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WSPU Hunger Strike Medal #2011-0110

Sterling silver circular medal with loop, bar and ribbon in green, white and purple stripes.

History

Charlotte Blacklock was born in Brighton in the United Kingdom in 1856. After her father’s death in 1876 Charlotte continued living in the family home with her mother and sister until her mother’s death in 1892. Her brother, Philip, rejoined the household in 1891 after divorcing his wife. At that time Charlotte probably worked as a governess. Sometime after her mother’s death Charlotte set up house with her brother in Brighton and in 1901 she was described as a ‘masseuse’. By 1908 she had moved to London, was living in Beaufort Street, Chelsea and had become an active suffragette and a member of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). In March 1909, in the WSPU journal Votes for Women, Charlotte appealed for funds from WSPU supporters to open a WSPU shop in Chelsea. It was one of the first and Charlotte appears to have been one of its main organisers, providing the shop with goods such as children’s smocks and spring flowers to sell. (The above is from notes provided by vendor)

In March 1912, Charlotte moved from passive to active militancy in the cause of women’s suffrage. On 1 March she took part in a mass window smashing protest in the heart of London, during which dozens of WSPU members used hammers to smash the windows of shops in Piccadilly, Haymarket, Oxford and Bond Streets, and several other locations. During the same event WSPU founder Emmeline Pankhurst was arrested for breaking windows at the Prime Minister’s home (10 Downing Street) and the Colonial Office. Over 60 women were arrested after the event and Charlotte Blacklock was amongst them. Of the wilful damage Emmeline Pankhurst’s daughter Christabel said ‘It is a protest against the Government’s refusal to legislate in regard to the question of woman suffrage … We are persuaded that the Government will not do anything until they are forced. As they do not yield to the justice of our demand we have been practically forced into adopting these tactics.’ (The Times, 2 March 1912)

Charlotte was committed for trial on 6 March and was eventually sentenced to four months prison for her part in the window smashing raid. Because Holloway prison was so full, she and 25 other suffragettes were taken to Winson Green Prison in Birmingham, where she went on hunger strike. When suffragettes first adopted this tactic in 1909 prison authorities would release the women, not wanting them to become martyrs. By 1912, however, they were forcibly feeding the women; a brutal and dangerous practice that left many women scarred and killed others. Emmeline Pankhurst was force fed many times and later wrote of it: ’Holloway became a place of horror and torment. Sickening scenes of violence took place almost every hour of the day, as the doctors went from cell to cell performing their hideous office.’ (E. Pankhurst, The Suffragette Movement, 1931, pp. 251-2)

Despite having to be force fed, Charlotte Blacklock served the full term of her sentence and received her hunger strike medal after her release. Little is known about Charlotte after this time, although by 1918 she had left London and was living at Ditchling in Sussex, close to her cousin Amy Sawyer, who painted her portrait. The portrait is also in the collection of the Museum of Australian Democracy.

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From 1909, the militant suffragette group, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), began to award medals to women who served prison terms for actions carried out in the cause of women’s suffrage. Many of the women imprisoned for actions such as window breaking and rock throwing used hunger strikes to highlight their plight and were forcibly fed as a result. The force-feeding was usually brutal and often resulted in the women suffering permanent physical damage. The ‘hunger-strike’ medals, as they became known, were recognition that a woman had undergone particular hardship for the cause of women’s suffrage. It is estimated that only about 100 were created. The WSPU treated their cause for suffrage like a military campaign and the medals reflect this with the words ‘For Valour’ inscribed on the ribbon bar. These are the same words inscribed on the Commonwealth’s highest award for military courage, the Victoria Cross. The analogy between the two medals is obvious, with the WSPU wanting the hunger strike medals to be a reflection of the level of courage needed by women in their fight for the vote. The colours of the ribbon attached to the medal are purple, white and green and these were used by the WSPU to represent all suffragettes.

This particular medal was awarded to Charlotte Blacklock who lived in Chelsea, London. She was an active suffragette and member of the WSPU. By 1912 Charlotte had moved from being a non-violent supporter of the WSPU to taking part in a window smashing raid. She was sentenced to four months prison for her part in the raid, which she served at Winson Green Prison in Birmingham. There she went on hunger strike and was forcibly fed. The date of her arrest, 1 March 1912, is inscribed on her medal, together with her name.

The hunger strike medals are extremely rare as only a limited number were created. Only two are known to be held by Australian institutions: one at the National Library of Australia (NLA) and one at the Museum of Victoria. Several are held in the UK, the most famous being the medal given to the founder of the WSPU, Emmeline Pankhurst, which is held at the Museum of London. Several Australian women took part in WSPU actions and were arrested in London; the hunger strike medal at the NLA was awarded to an English woman but is part of the collection of Australian feminist Bessie Rischbieth. Although English, Charlotte Blacklock’s medal is significant because it is scarce and it reflects the extremes to which women around the world were prepared to go to obtain the vote. It is also an important addition to the Museum of Australian Democracy’s growing women’s suffrage collection, which includes the recently acquired board game Pank-a-Squith.

  • WSPU Hunger Strike MedalWSPU Hunger Strike Medal —
  • WSPU Hunger Strike MedalWSPU Hunger Strike Medal —

Details

Width 40mm
Height 82mm
Depth 4mm
Medium Silver; metal; enamel; ribbon
Creator’s name Toye & Co. (London)
Impression -
Date created 1912