100 years since winning the vote: a tribute to Violet Ann Bland

“They twisted my neck, jerked my head back, closing my throat, held all the time as in a vice. I gasped for breath, and suffered tortures mentally lest the food which they were trying to pour down my throat should go into my lungs... They expect, and try, to perform the whole operation in two minutes. There were always six or seven to one, so that there was really no possibility of the victim doing much in the way of protesting…therefore no excuse for the brutality shown on several occasions.”

The Votes for Women campaigners did not have it easy, as these words by my great aunt, Violet Ann (“Annie”) Bland demonstrate. She was arrested during the demonstrations of 1912, when Suffragettes rampaged through London, smashing shop and office windows—in her case, those of the Commercial Cable Company in Northumberland Avenue, causing £10 worth of damage. In court, she refused to be bound over to keep the peace, objecting that she had “paid rates and taxes to the tune of nearly £1 a week for 20 years,” but still had no vote. She was sentenced to four months’ imprisonment.

Many Suffragettes who were jailed earlier went on hunger strike, and given their seeming determination to starve themselves to death, had been released. But by 1912, the authorities met the women’s threats by force-feeding them. The prisoner would be held securely in a chair, her head held back, and lukewarm soup poured down her throat by means of a funnel. This was Bland’s fate too. In a second experience:

“They pinched and clutched my nose unmercifully and at the end of the assault, when I did not rise quickly from the chair because of my helpless and breathless condition, they snatched the chair from under me, and flung me on to the floor... There is no doubt whatever about the attacks being made with the object of breaking us down.”

She was then nearly 50. And it was not her first brush with the law. The 1910 ‘Black Friday’ demonstration on Parliament was broken up—very violently—by mounted police. Annie was among 119 people arrested. But the Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, saw only embarrassment from prosecuting them, and she was discharged.

Born in 1863, the oldest of nine children, Annie began life as a lowly kitchen maid at Dudmaston Hall in Shropshire. But she had drive: within ten years she was running an eight-bedroom boutique hotel “with good cooking” in Cirencester, and bought three new houses, renting out two. She then moved to Bristol to create a 15-bedroom country house hotel, and it was here she became active in the Suffragettes. Most of the movement’s leaders were her guests there
at some point.

She moved to London, establishing another upmarket guesthouse at 22 Old Burlington Street, Piccadilly. Though the Suffragettes suspended their demonstrations during the First World War, she continued to promote women’s right in other ways, holding discussions over tea with sympathisers such as Arthur Conan Doyle, the Sherlock Holmes author. And she was active in a fund to provide aid for Serbian soldiers and prisoners. Though now in her mid-fifties, and with war raging, Annie took in five of her late sister’s orphaned children, including my father Richard. In 1918, her name appears on the electoral register for Old Burlington Street. Suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst honoured her for her fortitude in prison. And I too am proud of her. Indeed, without her, I probably would not be here.