A gift from the Polish people to Ipswich

Writing what had to be a rather short book about “secret” or Unknown Ipswich l knew that there were always going to be omissions, so I hope to rectify that here.

image

One of the things that I had to miss out was this lovely Polish icon, which is in St Pancras church in Orwell Place. It was given to the church by the Polish armoured train unit that was stationed in Ipswich during the Second World War. There were twelve armoured train units in Britain at that time and, looking back, they seem very much part of that amateur Heath Robinsonish approach to defence during that war that now seems both comical and admirable. The trains, basic wagons filled with armed Polish troops, patrolled the country from Cornwall to the north of Scotland.

Having discovered the existence of the icon in Ipswich, I was interested in finding out more about St Pancras’ church which is the kind of unprepossessing, neo-Gothic construction that English Catholics were forced to build as their own churches were taken by the established Protestant Church of England following the Reformation. Unlike Victorian era C of E churches, there were few Catholic aristocrats willing to fund beautiful buildings (an exception being the Earl of Shrewsbury who financed, among others, Pugin’s over-decorated St Giles at Cheadle in Staffordshire, where half my family were baptised, married and buried) and the neo-Gothic brickwork does not look so pretty to our 21st-century eyes, but this jewel of an icon is hardly known about and it must be significant to one of Ipswich’s new communities, the Poles who have immigrated to work in the town over the last few years.

Like many such holy images, the icon has lots of stories attached to it, for example that it was painted by St Luke the Evangelist. It appears to have been kept in the monastery of Czestochowa, and one of the stories alleges that Czech soldiers attempted to steal it but were thwarted by heavenly intervention. It was so highly valued that in 1904 the Pope presented a crown set with precious stones to be placed above the image. It was brought to England when the Germans invaded Poland in 1939 and it is a measure of the gratitude and esteem of those Polish troops that they left such a significant symbol behind in Ipswich.

Researching one thing always leads to another and a reference to “anti-Catholic riots” at St Pancras’ church in 1863 could not be ignored, although in fact the reports in the Ipswich Journal of that year tell a story that is so comical it probably belongs in the pages of a Dickens’ story. On 7 November 1863 the newspaper reported that a lecture at the Temperance Hall by someone “styling himself as André Massenn, Baron de Camin” was full of anti-Catholic sentiment. Things were not going too badly until the “Baron” announced that the women in the hall should be sent home. He then regaled the remaining male audience with racy stories about the goings on in monasteries and convents. Although it was obvious even to the reporter of the Ipswich Journal that Camin was bogus and a scurrilous rogue, he was wildly applauded by some of his audience, including some Protestant clergymen. The “Baron’s” great mistake was that he went on to impugn the character of the priest at St Pancras, Father Kemp, not perhaps realising that the 18th Hussars who were then at Ipswich Barracks were made up of Irish soldiers.

To avoid further trouble the Mayor decided to ban the lecture the following evening but this only served to stir up trouble. It has to be said that it seems that the “young men and lads” referred to as causing the disturbances did not need much provocation and they were soon persuaded by the “Baron” to go out and smash up the houses of the Mayor and other local dignitaries. A policeman was stabbed, although not seriously.

On the third evening the “Baron” once again spoke. This time the Ipswich Journal described it as a “rather dreary historical lecture on Popery,” so presumably he diplomatically missed out the bits about the naughty nuns. According to the report, “a noisy rabble of two or three thousand boys and lads” waited outside, unwilling to pay the 3d admission price. Afterwards they went to St Pancras’ church and smashed the windows and gas lamps.

It makes you wonder whether the Polish troops who left their treasured icon in Ipswich would have done so if they had known a little more about the history of the town.

A Constable portrait & a neglected cemetery in Ipswich

In about 1807, the Suffolk painter John Constable, renowned for his landscapes, painted a rare portrait. It was a painting of a very old lady, who lived in the parish of St Peter’s, Ipswich. The woman was called Sarah Lyon and she had been born in 1703.

