Edith New was a particularly active member of the WSPU between 1907 and 1909 when she committed several illegal acts. She had, until this point, been a law-abiding teacher and described herself as ‘of a peaceful disposition’ commenting that she admired and respected the bravery of her (much more militant) comrade, Mary Leigh. On her release from prison, she is quoted in Votes for Women such “She had been ablaze with indignation, and she was sure many others felt equally strongly. She was only sorry that they could not resent it in a way that hurt their enemies still more.”
On this centenary anniversary of partial suffrage – the 1918 Representation of the People Act only gave some women the vote – we would like to take the opportunity to thank everyone who fought for our eventual right to vote.
Whether the women (and men) were paid up members of unions and societies or were financially incapable; whether they attended protest marches and rallies or instead had to stay at home or work; whether they chained themselves to railings, threw stones and were imprisoned or campaigned lawfully – every single person who raised their voice and demanded that women be given the right to vote, has our gratitude. We never take our rights for granted and we admire the courage and sacrifice of all who campaigned.
Edith New was a particularly active member of the WSPU between 1907 and 1909 when she committed several illegal and militant acts. This included smashing windows at Downing Street alongside Mary Leigh, one of the first instances of this type of vandalism during the campaign. She had, until this point, been a law-abiding teacher and described herself as ‘of a peaceful disposition’ commenting that she admired and respected the bravery of her (much more militant) comrade, Mary Leigh. On her release from prison, she is quoted in Votes for Women: “She had been ablaze with indignation, and she was sure many others felt equally strongly. She was only sorry that they could not resent it in a way that hurt their enemies still more.”
She was right, millions of others in the UK did feel similarly ablaze and they fought long and hard so that women would have a democratic voice, and they hoped that this would spill into other areas of life and society. Their spirit and determination continue to inspire us wherever we see inequality and injustice and empower us to speak our truths.
We are very fortunate to be able to share some family photos of Edith, before and after her career as a suffragette, these are owned by her great-niece and held in a private collection (copyright applies).
The following is taken from history blog ‘Swindon in the Past Lane’ and reproduced by permission of the author, Frances Bevan, who retains all rights to the text and images as appropriate.
Edith Bessie New was born 17th March, 1877 at 24 North Street, Swindon, the fourth of Frederic and Isabelle New’s five children. Frederic worked as a railway clerk at the GWR Works and Isabelle was a music teacher.
An assistant mistress at Queenstown Infant School from 1899-1901, Edith subsequently left her Swindon home to teach in the deprived areas of Deptford and Lewisham. It was after hearing the charismatic Emmeline Pankhurst speak at a meeting in Trafalgar Square that Edith joined the Women’s Social and Political Union.
In February 1907 a deputation of suffragettes marched on the House of Commons in protest at the omission of votes for women from the King’s speech. What had begun as a peaceful demonstration ended in a violent confrontation with police. A second raide occured on 20th March 1907 and this time Edith was among those arrested and sentenced to two weeks in Holloway gaol.
She continued to be at the forefront of innovative and dangerous protest methods. In January 1908 Edith chained herself to the railings at 10 Downing Street, the first time suffragettes had employed such tactics. It took the unprepared police sometime to release her, allowing Edith to make her protest heard by the assembled Cabinet gathered there. A three-week sentence in Holloway followed.
The hugely successful Women’s Day rally held in Hyde Park on June 21,1908 attracted an estimated crowd of 250,000. Edith, by now an experienced and informative speaker, took her place alongside suffragette leaders.
Later that same month Edith, accompanied by Mary Leigh, broke windows at 10 Downing Street, another new headline grabbing tactic which would be increasingly employed by suffragettes. The women served two months in Holloway. On their release they were taken to a celebratory breakfast party in a carriage drawn by six suffragettes.
Edith resigned from teaching in 1908 to join the WSPU paid workforce. She travelled the country organising support for parliamentary candidates sympathetic to women’s suffrage. In September 1909 she campaigned in Scotland where she was arrested for causing a breach of the peace during a meeting in Dundee. Sentenced to seven days imprisonment, Edith and her fellow prisoners went on hunger strike, the first to do so in Scotland.
Edith returned to teaching in 1911, where she continued to campaign for women’s rights and equal pay within her profession.
Edith died aged 73 on 2nd January 1951 at The Croft, Landaviddy Lane, Polperro, Cornwall. She left property valued at £3,771 to her two nieces. She never married and her death was registered by her companion of over 40 years, Nea Campion, a fellow teacher from the Lewisham days.