My Great Grandmother's Proudest Days by Talitha Key
This story is to remember Millicent Browne who planted her tree, a Silver Holly on 4 July 1909
“This is the story of the days your great grandmother was most proud of.” My mother said as she slowly picked my great grandmothers old diary up out of the memory box.
I turned to a page, dated in July 1909, my eyes drawn to one word: Crash. I read on, hearing my great-grandmother’s voice for the first time.
It smashed into a thousand tiny pieces at my feet, she had written. I wonder what had smashed, turning the page.
I could see the London skyline below me, wrote my great-grandmother. Just for a second, running over the roof, I felt like I’m flying. My first slate missed, partly on purpose, I wasn’t sure about being militant until now. I smelt the smoke of the hard-working factories and my stomach turned, but I was there, there was no going back and after I heard the slate shatter, I broke away from my worries and fears. I stretched out my right arm, grabbed another tile and threw it harder than I had ever thrown anything before. It crashed with thunder and onto the man’s shoes. He was far below me. This was the only time I remember feeling above a man in my entire life.
It took me a week after receiving the package to build up the courage to go with the girls. There were five of us, we instantly became friends at my first meeting, we were fiery and young, we all had strong souls and were ready to fight. We knew each other’s real names but only called each other by out aliases; Jo, Beth, Jane, Vic and then there was me, Lizzie.
I can’t say I always thought I was going to be a suffragette because that would be a lie. To tell the truth when I first her about Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters, Christabel and Sylvia I thought they were crazy. All I had ever known was that ladies should stay at home and look after their husbands and their home and that men should have all the power and make all the decisions. I never thought this was unfair because I never really thought about it. I grew up being taught this was how it should be. Although I, at first, thought Mrs Pankhurst was crazy, every time she or any of the other suffragettes were in the paper I would always read about them and of course I told my parents, especially my father. About how I didn’t agree with them, but every time I said it I believed it less and less. Every time I read that another lady had been arrested I realised more and more that this was a fight worth fighting and every time a lady chained themselves to a railing my wish to fight increased, and rapidly too.
When I first decided to go to a suffragette meeting, I had just finished reading the newspaper over some afternoon tea. A public newspaper wasn’t allowed to publish any details about the suffragette meetings, so I made it my mission to find out when the next meeting near me was taking place. I was scared, I wasn’t even going to the meeting yet but still I was scared. There weren’t many places that you could find out about the suffragette meetings as the government tried to stop them from taking place but there were some shops ran by suffragettes. They had posters on their walls and would sell the magazines and papers the suffragettes would write to spread the word of the meetings and rallies.
As I approached the suffragette shop, I checked the street, making sure that no one who knew me was there as I crossed the wide black stone street. I hesitated, for no more than a second, one foot in the doorway, wondering if I could actually go through with this. But it was late, and a lady with an old tired face but young body started rushed towards the shop. I stepped over the threshold by instinct.
Two ladies were talking behind the counter, but luckily before either of them saw me the young lady with a tired face stepped into the shop and walked straight over to them. She said that some young girls had just exploded an entire street’s mailboxes and how the police had shown up to take them away to prison. The girls had screamed “Deeds not words!” even as they were being forced into the police van. I stuck to the back of the shop and kept my hat tipped to cover my face as I looked for a paper or a magazine that would tell me about the next suffragette meeting.
I leafed through a magazine rack of suffragette paraphernalia, until I saw a paper claiming to have details of the upcoming suffragette meetings. I grabbed it and made my way up to the chattering ladies, to pay. I felt as though I was intruding until the tall lady stood in the middle called out to me. She must have known I was a new girl as she said “You know we’re people too right? You look like you’ve just seen a ghost.” I let out the tiniest start of a laugh until I looked up and froze again. Then the shortest of the three women said “You looking to buy that?” and I replied in agreement with a timid “Yes”.
I didn’t look up while I was buying the paper because I didn’t want anyone to know that I supported the suffragettes, not yet anyway. I took the paper and went to a bench a few streets away from my apartment. It was mid-October and the nights were drawing in earlier everyday; although the sun shouldn’t have set, it had been a rainy day and the sky was littered with grey clouds. As I sat on the bench that was sheltered by a big bridge, the light was low so I was sure no-one would be able to see what I was reading. I pulled the paper out of my brown satchel and opened it, continuously checking for anyone coming close enough to see me reading the paper. I skimmed across the first couple of pages, seeing names of ladies in the headlines with stories telling of their acts. It made me want to join. I flicked straight to the pages telling of the upcoming meetings. I circled the one closest to me with my pen. It was tonight.
