Sunday, 01 January 2017 16:08

Nellie Taylor

WSPU Shop, Bowling Green Lane, Leicester #Nellie Taylor (No. 4, alias Mary Wyan) Surveillance Photo, 1913 Mary Ellen Taylor
WSPU Shop, Bowling Green Lane, Leicester|#Nellie Taylor (No. 4, alias Mary Wyan) Surveillance Photo, 1913|Mary Ellen Taylor||| WSPU Shop, Bowling Green Lane, Leicester|#Nellie Taylor (No. 4, alias Mary Wyan) Surveillance Photo, 1913|Mary Ellen Taylor||| |||||

Mary Ellen ‘Nellie’ Taylor (Suffragette) 1863 - 1937

For 10 years the Taylors (Thomas, Nellie and their three children) lived at Westerby House, Smeeton Westerby.

On March 5th 1910 Nellie Taylor organised a WSPU (The Women's Social and Political Union) meeting in the Kibworth Village Hall when an audience consisting mainly of women listened to speeches by two famous suffragettes, Alice Pemberton-Peake and Dorothy Pethwick. From 1910 to 1912 Dorothy Pethwick was the WSPU organiser in Leicester.

On the day before this meeting Nellie Taylor was praised by the paper ‘Votes for Women’ a weekly newspaper dedicated to the suffragette’s cause.

A further meeting took place in the Kibworth Village Hall on 25th March spreading the message of the WSPU. [1]

In 1911 Nellie and her daughter Lily Dorothea (born in Leicester in 1893), and possibly a servant too, boycotted the census, her husband Tom entering “No Vote No Census” in their return. It is possible that they spent the day at a boycott party at the WSPU shop in Bowling Green Lane in Leicester, joined by Alice Pemberton-Peak, her daughter, and Dorothy Pethwick, amongst 30 others. This was just one of a number of boycott parties held by the WSPU across the country. Nellie’s sister, Elizabeth, organised one in Hackney for 40 women.[2]

1912 was a turning point for the British suffragette movement as they started using more militant tactics, chaining themselves to railings, setting fire to post box contents and smashing windows.

By early 1912 Nellie Taylor was a very active member of the WSPU, which was the leading militant organisation campaigning for Women's suffrage in the United Kingdom and on 4 March 1912 Mrs Taylor took part in a window smashing escapade with a Miss Roberts and a Miss Nellie Crocker attacking a post office in Sloane Square, London.

They were arrested and taken to Gerald Row Police Station and appeared before a magistrate at Westminster Police Court. Their case was referred to the Sessions and their application for bail was refused. They were remanded in custody to Holloway Prison until 22 March 1912.

Nellie Taylor wrote a poignant letter to her husband, Tom and their three children from Westminster Police Court:

‘Dearest Tom and Dearest children,
I was arrested last night with Miss Crocker and Miss Roberts for breaking the windows of Knightsbridge Post Office. I understand we are to receive fairly heavy sentences, so that I think you must be prepared for me to get a months sentence.
Goodbye my darlings, your loving mother.’

Nellie Taylor surveillance 1913, no. 4In the event the punishment was more severe than she expected and when Nellie Taylor appeared before Newington Session she was sentenced to three months imprisonment.

During March 1912 over 200 women were arrested during the WSPU window smashing campaign with many sentenced to imprisonment in Holloway Prison.

One interesting fact was that Nellie Taylor has the dubious honour of being the subject of one of the first police surveillance photographs in England.

Whilst in prison Nellie Taylor went on hunger strike, though unlike many others she was not forcibly fed. She was subsequently discharged and taken to her sister's house on the 27 April 1912.

While in prison Nellie appears to have suffered from severe headaches and generally to have found the experience difficult, at least at first. Her fellow inmate, Dr Louisa Garrett Anderson, tried to reassure Nellie’s sister Elizabeth writing,

“Mrs T is giving courage to all of us. She is looking very much better that she was and she tells me that she is sleeping better. I think she must be because she looks so much better.

