On the 10th July 1912, two women hired a canoe from Salter’s Boatyard on Folly Bridge in Oxford. They paddled down the Thames to Stevens Boatyard in Abingdon, where they stayed the night. Upon being asked by the tourists for recommendations, Mrs Stevens suggested they go back on themselves up the river to visit nearby Nuneham Park. One of the women asked if they would be allowed inside the house, to see the paintings – her companion was an artist. Mrs Stevens said that no, the house was closed to the public.
The next day, the two women took the twice-weekly Salter’s river ferry through the Oxfordshire countryside to visit Nuneham. After the ferry moored at the Park boathouse, the two women disembarked and wandered up from the river through the Capability Brown landscaped estate. They then rang at the front door of the Palladian villa and asked if they might come inside to view the owner’s extensive art collection – one of them was an artist and would so like to see the paintings. Doris Gale, daughter of estate manager Henry, politely declined, explaining that the house was closed to the public. The two women returned on the ferry boat to Stevens Boatyard, where they made arrangements for their canoe to be returned to Oxford. They then hired another canoe from Stevens and left, saying they were setting off in the opposite direction to Wallingford.
Oxford and the surrounding countryside were popular tourist destinations, so the Stevenses likely thought little of the two well-to-do ladies and their excursion to Nuneham as they said goodbye at Abingdon. That is, until the day after next, when they would discover the women’s real motive for visiting.
In the early hours of the 13th July, local Police Constable Godden made an unexpected discovery as he patrolled Nuneham Park. Hiding in the creepers of the North Wing of the house were two ‘well-dressed’ women. Asked to explain what they were doing, one of the women answered that they had come up the river and were camping in the area. It was a warm night, too hot to sleep, so they had decided to come and look at the house. Dissatisfied by her explanation, Godden grabbed the woman by the wrist and eventually managed to subdue her. Her companion fled.
After the arrest, a basket and satchel were discovered at the scene. The basket contained three brushes, two cans and a bottle containing substances later found to be methylated spirits, turpentine and paraffin, twelve firelighters wrapped in cotton, four lighting tapers, a box of matches and lock-picking tools. In the bag was a two-foot rule, a torch, more matches, cigarettes, chocolate, a typewritten letter outlining the women’s motives, and a piece of string. Meanwhile, the arrested woman’s identity had been discovered; her name was Helen Craggs and, upon searching her in the police station, a small purple white and green flag carried on her person confirmed her political affiliation. A few hours later, the women’s hired canoe was found in the reeds on the riverbank at the bottom of the gardens. Inside it was food, clothes and several books, one containing a postcard with the lyrics and music for Ethel Smyth’s The March of the Women. In a notebook were written the telephone numbers for Nuneham House and Oxford Fire Station. It was thus confirmed; having stumbled upon the two women on his nightly rounds, PC Godden had prevented what would have been the first serious arson attack on private property by a Women’s Social and Political Union militant. Helen Craggs and her accomplice had also nearly dealt a severe personal blow to an ardent anti-suffragist member of Parliament; Nuneham Park was the country seat of Lewis Harcourt, a member of Herbert Asquith’s cabinet.
The residents and staff of Nuneham House may have been on guard against any suspicious activity by apparently harmless-seeming women. Since his appointment to Cabinet in 1910, Lewis Harcourt had been a consistent target of WSPU ire. Women from Australia and New Zealand were particularly furious that the new Secretary for the Colonies, responsible for their home countries, should be a vocal supporter of the opposing cause. In the days after the infamous Black Friday incident, the windows of Harcourt’s London home in Berkeley Square were broken in revenge by a number of suffragettes who had suffered from the police’s brutal behaviour. (Votes for Women, 25/11/1912)
This was repeated on March 4th 1912, three days after the March 1st mass window-breaking demonstration and five days after Harcourt spoke at a mass meeting at the Albert Hall held by the National Society for Opposing Women’s Suffrage. Ethel Smyth, a well-known WSPU member (who had written the music to The March of the Women, found on the bookmark in the canoe) had distracted police guarding Harcourt’s home by asking for directions before breaking one of his windows (Votes for Women, 08/03/1912). The Monday before the arrests at Nuneham on Saturday morning, Harcourt had moved the Second Reading of the Franchise Bill, stating it would be absurd to set up a property qualification for women when they were about to abolish property qualification for men’ and that he “could not believe that the House was prepared to add ten and-a-half million women to the voting rolls”. (Common Cause – 11/07/1912)
