Bad But Not Wrong by Max Westmoreland
This story is to remember Mary Clarke whose tree was planted on 15 January 1911. Mary died on Christmas Day 1910, two days after her release from Holloway Prison.
My name is Josephine Thomas. I was a suffragette in the 1910s. I saw horrible things, I did horrible things, I let horrible things happen. I was a bad person. But I was not wrong. What I did was bad but it was necessary. Men need to be shown that women are not just animals. We are intelligent people too. Women should have a say. We won’t let them win. We won’t let them get away with this much longer. My name is Josephine Thomas and this is my story.
14th June 1912
I stand in a crowd of people. We are marching in the middle of the street, I am scared. I’m not afraid to admit it. I am afraid to unveil the banner. But I can’t let the others down. They have been in prison. Paid the consequences. A man on the pavement stands and stares at us. He is obviously rich, wearing a smart blue blazer and a jaunty boater hat. A gold watch is dripping off his waist.
‘Women are protesting,’ he starts.
Nothing else, just one sentence. Only one sentence yet it manages to infuriate me beyond belief. Of course we are protesting. We are protesting against the unfairness of women’s rights. Or should I say the lack of women’s rights. He starts again, his crooked teeth giving way to a smile every now and then. I listen, I watch, I stand, I get angrier and angrier and angrier until I’ve had enough. Bringing the banner from under my arm I reveal it.
Any fear I have is now gone, replaced by my anger and hatred for this man. The people around me stop listening and look at the banner. They’re mostly men, I notice. A couple of gasps. How can three words cause such commotion. ‘Votes For Women’, the banner reads. Nothing more, nothing less. Three words, a lot of reactions. Everyone is looking my way now, heads over hats, to see if what they have been told is true. They stare, at the banner, at me, at the woman who has not obeyed her father, who has not stayed at home. They look at the woman protesting for something that in their eyes, she will never win. A lot they know.
A police officer marches over. ‘You’re coming to the station, missy,’ he barks.
I struggle, I scream, I hiss, but I don’t let go of the banner. I grip it in my hands, announcing to the world that I am a suffragette.
It surprises me how calm I am. I guess I always knew that this would happen. I always knew that I would go to prison. I just never wanted to accept it. Why would I? But now that it’s happened I am at ease. The unconscious thought running around in my head has been put to rest. Yes, I’ll go to prison. Yes, I’ll be treated like dirt. Yes, I’ll have a criminal record. But it will be worth it.
As I sit in the cell, I realise that I am willing to give up my own life to improve the lives of those in the future. I am prepared to die in this bleak, cold room. In this room with only one small window. In this room with a harsh guard next to me. I am not afraid. Fear is for the weak. Women aren’t weak. Or at least this one isn’t. The guard grunts. He is big. Bulky. Maybe even a bit fat. A permanent scowl on his face. There’s a knock. He turns. The door opens and two police officers walk in. They glower at me as if I am dirt, a piece of dried mud found on the bottom of their otherwise clean shoes. They sit down and the interrogation starts. Kind of. It is one-sided as I am refusing to speak. I have no reason to. I am prepared to die at the hands of these heartless men. The questions carry on, but there are no answers. Their frustration grow on their ugly faces. They remind me of bulldogs. I know, they know, even that stupid guard knows, that they can’t hold me for long. Not that they’ll tell me how long I’m going away for. The interview is over. It wasn’t the most successful. The guard tells me to get up. I refuse. Petty, I know, but I want to show that I mean business. I’m not giving up that easily. I am hauled through countless iron doors until I stand back in front of my cell. They push me in. My head hits the wall. Everything goes black.
15th June 1912
I look around the room I’m in. It’s empty except for a bed. That’s it. One bed. The mattress on top of it looks very well used. Yellow with age and who knows what else? I don’t want to know. Lying down on it, the springs dig into my back. A glimmer of light shines through the small window above my head. I hate it. It makes me so angry. I had heard about the terrors of prison from fellow suffragettes but I never realised that they had been put through this. Locked up, in such a confined space. Horrible. I hear a knock on the door. They can’t be letting me out already. Can they? A voice.
