Kitty Marion: Edwardian England’s Most Dangerous Woman

Today marks the centenary of what is, for the feminist movement, a similar event to ‘the shot heard around the world’. On June 4 1913, Emily Wilding Davison, long term campaigner for women’s rights in England, stepped in front of the King’s horse and tried to attach a purple, green and white banner, emblazoned with ‘Votes for Women’ to the King’s Horse at the Epsom Derby. She died 4 days later from her injuries after the horses trampled her as they rounded the corner, and the horrifying tangle mess of human and animal was caught on the early news cameras and repeated across the country and around the world.

Kitty Marion

Kitty Marion

Another militant suffragette called Emily the ‘Supreme Sacrifice’, a women who had given up her own life in the fight for recognition that the society that they lived in did not accurately reflect or represent half of it’s members. But I don’t want to talk about Davison – she is well remembered by history and a figurehead of the Suffragette movement. I want to talk about a life that has been hidden from our historical memory, equally as important, and equally as significant in the fight for women’s rights.

Kitty Marion was a music hall star and militant suffragette. She endured 242 force-feedings to Davison’s 49, multiple imprisonments – and subsequent releases under the Cat and Mouse Act – and was responsible for a host of arson attacks, including the destruction of the MP Arthur Du Cros’s St Leonard’s home (which British Pathé has some great footage of ), window breaking, and other destructive activities, one of which I believe was the laying of a pipe bomb that destroyed Alexandra Park’s cactus house in Manchester in November, 1913. You can hear me talk more about that attack, and Kitty, on BBC Radio 3’s NightWaves with Dr Matthew Sweet as part of my New Generation Thinker’s work – although I have to confess I’m not quite a Dr. yet!

Kitty Marion had seen Emily only a few days before Epsom, they had discussed the fact that a protest ‘must be made’ but Kitty believed no specific action had been decided. What she did remember was Emily passing her a small green purse of money to use to buy ‘munitions’ and whatever she might else she might need to continue her destructive activities at the behest of the W.S.P.U. On hearing of Emily’s death on the 8th of June, Kitty and another militant Suffragette, Clara Givens, travelled to west London and waited for night to fall.

In the early hours of the morning they dragged a large carpetbag filled with paraffin-soaked wood chips through the streets of Kew, and down towards Hurst Park racecourse, near Hampton Court Palace. Reaching their destination at 2 a.m they decided that the racecourse’s bandstand was the best target, and set about scattering ‘Votes of Women’ leaflets around the area so that everyone would know who had been responsible.

‘We turned off the road at one end of the course, towards the river between which and the course was a cricket field with a tool shed near the ‘unclimbable fence’ as the Press called it later, where we had decided to climb over with a foot hold on the tool shed. How we got over and back again beggars description. We both regretted that there was no movie camera’s to immortalise the comedy of it.

We carried our “baggage” through the long grass, wet with dew, to the Grand Stand at the other end of the course…leading into a pavilion. We spread our munitions…and left a piece of candle burning which should have lasted at least an hour to give us time to get away before igniting its oil-soaked base.’

The fire started quicker than they had expected and the soon made they escape and began to head back to Kew. It’s possible that Kitty was already under surveillance by the police at this time, who new her as a violent and dangerous women, and had probably been expecting her to commit an act of violence in response to Emily’s death. She was quickly arrested at her lodging’s within hours of returning there and was soon jailed for three years as her guilt was unquestionable. Kitty’s was quickly released under the Cat and Mouse Act and spent the next two years dodging the police as she committed many other acts of suffragette violence, occasionally returning to prison, only to be released after force-feeding made her too ill to remain. She was, in my mind, Edwardian England’s Most Dangerous Woman, sent by the WPSU across the country to engage in, and instruct others in violence militant tactics.

To younger scholars, especially those who have grown up in a post IRA and 9/11 world, the language of terrorism is an easy one through which to understand political violence. The militant suffragette’s operated in small groups, often only pairs of women, funded in secret, and using tactics that were designed to intimidate and terrorize the members of their society, who they saw as responsible for the sexual inequality and degradation of women. There has always been huge debate about whether the term ‘terrorist’ should be applied to the suffragettes – even though that is how they were seen in their own time. Personally, I think we need to look far more closely at these violent women, and the actions they committed to fully understand the depths of subjugation and inequality that existed for women in the pre-1919 world.

This week I’m going blog on a couple of ideas around this theme of #violentwomen and #terroristsuffragette – come back and tell me what you think!

*Kitty forms the main case study of my PhD, and I’m lucky enough to have had the Society for Theatre Research fund a research trip over to America to see the hand annotated copy of her autobiography and letters which has been left in New York since she died. Totally going to blog about that too.

