Obituary for Mary Clarke published in Votes for Women 6th January 1911. 

Introductory Note from Jean Calder

Mary Clarke (date unknown)

This was the text of the Oration delivered at Mary Clarke’s Memorial meeting in Brighton. It is a heart-rending speech, made by Emmeline Pethick Lawrence, a woman  who knew Mary well and who, with Emmeline Pankhurst, was one of the outstanding leaders of the suffrage movement. It identifies Mary as an influential and well-loved leader of the movement, while conveying anger, grief and huge respect for Mary’s  contribution. It gives a real sense of  Mary’s warmth and gentleness as well as her formidable bravery. Grateful thanks to our Patrons June Purvis and Elizabeth Crawford for sending copies of the Obituary in a legible form (Votes for Women on line is not easy to read!). I’ve retyped it, so any errors are mine.

The Utmost for the Highest 

A Memoir By Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence

“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friend.” Mary Clarke laid down her life for the most deeply wronged, the most cruelly bound of all the human race. She died for those women numbered in this land of ours, and in all lands of the Earth, by the thousand thousand; women to whom death would be merciful, so cruelly used have they been by man and by man-made law. These defenceless and voiceless ones were  “her friends”. Because of the great compassion for them that was in her heart she faced ridicule, blows, brutal usage by roughs, the handling of the police, and three imprisonments. For them she paid (to use her own words) “the price of freedom”. Glad to pay it – glad though it brought her to her death.

Mary at a Welcome meeting for released prisoners in early 1908. Mary is on the left beneath the clock.

I vividly remember seeing her suddenly in prison. She had gone with two or three others to knock at Mr Asquith’s door. Some weeks later I was myself arrested for attempting to take a petition to the House of Commons, and went for two months to Holloway Gaol. On the first morning I heard  a low voice speaking my name. I turned round, and it was some seconds before I recognised her in the disfiguring criminal garb. It seemed to me especially shocking to see that frail, refined, sensitive woman, clad in so coarse and grotesque a way, “numbered” amongst the depraved, for, of course, she was wearing the prison badge. Her face wore that look of extreme patience and extreme gentleness which was it’s habitual expression in repose. In that dreary place of despairing souls she seemed indeed a “Prisoner of Hope”.

It was her second imprisonment. The first time she had been arrested as a member of the deputation that sought to interview the Prime Minister in the “People’s House“. For the third and last time she endured that experience which, as she expressed it in her speech two days before she passed from us, stamped fast and indelible the “purple, white and green” upon the soul of every woman who went through it. She referred to herself as dyed, double-dyed and thrice dyed a suffragette by the baptism of imprisonment.

Beside that vision of Mrs Clark in prison I have another specially clear remembrance of her. This was at the first informal meeting of the WSPU in London, February, 1906, when we originally formed a London committee. Mrs Pankhurst was there, Mrs Drummond, Sylvia Pankhurst, Annie Kenney, Mrs Clarke and one or two others beside myself. From that little meeting the entire Movement in London and the entire National Movement sprang and developed. During all those years Mrs Clarke has been identified with it.

Mary on release from prison. She can hardly be seen, second from the left at the back.

She was naturally so quiet, so shrinking that, when the way cleared for her to devote her whole time to the work and when the post of Organiser was offered to her, she could not believe that she would be able to fulfil the onerous duties of leadership. She quickly became a remarkably successful organiser, winning the love and confidence of members wherever she went, inspiring courage and devoted service, dominating the rough elements that are always found in election crowds, quelling the brutality of Liberals of a baser sort, roused to fury by party fanaticism as they realised the damage done to their side by her lucid argument and persuasive speech.

In that frail and delicate woman’s body there was an indomitable spirit and courage past belief. No stress of weather, no intimidation or actual violence could deter her. She would hold at election times and at other busy seasons, three or four open-air meetings a day, day after day, standing in the rain so long as people would listen. A Brighton member writes that once a mob of young men surrounded her and refused to let her past. She reasoned with them at first, but when she saw they were determined to detain her she began to read her paper Votes For Women as if she had been in a drawing room. Seeing her so indifferent and unperturbed the youths got tired of this noble sport of woman-baiting, in which they have been so conspicuously encouraged by those in high places, and slunk away in small groups. 

She was on several occasions very much knocked about, and some of her young workers were inclined to strike out in her defence, but she always restrained them. A Brighton member writes:  “Once some roughs tried to pull me off the van by my coat, and I wanted the whip to hit them off, but she would not let me have it, offering to change places with me. Of course I refused.“

We don’t know exactly when this banner was made, but Mary may well have carried it.

We extract from an appreciative article in the Sussex Daily News a testimony to her habitual sweetness of temper: “Her ability as a speaker is well known by the hundreds who have listened to her earnest addresses on the Front, for she was the most indefatigable organiser of the Brighton Branch of the WSPU. Of heckling Mrs Clarke could stand a great deal. Though jeered at, mocked and ridiculed, her face wore always a sweet smile, and she was quite ready and willing to answer any reasonable questions put to her.”  “She realised one’s ideal of courage and gentleness,“ writes one of her workers.

