Alice and her sisters
When the role of the suffragette movement, at the turn of the last century, in gaining the right for women to vote is raised, many people immediately think of the Pankhurst family and their achievements. Whilst this, to a large extent is rightly so, there were many women of all social backgrounds who also supported the cause and in so doing, suffered much hardship and imprisonment at the hands of an uncaring Government of the day.
Alice Hawkins was one such lady. Born in 1863 in Stafford of a working-class background, Alice left school at thirteen to spend her working life as a shoe machinist, in the ‘boot and shoes’.
From her early teens Alice realised that the working conditions and pay for women in industry were inferior to that of their male colleagues and so began a lifetime work of participation in the boot and shoe trade union to try to improve this. Alice was lucky in her early twenties, for she joined the Equity Shoe factory which had been newly formed as a worker’s co-operative. The Equity actively encouraged workers to participate in political organisations and allowed time off when necessary.
But by the early 1900s Alice became increasing disillusioned with what could be achieved through the trade union movement, as the main focus lay in improving the pay and conditions for male workers who were seen as the ‘breadwinners’ of the family.
Alice was reported in the article for reading out at the breakfast meeting a letter she had received whilst in Holloway from her local MP, Ramsey MacDonald. Expressing regret that Alice had been ‘run in’, he also criticised the actions of the women, stating it would do serious damage to the cause of women’s suffrage.
Alice’s first term of imprisonment was to have a profound effect upon her and the next month she invited Sylvia Pankhurst to speak in Leicester. Shortly after Alice formed the Leicester branch of the WSPU and invited Emily Pankhurst to address the inaugural meeting at the Welford Coffee House in the city centre.
Alice and her Leicester colleagues began a tireless campaign of speaking at factory gates, market squares and village greens throughout Leicestershire and parts of Northamptonshire, urging women of all social backgrounds to support the cause.
During the summer months of 1907 Sylvia Pankhurst spent much time in Leicester working and gaining the support of the women in the shoe industry. In later years Sylvia wrote a personal account of the struggle:
“At night I held meetings for the local WSPU, amongst whom, only Mrs Hawkins, as yet, dared mount the platform.”
In June 1908, perhaps Alice’s finest moment came when she spoke before a mass rally in Hyde Park. Known as Women’s Sunday and attended by over 250,000 supporters, Alice was reported as a keynote speaker the following day in The Times.
Although always one to attend national events in London, Alice worked endlessly amongst the shoe trade workers and would cycle out to towns and villages on a Sunday morning to campaign for support.
Unfortunately, not all men and not all women were sympathetic to the militant activities of the suffragettes and speakers at public gatherings were frequently heckled, harangued and physically assaulted.
One of these occasions was in Leicester market one Sunday evening when a man shouted to Alice, who was making a speech, “Get back to your family.” Alice replied: “But here is my family, they are here to support me.” And indeed they were, with Alfred and their children (all teenagers) standing by her side.
Following crowd violence, the suffragettes were requested in Leicester to cease such open-air meetings. Alice refused and future meetings were attended by a strong police presence.
Tragedy came to Alice and Alfred in 1912 when their youngest child of six, Tom, died suddenly of a brain tumour. Emily Pankhurst, leader of the suffragette movement in the UK, wrote a moving letter of condolence to them both.
The suffragette activity continued up to 1914 when the Great War broke out. The call came from the national leaders to cease all militant activities and support the nation through the War. Alice sees her sons, Alfred, Arthur and Bertie go off to fight for King and country in France.
Change came for Alice in February 1907 when she attended her first meeting of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in Hyde Park, followed by a march the same day to the House of Commons to demand the vote for women. That afternoon mounted police charged down the women and Alice was arrested and imprisoned for the first time in her life. In the following seven years she was to be arrested and jailed a total of five times, with terms of imprisonment in Leicester and Holloway jails.
“If the cabinet ministers thought that fourteen days in Holloway Jail would dampen the spirits of Alice and the other twenty-eight women imprisoned with her, they were badly mistaken.” A press cutting collected by Alice from a national newspaper describes how, in the early hours of the day of their release over two hundred women congregated outside the prison gates. The London Excelsior Band was hired to play stirring tunes that the imprisoned women could hear from their cells and at 9:00am the women walked out one by one. Each of those released were cheered as they walked out through the gates and once all were out, the women marched down into central London for a ‘reformed breakfast’ attended by supporters of the cause, including George Bernard Shaw.
Newspaper cutting of Alice's first arrest
And so ended Alice’s time as a suffragette. Never one to speak publicly of her achievements, she continued after the war to support the local trade union and the labour movement up to the time of her death in 1946, at the age of eighty-three.
The local newspaper of the day: The Leicester Evening Mail reported Alice’s death prominently on its front page on 12th March 1946. Together with a photograph of Alice taken during her days as a suffragette, the headline read:
“City Suffragette dead: Jailed five times in fight for women’s vote.”