The latest lot, estimated at £8000-10,000 in the Spink July 24-25 sale in London, is a fascinating example of a Suffragette 'Hunger Strike' medal ‘for valour’ awarded to the formidable Lilian Margaret Metge, who is described by the saleroom as being “rightly accepted as one of, if not the most active militant Irish Suffragette in history”.
Until 1903, the women’s movement was purely focused on working towards change through the constitution. This would quickly change with the arrival of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) on the scene, when the Suffragist was replaced with the Suffragette.
Soon the WSPU had three arms in which they might promote the cause: civil disobedience, destruction of public property and arson, or bombings.
In Northern Ireland, Metge, the grand-daughter and widow of Members of Parliament, proved to be a particularly keen exponent of the WSPU’s chosen path, notching up all of the above activities.
Irish votes for women campaign
According to the historyireland.com website: “The WSPU was separate, although closely related, to the Irish Women’s Franchise League (IWFL). Formed in 1908 by the renowned Irish women’s rights campaigner Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, the IWFL gave voice to the suffrage movement in Ireland through its newspaper, the Irish Citizen.
“In Ulster in 1911 there was an attempt to unite militant and non-militant factions under the banner of the non-political Irish Women’s Suffrage Federation (IWSF). It grew out of the Lisburn Suffrage Society, which had been formed the year before by LA Walkington and Lillian Metge.”
Metge resigned from both the Lisburn Suffrage Society and the IWSF in April 1914 and became increasingly militant. Her shift overlapped with the arrival in Ulster of one of the most infamous women’s rights agitators, Dorothy Evans.
In May Metge was part of a 200-strong deputation that charged George V as he entered Buckingham Palace. She was arrested and witnessed the police brutally beating the Suffragettes with batons – an act that strengthened her resolve.
Then in summer 1914 Metge and Evans travelled north from Dublin. On the night of July 31, a huge explosion was heard in Lisburn, just to the south-west of Belfast.
Confusion reigned at first but at the cathedral, Suffragette literature and masonry and glass strewn everywhere gave the game away as to the target. The chancel window had also been heavily damaged.
Historyireland.com adds: “Lillian Spender, diarist and wife of the UVF quartermaster, Captain Wilfred Spender, recalled hearing ‘about 3 o’clock what I thought was a big gun firing, but it proved next day to be an explosion caused by suffragettes’ - ‘the brutes!’
"Almost immediately, Metge—the ‘mad militant’ in Mrs Spender’s eyes - was under suspicion; along with Evans, Miss D Carson and Maud Wickham, she was arrested and arraigned at the County Antrim assizes in Lisburn, appearing for trial several days later. As the suspects were escorted from the house to nearby Railway Street Police Station, a large crowd gathered and hurled missiles, mud and glass bottles. Metge’s windows were smashed.”
Chaotic scenes followed in the courtroom, as WSPU policy was to disrupt trials. However, there was compelling evidence to find the women guilty. Not least the evidence of the owner of a Lisburn hardware store who recalled a visit from Metge some months earlier when, on the pretence of buying a new gas stove, she had also tried to buy dynamite to ‘blow up a tree in her garden’.
But on the Wednesday of the trial and just as the last of the evidence had been heard, the four women were transferred to Belfast and released. The outbreak of war had saved the defendants, as the home secretary had remitted all Suffragette sentences and approved the release of any prisoners.
Metge’s militancy also ended then but her campaign for women’s suffrage continued. Her activism seemed to have finished by 1920 – two years after the partial granting of the vote to women in 1918.
Her medal was acquired by the present owner during the 1980s.
Awards for activists
A Suffragette archive on offer at Catherine Southon’s auction at Farleigh Court Golf Club, Selsdon in Surrey on July 25 relates to Kate Evans, who was born in Wales in 1866, and is estimated at £8000-10,000. It includes a ‘Hunger Strike’ Suffragette medal.
These medals were instituted by the WSPU in 1909 to award militant Suffragettes. Silver bars were awarded to those who went on hunger strike in prison and an enamel one for those who were force-fed. A portcullis badge was given to those imprisoned in Holloway.