Kate Parry Frye : the long life of an Edwardian actress and suffragette – Elizabeth Crawford

After reading Kate Parry Frye’s suffrage diary, Campaigning for the Vote, last month, I was keen to discover more about her life. So, I was very happy to discover that Elizabeth Crawford, the editor of Kate’s diary, had written a biography of Kate to tie in with the ITV series The Great War : The People’s Story. Kate, played by Romola Garai, featured in one of the episodes.

The epigraph for this book quotes the beautiful final words of Middlemarch, “To all those women down the ages who, in the words of George Eliot, have ‘lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs‘.” This quote is so perfect for Kate. I came to feel so much affection for her & her husband, John, & let’s face it, there are so many more of us living ordinary, hidden lives than there are living famous lives. I loved finding out more about Kate.

I described Kate’s early life & her years as a suffrage campaigner in my review of her diary so I’m going to concentrate on her life after WWI & some of the things that struck me as I read the book.  Kate’s work as a suffrage organiser was crucial not only for her own support, but also to help her mother, Jenny, & sister, Agnes, after the death of Kate’s father, Frederick. Frederick Frye & his family had come down in the world. His successful grocery business had failed & the family spent the last years of his life moving from one house to the next, trying to survive on a very limited income. Without the help of relatives, their lives would have been extremely difficult.

Kate & John Collins were married in January 1915, on Kate’s 37th birthday, after a long engagement of eleven years. John was an unsuccessful actor & they never had enough money to marry on. Once war was declared, Kate was determined to marry, no matter what their financial situation. She had £50 a year from a cousin as well as what she earned & John had his salary so decided to go ahead as Kate despaired of every marrying at all if they didn’t just do it. They shopped for a wedding ring on a damp day in London,

It didn’t dampen our ardour and we were in holiday mood. First to the Army & Navy Stores – to buy the wedding ring. I asked in a most careless tone as if I was in the habit of buying them daily. We got one at length – 26/- – off a dignified gentleman who grew very friendly under our influence. Then we decided to have lunch and decided on the 2/- menu but our Waiter took such a fancy to us he gave us all sorts of extras and we laughed till we cried.

John Collins had been in the Territorial Army before the war & served in the Essex and Suffolk Royal Garrison Artillery. He served in France & was awarded the Military Cross. John & Kate managed to enjoy themselves on the few times he had leave but parting was always hard, especially in December 1916, when they had been married less than two years but had spent most of that time apart.

We woke up fairly early but when we were called at 7.30 it seemed like the death knell. I was the first to get out of bed as soon as John would let me go and we both dressed and had breakfast together. I cut sandwiches and stowed them in his knapsack… I stood talking to John and stood quietly apart when the train came in – a special – at 10 minutes to 1 – full of soldiers – another Battery. The Commandant was there to see them off, I walked right up to the train when John had found his whereabouts and carriage and stood talking… He got in and kissed me and the train moved off. He looked at me – then turned his head – I suppose he could not bear any more. But I smiled at him – then the train went faster. I just moved down the platform to avoid the official group and waved until he was out of sight. I think I had a great feeling of thankfulness that it was over and that I had come through such a terrible ordeal.

After the war, money was often short. John attempted to go back to the stage & had some short-term engagements. He had more luck as an Assistant Stage Manager & Kate even had a couple of walk-on roles. John was very involved with several voluntary organisations, including St Johns Ambulance & during WWII, was an ARP warden. John inherited a house in Knaresborough from an aunt &, in 1921, they were eventually able to buy some cottages from Kate’s Gilbey relations, which gave them a home for themselves as well as Kate’s mother & sister, as well as the rent from the other tenants. Nevertheless, they were never really well-off.

The story of Kate’s sister, Agnes, is incredibly sad. Kate often writes that Agnes’s life was wasted. She never worked, never married, suffered from depression & unspecified ill health most of her life. Kate never seemed to feel ill when she had work to do & I wanted Agnes to find something worthwhile to do with her life. She died in 1937, on her 63rd birthday,

She died just before 8.30. Very, very slowly running down and out and away. I was so glad to be there, but it was terrible. Our 60 years of companionship has ended. Have left Agnes safely in The Old Cottage with glorious flowers all around her.

Agnes’s life was wasted. She had nothing to occupy her mind but money worries & bickering with her mother. She didn’t have Kate’s energy or sense of purpose. I felt desperately sad reading about Agnes’s life & wondering how many other women had led lives like hers where they were expected to do nothing but marry &, when they didn’t marry, what happened to them? At least Agnes had her mother & Kate to care for her. I was reminded of novels like Consequences by E M Delafield & Alas, Poor Lady by Rachel Ferguson (both reprinted by Persephone) about girls who didn’t marry & the sad fate awaiting them.

Kate’s passion for the theatre is evident all her life. She wrote plays & she & John set up a little theatre in their home where they put on plays with local volunteers. She was still going to the theatre in the final months of her life, over seventy years of theatre going. Kate & John’s marriage was very happy until John began to suffer from increasing frailty & dementia in the last years of his life. This is one of the saddest parts of the story. Kate looked after John at home for as long as possible but eventually he was certified insane & committed to an asylum, as no nursing home would take him & they couldn’t afford the fees of a private home. Movingly she describes him as “a Prisoner of War in his own cell and I cannot get to him or give him any help.” When Kate visited him, his confusion & distress were painful to see. All that seemed to have survived was his overwhelming love for her, which had been there from the beginning of their relationship.

I sometimes feel half alive – brain and body. I don’t actually feel lonely only I don’t think I quite take it in. And what must be missing is the continual reminder of his abiding love as it was – and still is. I have always thought that no one could be quite so much loved for so long as I have been by John. Once or twice in this terrible illness he has said something that I could not believe he would ever say – just when he was at his most mental upset. And then next minute he was, as ever, crying out for me and saying how he loved me that there had never been anyone like me in all the world and that I was his own ‘dear dear Mussie’. And now I seem to have forsaken him and left him to this awful doom.

John died in 1958. Kate lived on in their home with the help of her kind neighbours. The final entry in Kate’s diary is on October 1st that year. She died four months later, at the age of 81, in a nursing home in Beaconsfield. The cause of death was cerebral thrombosis & Elizabeth Crawford surmises that she may have had a stroke not long after she wrote that final entry & was in the nursing home for those last few months.

Kate’s story is so involving because, in many ways, it is such an ordinary life. The wonder is that she kept her diary for over seventy years, and then, that Elizabeth Crawford discovered the diaries, damp & mildewed, fifty years after Kate’s death. Kate was an energetic & determined woman, becoming an actress in a period when women, especially comfortable middle-class women, didn’t go on the stage & becoming involved with the suffrage campaign when it attracted a lot of ridicule & disapproval. Kate was a doer, she got on with what needed to be done, whether it was putting up with dirty conditions & outdoor toilets (one of her pet hates) when she was a suffrage organiser or looking after her mother & sister after her father’s death. There’s so much I haven’t mentioned. I’ve always loved reading diaries & Kate & John’s experiences during WWII were fascinating as I love Home Front stories. I loved learning more about her life & the many extracts from the diaries allowed Kate’s voice to be heard again. I grew so fond of her that I was distressed by John’s illness & then, Kate’s final months after he died, having outlived all her family & close relatives. Kate wanted to be remembered &, through her diary, & Elizabeth Crawford’s determination to tell her story, she won’t be forgotten. There’s lots more about Kate, including many photos of her, John & her family, at Elizabeth’s website, Woman and Her Sphere. Kate’s story is available as a Kindle ebook.

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