The Winslow Girl and the Ladies’ Gallery

This weekend I saw ‘The Winslow Boy’, a play by Terence Rattigan at the Old Vic. It was very good and I thoroughly enjoyed it. There was one moment however, when I thought, ‘I really don’t think that’s likely!’ That was when Catherine (Kate) Winslow, the intelligent and principled daughter of the family, went to watch proceedings in the House of Commons, and Sir Robert Morton, barrister and MP, says he saw her there in the gallery and recognised her by her flamboyant hat.

The Ladies' Gallery, House of Commons, from Illustrated London News 1870
The Ladies’ Gallery, House of Commons, 1870

The play is set between 1912-1914, so Kate wouldn’t have been able to sit in the main public gallery (the Strangers’ Gallery); she would have had to have watched from the Ladies’ Gallery, a separate gallery positioned way up high behind the Speaker’s Chair.  The Ladies’ Gallery had heavy ironwork grilles covering its windows, placed there precisely to stop  MPs being able to see the women behind.  The grilles made the whole gallery hot and stuffy, and restricted the view: they were much hated by women and targeted by suffragettes as both a physical and metaphorical symbol of the exclusion of women from Parliament. Millicent Fawcett likened it to ‘Oriential seclusion’, writing:

One great discomfort of the grille was that the interstices of the heavy brasswork were not large enough to allow the victims who sat behind it to focus it so both eyes looked through the same hole. It was like using a gigantic pair of spectacles which did not fit, and made the Ladies’ Gallery a grand place for getting headaches.

So even if Kate had been sitting right at the front with her nose up against the grille in a very colourful hat, I still don’t think Sir Robert Morton would have been able to see her!

It’s only a tiny historical inaccuracy of course. The Ladies’ Gallery grilles were removed in 1917, when women were also allowed to sit in the Strangers’ Gallery. Then the entire House of Commons chamber was destroyed by bombing in the Second World War, so by the time The Winslow Boy was published in 1946 none of these spaces existed anymore. Winslow is called a ‘suffragette’ by her father, but as she makes clear in conversation, she is a constitutionalist not a militant so should properly be called a suffragist. She works as an organiser for a women’s suffrage organisation, initially as a volunteer; by the end of the play she has managed to obtain a salary of £2 per week. Coincidentally, earlier in the week I had learned about a real-life Kate who worked for a women’s suffrage organisation, also at £2 per week. Kate Parry Frye’s suffrage diaries are the subject of ‘Campaigning for the Vote’, a fantastic new book edited by historian Elizabeth Crawford, launched last week at the London Review Bookshop.

Elizabeth Crawford
Elizabeth Crawford at her talk on Kate Parry Frye

Kate Parry Frye was the daughter of Frederick Frye, Liberal MP for North Kensingon 1892-1895. You can watch a talk by Elizabeth about Kate: ‘Campaigning for the Vote: from MP’s daughter to suffrage organiser – the diary of Kate Parry Frye’. The talk was arranged by the House of Commons Works of Art Committee for Parliament Week in 2012.

George Archer-Shee image from Wikipedia
George Archer-Shee image from Wikipedia

One more thought struck me: The Winslow Boy is based on a true story, that of naval cadet George Archer-Shee who was accused of stealing a five-shilling postal order in 1908. I think it’s unlikely that the real George Archer-Shee (who sadly died in the First World War) would have had a suffragist sister, because his older brother was Martin Archer-Shee MP, a most outspoken opponent of equal franchise. Some women over the age of 30 were given the vote in 1918, but the fight for equal franchise went on for another ten years. This is Martin Archer-Shee on a Women’s Enfranchisement bill in 1923.

There is a great danger of giving the electoral power of this country into the hands of the women… I believe in the prophecy in “Punch” in 1917 or 1918, when one char-lady was represented as saying to another: When women get the Vote, will men be allowed to vote? And the other answered: Yes, my dear, at first. By increasing the electorate in this country you will water down the stock, and you will make an election a joke.

Martin Archer-Shee lived until 1935, so saw the successful passage of the Equal Franchise Act 1928 which finally gave women the vote on the same terms as men.  It’s hinted at the end of The Winslow Boy that Kate Winslow may have gone on to enter politics herself, which she would have been able to do after women were allowed to become MPs in 1918. I like to think she would have done so.

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