‘To the courtyard! Let’s go, let’s go!’
I don’t go. I stay. The guard races in and hauls me up. With his face right next to mine he spits. ‘You think you’re funny, don’t you? Well you ain’t. Get outside now.’
I don’t have a choice. He marches me to the courtyard and locks us all out. I look at the other women. They are all the same: small, frail, thin, scared, but determined. We are all in this together, we aren’t going to give up. The guards watch us suspiciously from windows, they are warm. We, however, are freezing, as a winter breeze picks up. One of the other women, an older one, is huddled over, breathing on her hands in an attempt to warm them up. I walk over to her.
‘Here, take this,’ I hand her my jacket.
She looks up, her eyes full of despair and worry. ‘No, no, I can’t take that,’ she replies.
I insist however and she finally puts it on. Some of the blood comes rushing back to her frail face. Now I am bitterly cold but I can’t show it. I stand strong, trying to ignore the pain in me. Everything feels a thousand times colder without my thin jacket. But the older women is all right now. Knowing this warms me up, mentally. I am still physically cold but I feel good. Soon we are ushered back inside, back into our cells.
I walk in. Nothing about that cold room has changed. It is as grey as ever. Still a box that will never feel like home, no matter how long I’m to be stuck in this place. Thinking about how I could be in this place forever, I decide to go on a hunger strike. I have heard tales, gruesome tales, of the ordeal that women on hunger strikes have gone through. Force-feeding and the like. But instead of repulsing me it only makes me want to do it even more.
I sit in my cell waiting for my food. After some hours a guard finally arrives with a bowl of lumpy porridge. I push it to a far corner, leaving it. The lumps protrude upwards, like they are trying to escape out of the bowl. It looks revolting. It makes me gag. It makes me rather glad of my decision. I look away and slump down on the bed. Its hardness causes my back to jolt upwards. It’s as if I am lying on the cold floor. Pain floods through my entire body and I writhe in agony. I try to regain feeling in my back as the door opens. A burly guard walks in, his bulging muscles flexing threateningly. A huge scowl covers his ugly face.
‘Just a routine check,’ he grunts. He takes a quick look around the room. A huge grin appears on his face. “A non-eater, huh!’
I look down. Up until now my plan to not eat had seemed foolproof. Genius even! Looking up at that hideous face, however, started to give me doubts. A kick hits me hard, right in the ribs. I fall down.
‘I said, GET UP!’
My defiance towards this man, who could squish me like a bug, surprises even me. With one massive hand, he picks me up by the collar and throws me across the room.
‘I said. Get up.’
This time I do. I have protested enough. I‘m not just physically tired, I’m tired mentally as well. He puts me in handcuffs and starts to walk me down the long, dark corridor…
It feels like I’ve been walking forever. The corridor hasn’t changed, just more of the same bleakness. It’s so white, but dark, the only light coming from small frosted windows. Every now and then this light blinds me, pours into my eyes. After what seems like hours we finally come to a door. It’s metal, could survive the stampede of a hundred elephants. I’m scared to go through it. Who knows what horrors have gone on behind this door? Now they’re going to happen to me. What have I done to deserve this? I am, after all, a woman. All this time they’ve been saying that women are precious, too precious to deserve the vote, and now they are about to break me. I don’t know how but I know they will. They will break me and I will never be the same again. I’ve seen it happen, to friends and partners, and I know that this is not going to be easy. Not in the slightest. They will torture me. Maybe kill me.
The sound of the guard rapping his hand against the monstrosity in front of me brings me back. Slowly, with a creak, it opens. On the other side is an empty room filled with surgical instruments. I don’t know what I am expecting but not this. It’s so sterile and clean. The guard points to a metal chair and barks some orders I can’t hear. I understand though. Sit or things will get very bad for you. I sit. The chair is cold. A man walks up to me with a syringe. Gently he presses it into my arm. My eyes start to grow heavy and before I know it, I’m away.
