This week marks the centenary of the Royal Assent of the Representation of the People Act 1918 which gave some women the right to vote (it would be another decade before voting equality with men was to be achieved). It is worth reflecting on, and celebrating, the life of a woman who made Lewisham her home and was actively involved with the struggle – Eugenia Bouvier, usually known as Jeannie.
They settled in Catford, just off Stanstead Road, at 21 Ravensbourne Road – they were there when the census enumerators called in 1891 – he was a French teacher, initially at King’s College, London and then at the nearby St Dunstan’s College in Catford. They were well enough off to be able to afford a servant – a 20 year old, Alice Whiffin. They remained there for the rest of the decade as, somewhat ironically, given later events, Paul appeared on the electoral register there until 1899. They had a daughter, Irene Eugenie, in 1893 whilst living there.
There is no mention of them in the 1901 census, although given the struggles that officialdom seemed to have struggled with both her names they may just be hidden in spelling errors and poor handwriting. It is known that at some point Jeannie was living at 32 Mount Pleasant Road (1). She was widowed in 1904 when Paul died, aged just 46.
Her home in Mount Pleasant Road (immediately to the left of the house shown below) was badly damaged during the Blitz, along with several neighbouring properties which were largely destroyed. The site had been cleared by the time the Ordnance Survey surveyed the area in 1949 and had flats on it built soon after.
Like the two other suffragettes that Running Past has covered, May Billinghurst and Emily Davison, Jeannie was actively involved in direct action and was arrested twice due in the struggle. She was known to have interrupted a meeting in Reading in January 1908 being addressed by the Chief Secretary for Ireland, Augustine Birrell, she and others shouted ‘Votes for Women’ at regular intervals.
In February the same year she was arrested as part of the ‘pantechnicon incident’ when a hired lorry was used as a ‘Trojan Horse’ in an unsuccessful attempt to enter the House of Commons. There were scuffles with the police, mainly in an attempt to resist arrest, and lots of arrests including Jeannie.
There were 50 suffragettes arrested and they appeared Westminster Police Court – the press noted that the ‘ wily leaders escap(ed) arrest.’
The defendants, including Jeannie, were described as mostly being ‘ladies of refinement and education’ and charged with ‘disorderly conduct.’ The sentence was to find a surety of £20 or 6 weeks in jail (2)
There were further incidents later in 1908 where Jeannie is reported as peacefully disrupting meetings and receptions attended by the Prime Minister and other Cabinet Ministers.
In July 1909 she was arrested again in a ‘raid’ on the House of Commons – Jeannie threw a stone through the window of the Privy Council Offices, she was one of the first militants to adopt the tactic of window-breaking and was arrested and charged with criminal damage. Jeannie said that the action was to show “what we thought of the Prime Minister in refusing these ladies admission to the House of Commons.”
She appeared at Bow Street Magistrates Court in front of London’s Chief Stipendiary Magistrate – Albert de Rutzen. He compared her to ‘hooligan boys in the street’; she compared her actions with men who had used similar methods protesting against the Reform Act. She demanded to be considered as a political prisoner; he regarded her as a common criminal. He was the magistrate; she was the prisoner and was fined £5 plus 2/6d damages or a sentence of a month at Holloway – she didn’t pay the fine (3).
Like many suffragettes sentenced to imprisonment she went on hunger strike and was released early, after just 10 days in Holloway (4).
She was secretary of the Lewisham Women’s Social and Political Union for several years – regularly chairing meetings – including at a ‘rowdy meeting at Blackheath’ Concert Halls in October 1909 when medical students broke up seating and let of stink bombs and fireworks – leading to the police being called (5) as well as meetings in New Cross in May (6) and November 1908 (7). She was a regular speaker for the Women’s Social and Political Union both locally – including street meetings like this in Catford (8).
She is known to have spoken at a meeting on Blackheath, presumably at Whitefield’s Mount, in September 1909 and in 1912 was present at the opening of new WSPU offices in Lewis Grove in Lewisham where a crowd of around three thousand became hostile throwing eggs (9).
She went well beyond her local area and was a regular speaker in favour of women’s suffrage elsewhere in the country – including a meeting with Annie Kenney where a firecracker was let off inside the meeting (10). She gave a provocative speech in Lewisham market in early 1913 (11)
the life of men will be made so miserable that they will rush to the Prime Minsiter and beseech him to give the vote to women…men would cry for mercy … militancy had brought the women’s question to the forefront of politics
She was ‘followed by 200’ mainly men and had to be escorted to the tram by police amidst a ‘good deal of jeering (12).’
The last definitive political involvement was work in the East End with Sylvia Pankhurst speaking at conferences opposing conscription in 1915 and 1916. Pankhurst described her as a ‘brave, persistent Russian.’ In addition to be an asset to the work of Sylvia Pankhurst in her own right, she proved useful in being able to translate and interpret for the Russian emigres in the East End.
She returned to post-revolutionary Russia in 1921, proud that her family wealth had been seized after the Revolution, suggesting that the wealth ‘ought to have taken.. from me years ago, and from all of us who lived on the backs of the people’.
She remained there until her death in 1933 (13), working for at least some of this time at the Comintern in Moscow.
- Iris Dove (1988) Yours In The Cause – Suffragettes in Lewisham, Greenwich & Woolwich p5
- 13 February 1908 – Sheffield Independent
- The Times (London, England), Wednesday, Feb 17, 1909; pg. 10; Issue 38885
- 12 July 1909 – Yorkshire Evening Post
- Kentish Mercury 15 October 1909
- Kentish Mercury 08 May 1908
- Kentish Mercury 20 November 1908
- Woolwich Gazette 11 June 1909
- Dove op cit p7
- Wiltshire Times and Trowbridge Advertiser 06 November 1909
- Lewisham Borough News 7 February 1913
- Dove op cit p7
For more detail on Eugenia’s life after Lewisham an excellent starting point is ‘From Russia to East London — and back again: Eugeníe Bouvier (1865-1933), suffragette and socialist.
Census and related data via Find My Past