Monday, October 19, 2015

A soul snatched out of hell

Suffragette, the first film to portrait the working class woman's involvement with the Votes for Women campaign, features an early scene where laundry worker Maud Watts gets caught up in the great window smashing demonstration that took place in the West End in March 1912.

One hundred and thirty demonstrators, mostly women, were sent for trial on charges of malicious damage to plate glass windows. Among them was Edith's friend and fellow suffragette, Winifred Bray, sentenced to four months imprisonment in Winson Green Prison, Birmingham.

On her release Winifred wrote the following letter to Edith, describing her experience of forcible feeding and prison life.

Wed: June 26 [1912]

I'm home again at last, & feel just like a soul snatched out of hell & deposited in heaven! Still feeling desperately weak, & with a throat so sore that I mustn't talk, but nevertheless a peaceful soul, suddenly released from almost intolerable torture, & therefore happy!

We've had a ghastly time, some of us. It is very curious, tho', how the effect varies on different people some few seem able to be fed with comparative ease & don't appear to suffer anything very appreciable; admit that they don't really suffer, tho' of course in time their throats get frightfully sore. People with vigorous hearts get on but, naturally - woe betide the people who are cursed with feeble ones! They are feeding them all alike, rich & poor, high & low, strong & weak, halt or able, young & old!! Only thing is they dare not keep on at the weak ones very long. They feed them till they're at the last gasp, so to speak, & then they have to let them go...

The last time they began to feed us on Sun: afternoon, & we were fed twice a day, so I was tortured 3 times - on Sun afternoon, & twice on Monday. On Tuesday morning I was in such a state they didn't dare do it again, & I was released!

As a matter of fact, the two Drs. were heard by one of our prisoners in the hospital confabulating about me on Monday morning, & of course they knew then that I'd have to be let go & yet they inflicted the agony on me all over again!

The same with some of the others, who wd have been let go on the first occasion - all were brought up for torture all over again, for nothing, before they gave them up as hopeless! It was brutal. Especially so in the case of poor Mrs Huddleston who was one of those who came off worst, & had a ghastly time. I've only one word for it, & that is hell!

It seems like a frightful nightmare - if it were not for the pain in my head, neck, throat & at the back of my nose (which looks all red & swollen by the way, & a curious contrast to my face in general which is so ghastly & washed out looking) I shd almost feel as if it had never happened; but was merely a bad dream. It is because of my throat I can't see anyone yet awhile. I should just have to talk, & it is so bad for me - & so exciting.

Winfred goes on to say -

& above all, I've succeeded in smuggling out my prison knife! I feel I've earned that & it is so valuable to me & worth nothing to the King! A bit of old bent tin! I feel rather ashamed of having done it - but also very proud of myself! Don't let anyone know who wd be likely to let it get into print! We don't want them to know how the knives get "lost." It is such a trophy! I shall treasure it till I die!

Winifred talks about the 'precious' Magazine the suffragette prisoners compiled during their incarceration. 

I tried to smuggle out one copy of the Mag: but they searched my things, & seized it & I fear we'll never get it now. It was a tragedy! And so unjustifiable, for it was our own all through - the child of our brains, the darling of our hearts, the solace & comfort of our sad moments! Full of Treasures - the cream of our intellectual out put, & we were such a nice brainy set!!!

In 2012 an album of autographs and poems composed by imprisoned suffragettes came up for auction. Dating from the aftermath of the window smashing demonstration a hundred years earlier, it contains a verse written by Winifred Bray.

Join us on Sunday October 25 for a costumed suffragette March and Rally. We will meet at the High Street entrance to Lawns at 11 am and march through Old Town to the Radnor Street Cemetery Chapel to hear speeches from the day. Join members of the Sixth Sense Theatre Group and the Swindon Community Choir to remember the women who gave so much that we might enjoy the freedom we have today.

Carey Mulligan as Maud Watts.

Photograph and jewellery have no known connection to Winifred Bray.


  1. Frances, you should post separately on Facebook about the costumed march on Sunday, it sounds fab!

  2. Thanks Arlene - it's on the Swindon Suffragette and Swindon Heritage facebook pages.