Suffragette Stories

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The Envelopes by Tilly Gray

This story is to remember Lillian Williamson, who planted a Holly on 27 August 1911, and also Grace Marcon, a Norfolk suffragette.

I tossed and turned in my bed. I was burning up. My palms and forehead were sweaty. I had a throbbing headache. I looked across the room, but my vision was blurry; I tried to get up, but my legs were too weak. I told myself I needed time to recover from the forced feeding. But I knew that as soon as I was well, they’d lock me up again.

It had been a bad idea to break the paintings in the National Gallery, but I couldn’t help it. I’d been so mad that everyone was disagreeing with us that I had to let all my anger out. And I needed to let the people know that the Suffragette movement meant business and we will do anything to get the right to vote! Yesterday the police came to re-arrest me. They said I was too ill to be moved, but they’ll be back.

My head felt as though it was burning. My hair, which reached to my waist, felt on fire. Red hot wires scalding my head. At the edge of my room I could faintly make out my worn-out, leather case. It was staring at me, calling out to me. I pulled all my strength together and stumbled across the floor. I reached out and grabbed my case, falling to the floor. As I slowly unclipped its clasp, the silver, shiny scissors caught my eye. I could feel the cold iron beneath my fingertips. It was cool, soothing. My hand reached out and took them, it had a mind of its own.

I walked to the mirror and stared at my blurred reflection. My fingers grasped a small chunk of hair and moved it closer to the scissors. I didn’t care anymore I heard the snip of scissors. I watched my hair fall to the floor, almost in slow motion. I kept on cutting, cutting and cutting until there was nothing left. I laid on the floor, no strength to get back up to bed. I burst out in tears, staring up at the ceiling. What had I done, I looked like a man!

I cried for hours until I heard a quiet rustling downstairs. I peered through my door, down to the hallway where a small, white envelope lay on the floor. I was intrigued to see who it was from. I forced myself down the stairs and picked up the envelope with a shaky hand. I collapsed back down on the stairs and looked at it. It had a small, red seal and the writing was elegant. I pierced it open with my nail and pulled the letter out. My heart started pounding and sweat trickled down my forehead. It was from my Father! I had stopped seeing him when I became a Suffragette. To avoid embarrassing him, I even changed my name! I read it out loud to myself.

Dear Grace, I have been thinking a lot recently and I have finally decided that I accept you becoming a Suffragette, I still don’t agree with it but you are my daughter and I respect your decisions. I want to be in your life again and I am willing to give you time if that’s what you need. If you have any interest in me coming back into your life, please send a letter back to me, I will be waiting for your reply. Love Father.

I couldn’t believe it, Father wanted to see me again! I ran my hand across my stubby cropped head. I couldn’t see him like this, I must become stronger first.

A few days later I had built my strength up. I dressed myself in my white gown and put my feather hat on, thankfully this hid most of my head. As I stepped out of the door, I felt the cold, calming breeze on my skin and the warm glare of the sun. I felt happy again. I was going to the market to buy a new hat, some paper and a pen. When I arrived at the market, a few stall owners started calling me names and shouting out that I was a Suffragette. My cheeks turned bright red. I hated that everyone was so against us, all we want is the right to vote, I can’t understand how other women don’t like us either, as we are fighting to give them the vote too. I suppose they are just happy receiving money from their husbands and having no life apart from undertaking the housework!

I ran home and slammed the door shut behind me. I went into my study and started writing a reply to Father, I wrote how I wanted him back in my life and how I am glad he has accepted me as a person and for my beliefs. I asked him if he wanted to make lunch arrangements and how his life had been. I was tired, but I had to post this letter, so I hauled myself out of the chair and trudged along the cobblestone path to the post office, my feet throbbing. When I arrived at the post office, I saw my old friend Emily who is a Suffragette too. She wears her hair up in a bun and always wears her purple, white and green fabric sash. We had a good, thorough chat and caught up on the latest gossip and Suffragette news. After we said our goodbyes, I trudged back home and went straight to sleep.

The next morning, I was so excited for the postman, staring at the door until he came. As soon as I heard that rustling sound, I jumped up and saw a new envelope on the floor, it was from Father. I tore it open. It confirmed a date for lunch.

