Tag Archives: suffragettes

Votes for (clockwork) Women!

Beamish is taking on a distinctly militant feel this week, as we get ready for a very special weekend of activity to celebrate the North East’s suffragettes. On the 29th and 30th of June, we’ll be commemorating the centenary of Emily Wilding Davison’s death and remembering the women who fought for that most fundamental of civil rights – the right to vote.

There will be lots happening at the museum, and you can find out more here on our website: http://www.beamish.org.uk/suffragette-celebration-weekend/. We will be doing special behind the scenes tours of our collection store all weekend (come and see us, it’s worth it!), and in preparation I’ve been having a look to see if we can find some suffragette stories in the Beamish collection.

A peek in the Beamish trade catalogues always comes up with interesting results – we have hundreds in the collection, from Victorian dentist’s supplies to 1980s Kay’s catalogues. Normally,a look through the 1909 edition of the A.W. Gamage department store catalogue wouldn’t be expected to turn up a suffragette surprise, but it is amazing what you can find if you look carefully enough – and what these finds can tell us about society and attitudes.


A.W. Gamage 1909

Gamages were particularly renowned for their range of toys, games and sports equipment, including complex mechanical toys – Arthur Walter Gamage founded the store in 1878 as a watch repair shop, so clockwork mechanisms were a speciality. This catalogue is a pleasure to read, full of ingenious games and novelties. However, on one page, there are two somewhat shocking items among the jumping jacks and wooden animals – two mechanical suffragette toys.

In the first example, described as a ‘clever toy’, a squeeze of a ball causes a protesting suffragette to be pushed along by a police constable:

Squeeze the ball, move the suffragette

Squeeze the ball, move the suffragette

The second toy, titled ‘force feeding’ is even more alarming: at the turn of a handle, a monstrous looking suffragette swallows a tiny policeman:

Turn the handle, and a tiny policeman meets an unfortunate end

Turn the handle, and a tiny policeman meets an unfortunate end

It is difficult to know what to make of these images – to modern eyes they seem odd and sinister, but they are not unique. Many toys and boardgames were inspired by the women’s suffrage movement – often aimed at adults rather than children, and sometimes cruelly satirical.

Whilst our two Gamages examples are a more of a parody, pro-suffrage toys could be found too – some women’s suffrage organisations produced board and card games and toys to raise awareness of the movement, as well as much needed-funds. In 1908, the Manchester Doll Show even included a ‘Suffragette Exhibit’ within its displays.

An array of suffragette toys and games - image from womansuffragememorabilia.com

An array of suffragette toys and games – image from womansuffragememorabilia.com

Toys and games have always reflected the attitudes, concerns, and (crucially in the case of women’s suffrage) the fears of the society that produces them. If the Gamages toys tell us anything, it is that by 1909 the women’s suffrage movement had captured the imagination of the public. For better or worse, the suffragette was a recognisable enough character to feature as a commercially produced toy – she had become a part of Edwardian popular culture!

What do you think of these ‘novelty’ suffragettes – are they comic or cruel? What do they tell us about Edwardian attitudes to the women’s suffrage movement?



The Feeding of the Bairns – Kids crying out for school dinners?

School cooks (2)

During a busy day as a Community Learning Co-ordinator, I, Alex Fairlamb, have many vital issues to attend to.  First and primarily, the pressing topic of……school dinners.  Loathe them or love them, they are an inbuilt part of growing up.  As a fan of a cornflake tart and pink custard, I often look back with curiousity.  When we think about it, it’s one thing that a lot of us have in common.  School dinners are almost like a rite of passage with those scoops of lumpy mash and congealed gravy play an integral part of life as a bairn growing up in the North East.  Admittedly, at times, it could be a case of survival with a few cunning tactics to hide this week’s prime cut of lamb’s liver.  However, there were moments when it was something to look forward to with some restaurants now even opting to have school dinner themed menus!  So now that I think about it, was this culinary adventure something that I took for granted as a child?  Should I have been more appreciative of that semi-cold semolina?

Looking back, perhaps I should have been.  School dinners were not always something that we had a legal right to as a child, something the suffrage movement soon decided to try to change.  Quite often we link the Suffragettes to their quest to obtain the vote.  However, there were far more other issues that they were willing to campaign to change.  Groups of women in the North East were also aiming to change attitudes in society about provision for the poor and the right to an education for all.  They were greatly concerned by the children that they saw lacking nourishment and a chance to gain a good education.  Here at Beamish, we are hoping to breathe life back into one of their most heart, and belly, warming attempts to push for change – the Feeding of the Bairns of Gateshead.


The feeding of school children became an increasing concern for many in the early twentieth century as society felt the negative ripples of industrialisation and increasingly recognised its effect on young people, often faced with a life of factory or domestic work ahead of them.  The Boer War further highlighted the need for Britain to take better care of its future citizens.  For some female suffrage groups, this was about ensuring that children were provided for, irrespective of their social grounding, and that they should have access to nourishing food to keep their bodies and minds healthy.  After all, how can a child write their A, B, C’s without a stodgy dose of creamy porridge in the morning to get them going?

School cooks2 (2)

The Liberal government responded to societal concerns by introducing an Act of Parliament in 1906 granting local councils the freedom to provide school meals for needy children if they felt that it was required. There in lay the problem; if they so required or desired.  Not surprisingly, the extent to which some local councils adopted such measures was varied, including in the North East.  How could this be changed you may ask?  Beginning with the Women’s Labour League in Jarrow, women in the north were spurred into action to vowing never to “cease from troubling till the children are fed.”  A war of wills with the local councils was waged.

Despite the women rising to action with a petition at a memorial presentation at the Town Council, their words fell on deaf ears.  After all, the Mayor had far more pressing matters to deal with than the starving children waiting in the room next door.  He had his own Mayoral Banquet that he must hurry to attend that very evening instead of course!  Despite the Jarrow Authority’s lacklustre response, this did not dampen the spirit of the women.  The Newcastle suffrage movement soon took up arms.

To be continued……