In 1906 the suffragette campaign entered its most violent phase. Over 500 women had been imprisoned by 1909 and right up there among the militant activists was a Swindon schoolteacher.
Edith Bessie New was born 17th March, 1877 at 24 North Street, Swindon, the fourth of Frederic and Isabelle New's five children. Frederic worked as a railway clerk at the GWR Works and Isabelle was a music teacher.
An assistant mistress at Queenstown Infant School from 1899-1901, Edith subsequently left her Swindon home to teach in the deprived areas of Deptford and Lewisham. It was after hearing the charismatic Emmeline Pankhurst speak at a meeting in Trafalgar Square that Edith joined the Women's Social and Political Union.
In February 1907 a deputation of suffragettes marched on the House of Commons in protest at the omission of votes for women from the King's speech. What had begun as a peaceful demonstration ended in a violent confrontation with police. Edith was among those arrested and sentenced to two weeks in Holloway gaol.
She continued to be at the forefront of innovative and dangerous protest methods. In January 1908 Edith chained herself to the railings at 10 Downing Street, the first time suffragettes had employed such tactics. It took the unprepared police sometime to release her, allowing Edith to make her protest heard by the assembled Cabinet gathered there. A three-week sentence in Holloway followed.
The hugely successful Women's Day rally held in Hyde Park on June 21,1908 attracted an estimated crowd of 250,000. Edith, by now an experienced and informative speaker, took her place alongside suffragette leaders.
Later that same month Edith, accompanied by Mary Leigh, broke windows at 10 Downing Street, another new headline grabbing tactic which would be increasingly employed by suffragettes. The women served two months in Holloway. On their release they were taken to a celebratory breakfast party in a carriage drawn by six suffragettes.
Edith resigned from teaching in 1908 to join the WSPU paid workforce. She travelled the country organising support for parliamentary candidates sympathetic to women's suffrage. In September 1909 she campaigned in Scotland where she was arrested for causing a breach of the peace during a meeting in Dundee. Sentenced to seven days imprisonment, Edith and her fellow prisoners went on hunger strike, the first to do so in Scotland.
Edith returned to teaching in 1911, where she continued to campaign for women's rights and equal pay within her profession.
Edith died aged 73 on 2nd January 1951 at The Croft, Landaviddy Lane, Polperro, Cornwall. She left property valued at £3,771 to her two nieces. She never married and her death was registered by her companion of over 40 years, Nea Campion, a fellow teacher from the Lewisham days.
Images courtesy of T. Dugdale and Swindon Local Studies