The Magazine of Lenton Local History Society

Lenton Times Issue 7 - September 1992

'At it Again': Helen Watts: Lenton's Pioneering Suffragette

Lenton can lay claim to an important figure in the history of the women's movement. Helen Watts was the daughter of a Lenton vicar. (*) Her early life is not well documented but as a young woman she became closely involved with the 'Votes for Women' campaign, hitting the headlines in 1909 when she was arrested at a suffragette demonstration. Yet had it not been for a decision by a Bristol school pupil to undertake a history project on the suffragettes, the dramatic story of Helen Watts might never have come to light. In order to find material about the suffragettes the pupil had placed an appeal in a local Bristol paper requesting information about the topic. A local docker came forward with a series of letters and related papers about Helen Watts, though how they came to be in Bristol is not entirely clear. Recognising the significance of this material, her teacher obtained permission for them to be copied and for copies to be deposited at the Nottinghamshire Archives Office. These documents have now been recognised as available source of information, both about Helen Watts and the suffragette movement in general.

We have no photo of Helen Watts but instead here are the Pankhursts and fellow suffragettes
at Manchester one month before the meeting in London. Photograph courtesy of
the Museum of London.

Helen Watts may have become involved with the suffragettes through attending local branch meetings of the National Women's Social and Political Union. Among her papers there is an invitation to attend a NWSPU meeting at London's Caxton Hall, Westminster on the 24th February 1909. The Union may have circulated invitations at local meetings, or she may have been sent an invitation by a national contact, perhaps based in London. Certainly one or two indications in her correspondence suggest that she already held strong views on women's issues and that her involvement at the Caxton Hall meeting was the result of careful thought. The 'women only' meeting at Caxton Hall drew a passionate and committed audience. Speeches were delivered in an atmosphere of growing emotion, banners were raised and a band played the Women's Marseillaise. With an intractable Parliament in mind a resolution was passed stating the meeting's 'indignation... that the Government have not included in the programme for the Session a measure to confer the parliamentary role upon duly qualified women'. Towards the end of the meeting a group of about thirty women, each attired in the Union's colours (green, purple and white), filed down the hall and formed a procession towards the House of Commons. Once there, a deputation planned to deliver the resolution to Mr. Asquith. Banners were held aloft, emotions ran high and the mood was expectant. However the police had evidently been alerted to their intentions and were under instructions to disperse the gathering. In the confusion that followed a number of women, including Helen Watts, were arrested by the police and were subsequently taken to Bow Street police station where they were held overnight.

In a letter written that evening from Bow Street to her parents at Lenton Vicarage, Helen wrote : 'My dear Mother & Father and all, I'm afraid it will be a great shock to you to see my name in the papers as taking part in the NWSPU deputation to the House of Commons this evening. I was the second to be arrested and I am now waiting in a large room at the Police Court. Several others have come in and I have been thinking of you so much and wishing that you knew; but even Mrs. Pankhurst, Jessie Kenney and Miss Seymour and others have been round beaming at us through the hole in the door and making as all feel puffed up .... '. The following day at ten o'clock Helen Watts was charged with wilfully obstructing the Police whilst in the execution of their duty and in default of being bound over she received a term of one month's imprisonment in Holloway Gaol.

Nottingham's newspapers were quick to seize on the event, reflecting the 'local angle' in their feature titles. The 'Evening Post' led with 'Suffragist Pleas - the Nottingham Defendant - Intends to do the Same Again', while the 'Nottingham Guardian' headed its piece 'At It Again - A Nottingham Martyr'. Helen had hit the headlines. With perhaps a hint of sarcasm the 'Evening Post' commented that 'she is fortunate from a suffragist point of view to have thus sprung into fame and suffered martyrdom on the occasion of her first appearance on the battlefield'. Helen herself seems to have maintained a very down-to-earth attitude to the whole affair. The 'Evening Post' reported her as saying that 'it would be horrible to grumble when one thinks of all the poor women and little children whose whole lives are so much worse'. The Women's Social & Political Union soon rallied to the cause, writing to Helen as 'Nottingham's representative' and commiserating with her for having 'borne the brunt of the Babble'. Letters from friends and admirers, some written to her parents, have also survived. A letter from a Mrs. Shaw of Sherwood, written on the 27th February and addressed to Lenton Vicarage asks Mr. and Mrs. Watts to forgive a stranger writing to congratulate you on your daughter's splendid act of courage and for the cause we have so warmly at heart'. Helen's parents appear to have given Helen their full support, showing evident concern for her well-being during Helen's time in Holloway, though some of the correspondence suggests that they might not have been aware of Helen's deep commitment to the voting issue. A letter from Mrs. Watts remarks 'I am only so very sorry that you should have suffered so much quietly for so long - I wish you had told me all about it long ago'. Then she continues... 'of course your Father & I are proud of your being so brave for what you thought was right, only, my child, my heart has ached for you over and over again today'.

Helen Watts' ticket for the NWSPU meeting at Caxton Hall, London.

Following her release Helen was in great demand as a speaker at meetings and public functions. The text of several talks and speeches made by Helen at that time show that she had a lively and practical mind. And whilst she must have rarely disappointed audiences eager to hear a first-hand account of the Caxton Hall meeting and following deputation to Parliament, the opportunity to present a balanced view of the aims of the suffragettes was never missed. She frequently reminded audiences that most suffragettes were ordinary women - 'practical sensible folk' with everyday concerns. She also warned against women being 'compared to angels by well-meaning men', remarking that; 'an angel has no need to worry about bread and butter; or shoe leather or butcher's bills or tiresome terrestrial matters of that sort, an angel is so far above us all that it has no 'status', 'rights', no 'civic responsibilities' as we understand them. Why, we should as soon expect an angel to push through a boisterous crowd of electors and register a vote at the polling booth as to work at the pit brow, or make nails and chains, or mind machines all day in a foul and noisy mill'. Helen always tried to make the point that the voting issue was only one issue of many that concerned the suffragettes, and that these issues were frequently shared by other women and women's organisations. In her talks she covered a wide range of issues: the place of women through history; the role of women in industry; insurance and pension rights; the 'sweating system'; low wages; infant mortality; poor relief; and attitudes of men towards women.

In one of her lectures Helen reveals that she was arrested, along with a number of other women, during the course of a demonstration at Leicester on the 17th September 1909. Helen recounts that the demonstration was broken up by fifty policemen who arrested the women for 'disorderly conduct'. She was sentenced to five days imprisonment in Leicester Gaol. It was a difficult time for Helen. Arguing that she had not committed a criminal offence, she refused to wear prison clothes, and to enforce her point she went on hunger strike. The gaol governor appears to have been implacably opposed to Helen, even threatening her with force-feeding, transfer to a 'punishment' cell and hard labour. The Helen Watts papers do not contain information beyond the Leicester incident so at present we cannot be sure to what extent her pioneering activities were continued in subsequent years. While Helen's more extreme suffragette activities undoubtedly took her into the limelight in 1909 and helped to focus attention on the 'Votes for Women' issue, they were in reality only part of a ceaseless effort to publicise a whole range of women's issues and to influence opinions and attitudes throughout society about the role and status of women. It is impossible to know how far Helen Watts was able to develop her ideas in later life, as the surviving archives are largely limited to a period between 1909 and 1914. Hopefully more information about Helen Watts may yet come to light, both about her early life in Lenton and about her later years. If any readers of 'Lenton Times' have information about Helen Watts or her family I, for one, would be very interested to hear from them.


Chris Weir is author of Bygone Nottingham, Nottinghamshire Heritage and Women's History in the Nottinghamshire Archives Office, 1550-1950 and presently works at the Nottinghamshire Archives Office.

(*) Rev. Allan Hunter Watts was Vicar at Lenton from 1893 to 1917.

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