One of our occasional features in This England is entitled “Great Britons” and over the years it has shone the spotlight on subjects as varied as Robert Falcon Scott, Sir Frank Whittle, Thomas Paine and Gustav Holst; in the Summer 2018 issue the series will be continuing with an article about Philip Astley, the Staffordshire man regarded as the founder of the traditional English circus. The current commemorations, widely reported in the press, to mark the one-hundredth anniversary of the Representation of the People Act (1918) which gave women the right to vote for the first time (but, for all the celebrations, only women over 30 years old who owned property) has highlighted a number of other individuals who will make excellent “Great Britons” in the future.
One of these, Alice Hawkins, a suffragette (or suffragist, there seems to be some debate) from Leicester, was remembered on 4th February when, in front of hundreds of spectators, a 7ft. bronze statue of her by sculptor Sean Hedges-Quinn was unveiled in the city’s market square. Appropriately, this was the spot where Alice addressed supporters and rallied people to her cause on many occasions.
Alice, originally from Stafford (she was born in 1863), worked in a shoe factory in Leicester and, in common with her husband Alfred, became a committed Christian and Socialist, campaigning not just for women’s right to vote but for equality in pay and working conditions. During her tireless struggle, Alice was charged by mounted police and jailed five times, but, undeterred, in 1908, on what became known as Women’s Sunday, was one of the speakers at a mass rally in front of 250,000 people in London’s Hyde Park.
Alice died in 1946 at the age of 83, but her influence continues to this day, not only through that landmark piece of legislation she helped to bring about, but through her own descendants. Kate Barratt, her great-great-granddaughter, spoke at the unveiling: “Alice actually gives me a lot to live up to. I get asked questions about how I am following in her footsteps but just like many women I go about my day-to-day life. I have my freedom, I have my vote and I don’t even need to think about it, whereas Alice had to fight for that.” It is a comment that the 15 million men and women (34 per cent of the electorate) who didn’t bother to vote in the last UK General Election might do well to think about.
As the commemorations continue, two more statues are going to be unveiled later this year: one of the founder of the National Union of Suffrage Societies, Millicent Fawcett, in Parliament Square in London, and another, in Manchester, of the leader of the suffragette movement, Emmeline Pankhurst.