Mrs Clarke was greatly distressed by the terrible scenes she witnessed on Black Friday. She could stand ill usage herself, but could not bear to see others victimised. The tears were streaming from her eyes as she watched the women flung like footballs between the police in uniform and the organised mob of roughs led on by plainclothes offices of the force. She determined there and then to take part in any further action that might be necessary. But she became ill on her return to Brighton, and was obliged to keep her bed all the following Sunday and Monday. Her members  implored her not to come up on the Tuesday. At last she promised one who loved her with great and special tenderness that she would not run the risk of being knocked about, but would choose another method of making a protest against the way the deputation had been treated. When she heard that the Tuesday deputation had been arrested she said, “Prison is the only place for self respecting women”. She calmly put a stone through the window of the police-station, saying to the constable who arrested her, “I voted that the deputation should go, and am morally as responsible as they are. If they are guilty of wrongdoing so am I, and I mean to share their punishment.“ She wrote to the friend who had implored her not to expose herself to violence, “I had to protest somehow; you would not have me a shirker.“ When her sentence was pronounced she telegraphed to her Brighton members, “One month. I am glad to pay the price for freedom“. In her letter to them from prison she said, “At 9 o’clock every night I shall be singing ‘To Freedom’s Cause Till Death’.”

The price has been paid – paid to the full. Mrs Clarke is the first woman-martyr who has gone to death for this cause. And quickly upon her footsteps has followed Henria Williams, another victim of Black Friday. How many more lives must be laid down, how many more of the best and noblest of the daughters of the people will be sacrificed before an elementary act of justice and reparation is done to the womanhood of the country? There will be no holding back of the women of this Union. Inspired by the example of our “saints“ there will be an eager desire to press forward, cost what it may. One letter is typical of the general feeling that animates the Union: “Somewhere I’ve read that ‘we mourn best when we do what the dead desire.’ I wish to go on the next deputation.“

“The last thing we did“ writes one of her fellow prisoners released earlier, “when we left Holloway  was to call up ‘Good luck and goodbye’ to her window. She has had good luck, for death has honoured her.“ “I grieve with you,“ says another member of the last deputation. “I would that a worn out brush like myself might have paid the price.“ “Her work is by no means done.“ Another writes, “By her example many others will try to follow in her footsteps.“ Again and again recurs in  the letters received at headquarters the acknowledgement “We realise that she literally laid down her life.” From Ireland comes a letter from one who was released with Mrs Clarke: “In ancient Ireland the monument to the beloved and respected dead was made by the friends bringing one stone each to the mound, and the size of the accumulated pile showed the number of the friends. Truly, did ancient custom prevail amongst us, her cairn would rise like unto one of those hills single “‘from which come as our strength’.“

A working girl sends a verse from (“Poems by the Way”) William Morris:

“Here lies the sign that we should break our prison,
Amid the storm she won a prisoner’s rest,
While in the cloudy dawn the sun arisen
Gives us our day of work to win the best.”

On the day of her release from Holloway Prison she spoke, with eyes shining with happiness, of her joy in the welcome given to her and those with her, adding, “If only it were not for the thought of those we have left behind!“

I remembered those words as I stood with the mourners at her grave side. Again she had found the joy of release. She had passed now and for ever out of the human power of those who hate Justice and keep Liberty in chains. Was the joy of her free spirit touched with sorrow for us whom she had “left behind“?

We may be sure that those whom she left in prison, who are still in prison and will be for many days to come, have no thought of pity for themselves. They have their work to do “to win the best“. 

That thought is our inspiration also. Writing from prison to a girl whose youth prevented her from taking part in militant work, she said: “I wish you would hold a meeting on the Front as my deputy. Never mind about being too young. Tell them that while the old are in jail the young ones must do their work.“ The spirit of that instruction is the spirit of Mrs Clarke‘s message to young and old in this Union. Those who have held aloof hitherto or have refused the ultimate sacrifice must come forward now as her “deputy“. 

Upon her last resting-place lies a laurel wreath, and upon it is inscribed those words which she telegraphed from the police court: “ I am glad to pay the price of freedom.“ This was sent as a tribute from the Brighton members. Upon a wreath of lilies and palms sent by the members of the Headquarters Committee, were the lines:

“The Spring will come, though we must pass
Who gave the promise of its birth.“

There was no singing at the grave side, for owing to the breakup of the holidays the funeral was private, and but few were able to be present. 

I would that we could have sung our marching song:  

To Freedom’s Cause till death 
We swear our fealty,
March on, march on! Face to the Dawn,
The Dawn of Liberty.

Also the one and only hymn adequate to the occasion –  the Church’s victory song:

Oh blest Communion! Fellowship Divine, 
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine, 
Yet all or one in Thee, for all are Thine, 

Mary Clarke Statue Appeal