Sarah Lyon

Sarah Lyon died in 1808 at the age of 105. It is believed that she was buried in the Jewish cemetery, close to Fore Street. A transcription published in the Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology & History, vol. XL, part 2 (2002), of the few remaining tombstones, mostly faded to illegibility and all written in Hebrew, includes one to “The woman… 5565 or 5568 [= 1805 and 1808]” which might be hers.

Yesterday, because I’m researching the history of Judaism in East Anglia, I visited the Jewish cemetery. It took me some time to find it and I’m not going to give exact details of its location, because – although it’s hard to believe – there are still people anti-Semitic enough to want to vandalise it.

It was a beautiful spring day in Ipswich and when we eventually found the little patch of ground with a small number of headstones that remain, we took the following photographs through a padlocked, wrought-iron gate. It is a peaceful place, despite being surrounded by extremely busy roads.  A robin was singing within the brick walls that surround the graves. Some of the Hebrew inscriptions are still legible.

There was a synagogue serving the Ipswich Jewish community in Rope Walk, not far from the cemetery. The Jewish population dispersed (probably to larger cities) and by 1877 the synagogue had become so neglected that it was demolished. Ipswich Jews nowadays must go to Colchester to worship.

An Education

Yesterday I visited the House of Commons for the first time in my life. It was wonderful to see the site of so many important historical events, such as Westminster Hall, where state trials used to take place, including those of Guido Fawkes and Warren Hastings.

I was there to watch an awards ceremony that had been made as a tribute to a family member who had spent many years pioneering Access to Higher Education courses. After the ceremony, we were taken on a short tour of the building by Nick Dakin, Labour MP for Scunthorpe, who had presented the awards. He was extremely kind and we even managed to get into the amazing and highly-decorated Chapel of St. Mary Undercroft http://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/building/palace/estatehistory/the-middle-ages/chapel-st-mary-undercroft-/

We’d been promised a cream tea in Portcullis House, so were slightly puzzled when Nick Dakin stopped outside a cupboard which seemed to contain electrical or computer equipment and asked us to step inside. We could only go in pairs and I went in first with another woman. On the inside of the door was a rectangular plaque which had been secretly put up by Tony Benn MP to commemorate the fact that on Census night, 1911, a suffragette called Emily Wilding Davison hid in the cupboard – then a broom cupboard – as a simple act of protest at not having the right to vote. She was able to register as being resident at the House of Commons and here is the evidence:

http://dreammail.edgesuite.net/FindMyPast/1911Census-RG14-EmilyDavison.jpeg

Emily Wilding Davison was born in 1872 and brought up in Blackheath, Surrey. She achieved First Class honours at Oxford University in 1895. Although women could by then study for degrees, they were not allowed to graduate so she left without a degree. She began a career teaching in girls’ schools and later became involved in the militant wing of the Woman Suffrage movement, the Women’s Social & Political Union (WSPU). She went to prison several times for fairly minor offences, such as attempting to give the Liberal Prime Minister, Asquith, a petition. During a later prison term, she went on hunger strike and was force fed. I don’t know if any research has been done on the psychological effects of force-feeding, but it certainly proved to harden the suffragettes’ campaign.

Emily Davison is, of course, more famous for her final act of protest when she threw herself under the King’s horse at the Derby in 1913. She was badly injured and died in hospital four days later. No-one knows if she intended to die. She had a ticket to a dance for that evening so it’s possible she only wanted to make a protest.

Tony Benn had tried to have a memorial put up to record Emily Davison’s protest for some time. In the end, he took a hammer and put the plaque up himself. He said: “It is a modest reminder of a great woman with a great cause who never lived to see it prosper but played a significant part in making it possible.”

Women over 30 were given the vote in 1918 and in 1928, this was extended to women over 21, making them equal with men for the first time.

It was a privilege to be able to see it.

How to sell your wife

Anyone who has read, or seen a TV adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge will remember the early scene where the main protagonist, Michael Henchard, sells his wife to a stranger after he gets drunk at a fair.