Helen Craggs was a twenty-four year old veteran of the movement. She had originally become a teacher of physics, chemistry and physical education at her former school, Roedean, after her chartered accountant father refused to let her train to be a doctor. She had left her teaching position two years after joining the WSPU in 1908, and eventually held a number of full-time organising positions across London. (1) She was present not only in the deputation that would lead to the infamous “Black Friday” police violence against suffragettes but in another that occurred four days later (Votes for Women, 25/11/1912). Astoundingly, on the Sunday between the two marches and brawls with policemen on Friday and Tuesday, Craggs attended a performance at the Paragon Theatre. After ‘she reconnoitred carefully’, she returned at half past two in the morning with two companions. They entered the building, climbed onto the roof and then over to the roof next door, ‘where, sustained on a few pieces of chocolate, she and her comrades lay through the whole bitter freezing night and through the whole of Monday’. They did this so that Craggs could run down into the theatre during a later meeting ‘to show the Chancellor of the Exchequer that the women had ended the truce’. Craggs managed to shout and wave her tricolour flag before she was swiftly and brutally removed from the building. (Votes for Women, 25/11/1912)
Helen Craggs’s militancy had also escalated in the two years since her surprise appearance at the Paragon Theatre. She had smashed windows on March 1st and been imprisoned. (Votes for Women – 08/03/1912) Two weeks before she was found at Nuneham, she had been detained but released at Llandaff on the 26th June after making a protest at the King and Queen’s visit. As the Royal Procession entered the Cathedral, it was held up for a few minutes by Helen Craggs leaping over the wall by the lych-gate and stopping Home Secretary Reginald McKenna, shouting “Mr. McKenna, you are a traitor to all the women in the country” (Votes for Women, 05/07/1912).
On the afternoon after her arrest, Craggs pled guilty to ‘being found by night on July 13 armed with a dangerous instrument with intent to break and enter the dwelling-house of Lewis Harcourt and to commit a felony’ in front of a special session of the Bullingdon Magistrate Court. She was remanded in custody for a week, having been refused bail. During that week, the authorities made efforts to piece together the womens’ movements in the days preceding the planned arson, interviewing the boatyard staff at Salter’s and Stevens, and the staff of Nuneham House. They also tried to find Craggs’s accomplice, eventually settling on Dr Ethel Smyth. Circumstantial evidence tied Smyth to the scene – she was a friend of Craggs, her song was in the canoe, and she had already smashed Harcourt’s windows in London. What was more, when hiring the canoe in Abingdon, the women had corrected James Stevens as he filled out the boatyard log-book- the name was not ‘Smyth’ but ‘Smith’.
The following Friday, Helen Craggs stood before the magistrates again. Smyth had been discharged that morning at a private sitting, after witnesses failed to positively identify her as the other suffragette. Smyth remained in court and was one of Craggs’s two £500 sureties when she was released on bail until her trial at the October Assizes.
The attempted arson of Nuneham House was a pivotal moment in the Women’s Social and Political Union’s militant campaign for women’s suffrage. The movement towards large-scale damage to private property had already been initiated some months previously in March, when hundreds of suffragettes smashed central London shop-windows in unison. Many stated that they had been provoked into their actions by the words of MP Charles Hobhouse at an anti-suffrage meeting in Bristol in February 1912. Hobhouse had said that ‘in the case of suffrage demand, there had not been the kind of popular sentimental uprising which accounted for [the burning of] Nottingham Castle in 1832 or the Hyde Park railings in 1867.’ (Votes for Women – 23/02/1912) Standing trial in Oxford five months later, Helen Craggs would also name Hobhouse as her prime inspiration. She made clear in her first two trials that there was no malice in her actions, she was driven solely by her political motives. These were also outlined in the typewritten letter that had been found at the scene, which was subsequently used as evidence in the trial, and printed in full by many mainstream newspapers.
The Nuneham House case is too fascinating (and complex) for one blog entry. In the next post, I will outline Craggs’s trial and further discuss its place in the evolution of WSPU militancy. I will also situate the statements made by Craggs whilst appearing in court within the contemporary WSPU rhetoric and self-representation. Until next week!
(1) Elizabeth Crawford, The Women’s Suffrage Movement in Britain and Ireland: A Regional Survey (London: Routledge, 2008).
– Details of the women’s movements gleaned from witness statements are taken from a cross-section of contemporary newspapers, including The Times, The Manchester Guardian/Observer, The Daily Mail and The Daily Mirror, as well as Votes for Women – 12/07/1912 – 10/08/1912.