Autograph Letter Collection: Taylor Collection

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

The collection contains correspondence amongst the Taylor Family and their friends between 1910 and 1914 related to events and in particular the imprisonment of Mrs Mary Ellen 'Nelly' Taylor, Mark Wilkes and the Pethwick-Lawrences.

Correspondents include:

* Mrs Mary Ellen 'Nelly' [sometimes Nellie] Taylor,

* Dr Elizabeth Wilkes, sometimes addressed as Mrs Wilkes, known as Lily or Lilla.

* Captain Thomas Smithies Taylor, Nelly's husband, addressed as 'Tom'.

* Mark Wilkes,

Ramsay MacDonald and Frederick Pethick-Lawrence.

Letters addressed to Tom refer to her husband Thomas. Letters addressed to Tom and children refer to her husband and her children, Dorothea and Garth. Mrs Elizabeth Wilks,

Administrative / Biographical History

James Ramsay MacDonald (1866-1937), was born in Lossiemouth, Morayshire in 1866, the illegitimate son of Ann Ramsay, a maidservant. He studied at the local school from 1875 until 1881 before becoming a pupil-teacher. Aged nineteen, he went to Bristol before moving to London in 1886, where he was employed as a clerk for the Cyclists' Touring Club. Poverty and ill-health ended his attempts to win a science scholarship and be became a clerk to Thomas Lough, MP. MacDonald joined the Fabian Society around this time and there met others such as George Bernard Shaw, Annie Besant, Walter Crane and the Webbs who were concerned with issues such as socialism and women's suffrage. In 1893 the Independent Labour Party was formed by members of this group, including Philip Snowden, Robert Smillie, Tom Mann, John Bruce Glasier, Ben Tillett and James Keir Hardie.

Mrs Mary Ellen Taylor (fl 1910-1914) and her husband Captain Thomas Smithies Taylor were friends of the Pethick Lawrence family, Dr Elizabeth Wilkes (her sister) and her brother-in-law Mark Wilkes. By early 1912 Mrs Taylor was an active member of the Women's Social & Political Union which was then engaged in a campaign of militant action against government and private property. On 4 Mar 1912 she took part in a window smashing party with a Miss Roberts and a Miss Nellie Crocker, attacking a post office in Sloane Square. They were arrested and brought before a magistrate at Westminster Police Court, who referred their case to the Sessions. From the 5-22 Mar 1912 they were placed on remand at Holloway Prison until Taylor went before Newington Session and was given a three months sentence. While in prison, she went on hunger strike, though she was not forcibly fed, and was subsequently discharged and taken to her sister's house on the 27 Apr 1912. She was imprisoned a second time in Jul 1913 under the alias of Mary Wyan of Reading. Mrs Ellen Mary Taylor refused release under the Cat and Mouse [Temporary Discharge for Ill-health] Act of 1913. She claimed complete discharge and declined to give the prison governor any address. When she was conveyed to a nursing home she refused to enter until her full release was granted and continued her strike on a chair in the road outside. The police then removed her to the Kensington Infirmary where she eventually gave up her protest. Around this time, the Woodford assault case took place, touching the Taylor's immediate circle of friends.

Captain Thomas Smithies-Taylor (fl 1910-1914) was the husband of Mrs Mary Ellen Taylor. He was a supporter of the militant suffragettes based in Leicester. He wrote letters to the national and local press on this and related subjects.

Dr Elizabeth Wilkes (fl.1910) was married to Mark Wilkes, he was a teacher employed by London County Council and a member of the Men's League for Women's Suffrage. She was also a suffragist and a member of the Women's Tax Resistance League. On the occasion when she refused to pay her taxes, her husband was obliged by law to pay the amount on her behalf. However, Mark Wilkes refused to do so and was sent to Brixton prison for this action. The Men's League organised a protest march to the prison and the Daily Herald interviewed Wilkes while in prison. He went on hunger strike and was released due to ill health. A meeting was subsequently organised by the Women's Tax Resistance League at the Caxton Hall in honour of the couple.

Mark Wilkes (fl. 1894-1914) was a teacher and the husband of Elizabeth Wilkes (1861-1956). Elizabeth refused to complete a tax return or to pay taxes herself and informed the tax authorities that as a married woman her tax papers should be forwarded to her husband. He, in turn, claimed that he had neither the means to obtain the necessary information to complete the forms nor to pay his wife's tax bill and was imprisoned for debt. The Tax Resistance League took up the case and achieved much publicity for it.

