In July 1906, a 27 year old woman called Mary Blathwayt sent a donation of three shillings to the WSPU. Mary was unmarried and lived with her father, Linley, a retired Colonel in the Indian Army, her mother Emily and brother William at Eagle House at Batheaston, just outside Bath. The family was progressive. Emily Blathwayt recorded in her diary that ‘Linley is much in favour of women having the vote, he thinks they would do much more good than harm.’
In 1907, Annie Kenney was appointed as WSPU organiser for the West of England. She moved to Bristol and at some point the next year met Mary Blathwayt at a meeting in Bath. Mary would become a central part of Annie’s team, although she herself did not take part in any criminal activities. Annie spent every weekend at Eagle House where she relaxed, playing tennis, riding and even starting to learn French. She probably travelled in Linley Blathwayt’s prized car, the first motor in Batheaston, up the steep hill to the house, where children would push it and be rewarded with a shilling.
The Blathwayt family grew closer to Annie and her West Country suffragettes. They built a summer house in their grounds which they called ‘The Suffragette’s Rest’ and invited women to come and stay, often to recuperate from prison. In 1909, Linley, a keen horticulturalist decided to create a plantation in a field adjacent to Eagle House. On 23 April 1909, Annie Kenney, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, Constance Lytton and Clara Codd all planted trees in what the family called ‘Annie’s Arboretum.’ Emily Blathwayt wrote in her diary that ‘it was a beautiful day for tree planting’. Lead plaques marking the date, the tree variety and the suffragette were put in the front in front of the saplings.
Over the next few months many other suffragettes planted trees. Linley, an accomplished photographer, recorded the event with his camera. Emily and Mary, assiduous diarists, recorded the visits in words. Christabel Pankhurst was ‘sweet.,.quiet and retiring.’ Vera Holme played the violin and sang after doing the washing up. Millicent Fawcett looked very young.
In September 1909, Jessie Kenney, Vera Wentworth and Elsie Howey assaulted Herbert Asquith and Herbert Gladstone, then Prime Minister and Home Secretary as they were playing golf. This shocked the Blathwayts who were concerned at violent means and refused to condone them. They told the women they were no longer welcome at Eagle House, receiving a response from Vera Wentworth that ‘if Mr. Asquith will not receive deputation they will pummel him again.’
The tree planting continued, at a slower pace, but was confined to non-violent members of the WSPU, foreshadowing the schism which was to occur in 1911-12. The Blathwayts tried to persuade many of the women who had visited their home to turn away from violence. When Aeta Lamb visited Eagle House in 1912, Emily Blathwayt thought that she might be the last to plant a tree, writing in her diary that ‘the oldest supporters are fast leaving the WSPU, especially those old in years, but people like Miss Lamb do not at all like Mrs. Pankhurst's present policy’. This policy was violence and arson and when a local house was burned, Mary Blathwayt resigned her membership.
The plantation is an anomaly. Its creators, the Blathwayts, believed in non-violent means, but it was named after Annie Kenney, a militant leader. As such, in addition to the Pankhursts, their detractors such as the Pethick-Lawrences and Charlotte Despard planted trees. Christabel loyalists such as the Kenneys have trees, and so do women such as Mary Philips who left the WSPU, joining Sylvia Pankhurst’s pacifist movement. The plantation included the first woman to go on hunger strike, the first to be forcibly fed, the first to be released under the Cat and Mouse Act and the first to refuse to obey in her wedding vows.
It is striking how few of these names and stories are known today.
When the bill granting women the right to vote in 1918, Emily Blathwayt recorded in her diary that "The Reform Bill passed yesterday... Women cannot vote before the age of 30. Wives of men entitled to elect can vote as well as women in their own right and university women also have the franchise... Linley and I walked through the trees this afternoon and wondered how quietly this had come at last, but the war occupies all our thoughts."
Despite their differences over the use of violence, the Blathwayts stayed in contact with Annie and their letters focus on the growing plantation, enclosing clippings. In 1951, Mary wrote to Annie with an account of her brother’s death, interspersed with an account of the trees. Beatrice Sanders tree had been damaged in a gale, but ‘it will be better for Mrs Pankhurst’s tree in that is will get more light.’ It is evident that the family gave a great deal of care to the plantation for over fifty years, until Mary’s own death in in 1962. After this, the land was sold. Developers tore up the trees to build a housing estate.
One tree, that of Rose Lamatine Yates, survives. And the UEA archive contains clippings of a few others. Images of Eagle House and the plantation can be found here .
Emmeline Pethick Lawrence
Many thanks to Elvie Herd who assisted in the research of these biographies.