Saturday, May 29, 2010

Death of a Brockley Suffragist - or not?

Here's an odd story from the struggle for women's suffrage. First of all, a report from Votes for Women, paper of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) from November 21 1913:

Death of Suffragist Protester
'Death cannot kill what cannot die' - William Penn

With the deepest regret we have to record the death of William Edward Bethell, of Brockley, who, for bravely reminding a Cabinet Minister of the Government's duty to the women of the country, was so brutally injured on November 7 by the Liberal stewards who ejected him, that he has since succumbed to heart failure as a result of the treatment he received.

Mr Bethell's brother has more than once raised his voice at Liberal meetings on behalf of the women's cause, but last Friday week was the first occasion on which Mr William Edward Bethell determined that he too would join the band of brave protestors, who, although knowing beforehand what to expect, do not shrink from running the most serious risks to life and limb when they hear that a member of the Cabinet is to address a Liberal audience. So he was one of those who went to the North Camberwell Radical Club, Albany Road, on November 7, to remind Dr Macnamara, Secretary to the Admiralty, of the women's struggle for liberty that the Government are trying so hard to suppress.

A man and a woman, both of whom had dared to utter a Suffragist protest, were thrown out before him with considerable violence. Then his turn came. He rose to his feet and dealt his first and last blow in the cause of women's freedom. No sooner did he open his mouth to speak than he was set upon by a number of stewards, dragged out of the meeting, and so savagely assailed that his nose was broken and his knee put out.

The full particulars of what followed are not yet available, but it is known that he arrived home later in the evening, his knee and head in bandages, and was so ill that he was obliged to stay in bed all Saturday and Sunday. Being a bricklayer's labourer, he made an effort on the Monday morning (November 10) to go to work, but he rapidly became so much worse that he had to return home in the course of the day and again take to his bed. He never got up again. Last Sunday he passed away.

The report goes on to mention that his brother, whose address is given as 49 Hardcastle Road, Peckham, had been beaten up by stewards in a similar incident in August 1912.

But was the story true? A couple of weeks later The Times reported that police 'have been inquiring into the matter at Brockley and Peckham, but it is understood that they have been unable to trace the death of Bethell'. Furthermore 'Bethell's father, who lives at Coldbath-street, Brockley, states that his son William Edward went to Canada last year, and so far as he knows is still there'. The Times confirms that the North Camberwell meeting did take place, but reports Dr Macnamara's denial that there had been any violence (Times Dec 1 1913).

What's more a Bethell family history site shows that William Edward Bethell did indeed go to Canada, where he lived until his death in 1951 after an active life including being injured at the Battle of the Somme. It does confirm that he was a bricklayer when he arrived in Canada, and that his parents lived at 58 Cold Bath Street (now Coldbath Street, SE13).

As for the brother, Walter the source of the seemingly untrue story, the family history site states that he was born at 98 Foxberry Road, Brockley, and that in 1905 he was convicted of fraud. Was the suffragist death story an attempted fraud for financial gain? A mischievous or malicious prank at his brother's expense? Who knows...

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