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(Per)forming the Victorians: Theatricality and The Leyshon Brothers Bonded Warehouse

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Last Friday – After an epic game of Locate-Your-Friend in London Bridge Station (seriously, how many exits does that place HAVE?) – I tripped my way along the cold, wet, and dark streets of London Town to the secret entrance of The Leyshon Brothers Bonded Warehouse. Now before we go on, there’s something I should explain. I love London, and I love dressing up, so when I get the chance to combine those two things I am pretty much the happiest historian on the planet. London has so many amazing venues that try to recreate history as entertainment, and on any given night of the week you have the chance to be transported back to the 1940s, or the Moulin Rouge, or even the dark streets of Jack the Ripper’s Whitechapel. The creators of these nights are from a wide range of backgrounds, from clubs and theatre companies, to events specialists and pubs, each attempting to recreate something new out of the idea of something old for their audiences.

I’ve been luckily enough to go to a number of different themed nights, and am well aware that The B&H Group has pretty much cornered the market on what Londoners want from a historical recreation. Good décor, costume guidelines, and music that reminds you of the period, but isn’t so far moved that you feel alienated. There have been a couple of venues that have tried to ape B&H’s success with limited results, so I was more than a little apprehensive as I walked down Tooley Street, towards the large green doors of the Warehouse itself. However, after whispering my secret password to the bowler-hated doorman (received by email the night before, along with location) and stepped over the threshold, all my fears vanished in a breath.

The Leyshon Brother Bonded Warehouse is a marvel.

Set in caverns of brick lined arches, at one end there is a purpose built low-ceilinged pub, only reachable by an upward sloping cobbled passage. You can only get there after passing a selection of dimly lit carnival and Victorian fayre-styled stalls – I won at darts, and the level of pride I took from this show of sporting prowess still hasn’t died. Tiny dark tunnels lead off the main avenue to secret drinking holes and dens, all evoking the same spine-tingling excitement that this is place where villains lurk around every corner. At the opposite end, and through another short tunnel, is the music hall. Bedecked in faded red velvet and with a small low stage offsetting the bar, it ran three shows – the bits I saw were a fantastic mix of a strongman, a burlesque act, a comic singer and a chairman. All the main parts of Victorian music hall bill from the 1850-1900s. The performers were dressed in Victorian costumes, as were the patrons, and the entire atmosphere of the evening was one of highly raucous and enjoyable entertainment. It was, quite simply, one of the best night out I’ve ever had in London. As an adopted Londoner, and as a music hall historian, I couldn’t fault it. It was theatricality at it’s best.

And it got me thinking: why is it that we reach into the past for immersive theatrical experiences? What is it about the perceived historical memory of the Victorian period that modern day Londoners connect to? A ticketed specialist event guarantees that the large majority of the audience will all share a mutual love of the evening’s theme, that, to them, there is something about this period of history that they want to inhabit – even if it is only for one night. Creating a performance of the Victorians, in a city that is still so connected to that time by urban geography and social interplay, was never going to be difficult. The nineteenth century is still heavily present in our cultural memory and has been the subject of some fantastic recent reinterpretations, with the BBC’s Ripper Street being my current total and utter favourite. So it shouldn’t be surprising that a Victorian themed night would draw in crowds. But they only stay if that theme, or recreation, seems accurate to their perception of the past. That is what makes The Leyshon Brothers so successful; they have taken an empty disused space and turned it into a portal of historical play.

A wise man once told me of Peter Brook’s 1960s statement “I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space, whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.” This idea of action and perception – that any action by one party, which is perceived by another, can be called theatre – removes the concept of barriers between performer and audience, and in the case of the Bonded Warehouse, between the audience and the past. Evenings like The Leyshon Brothers can be seen as a form of LARPing, making all of those inhibiting the chosen space both performer and audience, and vice versa. Although I’m not entirely sure the trendy hipster audience would want to admit any sociological link between these nights, historical reenactors, or even die hard cosplaydians. Brook’s theories on theatre and social interaction lead him to be viewed by many as the ‘father of fringe’, and I would argue that The Leyshon Brothers should also be seen as a form of fringe style theatre. They mix together amateur and professional performers in a whole immersive space, one where the fourth wall has ceased to exist. But most excitingly for me, they allow the history to come to life and to be experienced first hand. It was a brilliant night, and one that I would recommend to any lovers of the nineteenth century, London, and gin.

As a final NB for those interested, Peter Brook now runs his theatre company out of an old Parisian Music Hall. The theatricality of this period is a sirens call to everyone it seems.

*The Author is sad to report that The Leyshon Brother Bonded Warehouse is closing down, due to Authority poking it’s nose in where it has no business. But you can still join their mailing list and hope they find a new home very soon!

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