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Jessie Craigen

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Jessie Hannah Craigen (c.1835–1899), was a working-class suffrage speaker in a movement which was predominately made up of middle and upper-class activists. She was also a freelance (or 'paid agent') speaker in the campaigns for  Irish Home Rule and the cooperative movement and against vivisection, compulsory vaccination, and the Contagious Diseases Acts.[1]

Early life

It is not certain where in the U.K. she was born, although a newspaper in 1866 described her as a 'Scotch lady'.[2] The 1871 census, however, shows her living with an adopted 18-year old child, Rosetta Vincent (q.v.), and a married sister, Emma Henley, in Ordsall near Retford and describing herself as a ‘lecturer’, born in London.[3] By 1881 she is in Clifton, Bristol, and in the census she describes herself as a London born, ‘Lecturer on Social Subjects’. [4]

She reportedly had a seafaring father from the Scottish Highlands, who died when she was an infant, and a mother who was an Italian actress.[5] As a child she appeared on the stage and this may have given her the skills and the confidence for paid public speaking. She began in the late 1850s giving readings from plays and recitations, before moving onto delivering orations at temperance meetings, and was described on one such occasion in 1861 as a 'clever Quakeress'.[6] By December 1868, she was addressing suffrage meetings.[7] A newspaper reporter wrote in 1869 at Alnwick that her talks were well attended, but added unkindly, that this was because a lady lecturer was a novelty, and he recalled Dr Johnson’s comments on the subject, ‘…a woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.’[8]

As a suffragist

She is recorded as speaking on behalf of women's rights between 1868 and 1884. Her main supporters were the radical suffragists Priscilla Bright McLaren, Lilias Ashworth Hallett and the Quaker sisters Anna Maria and Mary Priestman, who had realised the necessity of gaining support from the working classes for the suffrage movement.[9] The feminist and campaigner for women's rights, Helen Blackburn called her ‘that strange erratic genius’ who spoke with a tone like a 'mighty melodious bell'. Miss Blackburn noted that she planned and carried out her tours by herself, travelling all over the kingdom from John O'Groats to Lands End, accompanied only by her little dog, and that, with the power of her magnificent voice, she was able to gather audiences and hold them riveted, ‘from miners in Northumberland… and fishers in Cornwall... to agricultural labourers in the market-places of country towns’.[10] The writer and politician Henry Hyndman wrote vividly of her:

Jessie Craigen was ugly, self-taught, roughly attired, and uncouth in her ways.Yet all this was soon overlooked when once the lady began to speak...She came forward, dumped down on the table in front of me an umbrella, a neck wrapper, and a shabby old bag.Then she turned round to face the audience. She was greeted with boisterous peals of laughter. No wonder! Such a figure of fun you never saw. It was Mrs. Gamp come again in the flesh – umbrella, corkscrew curls and all. There she stood with a battered bonnet on her straggling grey hair, with a rough shawl pinned over her shoulders, displaying a powerful and strongly marked and somewhat bibulous physiognomy, with a body of portly development and as broad as it was long...In two minutes the whole audience was listening intently; within five she had them in fits of laughter, this time not at her but with her. A little later tears were in every eye as she told some terribly touching story of domestic suffering, self-sacrifice, and misery. So it went on. This ungainly person was producing more effect than all the rest of the speakers put together.[11]

By 1879 she was appearing on platforms with the principal figures of the suffrage movement and at Manchester, in October of that year, Helen Blackburn said that she 'held the meeting enchained by her grand voice and her strong and witty words, delivered with practised power'.[12] On 3 February 1880 she spoke at the ‘Great Demonstration of Women’ in the Free Trade Hall, alongside such luminaries as Mrs McClaren, Lydia Becker and Josephine Butler. [13]

In 1881-2 she seems to have formed a romantic friendship with the feminist and suffragist Helen Taylor, a woman from a very different social background. This was always going to be problematic, since class differences in late-Victorian England meant that women like Craigen, who took payment for their suffrage work, were likely to be regarded on the same terms as personal servants by the middle-class leadership of the movement. However, this friendship actually faded, to Craigen’s great regret, over differences of opinion concerning Ireland and Charles Stewart Parnell, who was often a houseguest of Miss Taylor.[14]

