At a special meeting of Brighton & Hove City Council on Thursday 14 December 2023, Brighton suffragette, Mary Clarke, was honoured by the posthumous award of the Freedom of the City.
Following this award, hopes are high among those working on the Mary Clarke Statue Appeal that a renewed interest and a boost to their fundraising campaign will mean the dream of having a statue of her in the grounds of the Royal Pavilion will, one day, be realised.
Like most people I felt I knew a bit about suffragists, suffragettes, and their struggles to advance votes for women, but to be honest, I had never heard of Mary Clarke. The fact that she lived and worked in Brighton and was described as one of the most important figures in the fight for women’s right to vote and the first suffragette to die for the cause, made my ignorance worse. So, I decided to look a bit harder for this woman and try to reason why, unlike many of her contemporaries, her words and her deeds have not received greater attention.
Who was Mary Clarke?
Mary Jane Clarke (née Goulden) was born in 1861 in Salford. She grew up exposed to radical political beliefs and activism: her parents took part in the campaigns against slavery and the Corn Laws; her mother was a passionate feminist; and her older sister was, arguably, the best-known suffragette of them all, Emmeline Pankhurst.
She married John Clarke in 1895, an abusive man who made her deeply unhappy. Divorce would not have been a realistic option for Mary, not least because of the expense involved and the scandal it would create; however, truly desperate, she did leave him. A courageous move, but one that may have adversely affected her standing within ‘respectable’ Edwardian society, as may the periods of destitution and homelessness she experienced during the marriage.
Campaigning work and first imprisonment
But Clarke found relief from what her niece, Sylvia Pankhurst, described as “the regretful memories of an unhappy marriage” by putting all her energies into the national London-based Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) and then the Brighton branch, where she became paid organiser.
Unlike her more gregarious sister, Clarke preferred to work behind the scenes, excelling in the administrative and organisational side of her role within the WSPU. Her shy, gentle character did not stop her from regularly campaigning in Brighton’s streets and speaking to large crowds on the seafront, fearlessly addressing the “Brighton rowdies” as they were known. Her way was to use intelligence, wit and good humour to disarm even the most hostile of hecklers.
In January 1909, Clarke led a delegation to Parliament which resulted in her arrest and one month’s imprisonment. This was one of two periods of imprisonment for nothing more than attempting to petition the prime minister.
Black Friday and second imprisonment
Clarke’s already frail constitution was weakened by her experiences, but regardless, she attended the 18 November 1910 event outside Parliament, known as ‘Black Friday’. Here, over a six-hour period, 300 women were brutally beaten and deliberately sexually assaulted by the police. Clarke was injured and deeply distressed; she returned to Brighton and was bedridden for three days.
Anxious not to be considered a ‘shirker’ and ignoring appeals from friends not to expose herself to more violence, Clarke returned to London on 22 November 1910 to join a delegation protesting about the police’s actions. On hearing that protesters had been arrested, including her sister Emmeline, she “deliberately broke a police station window – almost certainly her first illegal act” – and was arrested. When her sentence was pronounced, she telegraphed her Brighton colleagues, “One month. I am glad to pay the price for freedom”. Once in prison, Clarke went on hunger strike and was forcibly fed.
‘The first woman martyr’ for the suffrage cause
After her release from Holloway prison on the 23 December 1910, she attended a welcome meeting in Brighton, before going to spend Christmas with her brother in London. Clarke collapsed two days later and died on Christmas Day, aged 49. The cause of death was a brain haemorrhage brought about, her sister and many others believed, by injuries sustained on Black Friday.
The deeply moving obituary, delivered by Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence at Clarke’s memorial service in Brighton’s Royal Pavilion, called her, “the first woman martyr who has gone to death for this cause”.
Despite this sacrifice, Mary Clarke’s name was, until recently, in danger of slipping into obscurity; her work and her bravery almost entirely forgotten. Brighton & Hove City Council and the Mary Clarke Statue Appeal have, however, shown that this does not need to be the case. They believe it is not too late to bring her extraordinary life out of the shadows and rightly acknowledge the part that she played for women’s suffrage.
For further information, visit the Appeal’s website at: maryclarkestatue.com