It is a powerful scene and enabled Hardy to construct a great story in his usual style, based on implausible coincidences and drawing on the folk traditions of the agricultural labouring class of the time. Like the later scenes in the novel depicting the “skimmity ride” where effigies of Henchard and his mistress are drawn through the streets in an act of ritual humiliation and moral indignation, the wife-selling incident was based on real events. The problem for a historian is that, being part of folk culture which by definition is not recorded officially, it’s quite difficult to find evidence to back up stories about such behaviour.

In his book Wives For Sale (1981), Samuel Menefee makes a compelling case for the historical reality of wife sales with plenty of actual and anecdotal evidence. I agree with his conclusion that the ritualistic nature of wife sales probably means that it was a labouring class form of divorce. Stories of such sales virtually disappeared as soon as the divorce laws were reformed to make them accessible to other people than the very wealthy. Its happier counterpart was “jumping over the broom” which was an unofficial form of marriage. Despite what I had been taught to believe about the Victorian era, I discovered by researching in documents like parish registers and census returns that unmarried couples frequently lived together in nineteenth-century England and illegitimacy was common.  Of course, many of these relationships were hidden in official documents where a woman would be described as a “housekeeper” – even carpenters and agricultural labourers had “housekeepers” if the census is to be taken on face value. I did find one example of honesty in the 1851 census of Northamptonshire, where a woman’s occupation was entered as “fancy woman,” however!

The “ritual” of wife-selling consisted of an unwanted wife being taken into the market square of a town with a halter around her neck. Although it would appear that most of the sales had a pre-arranged conclusion (in that the buyer was often already the lover of the woman concerned), she was then auctioned off. A payment was made, usually cash, but it sometimes involved goods, or livestock. The husband would then hand the woman over to her new man. As Menefee writes: “The ritual was important: location in a public place, often a market; a formal announcement or advertisement; the use of a halter; the presence of an ‘auctioneer’; the transfer of money, and sometimes the exchange of pledges. The symbolism was derived from the market sale of goods and chattels, with which the participants were familiar, and intended to make ‘lawful’ what was essentially a form of divorce and remarriage.”

In Menefee’s view, wife-sales took place in a society in which women occupied an inferior position, but he thought that it would probably be wrong to assume that they were being represented as chattels. “The need to observe a ‘lawful’ procedure was the real significance of the ritual. In fact, the women may rarely have been victims. They knew their value and their rights in their society, and their consent was generally a necessary condition of sale.”

I’m not sure that I either agree with this or feel that it makes the custom and practice of wife-selling any less objectionable.

Wife-selling was less common in East Anglia than in other parts of the country, but here are a few examples of incidents in Suffolk:

Parham, 1764. Ipswich Journal, September 29th 1764: “Last week a man and his wife falling into discourse with a grazier at Parham Fair, the husband offered his wife in exchange for an ox provided he would let him choose one out of his drove, the grazier accepted the proposal and the wife readily agreed, accordingly they met the next day and she was delivered with a new halter round her neck and the husband received the bullock which he sold for 6 guineas, it is said the wife has since returned to her husband, they had been married about 10 years.”

Newmarket, 1770. Menefee cites a case of wife-selling that took place in Newmarket, Suffolk on Tuesday, 6 March 1770. However, it was not reported in the local press and it’s possible that, if it happened, it occurred in one of the several other Newmarkets in Britain and Ireland.

Baylham, 1783. Ipswich Journal, 21st June 1783: “Not long since a man at Baylham in Suffolk having had a disagreement with his wife sold her to a farmer, the fee was 1s and he delivered her with a halter about her.”

Stowupland, 1787. Enid Porter in Folk-lore of East Anglia (1974) writes that a wife-sale “took place in Stowupland in Suffolk in 1787 when a local farmer’s wife was bought by his neighbour for 5 guineas, wherewith to buy a new dress and then went over to Stowmarket and ordered the bells to be rung in celebration of his having parted with her for so handsome a sum.”

