Mary Jane Clarke, the daughter of Robert Goulden and Sophia Crane, was born in 1862, in Salford. She was the sister of Emmeline Pankhurst. Both her parents were politically radical. Her father campaigned against slavery and her mother supported women’s suffrage. Both Mary and Emmeline were educated in Paris and Mary afterwards became an artist, decorating goods which were sold in a shop the sisters had set up. Mary married John Clarke in 1895 but her marriage was unhappy and by 1904, she had left her husband and lived with her niece, Sylvia Pankhurst.
The family were members of the NUWSS, but became increasingly frustrated by lack of progress, and in 1903, Emmeline Pankhurst, along with her daughters and Mary Clarke, formed the WSPU. Mary was Emmeline’s deputy as registar and in 1906 was present at the first meeting of the WSPU in London.
Mary became a WSPU organiser and in 1909 lead a protest in Downing Street and was arrested and imprisoned for one month. In the summer of 1909, she became organiser of the Brighton branch of the WSPU. After militant action started in 1905, Mary organised protests in Brighton, including window breaking. After her death, Joan Dugdale recalled how Mary would speak to several hundred members of the public each evening who ‘admired her pluck’. A local solicitor, who opposed female suffrage, would turn up each evening to heckle her. Joan described how ‘Mrs Clarke never got impatient or angry and managed to silence him by turning his own words against him in a very clever manner.’
Joan also described an event in Bournemouth where she, Clara Mordan and Mary Clarke were violently heckled and rotten apples thrown at them. Mary managed to escape from the mob, but saw that Joan was being attacked. She rushed to help him and ‘then came in for her blows and kicks and shoving.’ Another suffragette recalled that the hecklers were shouting ‘Throw her over a cliff!’. Joan admired Mary’s ‘superhuman’ strength of spirit as well as her ‘sweet sympathy’ and ‘gentleness’. Constance Lytton remembered her ‘understanding of human nature.’
Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence wrote that Mary’s path was once blocked by a mob of opponents and she quietly pulled out a copy of Votes for Women and started to read it as though she were in ‘a drawing room.’
Physically frail, by 1910 Mary had become ill. This did not prevent her running the WSPU’s general election campaign that year, nor from taking part in the Black Friday protests in November of that year, following which she was arrested and imprisoned in Holloway. She underwent a hunger strike and was forcibly fed, finally being released on 22 December. Two days after her release, on Christmas Eve, she collapsed and died shortly afterwards, on Christmas Day, 1910.
Mary's tree, a cedrus deodara pendula, was planted by Annie Kenney on 15 January 1911, the plaque saying In Memory of Mary Clarke, released from Holloway Prison 23rd December 1910, died 25th December 1910.
"Prison is the only place for self-respecting women." Mary Clarke, 1910.