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Wren Library charts suffrage couple’s campaign

A new exhibition of letters and personal effects of Trinity alumnus Frederick Pethick-Lawrence and his wife Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence charts their role in the women’s suffrage movement in early twentieth-century Britain.

After he left Trinity in 1897, with a first in Natural Sciences and the Adam Smith prize, Frederick William Lawrence was called to the Bar. He intended to pursue a career as a Liberal-Unionist politician. But, on meeting Emmeline Pethick in 1900, through their involvement in social work in London’s East End, Frederick’s perspective began to change.

Emmeline had been influenced by her father’s staunch defence of liberty and justice. By the time she met Frederick she was a deeply committed socialist and challenged him to reconsider his political views. They were from middle-class backgrounds and both were inspired to challenge the inequities they saw in early twentieth-century Britain and beyond.


In a letter of 27 June 1900, shortly after they first met, Emmeline wrote to Frederick:

My first consciousness was the clearest, strongest and most inveterate sense of the dignity and worth of the human body and soul above everything else – and this has forced me into a lifelong  campaign – against every sort bondage, against all sorts of established authorities….

This is the great contest of the coming century: the life and death struggle of the human life against material mastery.

When Emmeline and Frederick married in 1901 they took the then unusual step of combining their surnames. The Pethick-Lawrences went on to become well-known campaigners for women’s suffrage, a movement they helped to organise and finance. Frederick founded the newspaper, Votes for Women, which he and Emmeline co-edited for seven years. Emmeline was treasurer of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WPSU), which was led by Emmeline and Christine Pankhurst.

Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence was imprisoned six times and her husband also went to prison for actions in support of the suffragette movement. Both endured forced feeding while on hunger strike.

Despite their opposition to violent forms of protest, which led to their split with the WPSU, the Pethick-Lawrences were arrested and tried for conspiracy. They spent considerable sums on legal costs and fines, both for themselves and others, and eventually had to auction the contents of their home.

In 1918 the suffrage movement in the United Kingdom began to see success, with the grant of the vote to certain categories of women over the age of 30.

After the First World War, Emmeline became an international campaigner for women’s rights and peace. Her husband became a Labour MP and, as Secretary of State for India, 1945-1947, was instrumental in the negotiations for Independence. Fred was created Baron in 1946.

The Pethick-Lawrences: A Radical Partnership can be viewed in the Wren Library, 12-2pm Monday to Friday and 10.30-12.30pm on Saturdays during full term (until 4 December 2016).

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