Blythburgh, 1789. The Ipswich Journal, 29th October 1789 reported the following story:  “Samuel Balls sold his wife to Abraham Rade in the parish of Blythburgh in this county for 1s. A halter was put round her, and she was resigned up to this Abraham Rade. ‘No person or persons to intrust her with my name, Samuel Balls, for she is no longer my right.’ ” Then followed the names of 4 witnesses: Samuel Balls, M. Bullock (village constable), George Whincop and Robert Sherington (landlord of the White Hart).

A Samuel Balls, a single man of Holton, married Mary Bedingfield of Blythburgh by license on 6 August 1782, in the presence of Samuel Thrower and William Blowers. This may be the unhappy couple seven years before.

Other examples, for which I can find no evidence in the local press supposedly took place in Wrentham (1802),  Sudbury, (1821), Bungay, (ca. 1877), the latter was mentioned in The Rabbit-skin Cap, the autobiography of a gamekeeper called George Baldry and it may well be apocryphal.

“Ipswich for the Cup, but first a word about the ladies…”

I am never one to refuse the chance of making a gratuitous reference to my beloved Ipswich Town, but this is about the history of women’s football in England generally, so the Ipswich bit – having occurred in the 1950s – will have to wait until the end.

Like most people, I don’t know much about women’s football, although I watch some international matches and Arsenal Ladies beating whoever-it-is in the FA Cup Final every year. In 2007, however, I saw a fascinating BBC documentary about  the history of women’s football. Focusing on the famous Dick Kerr’s Ladies team, it showed rare, flickering black-and-white images of women’s football in the early part of the 20th century. I had known nothing about this: proper football matches played between proper teams. Some of the matches had been watched by massive crowds. On Boxing Day 1920, Dick Kerr’s Ladies beat St. Helen’s Ladies 4-0. The attendance was 53,000.

That date, 1920, is significant. Only a year later the FA decided to ban women from playing football on Football League grounds. “The game,” they pronounced was “quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged.” The decline in the women’s game was dramatic and it never fully recovered, although it has been revived in the 21st century, thanks to interest in the United States and other parts of the world.

In Britain, people still talk of women’s football as something that is novel and a little bit odd. However, references to women playing football appear to go back a long way. Sir Philip Sidney mentions women playing footie in one of his poems, A Dialogue Between Two Shepherds (c.1580), and, yes, girls, it looks as if they tucked their skirts into their knickers back in Tudor times too:

“A tyme there is for all, my mother often sayes,

When she, with skirts tuckt very hy, with girles at football playes.”

In 1894, the Hampshire Telegraph & Sussex Chronicle heralded the developments in the women’s  game: “Female football teams will shortly contest in public. Women played football in this country centuries ago. Mr. Pepys complains of the nuisance in the Strand, when milkmaids kicked the ball about on May-day, as was their immemorial privilege [my italics].” Sadly the newspaper ruins everything by adding the inevitable comment: “It was not an edifying practice even then.”

The 1880s and 1890s saw some interest in women’s football, but newspaper reports were generally negative describing matches between teams made up of the “softer sex” and indulging in the usual rhetoric about scratching and unnatural aggression. Even attendance at football matches played by men was under scrutiny, for example, this writer in the Derby Mercury, 15th March 1893, believed: “”Women undoubtedly lose their influence over and attraction for men when they dispossess themselves of their womanly attributes; and girls who constantly attend football matches, and think nothing of seeing their own and other people’s brothers and cousins maimed, most assuredly do so.”

Women’s football, despite being popular as a spectator sport, came in for criticism in the press right from the start. The organised women’s game began in 1895 with a North vs. South match. The North, predictably, won 7-1. The usually liberal Ipswich Journal writing about the match stated that “it seems as if we have reached the climax of fin de siècle enormities when we read of the formation of a British Ladies’ Football Club…” and it was patronisingly described in the Times (25th March 1895):

“A match, under Association rules, between teams of ladies was played at Nightingale-lane, Hornsey,  on Saturday… Great curiosity was aroused and the ground was thronged by 7,000 people. The football was of a very harmless nature, and its novelty soon grew irksome to many of the spectators.”

The same newspaper continued in the same vein in May 1920 for its report on the England vs France women’s international, introducing (for the times, at least) a sexual frisson with a rather fanciful preamble about a boy (a young Sepp Blatter, perhaps) spying on some schoolgirls playing football in a cathedral close (!):

“The fortunate youth who penetrated these mysteries was all unconscious of attending the birth of the new woman  – he was much too intent on the spectacle. Was he not enjoying one of the few privileges of which Woman does not apparently propose to deprive his sex  – that of watching her insist on doing what a Man does better?”

The Times does go on to briefly describe the actual international match at Stamford Bridge, which France won 2-0. The writer is even good enough to admit that the players “exhibited enough skill to disappoint those who had come to laugh,” but is more enthused by the French women’s short light blue jumpers.

So why did the FA ban women in 1921? My guess it was part of a wider move to put women back in the home after the First World War. In the same year, Bath City Ladies had played in a match in Manchester to raise money for ex-servicemen, but ex-servicemen needed jobs and women were required to return to more traditional roles. It was time for society to re-invent what was considered to be appropriate behaviour for a woman. In 2008, the FA apologised for the ban and the statement that football was “unsuitable” for women.

So, to go back to the title of this piece. It’s taken from an article written by Dingle Foot, former MP for Ipswich, and published in the Times in 1978. He was writing about his memories of Sir Alf Ramsay’s great team, of course, but was also looking forward to the FA Cup Final that Ipswich Town were about to play – and win – against Arsenal. In the article, he recalled a revival of the women’s game in Suffolk when he was the local MP:

“… the rise of Ipswich did not end there. The girls began to play. They attracted immense attention. At their first match they refused to obey the referee as they played for another ladies team from rural Suffolk.” They appealed to their Member of Parliament. All he could come up with was a Kiplingesque poem:

It’s goodbye to Jacky Milburn and salute the rising sun

McGarry’s come to put the Town back in Division One

But compared with Ipswich Ladies even Portman Road must fail

For the female of the species is more deadly than the male.

The girls have sacked their manager for all the world to see

‘Twas he who sinned against the light: he backed the referee

No ode will now be written to Mr. Nightingale

For the female of the species is much rougher than the male.

So here by Orwell’s flowing tide Britannia’s flag unfurls

To show in Wolsey’s ancient town that girls will still be girls

Down with the ref, up with the chicks, oh great Minerva, hail

The Ipswich ladies footballers submit to no mere male.

Two days after this poem appeared in the local paper, Dingle Foot received a letter from the captain of the Ipswich ladies’ team assuring him of their full support in the election. He held his seat. “No doubt,” he wrote, “this was due to the Ipswich ladies. In the end the girls always win.”

“Gypsy blood” – an eviction of travellers at Blaxhall in Suffolk

George Ewart Evans was born in South Wales in 1909 but moved to Suffolk and wrote several fascinating books about East Anglian folklore, including Ask the Fellows who Cut the Hay (1956) and The Horse in the Furrow (1960). In his books about the folklore of the horse and the horseman in Suffolk, he drew heavily on the local knowledge that he obtained by talking to the people of his village, Blaxhall, where folk culture appears to have remained alive right through the twentieth century and beyond. The local pub, the Ship, has long been a centre for traditonal folk song which deservedly received the attention of another scholar’s Ph.D. thesis (published as The Fellowship of Song : Popular Singing Traditions in East Suffolk by Ginette Dunn ca. 1980).

Evans believed that the strange combination of mysticism, folklore and practicality that imbued the role of the Suffolk horseman (think “horse whisperer,” if it helps) came from the gypsies who travelled around East Anglia. In fact, there were several families in Blaxhall who were descended from gypsies who had settled in the area and some local folkloric and musical traditions may have come to the area with the gypsies and thus from other parts of the British Isles and other travelling people.

The first official record of the presence of gypsies in Britain was made in 1505, but oral tradition suggests that they were present in East Anglia following the Black Death of 1348-9. Presumably, they were attracted by the opportunities to work after many villages in Suffolk had been completely depopulated by the plague. Many gypsies travelled around East Anglia working on the land, the Fens being the most favoured area as agricultural labour was more readily available. There are many examples of a generally happy co-existence between the gypsies and local people, for example, descriptions  – probably romanticized – of massive gypsy weddings are common in local literature. The East Anglian Magazine often featured letters and articles of recollections about gypsy life right up until the 1970s. George Borrow and John Heigham Steggall also wrote (perhaps fancifully) about the subject in the nineteenth century.

A gypsy family camping on wasteland in Ipswich, date unknown.

The reality may have been a little harsher. The Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society, volume I, (1888-9) tells us that “between 1513 and 1523 some “Gypsions” were entertained by the Earl of Surrey at Tendring Hall, in Suffolk (Works of H. Howard, Earl of Surrey, ed. Nott, London, 1815, vol i. Appendix, p.5). On October 7, 1555, the Privy Council Register of Queen Mary records at Greenwich a letter to the Earl of Sussex and Sir John Shelton, Sheriff of Norfolk and Suffolk, returning again to them the passports and licences of ‘suche as name themselves Egiptians of wch company they had some in prison requiring them to examyne ye truth of their pretended Licenses, and being eftsons punished according to the Statute to give order forthwith for their transportaticon [sic] out of the Realm.’ ”

The following January, a further letter to Mr. Sulliarde, Sheriffe of Norfolk & Suffolk, instructing him to “proceed” with the 5 or 6 “Egiptians” he had apprehended. They should be sent out of the Realm with charge not to return upon “pain of execution.”

“About 1650 Sir Matthew Hale (1609-1676) says, in his Pleas of the  Crown  (1778, i. 671): “I have not known these statutes much put into execution, only about twenty years since at the Assizes at Bury [St. Edmunds, in Suffolk] about thirteen were condemned and executed for this offence, namely for being Gypsies.’ (p. 24, Early Annals of the Gypsies in England by H T Crofton.)

The last known gypsies to be executed (for the “crime” of being gypsies) in Britain were, in fact, put to death in Suffolk in the 1650s.

The travelling families that settled in Blaxhall seemed to be well-integrated into village life by the time that George Ewart Evans made his study of the area. However, there was still a consciousness of differences between those villagers who were “local” and those who had “gypsy blood,” as he described in Ask the Fellows who Cut the Hay:  “To say that a man has gipsy blood in him is to put him down as unreliable, And finally to place him beyond the pale of the true village community.”

Even Evans’s use of language seems strikingly hostile to the present day reader, he uses the expression “the accusation of gypsy blood,” for example,  although he was in fact sympathetic. When he was interviewing people in Blaxhall they would recall the gypsy origins of some of the families in the village:  “Oh, his grandfather (or great-grandfather) married a travelling woman. The Picketts and the Taylors and the Becketts were the names you used to meet most among the travellers. I believe it was a Pickett he married. They were nice folk but they had a different line o’ life entirely to us.”

Despite the apparent integration, however, events took a sour turn in around 1900:  “About 50 years ago…  the travellers were turned off their usual pitch on the Common. The reason given for this action was that their horses and donkeys roamed about at night and broke into and spoiled the villagers’ common yards. But they also worried the farmers by poaching, and by surreptitiously letting their horses on to the pastures late at night, retrieving them early in the morning before any of the farm people were about. …

“The Parish Council, on which two or three of the most influential farmer’s served, [my italics] was the chief agent in banishing the travellers. Robert Savage was himself a member of the Parish Council for 52 years and recalled the occasion: ‘All the village didn’t want the travellers to be moved off the Common. And I came in for a few shots at the Ship, mostly from people who were hinting that I was running in with the farmers in having the travellers turned off. But at the next Council meeting when the chairman asked, “Is there any other business?” I got up and said: “Yes, there’s more parish business done at the Ship than there’s done here!” And I told ’em my mind.  Nobody said nawthen to me after that.’