16th June 1912
I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe! I’m going to suffocate. They really are going to kill me, in the worst way possible. These men are so cruel. A light, blinding. I can’t breathe or see. Whoever is behind this is truly and utterly twisted. My vision starts to clear. My breathing doesn’t. I can see a person. A man? No, a woman. Is she here to save me? I hope so. My legs are dead. I can’t feel my arms. My neck feels like it could snap at any second.
‘Hello Miss Thomas,’ she says. She drawls on the Thomas.
I hate her already. How can she, a fellow female, look at me, tied up in a chair, half-dead from suffocation.
‘The senior doctors sent me in. They thought that a lady might be a bit more comforting.’
I snort. If anything this woman only make things worse. I look her up and down. She’s wearing a fancy grey dress, pearls around her neck, hair tied up in a neat bun.
‘Now Miss Thomas, I understand that this is your second day here, and yet you’ve managed to get yourself in trouble for not eating. Frankly, that is a bad idea. If you refuse to co-operate then we will have to succumb to… shall we say, less desired methods of feeding.” She speaks so fast it takes me a minute to work out exactly what she’s said.
When I finally realise what she means I start to sweat. My already ragged breath, due to the tube stuck down my throat, quickens. That explains why it’s there. I should have realised. Surely they wouldn’t. They would. They’re going to force-feed me. I thought I was prepared for this. Obviously not. I am nowhere near ready. I thought it would take a few more days of not eating for them to start this. I guess so many of us suffragettes have been doing this that they can’t take any chances. I don’t know whether to be happy or not. After all, it means I’m not the only one protesting. I am not alone. Another person walks into the room, a man this time.
‘Ahh, Josephine, a pleasure to meet you. Now, we need to tell you that if this misbehaving carries on, your life here will become very difficult. Very difficult,” he says, a grim smile on his face.
I stare blankly, refusing to acknowledge his presence.
‘We are willing to give you one more chance to eat some food. Will you?’
I shake my head. Why should I? I think. What do I have to gain by giving up?
‘I see. That’s fine. Bring in the food!’ he shouts.
Two more men walk in with the lumpy porridge. I struggle, trying to get my hands out of the rope that’s tied them together, so I can pull the tube out of my throat. When this fails I attempt to retch it up, forcing myself to throw up. But instead of the tube coming out, a sharp pain travels from my stomach to my mouth. A trickle spills out of the tube and onto my prison clothing. Seeing this, the men plonk down the bowl of porridge and hold me still. The other man, the first one, starts pouring the revolting muck down the tube. It is such a horrible sensation that I am sick, yet again. The men ignore this and carry on feeding me.
Out of the corner of my eye I see the woman. Oh, that evil, evil woman. I have never felt so much hate for someone, ever. Can’t she see that I am right? That women need freedom. It still surprises me that there are women who don’t want to be free. Having the vote doesn’t free us from our husbands but I believe it’s a start. A start to life of equality. But not in my lifetime. Not in the next generation’s lifetime. One day though. More sick trails out of the tube, whiter this time, due to the porridge. Then as quickly as it starts it stops. They yank the tube out of my mouth and I am sick on the floor, over and over again. When I am finished I take a huge gulp of air. Ah, sweet air.
‘She’s ill, she needs to be released.’
‘Not this one, she needs to learn.’
‘What if she dies’
‘Then she’ll have learnt.’
I don’t know who is speaking but I know that I won’t be released. I am grabbed roughly off the floor and marched to my cell. Back down that long corridor, back outside my cell door, back inside my grey box. I lie on the hard bed. Thinking. Thinking. Thinking…
17th June 1912
Still thinking. I’ve thought about many things. Am I really right? Is this my life now? Will I be trapped in this god-awful place forever? Will we do it? Will I have helped free the women of the future? Will I have helped free the women of the present? A light comes in through the tiny window. The sun is out. I won’t give in.
Max Westmoreland is a student of Broadland High Ormiston Academy. He is in Year 8. In 2018, he took part in the Suffragette Stories project to improve and widen his creative writing skills. He was inspired to write his story by all the suffragettes who played a part in winning the vote for women.