When writing about a person of note it is always important to understand the different narratives which are used about them. This is particularly important when you are writing about them as a part of a family history. The role they played in the family, the way they were remembered in the family could be at odds with how they are portrayed in history books, and likewise their part in history might single them out for remembrance in family lore out of sync with their participation in the family.
Such is the case with my grandfather’s first cousin, Isabel Maude Kate Smith. Maude was the daughter of Grandad’s mother’s sister. She was a suffragette, and her story as a part of the Votes for Women movement in England is of note. But of course, she was a part of the family, a part of a network of relatives who lived in the Birmingham area.
Last week I found Maude’s prison record (for her second arrest) and did a subsequent Google search. There on the Press Association Archives I discovered a photo of Maude in the docks during her trial in 1914. Having now obtained the rights to use this picture in my blog (and yes this cost money) I thought it a good idea to reflect on Maude, both as a suffragette and as a family member.
Isabel Maude Kate Smith was born the 7 September 1881 in Acock’s Green, Birmingham. She was the eldest child of Sidney Smith and his wife Kate Jennings. When she was born her father was a wholesale jeweller. Maude had three brothers and a sister: Sidney, Percival, Leslie and Dorothy.
According to an interview Maude did with Brian Harrison in 1975 [The Women’s Library, London Metropolitan University, 8SUF/B/030] Maude had a varied primary education, attending several schools before leaving at the age of 12. After leaving school she worked for her father. When his business failed she worked intermittently in clerical/bookkeeping positions. She loved numbers. She suffered from depression, and was often forced to leave jobs after suffering breakdowns.
After her period in the suffrage movement she moved to the country, and served as a housekeeper/companion to an accountant named Skinner. The Skinners were apparently friends of the family. She lived with him in the Shropshire area until about 1965, when he died. She never married.
Maude as a Suffragette
Maude joined the suffrage movement after reading Votes for Women. She didn’t just attend a few meetings, she was active in it, first selling papers for them, then serving as the secretary of the WSPU [Women’s Social and Political Union] in Birmingham.
In 1912 Maude, with a number of other women, went to London and smashed windows in Oxford Street. She was arrested, and was given four months for that. After sentencing, the ladies began a hunger strike, and were force-fed. Maude was force-fed for a few months, and the emotional and physical damage followed her through her life. Released, she continued with the movement, and admitted to “firing a post box.” [“All this so Women Could Win the Right to Vote,” Solihull News, 8 January 1972].
Maude is best known for another violent act, the slashing of the painting Primavera by George Claussen at the Royal Academy of Arts on the 26 May 1914. The painting was a nude lady sitting sideways holding her hair. When asked in 1975 Maude said that it was a lovely picture, and expressed regret that she had harmed it. Upon slashing it she was arrested and taken to the Old Bailey. There under the false name of Mary or May Spencer she was convicted, and imprisoned for six months. [TNA-CCC-H0140-00692]
Maude in her Family
In her interview Maude was asked a fair bit about her family. She was very open about her father and his family. Sidney Smith was from, in her words, landed gentry, and his family had owned land in Great Cumberton for over four hundred years. She attributed many of his and her preferences for quiet and country because of this landed heritage. Maude appears to have spent a great deal of time with her grandmother there (including in 1901 when she was listed as a visitor in her home in the Census). She mentioned that she was named after three aunts and her mother. (Isabel was her mother’s sister, the other two were Smiths, but she talks of three Smith aunts).
About her mother she said relatively little. She described her as trier, worn out and angry. She talked about how her mother was always trying to get her to take on chores in the house, but she refused. Maude said that her mother came from business people [Swan Pub in Yardley] and that she was used to having servants. She also noted that when Maude was born her mother was undernourished, and had ultimately gone through nine pregnancies (9 pregnancies – 5 children survived).
About her siblings she was vague. She did mention that there was little affection among them. She knew little about their lives, and while granted she was over ninety when she was interviewed and not as quick as she must have been, she was hard pressed to know what they did for a living, and rarely used their names.
What she did say was that Leslie went to technical school, and then worked at Dunlops. Percy was a “tragedy” who worked at a GE then a bicycle factory, she also called him wild, and that he had three children. No details to the wildness. Sidney was a “gentle dear” who worked first as a bookkeeper and then owned Magnus Welding Co. Dorothy liked to garden.
The family view of Maude
Growing up both my brother and I were raised with the story of how Grandad’s cousin had been a suffragette fighting for the right to vote. We were told how important it was to vote.
When researching Maude I came across a letter my Mom wrote to her cousin Dorothy in 1996 about Maude. Daphne had kindly sent an article about her that she had found. Here is a part of what Mom said:
“Apart from the fact that she’d been a suffragette and had been imprisoned, I didn’t know much about her. I have a vague recollection of Auntie Hilda [Grandad’s sister] telling me that she’d been the housekeeper for a widower [actually he was still married, but separated] but nothing beyond that. . . . I was surprised to read in the newspaper article that Maude was a tomboy from having played with her brothers. As far as I knew, she only had one brother, Leslie, and one sister, Dorothy. Leslie worked at Dunlop at the same time as Dad (in the war) and had quite a senior job – and felt it beneath his dignity to acknowledge a mere clerk! I believe he was married but didn’t have any children. Dad always said what a lovely couple Uncle Sidney and Aunt Kate were (so I couldn’t understand Leslie’s attitude).”
Maude did not appear to be a part of the larger family circle, so really existed only in rumour, and legend.
As you can seen there are four narratives here – first is the biographical narrative, the basic facts about Maude’s life; next is the larger national historic narrative – her being a significant part of the suffragette movement, and her very striking attack on a painting at the Royal Academy; third is her narrative, her view of her life and family; and lastly the family’s view of her. All are valid, all interesting.
Women’s Library, London Metropolitan University, interview with Maude Kate Smith by Brian Harrison, dated 14 January 1975, 8SUF/B/030.
1901 Census, Great Comberton, Worcestershire.
1891 Census, Berkswell, Warwickshire.
Press Association Images #5320320 [www.paimages.co.uk]
“All This So Women Could Win the Vote,” Solihull News, 8 January 1972.
Helena Bonett, “Deeds not Words:’ Suffragettes and the Summer Exhibition,” Royal Academy of Arts, posted 15 July 2013.
Letter to D Tuckett from S Leitch, dated 10 March 1996.
Brian Henderson, “The Act of Militancy: Violence and the Suffragettes, 1904-1914” in Peaceable Kingdoms, Stability and Change in Modern Britain, eds. Michael Bentley and John Stevenson, Oxford University Press, 1982, 80-122.