women suggests that she was an early member of the organisation, setting aside her work as an artist to join in 1906. However, there are no references to her activities before 1908.
Following her arrest at a deputation to the House of Commons and a month in Holloway Gaol in July 1908, Florence was soon criss-crossing the country to speak on behalf of the WSPU and the Conservative and Unionist Women’s Franchise Association, with destinations including Bristol, Horsham, Liverpool, and Paignton. In June 1909 she was campaigning in Scotland; prior to that Florence had made her will which was witnessed by her housekeeper, Annie Hubbard, and gave her address as 9 Bedford Gardens, Campden Hill, Kensington, London.
During 1910 Florence became involved in the Church League for Women’s Suffrage and was soon on the national organising committee, eventually spending a year as Chairman, then honorary Vice President. This added to her travels, with around 80 meetings recorded for the year, but her activities were curtailed after being injured during the notorious events at Parliament on the 18th of November that year. An article in Vote from the 15th of January 1915 describes that Florence’s ‘recent death at Brighton undoubtedly resulted from the brutal treatment received on Black Friday’. At the time she was treated for her immediate injuries by Dr Flora Murray, and in her last illness, Florence was under the care of Dr Louisa Martindale, who also certified Florence’s death at her final home, 23 Rock Gardens, Brighton.
But where was Florence in 1911? Her WSPU subscription was paid in February, but she doesn’t re-emerge in the papers until a report in Votes for Women on the 19th of May, when the members of the Chelsea branch of the organisation were ‘very glad to get Miss Canning back’. Presumably this was related to her state of health. Her whereabouts for the Census on the night of the 2nd of April 1911 are unknown; she was most likely an evader. The form for 9 Bedford Gardens was completed by John Henry Hubbard, who described himself as ‘baker journeyman’, and his wife Annie, housekeeper, was also listed. The presence of such a couple occupying a ten-roomed house in an affluent street in Kensington seems to have gone unquestioned by the enumerator.
Meanwhile, less than a mile down the road, Mrs Dahl’s premises at 49 Abingdon Gardens received far more scrutiny with this comment from the enumerator: ‘5 females were said to have slept here on Sunday night. Suffragettes. Servant (Ethel Carless, 25) would not give information’. Further research has shown that Elsie Dahl was a participant in the Church League for Women’s Suffrage, WSPU and Women’s Tax Resistance League, and would have certainly known Florence. It is of course impossible to know if Florence was one of the suffragettes who were at 49 Abingdon Gardens, but she was staying there during May 1914 when she wrote to Ursula Roberts in support of the women’s ordination campaign.
By this time Florence was seriously ill as the breast cancer which she had been suffering from for four years had spread further into her chest. After one final arrest at the Buckingham Palace deputation on the 21st of May and a subsequent court appearance, she mostly gave up public campaigning. She moved to Brighton to receive further treatment from Louisa Martindale at the Lewes Road Dispensary for Women and Children, which later became the New Sussex Hospital for Women. Nevertheless, Florence died on Christmas Eve, and tributes poured in from every direction. Her funeral took place at St Paul’s Church, Tupsley on the 29th of December 1914, where she was buried alongside her father. Representatives of the WSPU attended her funeral, with a wreath in the organisation’s colours of green, white, and violet placed on her coffin.
A memorial fund for Florence was set up, to which supporters from all the different suffrage organisations were urged to contribute. It raised £165 for the Women’s Hospital for Children in London, founded by Flora Murray and Louisa Garrett Anderson. The Treasurer of the committee, Mrs Monck-Mason wrote in Votes for Women on the 30th of April 1915: ‘No more fitting tribute could be raised than a fund to help the progressive work of women doctors in the care of the future generation, an object so dear to the heart of her whom it is desired to honour’.
You can visit Florence on our map by clicking on her home at Bedford Gardens or on her name under WSPU on the drop down menu to the side.
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 Hard Work – But Glorious: Stories from the Herefordshire Campaign (Orphans Press, 2021) and is currently planning a biography of Constance Radcliffe Cooke (see Clare’s previous blog). She continues to champion local research.