Emmeline and Frederick Pethick-Lawrence

Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence is credited as the originator in 1908, of the WSPU campaign colours, purple, white and green, that she described as ‘purple for dignity, white for purity and green for hope’.

Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence is credited as the originator in 1908, of the WSPU campaign colours, purple, white and green, that she described as ‘purple for dignity, white for purity and green for hope’. Emmeline and her husband, Frederick, were joint editors of the ‘Votes for Women’ periodical.

Emmeline Pethick was the second of 13 children and her father, Henry Pethick, was a devout Methodist of Cornish farming stock. Henry was also a businessman and proprietor of the Weston Gazette newspaper and his non-conformist, socialist views influenced the young Emmeline.

Much as Emmeline loved children, she felt she wanted to do more with her life than marry and be confined to domesticity. She was drawn to London andin 1890 she joined the Methodist West London Mission based at Cleveland Hall, Marylebone. Here she honed her skills as a public speaker and met a fellow spirit, Mary Neal (1860-1944). For around five years, Emmeline and Mary ran the mission’s working girls’ club. In 1895, they co-founded the Espérance (meaning Hope) Working Girls’ Club, in Cumberland Market, just north of Euston Road.

Emmeline and Mary liaised with Cecil Sharp (1859-1924), Principal of the Hampstead Conservatoire of Music and collector of folk music, to provide the girls with folkdance activities. These proved very popular and it was through a performance at the Mansfield House University Settlement in Canning Town, that Emmeline met Frederick Lawrence who was a Mansfield House volunteer. ‘Em and Fred’ married in 1901 and each changed their surname to Pethick-Lawrence.

In 1906, Emmeline was introduced to Mrs Pankhurst by Labour MP, Keir Hardie as someone that would be a useful lieutenant in the women’s cause. An apartment in Clement’s Inn, between Lincoln’s Inn Fields and Aldwych was home to them both and from 1906 – 1912 and it became the headquarters of the fledgling Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) founded by Mrs Pankhurst in Manchester in 1903.

Emmeline became treasurer and fundraiser for the WSPU. In 1907, Frederick founded the WSPU periodical, ‘Votes for Women’ with Emmeline and himself as joint editors. This periodical helped recruit WSPU members and win public support for the emancipation of women.

In October 1912, Emmeline and Frederick were expelled from the WSPU seemingly because they were unhappy about the increasingly violent political activism that was being encouraged. They both feared that extreme militancy would be counter-productive and alienate hard won public support for the women’s cause.

In spite of the rift, Emmeline and Frederick continued to be loyal to the Pankhursts and to the campaign for the emancipation of women using their Clement’s Inn address as a base. They both continued to edit and publish ‘Votes for Women’ and were joined by moderate suffragettes including members of the Women’s Freedom League (WFL). The WFL was led by Charlotte Despard and had broken with the WSPU in 1907. The moderates formed the Votes for Women Fellowship that evolved into the United Suffragists, a bridge between militants and non-militants and between men and women. This organisation and the periodical that they both edited wound down in 1918 when the first wave of British women (aged over 30 were granted the vote. 

Also in 1918, Emmeline unsuccessfully stood for Parliament in Manchester. She became one of only three British women who contrived to beat the Government blockade in order to attend the 1915 Women’s International Peace Congress at The Hague. She became treasurer of the new Women’s International League of Great Britain that was founded to play a part in negotiating stable peace in Europe.

Emmeline brought her eloquence as a speaker, her inventiveness as a fundraiser, sound organisational skills as WPSU Treasurer, and her writing talent inherited from her father. Frederick put his legal training to good use, assisting arrested suffragettes to defend themselves in court, and to use court appearances to publicise the women’s cause. He also stood bail for arrested suffragettes as required.

Emmeline and Frederick personally contributed more than £6,000, (worth around £700,000 today), to WSPU funds. As a WSPU activist, Emmeline was imprisoned six times and she had to summon up all her courage to endure these times as she was claustrophobic. Although neither of them had anything to do with the 1912 WSPU window-smashing spree along Oxford Street, both (with Mrs Pankhurst) were convicted of inciting violence. Frederick was made liable for court costs and later for the cost of replacing the smashed glass. This led to a period of bankruptcy. While in Holloway Prison, Emmeline was force-fed, as was Frederick who was incarcerated in Brixton Prison.

From 1926 - 1935, Emmeline was president of the Women’s Freedom League. She was for many years a member of the executive committee of the Open Door Council and a member of the Six Point Group, organisations that agitated for equal social and political opportunity for women. She was a patron of the Suffragette Record Room and of the Suffragette Fellowship.

Emmeline devoted her later years to the creation of peace and happiness in the world, and to supporting Frederick in his Parliamentary career. Frederick had first been elected to Parliament in 1923 and was Financial Secretary to the Treasury from 1929 – 1931. After also losing his seat in 1931, he was elected MP for Edinburgh East in 1935 and from 1942, acted as Leader of the Opposition to the coalition government. In 1945, Frederick was appointed Secretary of State for India and Burma, with a seat in Labour Prime Minister, Clement Attlee’s cabinet. In 1945, he was elevated to the peerage as Baron Pethick-Lawrence with Emmeline becoming Lady Pethick-Lawrence.

Current memorials to Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence are fittingly interwoven with memorials to Frederick who lived for longer and had a higher political profile. But considering the political stature and national significance of them as a couple, the existing memorials are slight.

Emmeline died in 1954 followed by Frederick in 1961.


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