“The eviction was accompanied by a kind of ceremony – a ceremony of ejection – that many of the old villagers remember vividly. The body of men, who emphasized that they had nothing against the travellers – ‘The people wor all right: it wor the horses and donkeys!’ marched from the Ship Inn in a column headed by a trumpet and mouth-organ. This military seeming demonstration, however, met with no resistance; for the travellers had already had word. By the time the column arrived their horses and donkeys were harnessed ready to pull their caravans and carts on to the road. This they did, and the police are waiting on the high road to compel them to move on to another parish.”

Presumably, there are many people in East Anglia who have gypsies or other travelling people amongst their ancestors. Not only that, they have made a largely unacknowledged contribution to the traditions, language and culture of the region.

“I did not think that women could have used such awful words:” The ‘Fracas’ at the Women’s Liberal Association, Ipswich in 1894.

A little-known and very slim book, that was published between 1877 and 1931 by Ipswich printers, Boswell & Son was The Eastern Counties’ Chronology or Book of Dates. Despite its main title, the content is mainly about Ipswich. It contains a range of odd, but fascinating historical information such as “Deaths of Prominent Personages,”  “Storms, Gales & Shipwrecks,” and  “Executions.” From the 1906 edition, it’s possible to learn that the last bull-baiting in Ipswich took place in Fleece Yard in 1805, that in 1828 Mr. Benjamin Catt “attempted to fly” and on 29th March 1905, Daisy Banyard fell through a skylight in the Co-operative stores.

I’ve been fascinated for a while by the brief reference in this book to a “fracas at [the] Women’s Liberal Association at Christchurch Park, July 10… 1894.” Imagining something excitingly political, I did a bit of research. It actually took place in Christchurch Mansion which was about to be sold to the town by its owner, Felix T. Cobbold. Reports of the event in local newpapers, like the Ipswich Journal were quite comprehensive for something that was about… cake!

I have transcribed just one (of several) lengthy contemporary accounts of the events.

Ipswich Journal, 14 July 2011

THE IPSWICH WOMEN’S LIBERAL ASSOCIATION

 UPROARIOUS SCENES AT CHRISTCHURCH PARK

 THE POLICE CALLED IN

 The Ipswich Women’s Liberal Association held its annual gathering in Christchurch Park on Tuesday. Our daily contemporary, we find, had no reporter present and so could only briefly allude to the meeting. From what we have since heard it seems a most fortunate coincidence that our daily contemporary had not a reporter present, as he might have found it extremely difficult to give a true yet pleasing account of this sociable (?) gathering. We learn from various sources  (of course we were not ourselves admitted into the charmed circle) that the proceedings were dull in the extreme. A large number, chiefly

OLD WOMEN AND CHILDREN, MUSTERED

at the call of their leaders. The “few remarks” made by Messrs.Goddard and Soames not being reported, we cannot say whether they were edifying or not, but they do not seem to have had a good effect upon the moral tone of some of their hearers, for it seems that the only incident that relieved the dullness of the day was one more befitting Whitechapel than Christchurch park. One of the dames demanding cake was told she had had her share, whereupon, in choice language, she attempted to vindicate her character for truth. Search, however, was made in that useful receptacle for so many and varied possessions, the perambulator which she had with her, and there a store of cake was found. Instead of owning herself in the wrong, this worthy member of the W.L.A. discharged her cup of tea in the face of the lady who had  detected her, and it is said that the uproar that ensued necessitated the interference of the police.