Finally, the day arrived! I freshly pressed my finest gown and put on expensive perfume to make sure I impressed him. As I walked to the café I was shaking with nerves, I hadn’t seen him for two years! What was he going to say? What was he going to think? As I walked into the small café, he was sitting down, reading the newspaper. I wasn’t late, he was early. I wondered if this meant he was keen to see me too. I was about to tap his shoulder when he turned around and looked at me. He looked so different since the last time I saw him. He had grown a bushy moustache, cut off his beard and his hair was a lot shorter. We awkwardly said hello and hugged each other, ordering tea and scones. He asked me how I was. I told him about the Suffragettes, but I didn’t dare tell him I had been arrested for criminal damage after destroying those paintings. He would disown me if he knew! He told me about his work and his friends and we discussed the current Government policies. After we had finished our scones we said goodbye, planning to meet again the following week. It felt great to have Father back in my life, I felt happy and loved again.

The next day I woke up to a dull and rainy sky. I didn’t feel like going out, so I stayed at home and had a tidy up around the house. The day passed quite quickly, until I heard a knock at the door. My Uncle standing there, wearing a black suit and with a sad expression on his face. I invited him in, but he lingered in the doorway as if he was scared. We sat down at the dining room table and he told me Father had died. We discussed his will and his funeral arrangements, although I barely held myself together. After a long time, I managed to ask him how Father had died and he simply replied, “He died from a heart attack.” After Uncle left I fell to the floor and burst into tears. Why did this have to happen to me? Why was my life so bad? What had I done to deserve this!? Father and had finally made up and now he’s gone. Had it been worth becoming a Suffragette? I wasn’t sure anymore.

A few weeks passed by, I hadn’t eaten much, and I was dirty, but I didn’t care anymore. I heard the postman, but I didn’t want to go downstairs, the only mail would be sympathy letters.

Eventually, I forced myself to check through the pile of envelopes on the hallway floor. One stood out, it was a light purple envelope with a green seal. I instantly knew that it was from the Suffragettes. I ripped it open and found a letter from the Suffragette plantation in Somerset, asking me if I wanted to plant a tree in memory of myself. Thad heard how I had destroyed a few famous paintings including the Portrait of a Mathematician, and wanted to help me recover from my hunger strike. I decided I would go. It would help me to recover physically from the hunger strike and it would also help me recover mentally from Father’s death. I packed and travelled by a horse and cart to Somerset; it took a long seven hours to get there but it was worth it. I was able to think about everything that had happened to get me here, it was simply an honour to have the Suffragettes notice me as a person!

When I arrived, I was happily greeted by the other Suffragettes and escorted to my room. It was very small but cosy. The floors were simple wooden planks, walls were alight red paint, the bed was pushed to the wall and there was a dresser on the other side. On the dresser was a pair of gloves and a shovel, with a note instructing me to meet on the lawn at midday. It was almost midday, so I rushed downstairs. There waiting for me was Emily. I was so happy she was here. My life was slowly but surely going to get better! We were led to two holes in the ground and we were given different types of saplings. We dug another small hole in the dirt and buried our trees. They were tiny. But one day they will be tall and grand. As we planted them I felt like I was starting a new life, it was the beginning of my fresh start!

The year now is 1926, I am married, and I have a great life. During the war, I worked as a masseuse for the Red Cross, I travelled across the prairies to Canada and my husband and I were married in Vancouver. I am currently living in Norfolk, in my Father’s house that I inherited and I recently visited my tree in Somerset, it is growing very fast. I hold another envelope in my hands, from Emily. It is dated 1918 and states, with much joy and happiness, that women have won the vote.

Contextual note

This  is based on the experiences of Norfolk suffragette, Grace Marcon. Grace did not plant a tree in Annie’s Arboretum, but her story shares similarities of Lillian Williamson, who did have a tree. This story is dedicated to both Grace and Lillian.

Tilly grew up in Norfolk. She was educated at Thorpe House Langley before joining Langley School in Loddon and is currently in Year 9. In Tilly’s free time, she enjoys playing hockey, running and baking. The thing that inspired her to write her story was all the Suffragettes who fought to get women the vote.