As the suffrage movement split, after its failure to win any measure for women's right to vote under the Third Reform Act of December 1884, Jesse Craigen's position, as a paid agent speaker, became more difficult and she gradually faded from the women's rights scene. She continued to protest on behalf of other causes however, contributing an article to the Nineteenth Century Review against proposals to build a Channel Tunnel, and when speaking at an anti-vivisection, anti-vaccination demonstration in Chelsea, in April 1894, she was described as ‘a stout, elderly lady of dark complexion, with a stubby beard and a strong moustache…’ [15]

Later life and death

The Local Government Act 1894 had created a system of urban and rural district councils, and had permitted women to be councillors. In December 1894, Jessie Craigen stood, as the only woman candidate, in the election for Ilford Urban District Council, on behalf of the Women's Liberal Association. She was unsuccessful, coming fourteenth out of seventeen candidates.[16]

She died in her lodgings 2, Grove-villas, Ilford Lane, Ilford, Essex on 5 October 1899 when local newspapers described her as a ‘well-known old maiden lady’ and ‘miser’, who had shared her house with fifteen dogs.[17] Her obituary in the Zoophilist declared that 'as a woman of the people, she exercised a great influence over the working classes... We shall miss her courageous and outspoken advocacy… her racy and eloquent speeches'.[18] Her belongings were left to Rosetta Blanche Vincent, spinster, of Church House, Uckfield, Sussex, who was granted probate on the will as sole executrix. [19]

Posthumous recognition

Her name but no picture as there is no known photograph or drawing of her, (and those of 58 other women's suffrage supporters) are on the plinth of the statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square, London, unveiled in 2018.[20][21][22]

See also


  1. ^ Reynolds's Newspaper, 23 October 1881,p1; Lincolnshire Chronicle, 7 April 1871, p.4; N. Durbach, Bodily Matters: The Anti-Vaccination Movement in England, 1853–1907 (2005), p.111
  2. ^ Dover Express, 30 November 1866, p.3
  3. ^ 1871 census RG10/3455/0089
  4. ^ 1881 census RG11/2482, p.28
  5. ^ H. Blackburn, Women's Suffrage: A Record of the Women's Suffrage Movement in the British Isles, with Biographical Sketches of Miss Becker (1902), p.127
  6. ^ For example Clerkenwell News, 8 November 1856, p.1 and West Middlesex Advertiser and Family Journal, 1 May 1858, p.3;At the Corn Exchange Hall, Dundee in the Dundee, Perth and Cupar Advertiser, 7 June 1861, p.5.
  7. ^ Dundee Courier, 25 December 1868, p.3, although E..Crawford, The Women's Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide 1866-1928 (2003), p.149 suggests July 1870.
  8. ^ Alnwick Mercury, 25 December 1869, p.4, quoting from J. Boswell, The life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D (1827), p.128
  9. ^ E..Crawford, The Women's Suffrage Movement..., p.150;Yorkshire Gazette, 3 June 1884, p.5
  10. ^ H. Blackburn, Women's suffrage... (1902), pp.153,126
  11. ^ H. M. Hyndman, Further Reminiscences (1912), p.8
  12. ^ H. Blackburn, Women's suffrage... (1902), p.148
  13. ^ Manchester Times , 7 February 1880, p.6
  14. ^ S.S. Holton, Suffrage Days: Stories from the Women's Suffrage Movement (2002), pp.59-60
  15. ^ Pall Mall Gazette, 4 May 1882, p.4; D. Clifford, E. Wadge, et al., Repositioning Victorian Sciences: Shifting Centres in Nineteenth-century Scientific Thinking (2006), p.216
  16. ^ Essex Herald 06 November 1894, p.5 and 18 December 1894, p.8
  17. ^ E..Crawford, The Women's Suffrage Movement...,p.150; London Evening Standard ,11 April 1900,p.2; Essex Herald, 10 October 1899, p.5
  18. ^ The Zoophilist, 1 November 1899, vol 19, p.152
  19. ^ S.S.Holton, 'Silk Dresses and Lavender Kid Gloves: the wayward career of Jessie Craigen' in Women's History Review, Vol 5:1 (1996),p.149; Probate Calendars of England & Wales (1900), p.194, Effects worth: £73-0s-6d
  20. ^ "Historic statue of suffragist leader Millicent Fawcett unveiled in Parliament Square". 24 April 2018. Retrieved 24 April 2018.
  21. ^ Topping, Alexandra (24 April 2018). "First statue of a woman in Parliament Square unveiled". The Guardian. Retrieved 24 April 2018.
  22. ^ "Millicent Fawcett statue unveiling: the women and men whose names will be on the plinth". iNews. Retrieved 2018-04-25.
This page was last edited on 29 November 2018, at 21:16
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