Women's Social & Political Union (WSPU) (1903-c.1919) was the prime mover of suffrage militancy. In Oct 1903 the WSPU was founded in Manchester at Emmeline Pankhurst's home in Nelson Street. Members include: Emmeline, Adela and Christabel Pankhrst, Teresa Billington-Greig, Annie Kenney and Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy. Several had been members of the NUWSS and had links with the Independent Labour Party, but were frustrated with progress, reflected in the WSPU motto 'Deeds, not Words'. An initial aim of WSPU was to recruit more working class women into the struggle for the vote. In late 1905 the WSPU began militant action with the consequent imprisonment of their members. The first incident was on 13 Oct 1905, Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney attended a meeting in London where they heckled the speaker Sir Edward Grey, a minister in the British government. Pankhurst and Kenney were arrested, charged with assault upon a police officer and fined five shillings each. They refused to pay the fine and were sent to prison. In 1906 the WSPU moved to London and continued militant action - with the 'Daily Mail' calling the activists 'suffragettes' an unfavourable term adopted by the group. Between 1906-1908 there were several constitutional disagreements with the Women's Freedom League being founded in Nov 1907 by the 'Charlotte Despard faction'. From 1908 the WSPU tactics of disturbing meetings developed to breaking the windows of government buildings. This increased the number of women imprisoned. In Jul 1909 Marion Dunlop was the first imprisoned suffragette to go on hunger strike, many suffragettes followed her example and force-feeding was introduced. Between 1910-1911 the Conciliation Bills were presented to Parliament and militant activity ceased, but when Parliament sidelined these Bills the WSPU re-introduced their active protests.

Between 1912-1914 there was an escalation of WSPU violence - damage to property and arson and bombing attacks became common tactics. Targets included government and public buildings, politicians' homes, cricket pavilions, racecourse stands and golf clubhouses. Some members of the WSPU such as the Pethick-Lawrences, disagreed with this arson campaign and were expelled. Other members showed their disapproval by leaving the WSPU. The Pethick-Lawrences took with them the journal 'Votes for Women', hence the new journal of the WSPU the 'Suffragette' launched in Oct 1912. In 1913 in response to the escalation of violence, imprisonment and hunger strikes the government introduced the Prisoner's Temporary Discharge of Ill Health Act (popularly known as the 'Cat and Mouse Act'). Suffragettes who went on hunger strike were released from prison as soon as they became ill and when recovered they were re-imprisoned.

Discord within the WSPU continued - In Jan 1914 Sylvia Pankhurst's 'East London Federation of the WSPU' was expelled from the WSPU and became an independent suffrage organisation. On 4 Aug 1914, England declared war on Germany. Two days later the NUWSS announced that it was suspending all political activity until the war was over. In return for the release of all suffragettes from prison the WSPU agreed to end their militant activities. The WSPU organised a major rally attended by 30,000 people in London to emphasise the change of direction. In Oct 1915, The WSPU changed its newspaper's name from 'The Suffragette' to 'Britannia'. Emmeline's patriotic view of the war was reflected in the paper's new slogan: 'For King, For Country, for Freedom'. the paper was 'conservative' in tone and attacked campaigners, politicians, military leaders and pacifists for not furthering the war effort. Not all members supported the WSPU war policy and several independent groups were set up as members left the WSPU. In 1917 the WSPU became known as the 'Women's Party and in Dec 1918 fielded candidates at the general election (including Christabel Pankhurst). However they were not successful and the organisation does not appear to have survived beyond 1919.

Conditions Governing Access

This collection is available for research. Readers are advised to contact The Women's Library in advance of their first visit. Available on microfilm only.

Other Finding Aids

Abstracts of individual letters in the autograph letters collection were written and held alongside the letters. This work was done from the 1960s by volunteers including Nan Taylor. In 2004 Jean Holder completed a 3 year project to list the letters, copy-type the abstracts, and repackage the letters to meet preservation needs. In 2005 Vicky Wylde and Teresa Doherty proof read and imported the entries to the Special Collections Catalogue.

The original card index of all correspondents, including date of letter & volume reference, is available on the microfiche.

Alternative Form Available

A copy of this archive is available on microfilm held at The Women's Library.

Related Material

7MET Papers of Mary Ellen Taylor