At first prison is a great shock. Some people seem to recover more quickly than others. I think she took longer, perhaps because she was so extraordinarily brave at first, whereas some broke down completely. If she gets her sentence next week as I trust, it will be a great comfort. The uncertainty has been horrible for her but really we who see here every day are feeling very much happier about her than we did.”[3]

The Government, faced with growing public disquiet over the force feeding of female inmates and the determination of the suffragettes to continue their hunger strikes, rushed The Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health Act of 1913 (the Cat and Mouse Act as it was commonly known) through Parliament. The act made the hunger strikes legal, in that a suffragette would be temporarily released from prison when their health began to diminish, only to be readmitted when she regained her health to finish her sentence.

Nellie Taylor was imprisoned again in July 1913 under the alias of Mary Wyan of Reading and went on a hunger strike.  She refused release under the Cat and Mouse Act, demanding a complete discharge and declined to give the Prison Governor an address where she might stay if released. Eventually she was taken to a nursing home which she refused to enter until her full release was granted.  She continued her protest sat on a chair in the road outside the nursing home. The police removed her to the Kensington Infirmary where she eventually gave up her protest.

During her Suffragettes activities Nellie Taylor was actively supported by her husband Tom.  He wrote many letters to the press supporting the Suffragette Movement. Tom also corresponded with Leicester MP and future Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald and future Secretary of State for India & Burma, Frederick Pethick-Lawrence (Leicester West MP, 1923-31) in an attempt to raise awareness of Nellie’s plight.

Whilst in prison Nellie corresponded with family and friends, often via smuggled notes. In one she writes to her daughter of “the Unitarian Minister Mr. Hankinson, who visits at the prison and is allowed to bring and take messages. She had put down 'Votes for Women' as her religion but still she will ask if she can see him.”[4] In one letter her husband writes, ‘I feel very proud to be a husband of such a plucky wife’, a sentiment echoed by her son Garth who wrote, ‘Bravo! You plucky women’.[5]

Nellie also received the support of her sisters Pattie Stansfield and Dr Elizabeth Wilks and her sister’s husband Mark Wilks (1861-1956). Elizabeth, a fellow suffragette, was active in London suffrage campaigns from 1907 and took part in the doctors’ section of the WPSU’s London procession in June 1908.[6] She became honourary Treasurer of the Women's Tax Resistance League. On the occasion in 1912 when she refused to pay her taxes, her husband was obliged by law to pay the amount on her behalf. However, Mark Wilks (a member of the Men's League for Women's Suffrage) refused to do so and was sent to Brixton prison for this action. The resulting campaign became something on an international cause célèbre. Mark Wilks went on hunger strike and was released due to ill health.[7] At a meeting organised by the Women's Tax Resistance League at the Caxton Hall in honour of the couple, the main speaker was George Bernard Shaw.

Nellie Taylor thus drew upon a wide range of personal, political and family support in her struggle with the WPSU for women’s enfranchisement. Indeed, on the Bennett side it appears to have been something of a family affair, as the sisters Pattie, Elizabeth, Nellie & her daughter Dorothea all attended the London Suffrage Procession on 17th June 1911.[8] The Taylor family appear to have been less supportive, with Thomas referring to “Nelly's anti-relatives”, and having to explain her actions to his mother.[9]

When the First World War began on 4 August 1914 all suffragette prisoners were set free, all campaigning stopped and suffragette leaders urged their followers to support the war effort

The war directly touched the Taylor family when their son Garth was killed in action in October 1916. Nellie wrote the following to her sister Elizabeth about her loss,

“Dear Garth chose to put himself in the foremost place of danger, and has given his life willingly, so it is not for us to feel any regrets. I often thought how honoured a woman must feel [to be] the mother of a great man – and now I know that this veil has fallen on me.” [10]

The Representation of the People Act 1918 gave the vote to women with a number of conditions, the main one that they must be over the age of 30 years. This gave 8.4 million women the right to vote.

