On 4th June 1913 Emily Wilding Davison ran on to the track at the Epsom Derby and was trampled by King George V’s horse Anmer. She died from her injuries four days later. A radical campaigner in the struggle for women’s suffrage, Davison’s actions epitomised the militant yet violent direct action that prevailed at a time of massive social upheaval one hundred years ago.
Emmeline Pankhurst said of Davison ““She clung to her conviction that one great tragedy, the deliberate throwing into the breach of a human life, would put an end to the intolerable torture of women. And so she threw herself at the King’s horse, in full view of the King and Queen… offering up her life as a petition to the King, praying for the release of suffering women…”.
As the founder of the Women’s Social & Political Union (WPSU) some ten years before Pankhurst was no stranger to direct action herself. WPSU members were determined to obtain the right to vote for women by any means and campaigned tirelessly and sometimes violently to achieve this aim. They felt that the impact of peaceful tactics seemed to have been exhausted and a different, more radical approach was needed. By 1906 arson, civil disorder, vandalism and hunger striking became tactics used by the WSPU to bring about change.
The government was forced to act but rather than cede and give women the vote it chose instead to make laws that cracked down on the WSPU’s direct intent. By 1908 disturbances at public meetings were banned and at a stroke the disruptive ‘Deeds Not Words’ approach of the WSPU was made illegal. In 1913 the Government’s infamous ‘Cat & Mouse Act’ was effective in curtailing the actions of militant campaigners by releasing weakened hunger strikers only to re-imprison them when they had recovered. The outbreak of the First World War led to a halting of much of the campaigning, with lobbying taking place discreetly, and in 1918 the Representation of the People Act 1918 was passed, enfranchising women over the age of 30 who met minimum property qualifications. The Representation of the People Act 1928 extended the voting franchise to all women over the age of 21.
What has all this got to do with jewellery? The ‘Votes for Women’ movement was a powerful one and it engaged women from all social classes. Not all were as radical as Emily Davison, Emmeline Pankhurst or the WPSU’s more militant activists but many felt passionately about the need for change and a large number wanted to demonstrate their support. In 1908 green, white and violet were adopted as the colours of the movement and at a meeting in Hyde Park some 30,000 women, most displaying the colours, gathered in front of a crowd of up to 500,000 spectators. Devised by Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence the colours were symbolic: ‘Purple, as everyone knows, is the Royal colour. It stands for the Royal blood that flows in the veins of every suffragette, the instinct of freedom and dignity; white stands for purity in private and public life; green is the colour of hope and the emblem of Spring.”
The adoption of these colours made it possible for women to demonstrate their support in a way that they were comfortable with. There is some debate in jewellery circles as to what can be legitimately described as ‘Suffragette Jewellery’. From a historical perspective it is true to say that items supported by documentary evidence put their origins beyond doubt. We know that special ribbons, brooches, medals and sashes were designed by the WPSU and manufactured specifically for members to wear and to purists these remain very highly collectable. For example Sylvia Pankhurst designed and had made the famous ‘Holloway Prison Brooch’ which took the form of a portcullis with a prisoner’s arrow to the front. The three parts of the arrow were coloured violet, green and white and it was given to those who had been imprisoned for the cause. Some dealers and collectors are dismissive of jewellery that is simply set with stones that are ‘violet, green and white’ arguing that these colours were popular at the time and obviously pieces hallmarked prior to 1908 must be dismissed as being coincidence. And there’s the rub. It is quite common to find Edwardian necklaces for example that are stamped with a standard mark only (‘9ct’ and ‘15ct’ are the most common) but seldom a full set of marks which are often present on rings and some brooches.
The ‘Votes for Women’ movement and the courageous and radical actions of it’s most prominent supporters enjoyed a high profile in the press and the ripples spread far and wide; its influence could be seen in the culture of the day and other creative fields including fashion and design. It ought to be remembered too that at this time jewellery wasn’t just the preserve of the well off. For some years, and in response to growing affluence, Birmingham had become a major jewellery manufacturing centre producing affordable jewellery on a large scale to meet this new demand. There is little doubt that wealthy activists certainly did commission specific pieces but there also existed items of a more ‘pedestrian’ quality, mass produced costume jewellery and also home-made items. Retailers such as Mappin & Webb produced and sold jewellery set with ‘violet, green & white’ stones that cleverly did not feature motifs that could be associated specifically with the ‘Votes for Women’ movement for they were canny enough to realise that some women, including many their own customers, may be uncomfortable wearing pieces that overtly displayed allegiances so boldly.
Jewellery of this period was usually delicate and feminine in style. Amethyst was used and, although it varied in its intensity, its purple colour chimed perfectly with the ‘violet’ chosen by Pethick-Lawrence to represent the ‘regal blood’ of all suffragettes. ‘Purity’ was symbolised by the use of pearls, diamonds and white enamel and ‘Hope’ saw a plethora of green stones brought in to common use such as emeralds, peridots, tourmalines and the now very rare demantoid garnets which came from the Ural mountains in Russia and had a very distinct bright grass green colour. Many of these stones have fallen out of favour in recent years which is a shame but, one hundred years on from the sacrifice made by Emily Davison, whenever one sees a piece of jewellery from the Edwardian period set with the ‘violet, green and white’ one can’t help but wonder whether it may have been worn with pride by a supporter of ‘Votes for Women’.
Damon Barker FGA
The Daily Telegraph – ‘What Emily Wilding Davison and The Suffragettes Would Get Off Their Backsides Today’ – http://tinyurl.com/kjcxoc9
‘Wearing The Colours – Rediscovering Suffragette Jewellery’ – http://tinyurl.com/mov5otp
Lyon & Turnbull – http://tinyurl.com/nyvl36b
BBC History – http://tinyurl.com/mh7ukxx
The Melbourne Blogger – http://tinyurl.com/n36dvxk