Lewes has long dined out on its radical incomers but there was nothing on the menu when Beatrice Sanders, a suffragette from Battersea, came to stay in 1913. That’s because Beatrice, charged with conspiracy, was here as a guest of His Majesty, and she was on hunger strike.
With Holloway prison overflowing, the authorities needed to find out-of-the-way lock-ups where militant women wouldn’t attract adverse publicity. Lewes seemed to fit the bill.
Despite its proximity to Brighton, where barely a seafront railing went naked of a suffragette, Lewes instead bred suffragists, mild-mannered campaigners who believed the vote should be won by lobbying parliament, not lobbing things at it. Opinion in the town on the question of votes for women was divided and open-air meetings, according to the Sussex Express at the time, suffered ‘many sarcastic interruptions’ (sound familiar?) but no disorder.
But despite a lack of local, vocal support for the cause, the lives of many ordinary people in Lewes were changed for the better – eventually – with the introduction of the 1918 Representation of the People Act, which gave some women the vote for the first time and also significantly increased male suffrage.
Thanks to the world-renowned Reeves Archive, researchers have been able to take the names of local first-time voters and find their portraits amongst an incredible collection of some 150,000 glass plates. “I can’t believe how important and interesting and endlessly giving the archive is,” says local photographic historian Brigitte Lardinois, who was also behind the WW1 commemoration, Lewes Remembers. “We are constantly finding new ways to tell the stories of ordinary people affected by big historical events.”
One such was Grace Vinall of Wayside, South Malling. By the time she was eligible to vote, Grace was 49, widowed, and had two grown-up sons.Grace’s eldest son, Lancelot, came home safe from serving two years in the Royal Garrison Artillery and cast his ballot for the first time alongside his mother in December 1918.
But we can’t leave poor Beatrice Sanders holed up without further mention. Beatrice’s visit did attract attention. Women from near and far gathered outside the prison and sang suffragette songs and ‘rousing national airs.’ Fearing for her survival, the authorities released Beatrice into the care of one of a handful of local sympathisers – Greta Allen – who took her to a nursing home in Priory Crescent where she was presented with a bouquet. A few days later, a frail but unrepentant Beatrice was conveyed by taxi to Lewes station, taken down to the London platform in a wheelchair by two porters who popped her into a first-class compartment and gently drew the blinds.
Direct action and the ‘war to end all wars’ may have won the vote in the end but perhaps there was something to be said, too, for a kinder, gentler politics. Eleanor Knight (Photo courtesy of Edward Reeves)
From Suffrage to Citizenship; The campaign for women’s right to vote in Lewes is open Saturday 15 December 2018 to 4 January 2019, Mon-Fri 9-5 pm, Lewes Town Hall as part of Reeves’ Stories Seen Through a Glass Plate series.