The Norwich Suffragette whose uncle sent her to prison

Miriam at a protest rally at Norwich Market. Courtesy Frank Meeres.

Miriam at a protest rally at Norwich Market. Courtesy Frank Meeres. - Credit: With thanks to Gill Blanchard

It was 110 years ago that a controversial office was opened at 52 London Street in the heart of Norwich by the Suffragettes.

They were brave women fighting tooth and nail for the opportunity to do something that today we all take for granted…voting.

The story of one of them, Miriam Pratt (1890-1975), is told so well in the latest edition of the book Aspects of Norwich, published by the Norwich Society.

Genealogist and historian Gill Blanchard is researching her life and times for a short biography, which is well overdue.

Reading her story makes you wish you had met Miriam and had the opportunity to talk to her about being a Suffragette – her experience including a prison sentence with hard labour and a hunger strike.

She had been sentenced to 18 months by Mr Justice Bray, who was interrupted (while reading at Norwich Cathedral) by a group of women chanting: “Lord help and save Miriam Pratt and all those being tortured in prison for conscience’s sake.”

So who was Miriam?

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From a working-class background, she was born in Surrey and when she was eight sent to live with her aunt Harriet, married to Norwich policeman William Ward, at Grove Avenue in the city.

Her other aunt Emma also lived in Norwich and was married to another police officer George Edwards.

Miriam’s sister Harriet soon followed and lived with Emma.

“The farming out of children to different family members was not an unusual custom at the time; it may have made Miriam more self-reliant and independent,” writes Gill.

The girls seem to have settled down well in their adopted city; two of their brothers were also to follow them after the First World War.

Gill writes about the growth of the Suffragette movement and how Miss Caley (of chocolate factory fame) became secretary of the Norwich branch in 1909. Their first office was in Brigg Street

At the same time imprisoned Suffragettes began hunger strikes.

“Since the government did not want any of them to die in prison in case they were seen as martyrs, they were subjected to agonising force-feeding, with tubes being pushed down their throats,” says Gill

“This brutality and the physical damage that it caused backfired, provoking widespread outrage even among their staunchest opponents” she writes.

By the spring of 1913, Miriam was living at Turner Road in the city and teaching at St Paul’s School. She held keys to the Suffragette office and sold copies of their paper, The Suffragette, on the corner of Gentleman’s Walk and London Street.

This was the year that Emily Davison died after throwing herself in front of the king’s horse at Epsom

“The government attempted to solve the problem of hunger strikes by introducing the Prisoners Temporary Discharge for Ill Health Act. This was quickly nicknamed the ‘Cat and Mouse Act,’ since women whose lives were in danger were now released from prison, only to be recalled as soon as they recovered,” says Gill.

With increasing militancy, some of them damaged and started fires at a house under construction for Viscount Esther and the genetics laboratory building belonging to the university at Cambridge.

Suffragette leaflets were found inside both premises, together with a gold watch outside the laboratory. Miriam’s policeman uncle, William Ward, recognised the description of the watch which had been a gift from him.

“Under his questioning, Miriam admitted being involved, and William felt obliged to inform the authorities. His statement was used against her at her trial,” she said.

She appeared before Mr Justice Bray at Cambridge Assize Court in 1913 wearing the suffragette colours of green, white and violet with the slogan “Give Women Votes.”

Miriam denied starting the fires but admitted to bring present and conducted her own spirited defence. She was sentenced to 18 months’ in prison with hard labour and immediately went on hunger strike.

Within a week her heart was seriously affected and she was released under the terms of the “Cat and Mouse Act” in a case which made headlines across the country and inspired other Suffragette protests

She did not return to prison and times changed when war was declared in 1914.

Miriam returned to Norwich and was reconciled with her aunt and uncle. In fact when he died in 1936 he left her half his property.

By the time of her death, in 1975, so much more then she could possibly have dreamed of had been achieved.

Also in the brilliant new Aspects of Norwich are stories about the Great Fire of Norwich (Carole Rawcliffe), The Bank of England in Norwich: A Sorry Tale (Pete Goodrum), The Norwich Design and Craftmanship Awards (Mary Ash), Theo Scott and the Peace Ballot of 1934 (Judith and Derek Merrill) and Talking Different: The Linguistic History of Norwich (Peter Trudgill).

The book costs just £5 and is on sale at City Books, Davey Place, Norwich, or from their website.