If you’ve never heard of Swindon schoolteacher Edith New before, you soon will, writes local historian Frances Bevan.
In Suffragette, which hits cinemas in October, Helena Bonham Carter plays Edith, one of the leading lights in the Votes for Woman campaign, alongside Meryl Streep and Carey Mulligan. With an ironic twist, Bonham Carter is the great-granddaughter of H.H. Asquith, the Liberal Prime Minister who strongly opposed giving women the vote.
Edith Bessie New was born in 1877 in North Street, the daughter of Frederic New, a railway clerk at the GWR Works and his wife Isabella, a music teacher. Frederic was killed in a railway accident before Edith’s first birthday, leaving Isabella to raise her three young children alone.
By the age of 14 Edith was working as a pupil teacher at Queenstown Infants’ School. After gaining her teaching certificate, she moved to London to work in the tough, dockland area of East Greenwich.
Inspired by the challenges faced by her mother, Edith spent a lifetime campaigning for equal rights for women and was the first suffragette to chain herself to railings outside 10 Downing Street, where she later returned to break two windows, both tactics that the suffragettes were later to employ to great effect.
Although many Liberal MPs were in favour of women’s suffrage, Asquith remained a lifelong opponent. His government introduced the practice of force feeding imprisoned women who went on hunger strike to further their protest behind bars.
Attacked for using a method deemed as ‘torture’ by the medical journal The Lancet, Asquith went on to introduce the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill Health) Act 1913, which became known as the Cat and Mouse Act. Instead of forcibly feeding the women who went on hunger strike they were released when they became dangerously weak and then promptly re-arrested when they became stronger.
Celebrating a leader
In yet another venture supported by Swindon Heritage, local historians will be delivering a series of events including a guided walk around Old Town looking at places of significance in Edith’s life in the week preceding the screening at Cineworld, Regent Circus in October.
There will also be an illustrated talk about Edith and the Votes for Women campaign at a date and venue to be confirmed.
And to get the real suffragette experience, and to reflect on the position of women in society over 100 years ago, there will a march and rally at Regent Circus where costumed re-enactors will deliver a selection of rousing speeches once spoken by Emmeline Pankhurst and the campaigning women.
More detail will be provided in the October edition of the Link Magazine, including the release date and special showings in Swindon. Keep up to date with developments on Facebook