I ran home, trying to think of what excuse I could tell my parents. I decided to say that I was going to Tilly’s to study. Tilly was one of my school friends, once upon a time she was my best friend but, although we were still close friends we had drifted apart a little. But I knew my parents wouldn’t ask any questions if I said I was going to hers. It was quarter past five and the meeting started at seven. When I arrived home, I helped my mother cook our dinner and it was on the dining table by six. We then waited a long five minutes for my father to arrive home. My appetite was lost as I sat thinking about how I was about to lie to my parents. It was quiet as I spoke. But they agreed I could go to Tilly’s. My mouth was dry when they asked what time I would be home, I was unsure how long the meeting would last for. I felt guilty lying but even more guilty that I was hiding what I truly believed: ashamed that I wasn’t being vocal in my new support for the suffragettes.
After dinner it started raining again, I grabbed my coat and my brown satchel and headed straight into the almost freezing street. Immediately I turned left and walked what felt like about half a mile, sticking to the path beside the main road until I got close to the meeting place, then, I went down a small alleyway in-between a couple of semi-detached houses. I wiggled through some tiny winding paths until I arrived at the door of a big hall. I was a few minutes early and it sounded like the hall was empty, so, I grabbed the newspaper from my satchel and checked the location. It was the right place even if it didn’t sound like it.
As I opened the big heavy metal door the noise, from hundreds of ladies and few men, hit me. It hit me like a ton of bricks and I was taken back. I anxiously slipped into the back of the big room and kept quiet. I saw people I knew; neighbours and distant friends, but no-one introduced themselves with their real names. So, I decided that I too would need an alias. My real name was Mary Williams but I now called myself Elizabeth or Lizzie.
The speakers talked about the next march they were planning, they handed out paraphernalia, rewarded some ladies that had just got out of Holloway with medals. Then the people leading the meeting asked everyone to get into small groups and plan something. The aim was to get into the newspaper, that way more people would learn about the suffragettes and would join. As everyone split off into their groups I still stood at the back of the room. Too nervous to approach anyone. I stood alone until two young girls both about my age came giggling towards me, they introduced themselves as Jo and Beth. Beth was tall and skinny and had brown hair in the style of a bob, Jo was shorter than Beth although she still was not short, she had long wavy blonde hair, they were both bubbly and sweet. I introduced myself as Lizzie and told them that it was my first meeting. They said that they first came a few weeks ago and joined together as they knew each other from school.
Another girl, who looked maybe a year older than us, started walking towards us. She asked if she was welcome and she introduced herself as Jane.
Jane actually knew the two young ladies that had blown up the entire street’s mailboxes. We were excited about this, but as I was asking Jane about them, she held up a hand and started waving to a girl who was standing alone across the room. She was called Vic. The five of us stood talking. What we didn’t know was that in the coming weeks we were going to become great friends.
For a few weeks, I went the suffragette meetings, still lying to my parents about where I was and still not vocal about my support in the suffragettes. Nothing really happened in my life for a few weeks until the postman came that one mourning.
Luckily my parents were out as the postman handed me a few letters and a medium sized but very heavy parcel with a tag attached reading “Fancy having some fun, love Jane, Vic, Jo and Beth”. As I shut the door I wondered what was inside the package. The last few suffragettes meetings I had gone to, we had laughed a great deal but we hadn’t actually decided on what we could do to get in the papers. We had talked about chaining ourselves to the railings outside the houses of parliament; or throwing slates from on top of a roof; or even exploding mailboxes like the ladies had done. Nothing had been decided. I left the letters on the dining room table and took the package straight to my room. I stared at it for almost half an hour before so I read the tag one last time then untied the string bow and ripped off the paper packaging to reveal a box which had slates inside of it. I hid the box under my bed and thought about the package.
For about I week I thought about whether I should go or not until I eventually concluded that I was not going to talk my elf out of it. I told myself this, a hundred, perhaps a thousand times.
After I threw the first slate my worries were gone. I threw them harder than I had ever thrown anything before. I smashed windows and cars and hit the paving stones right in front of people’s feet. When the police arrived to take us away, all five of us had the biggest grins on our faces. We were fighting for something we truly believed in. The policemen were forcing me into their van when at the top of my lungs I let out one last, “Deeds not words!”
I closed the diary and looked at my mother.
“That was the time your great-grandmother was most proud of especially when after being released from prison she found out that she had made the papers and that although the fight was not over yet she found herself one step closer to her end goal and she kept fighting for women’s rights right until the end when women could finally vote.”
My mother had enlightened me that day and I was proud of what my great grandmother had done for me and every other female in our country.