After the passing of the 1918 Act, the NUWSS and WSPU disbanded. A new organisation called the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship was established advocating the same voting rights for women as men. It was not until 1928 that women achieved the same voting rights as men.

Family & Friends

Mary Ellen Bennett was born to a wealthy non-conformist family in Leicester in 1863. Her father John Bennett was a successful corn trader, mayor of Leicester (1888) and Alderman of the city. One of her brothers, Frederick spent most of his career at the Leicester Royal Infirmary, where he was the hospital’s first Consulting Aural Surgeon.  A man with very wide interests including music and several areas of science, he gained a BSc in Geology in 1905. He was a founding contributor to the University of Leicester and in 1965 the Bennett Building was named in his honour.

Leicester’s Lit. and Phil. Society, which he joined in 1894, was very much the centre of his scientific interests, and in addition to his year as President of the Society, he was Chairman of the Geology Section for 23 years right up to his death. He was also active in the wider community, serving for some years on the Leicester School Board, and drawing up its first curriculum for the training of teachers in science, and on the Corporation’s Museum Committee for over 20 years.[11]

His younger sister Elizabeth followed Frederick into the medical profession and established a practice in Harley Place, London.

So the Bennett family were part of Leicester’s non-conformist Liberal social, cultural and political elite. Highly educated, well connected, they were part of the expansion of a culture of scientific enquiry and self-improvement in the mid Victorian period.

In 1891, Mary Ellen Bennett married Thomas Smithies Taylor, before moving to Kibworth Harcourt sometime after 1901 (the couple were recorded at 57 Sparkenhoe Street in Leicester in the Census of that year, along with Thomas’ brother William, his wife and their five daughters, and three servants. However, Nellies son Garth is recorded as having been born in Kibworth in 1896).

Thomas Taylor’s father had moved the family to Leicester from London in the mid 1880s, with Thomas establishing his scientific instrument manufacturing company that was to become one of the world leaders in the manufacture of photographic lenses at the age of 21.

A flavour of the Taylor’s progressive attitudes is evident in their decision to send their son Garth to Bedales Preparatory Boarding School in Hampshire. Bedales was non-denominational, relatively secular in its approach and from 1898, co-educational.  Its curriculum was what the Americans term ‘liberal-arts’. The school was popular with progressives and wealthier Fabians such as the Huxleys.[12]

Garth Thomas then studied accountancy at the London School of Economics. Perhaps, the LSE was not an obvious choice for a relatively wealthy Midlands middle class family. Established in 1895 by leading Fabians, including Sydney and Beatrice Webb, the idea behind the LSE was to modernise the training of Britain's political and business elite.[13] The decision to educate Garth at the LSE says something about the Taylor’s progressive views but also about the realisation that the father’s expanding business would need a well-trained son.

Like his uncle Frederick, Garth then studied in Germany before working for a Berlin lens manufacturer in 1913. While Nellie was imprisoned, Fraulein Johanna Ernst looked after the household and her son Mark, in particular.

Thomas and Nellie Taylor were friends with Emmeline and Frederick Pethick-Lawrence. Emmeline Pethick was a socialist suffragette, and treasurer of the WSPU. She married Frederick Lawrence in 1901 and the couple published the 'Votes for Women' newspaper until being expelled from the WPSU in 1912 for their opposition to the more militant activities of the WPSU. Frederick was subsequently elected Labour Party MP for Leicester West in 1923, and held several ministerial posts in the first Labour Governments..[14]

Nellie Taylor thus belonged to a middle class progressive milieu, where science, rational enquiry and a willingness to challenge convention were common characteristics. Perhaps it is not quite so surprising that such a woman might have been attracted to the ideas and militancy of the suffrage campaign. What is surprising is that like a minority of her contemporaries, she was prepared to go to considerable lengths to forward her cause.

Additional research: David Adams


[1] Michael Wood, The Story of England, pp. 282-8.

[2] Jill Liddington, Vanishing for the vote: Suffrage, citizenship and the battle for the census, p.227

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