Friday, 6 January 2012

The Suffragettes’ Wood


Adela Pankurst and Annie Kenney in the arboretum, 1910 - photo from bathintime.co.uk
Inevitably, the combined ordeals of prison and forcible feeding would take its toll on Britain’s suffragettes, and when they were released from the jails they would need time to recover. And many of these women would go to Eagle House in Batheaston, Somerset, to recuperate as guests of the supportive Blathwayt family.
In addition to offering rest and respite, Linley and Emily Blathwayt created a three-acre arboretum on their land in tribute to their political guests – most notably Yorkshire-woman Annie Kenney (who eventually made her home just a few streets away from where I am currently typing this in Clifton, Bristol). This fascinating and unique project was developed between 1909 and 1912 and saw more than 60 women plant a tree in the specially cultivated plot. Those who had undergone hunger strike and forced feeding were invited to plant a conifer, and non-militant suffragettes planted holly bushes. And the planting of each was accompanied by a special ceremony in which the suffragette in question would dress in her finest clothes and her awarded suffrage jewellery.
Annie and Kitty Kenney, Florence Haig, Mary Blathwayt and Marion Wallace-Dunlop
- photo from bathintime.co.uk
The ceremonies and the development of the arboretum were documented on camera by Colonel Blathwayt, who also ordered iron plaques for each plant to record the date of planting, type of species, and name of the woman being honoured. Long forgotten after the arboretum fell to ruin in the middle of the last century, these photographs and many of the plaques were recovered in the attic of Eagle House when it was being prepared for sale. In 2002, Bath historian Dan Brown archived the photos (there are around 250 available to view here), and in 2011 – with Canadian academic Cynthia Hammond – he curated an exhibition celebrating the centenary of the Suffragettes’ Wood (for International Women’s Week, held at Bath Central Library). The exhibition catalogue – Suffragettes in Bath: Activism in an Edwardian Arboretum – is still for sale through Brown’s website, and I strongly advise getting a copy.
Brown and Hammond’s catalogue is liberally illustrated with glossy, black and white photos, all meticulously referenced in the accompanying essays, and together the book builds a vivid picture of the creation (and destruction) of this extraordinary political project of the last century. That the arboretum was allowed to become overgrown and abandoned is sad enough, but it is particularly tragic that there was seemingly no objection to the arboretum being bulldozed by property developers in the 1960s.
The suffragettes fought a crucial fight for women and men the world over, and it is vital that we never forget what those strong women did on our behalf. The decision to commemorate these women with an arboretum was a grand and beautiful gesture by the Blathwayts, and should have been a lasting memorial for centuries to come. In the end, the arboretum survived only a few decades before the actions of these remarkable women was brushed aside and bulldozed. This is very sad.
Those interested in the history of women’s activism in the South West may also be interested to know that Hammond has a book published next month on this: Architects, Angels, Activists and the City of Bath, 1765-1965 (Ashgate).
Overview of 'Annie's Arboretum' in 1909 - photo from bathintime.co.uk

1 comment:

  1. KAm going to look at this further. Despite a 10-year stay in Bath I knew nothing about this. Fascinating, and so sad it was lost.

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