 A DISGUSTED MEMBER

writes a long letter to us on the matter, from which we extract the following:- “There were between two and three hundred people present at the gathering, and while the gentlemen were present they conducted themselves in a proper manner.  It was only when they withdrew that I had an illustration of a tea-fight in its literal sense. It was a most disgraceful and disgusting scene. The tea was served in the Hall, and there was a very large number of women present. Tables were not provided, and those that did not secure seats had to stand. The tea was served by three or four ladies, and I expect that the treatment they received will effectually prevent them studying the comfort of any body of people – particularly the Ipswich’s Women Liberal Association – for a considerable time to come. These ladies had to pass through the entrance hall from the room where the refreshments were laid out to reach a series of rooms where the guests were originally intended to partake of the provisions. Now these rooms were uncomfortably crowded, and some of the women preferred to stand in the entrance hall. The self-constituted waitresses told these persons that they must return to the rooms, but they refuse to return, and as the number increased every minute it was decided to stretch a point, and allow those who cared to do so to take tea in the hall. This was the fatal move, as will be seen in the light of subsequent events. of course those in the hall clamoured to be served first.They were given precedence, but unfortunately there were a number of

GREEDY, GRASPING, SELFISH PERSONS

amongst them, who, as soon as the waitresses came out of the room containing the provisions, snatched at them, and the consequence was that those in the rooms beyond were not served. The greedy rapacious mortals in the hall snapped up the cake and tea rapidly that it seemed impossible to satisfy them. When one of the waitresses did attempt to carry something to the people who were sitting patiently in the rooms originally intended to be used for refreshment purposes, one of the women in the hall demanded the plate of cake. The waitress told her to wait. This she refused to do, and actually she jumped up and endeavoured to take possession of the tray. The waitress lifted it high into the air, but the women raised her umbrella and scattered the contents. I believe that the perpetrator of this wanton act received a  smack on the face, but this I heard she replied to by giving the waitress such a violent blow in the eye that it has since become very much discoloured. This act was like putting a match to a gunpowder train.

Many of those who had been sitting quietly and content to watch the wholesale pocketing of the cake, &c., until this outrage, boiled over, and demanded the provisions that some of the women had put into their baskets and pockets. One gave answer by throwing a cup of tea in the face of the questioner.

FACES WERE SMACKED, HAIR WAS PULLED,

and the tea and cake that had been provided was trampled under feet. The language that was used was horrible. I did not think that women could have used such awful words.

At last the police were sent for, so serious did the outlook become, and they at length quelled the disturbance. It was simply disgusting. Many of the rioters were rolled about on the floor, and their dresses were marked in many places with a mixture of tea. cake and butter. Some had their hair pulled down and bonnets crushed. The filth that was made in the place was indescribable, and I believe that the floor – which is composed of marble tiles – is very badly stained.”

So why was a trivial punch-up over cake recorded in such loving detail and continued to be included in the Eastern Counties Chronology until the 1930s? In 1894 the Local Government Act allowed propertied women to vote for local parish councils. The Women’s Suffrage movement was at the height of its campaigning. In 1893, Emmeline Pankhurst had begun to organize members of the Women’s Liberal Federation to hold mass meetings:

“This marked the beginning of a campaign of propaganda among working people, an object which I had long desired to bring about. … Our leaders in the Liberal Party had advised the women to prove their fitness for the Parliamentary franchise by serving in  municipal offices.”

Suffolk had its share of campaigners for woman suffrage. The Garrett sisters of Leiston, daughters of the well-know family of agricultural machinery manufacturers, were both leading lights of the non-militant suffragist movement. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson was the first woman to gain a medical qualification in Britain and the first female mayor in England (in Aldeburgh). Her sister, Millicent Garrett Fawcett was president of the moderate National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies from 1890 to 1919. Later she would lead a government commission of inquiry into the concentration camps set up by the British to hold civilian prisoners after the Boer War.

More militant suffrage campaigners (probably) set fire to the Pier Pavilion in Great Yarmouth and burnt down the Bath Hotel in Felixstowe in April 1914.

So I think the articles about the “fracas” at Christchurch Mansion, although they are funny, were probably a way of undermining the suffrage campaigners. As late as the 1950s, the East Anglian Magazine accompanied an old photograph of Votes for Women campaigners in Suffolk with the heading: “The Ladies, God Bless ‘Em.”