Glimpses of Mary Gawthorpe

As International Women’s Day approaches, we look at some inspirational women of Leeds, as chosen by Local and Family History staff. Here librarian, Helen Skilbeck, reveals her admiration of a local suffragist.

A personal favourite of mine is Mary Gawthorpe (1881-1973) who was a teacher, suffragist, suffragette, organiser and public speaker for the WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union). She was born in Woodhouse, Leeds but emigrated to the USA in 1916 – before some women received the vote – and her last few years in the UK were blighted with health issues. She married John Saunders in 1921 and retired from public life in 1922. I sometimes wonder what more she could have achieved had her health allowed. 

A previous blog post tells of Gawthorpe’s campaigning so I wanted to focus on some of the more personal aspects of her life as featured in her collection of personal papers (held at Leeds Central Library on microfilm) and her 1962 autobiography, Up Hill to Holloway.

Her personal papers are a wonderful mix of correspondence, newscuttings, photographs, postcards and diaries and are spread over 17 reels of microfilm. Much of the collection focuses on her campaigning work and there are lots of examples of photographs and posters from her time with the WSPU. However, some of the private correspondence reveals more about Gawthorpe the person and not Gawthorpe the suffragist.  Some of the most touching items of correspondence are the condolence cards and letters that Gawthorpe received after her husband’s death in 1963. They are so personal that it feels quite invasive to read them.

Mary Gawthorpe with her husband, John Saunders, outside their home in the USA.

There is a beautiful photograph of Sylvia Pankhurst and her young son Richard, who was born in 1927. Pankhurst never married and her mother never forgave her for having an ‘illegitimate’ child. Gawthorpe has noted her name and address on the back of the photograph so this was something that she did not want to lose. There are also letters to and from Sylvia Pankhurst concerning Pankhurst’s book The Suffrage Movement and promotion for it.  

Photograph of Sylvia Pankhurst with her young son Richard.

I love how she kept everything. There are lots of little notes and postcards from children and young people although we do not know who these are. As with any collection of personal papers, there are no accompanying notes to explain what everything is and who is who, so we are left to research and conjecture.

Letter to Gawthorpe from an unknown Rosemary.

There is a letter to Christabel Pankhurst in 1933 asking if Christabel was attending the memorial service of Alva Belmont. Belmont was a millionaire socialite and major figure in the American suffrage movement and her funeral was attended by many suffragists and had all female pall bearers. Gawthorpe has little faith that Pankhurst will recognise her – presumably it had been some time since they last met – so asks her to ‘look for a long brown fur fabric coat, maybe a brown hat, the rest black’

Letter to Christabel Pankhurst, 1933. ‘I shall surely know you if you are in my neighbourhood, Section A, in church or if you are perhaps near the entrance 1.30 -1.45 (we’re rather a long way off) look for a long brown fur fabric coat, maybe a brown hat, the rest black. I have been thinking of you rather since the National Women’s Party sent a telegram to me Monday asking me to help in locating you. Always affectionately, Mary Gawthorpe’

This next letter is one of my favourites. It is addressed to her mother who she reprimands for sending personal letters to the office and newscuttings with no dates on them. The librarian in me wholeheartedly agrees with the latter! The letter reads as follows:

1. Please do not send any of your letters and papers to the office as I am not bound to get the latter at any rate. Our correspondence gets so heavy that I only see the important letters and I like private letters to come to this address. 2. Will you please mark all loose cuttings with the name and date from which they are taken? This makes them doubly valuable.

Mary Gawthorpe’s letter to her mother, 1910.

Gawthorpe’s autobiography, Up Hill to Holloway, covers her childhood and early campaigning until 1906 when it stops rather abruptly. We hear about her life in her own words, from her battle to become a qualified teacher to her first steps into active campaigning for the WSPU.

Her family life was not particularly harmonious and in 1902 she moved to Beeston Hill with her mother and brother. Her father stayed in Woodhouse – there was some domestic upset and heavy drinking involved. As she was now the householder she obtained the municipal vote in elections.

Excerpt from Up Hill To Holloway, Mary Gawthorpe, 1962.

She also writes of her engagement to Thomas Garrs, a local compositor for the Yorkshire Post newspaper, rather sweetly referred to as FL (first love). They never married but he introduced her to the Independent Labour Party and the Leeds Arts Club – full of socialist and modernist thinkers – and where Gawthorpe begins her transition from teacher to campaigning suffragist.

We learn that Gawthorpe was rather petite – she, very precisely, gives her height as 4 foot 10 and ¾ – and her looks are occasionally mentioned, much to her bemusement. She writes that a man, after hearing her speak on suffrage, sorrowfully says ‘but you’re so feminine’ and the meeting report remarks on her having ‘more than her fair share of good looks’. Gawthorpe notes that she could not remember ‘any instance where political speakers of the other sex had been credited with possession or lack of good looks’. Some would say not much has changed…

As mentioned, her autobiography ends in 1906 and so we don’t hear any more of Gawthorpe’s life in her own words. Instead we can piece it together using her personal papers and photographs but there will inevitably be gaps with people and places unknown to us. I suspect there is a lot more still to learn about Gawthorpe (somebody should definitely write her biography). We know that she was a great speaker, organiser and writer – who knows what else she may have achieved had she stayed in the UK. Leeds should be very proud of her. 

The Mary Gawthorpe papers are available to view at the Local and Family History Library, once Covid-19 restrictions have been lifted. They form part of our special collections so you will need to bring ID to view them. Up to date information on Leeds Libraries opening times and access can be found here: www.leeds.gov.uk/libraries  or you can contact the library directly: localandfamilyhistory@leeds.gov.uk or 0113 378 6982 (please leave a voicemail).

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