Viv Hardwick talks to Barbara Marten about finding North Yorkshire’s Suffragette heroines in the most unusual places

YORK-BASED actress Barbara Marten thought her idea of celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Suffragette movement winning votes for women was a perfect community project until she went in search of the city’s heroic campaigners... and initially couldn’t find any.

The star of BBC TV’s Casualty admits that the show, Everything Is Possible: The York Suffragettes, about to run at York Theatre Royal from Tuesday, June 20, to Saturday, July 1, might have been very different if she hadn’t have found a tiny piece of evidence about local Suffragettes.

“If I hadn’t have found this slim white pamphlet called Militant Suffragettes in York, by Krista Cowman, we might have ended up having to make the whole thing up. I didn’t know Krista when I set off to do some research. I knew there should be something at the Borthwick Institute at the University of York and there was boxes and boxes.

“There were microfilmed copies of statements and women’s statements from court and reports on meetings plus declarations about what had happened to them in police custody. These things were quite extraordinary and even though you think, ‘I know about this’, the personal statements are quite shocking... as is the stuff about hunger strikes,” she says.

Marten was impressed to read about the Sunday processions where the campaigners for Female Suffrage, who won the vote for women in 1918, would wear white, purple and green with floats of Bodicea and massive banners.

“Everything was about getting in the newspapers and gaining a voice. I keep thinking, ‘There must be something about York?’ but the only thing I found was a pamphlet in the lobby where you take your hats and coat off. The minute you read things about Annie Seymour Pearson from Heworth and Violet Key Jones from Fulford and Mrs Coultate from Southbank, and see the sketches of them, it was such a thrill. They had offices in Coney Street, where the main shopping area now stands, and reading this made the whole thing really special and personal. These are women, like me, who lived on the streets of York and were involved. It was so exciting and it was what swung it when I took the idea to the committee deciding on the city’s project for this year. Luckily their reaction was, ‘We can’t not do this’,” says Marten.

What appealed to her was the verdict of the male-dominated society that pronounced Suffragettes as unreasonable and outrageous. “But they stuck to their guns and thanks to them it was a situation viewed as unjust.”

Marten plays mother-of-four Annie Seymour Pearson and expresses disappointment that the team behind Everything Is Possible haven’t been able to track down any descendents of Annie.

“I had to leave go of my connection with the show when the writer Bridget Foreman took over. I went down to London to join the cast of An Inspector Calls and only came back five weeks ago. In the meantime a lot of things had moved on. I will be asking again if we ever managed t o find any relatives left in the area. Annie’s obituary didn’t mention she was a Suffragette and that she actually ran a safe house in Heworth. I think she deserves a Blue Plaque.

“Annie kept a scrapbook and wrote in the margins about the newspaper cuttings. She was an ordinary middle-class woman who had a quiet, respectable life with a husband who was in management. She definitely had a maid and a cook, and it was surprising she got caught up in all this. York got involved in 1913, which was quite late, to support a deputation to London where women talked to the chancellor about their wages and conditions. There is a fantastic picture of all these women in working uniforms,” says Marten.

A reporter on York station heard the women say that they weren’t coming back until they got the vote, and said, “You’re going to be away a long time then”.

When the first bill for votes for women was thrown out on a technicality, Annie travelled down to protest and got arrested. “Annie was arm-in-arm with a nurse from Birmingham heading for Downing Street when she got arrested for obstructing the police. She went to court in Bow Street and was fined 40 shillings or do three weeks in prison. So she decided to go to prison. She’d been in Holloway two days when her husband, Arthur, got on the train and came down and paid her fine and took her home. We wondered what had happened on that train ride back and what was the conversation back at Heworth?” says Marten. She feels this event has become one of the best scenes in the play, which is another community collaboration between Pilot Theatre and York Theatre Royal.

How does Marten, partner of playwright Mike Kenny, feel about taking to the stage with the assistance of 170 volunteer actors and backstage helpers. “I’ve seen quite a lot of the community theatre events here over the years and my partner has written two and co-written one. I’ve seen them all and think they are fantastic. Our community actors are fabulous and a few you wouldn’t know were amateurs. I don’t feel I’m putting my hands into anything unknown. I’m putting my hands into something I wanted to be part of. It’s a great event for the community and York because they are really connected to the city’s history. It’s a gift to the city to be mining that history,” she says.

Marten points out it was only women over 30 with property who got the vote in 1918. Votes for all over 21 came along in 1928. “Universal male suffrage came in 1918 because of the war, but the Government were cagey about women. It’s something to celebrate in our city.”

Everything Is Possible: The York Suffragettes. York Theatre Royal. Tuesday, June 20 to Saturday, July 1. Box Office: