Campaigning for the Vote : Kate Parry Frye’s Suffrage Diary – ed Elizabeth Crawford

Kate Parry Frye worked as an organiser for the New Constitutional Society for Women’s Suffrage (NCS). In 1911, when the diary begins, Kate was 33 years old. She came from a family whose fortunes had declined. Her father, Frederick, was the owner of a chain of grocery stores & a Liberal MP in the 1890s. Kate’s mother, Jane, was connected by marriage to the famous Gilbey family of wine & spirits fame. This connection was useful for Mr Frye’s grocery business but, unfortunately, by 1911, the business had all but failed. The family gradually retreated to their home at Bourne End, called The Plat. Eventually they had to rent The Plat out & lived in rented houses until, by 1913, they were forced to sell.

Kate had grown up in a secure middle-class family. She had little formal education, but loved the theatre & took lessons in singing, dancing & recitation. She became an actress & had some limited success, touring in a production of J M Barrie’s Quality Street. It was on this tour in 1903 that she met John Collins, & they became engaged. Kate often seems rather lukewarm about John, who was very much in love with Kate although she doesn’t seem to care for him nearly as much. Certainly in the diary, she mentions her infatuation with at least one other man. John was a fairly unsuccessful actor & they had a long engagement as they couldn’t afford to marry. Kate’s family supported her theatrical ambitions &, later, her interest in suffragism. She began as a volunteer for the NCS but was glad to accept a paid position as an organiser in 1913 as the family fortunes declined.

The NCS was one of several organisations dedicated to extending the franchise to women. The most famous was the Women’s Social & Political Union (WSPU) founded by the Pankhursts & notorious for their militancy. As the name suggests, the NCS wanted a constitutional solution to the problem & worked on spreading the word & trying to influence politicians to introduce a Parliamentary Bill for women’s suffrage. They also canvassed against anti-suffrage politicians. Kate first became interested in suffrage through attending meetings of the Actresses’ Franchise League in 1909, the year before the NCS was founded. Kate’s job was to travel around England, mostly Kent, Norfolk & Essex, organising meetings, gathering speakers & canvassing for women’s suffrage.

Most of Kate’s work involved setting up meetings & canvassing & her diary certainly depicts a relentless struggle to gather support. The work involved was considerable as Kate would arrive in a new town, have to find lodgings for herself & maybe speakers, make contact with supporters, find a venue for the meeting, deal with printers producing posters & handbills, find someone to chair the meeting & drum up an audience. She often describes hours spent canvassing but finding few people at home or meeting an unsympathetic response. Sometimes her lodgings are uncomfortable & her colleagues uncongenial. The meetings could be an outstanding success with interesting speakers & a good turnout or dismal failures with insufficient support from the locals or a rowdy crowd of hecklers. Kate is usually optimistic but this outburst, after a meeting at a rich woman’s house where the guests only came for the food, is heartfelt,

I am clean off this campaign. Then home to my pic-nic existence with a mood on me one could have cut off in chunks. I suppose it’s a mixture of fatigue and homesickness and disappointment. If the work would only go well I would not mind and it would help me put up with my lot. Why must I live in horrid rooms amongst other people’s hideous possessions. What am I paying for, shall I ever have done paying – if only something would come out of it, if only I could justify my existence somehow!!!!
Friday October 25th 1912 – Folkestone 33 Coolinge Road

As well as the day to day work of an organiser, Kate took part in some of the great set pieces of the suffrage movement. She marched in the Women’s Coronation Procession organised by the WSPU as a demonstration of women’s solidarity. It was the biggest such demonstration ever held & was timed for a few days before the coronation of George V. Kate marched with the Actresses’ Franchise League & had a wonderful day, culminating in a meeting at the Royal Albert Hall addressed by Mrs Pankhurst. She was a Group Captain & very proud of the honour.

I was the 3rd section behind the third Floral Arch – very pretty it all looked but some of the walkers of the AFL looked very dowdy. But it was all simply magnificent – 70,000 of us, five abreast, and some of the Sections were just wonderful – a real pageant and I enjoyed myself tremendously. … The end had not left the Embankment before we started the meeting at 8.30 – 7 miles, 1,000 banners 70 bands. We were just behind one and it was quite lovely marching to it. We kept time to it and at least walked well. Several of the onlookers I heard say that ours was the Smartest Section.
Saturday June 17th 1911

Kate also witnessed the funeral procession for Emily Wilding Davison, who was killed when she ran in front of the King’s horse at Epsom on Derby Day 1913.

We saw it splendidly at the start until we were driven away from our position and then could not see for the crowds and then we walked right down Buckingham Palace Rd and joined in the procession at the end. It was really most wonderful – the really organised part – groups of women in black with white lilies – in white and in purple – and lots of clergymen and special sort of pall bearers each side of the coffin. She gave her life publicly to make known to the public the demand of Votes for Women – it was only fitting she should be honoured publicly by the comrades.
Saturday June 14th 1913

John Collins had joined the Territorial Army & was in the Essex and Suffolk Royal Garrison Artillery & so was mobilised with his unit on the outbreak of WWI. He & Kate were married on her 37th birthday in January 1915. She resigned from the NCS in 1916 & the remaining diary entries in the book are on suffrage matters – the granting of the franchise in 1918, the first time she voted in 1924 & attending Mrs Pankhurst’s funeral in 1928.

Elizabeth Crawford made the decision to edit the diary severely to only include information about Kate’s suffrage activities. While I can understand that the book needed a focus, I would have liked a bit more about Kate’s personal life outside the movement. Crawford writes linking passages between entries when Kate is on holidays or visiting family but restricts the entries to Kate’s activities as an organiser.

Elizabeth Crawford’s blog, Woman and her Sphere, is a great resource for information about the suffrage movement. There are links to all the entries she has written about Kate & other suffrage stories as well. Kate (played by Romola Garai) is going to be featured in the ITV series, The Great War, the People’s Story.

Elizabeth Crawford has also written a biography of Kate to be published as an ebook in early August (today, in fact), Kate Parry Frye – The Long Life of an Edwardian Actress and Suffragette, which I’m looking forward to reading to find out what happened to Kate after the struggle for women’s suffrage was over.
Edited to add : and here it is, just downloaded this very minute!

4 thoughts on “Campaigning for the Vote : Kate Parry Frye’s Suffrage Diary – ed Elizabeth Crawford

  1. This was so interesting to read. I'm into learning about women's rights et al., so this title is a good addition to the TBR pile. Thanks for bringing it to the surface. (Also thanks for the link to Elizabeth Crawford's blog. I shall, no doubt, be spending some there as well!

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  2. Elizabeth's blog is full of interesting info. Kate's Diary is probably more interesting when you know a bit of the background although the notes & linking passages are very helpful.

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  3. I've been reading the extracts on Women and Sphere, and thinking how much I should like to read this book. The little details are great – e.g., her comment “but some of the walkers of the AFL looked very dowdy” is quite telling, I think – it both humanizes more official accounts and tells us something about the writer.

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  4. Yes, Kate's diary is certainly not the side of suffragism that made the headlines – slashing paintings & throwing bricks through the PM's windows but maybe her persistence , as well as the many others like her, had more effect in the end. I've just finished reading Elizabeth Robins' suffrage novel, The Convert, which makes very interesting reading after Kate's diary.

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