Often the true history of an antique is difficult to discover. Most items have passed through many hands over the centuries, and even the most remarkable pieces can have origins that are forever lost to history. That’s why its so exciting when we are fortunate enough to discover a piece that comes with the full story of why it was made and for whom.
During the Suffragette movement brave women risked injury and imprisonment to force the government to grant them the right to vote. At the forefront of this effort was the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), a group founded by the famed suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst to unite and coordinate the efforts of those seeking enfranchisement. As Pankhurst called upon the members of the WSPU to make their voices heard through “deeds not words” many engaged in acts of civil disobedience. They chained themselves to railings, set fires and damaged property. In one particularly harrowing act a member of the WSPU named Emily Wilding Davison threw herself in front of the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby, which led to her losing her life.
The government was resistant to allowing women a voice in elections, and these acts of defiance were met with arrests designed to silence the movement. The WSPU labelled those arrested as political prisoners who were suffering for the greater good, but whilst they were detained their ability to assist the cause was limited. It was for this reason that many suffragettes went on hunger strike.
When the government realised that they risked turning these brave women into martyrs to the cause they took action. Force feedings were introduced to prevent those on hunger strike from dying in custody, but when the public began to be aware that the women were being treated so brutally it served to swing public opinion towards the suffragettes.
In recognition of the bravery of their actions, and the suffering they endured, the WSPU commissioned a small number of medals. With these accolades the suffragettes rewarded those who had gone above and beyond for the cause. One such individual was Nellie Godfrey.
Nellie Godfrey was a committed member of the suffragette movement who had already been arrested in early 1909, but had been released as part of the government’s “cat and mouse” policy, which was designed to prevent the suffragettes from achieving more publicity for their actions by holding them for a short time and releasing them.
The idea was that the period of imprisonment would frighten and intimidate the suffragettes into abandoning their cause. It was spectacularly misjudged, particularly in Nellie’s case. As soon as she was freed she returned to the movement, intent on making sure that the government could not silence her.
When the President of the Board of Trade and future Prime Minister Winston Churchill was being driven through Bolton Nellie seized the opportunity and threw a lump of iron at his car. The iron was wrapped in a note which read:
“ Thrown by a woman of England as a protest against the Government’s treatment of political prisoners.”
Nellie was arrested and fined 40 shillings, which she refused to pay, and was sentenced to seven days in prison. She joined her sisters in going on hunger strike before being released on medical grounds.
A Piece of History
The medal has been cast in silver and inscribed with the words “Hunger Strike” and the name of the recipient on the reverse. The suspension bar is dated December 7th 1909 and the top bar is labelled “For Valour”.>/p>
Inscribed in gold on the interior of the medal’s original box are the words: ‘Presented to Nellie Godfrey. by the Women’s Social & Political Union in recognition of a gallant action, whereby through endurance to the last extremity of hunger and hardship a great principle of political justice was vindicated’
The medal’s ribbon shows the colours of the Suffragette movement – Green for Give, White for Women and Violet for Votes. The same colours can be found in pieces of jewellery which were worn to show support for the movement. Suffragette jewellery contains green peridot, white diamond or pearl and violet amethyst all set into precious metals.
Authentic Edwardian Suffragette jewellery is quite rare, and highly sought after by collectors, but the medals issued to the suffragettes are rarer still. They are a piece of the history of women’s rights in the United Kingdom, and a testament to the injustices that can be overcome by those with the will and courage to make their voices heard no matter what forces are attempting to silence them.
Our sister company Laurelle Antique Jewellery purchased the medal at auction in January 2020. All of the proceeds from the sale went to support the Fawcett Society, the UK’s leading membership charity campaigning for gender equality and women’s rights at work, at home and in public life.
It is our pride and privilege to be able to commemorate Nellie Godfrey and the Suffragette movement
Interested in our collection of suffragette jewellery? Take a look at our hand-picked selection here.