Suffragette Florence Feek
Archivist Louise explores an extraordinary story of a suffragette Florence Feek, who fought tirelessly for women’s right to vote.
Looking for evidence of suffragette activity amongst women who worked for the Post Office can be a frustrating experience. This is probably because those employed by the Post Office were expected to ‘maintain a certain reserve in political matters, and not put themselves forward on one side or the other.’ Therefore, records about support for votes for women can be difficult to find.
However, if you look hard enough the Royal Mail Archive does offer a tantalising glimpse into the case of one Post Office employee, a woman called Florence Feek, who was prepared to go to prison to support the suffragette movement.
Florence came from Pershore in Worcestershire. She was born on 26 December 1876 and joined the Post Office as a Clerk on 26 May 1896. In 1907, she joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) after hearing Mrs Pankhurst and Emmeline Pethick Lawrence speak. At the time of her arrest, she was working in the Money Order Department.
A raid on the House of Commons
On 31 March 1909, Florence and several other members of the WSPU attempted to see the Prime Minister, Mr Asquith, at the House of Commons. According to the Dundee Courier, a sizeable crowd had gathered to witness their arrival. At about 4.20pm the ladies drove up and attempted to gain entry. Unfortunately for them, the police were prepared and all attempts to get in failed. The newspaper went onto report that ‘Although every indulgence was shown by the police, as is demonstrated by the fact that half an hour elapsed before any arrests were made, nine women were eventually arrested.’ One of them was Florence.
Her arrest caused consternation making its way into the minutes between the Postmaster General and the Secretary of the Post Office no less!
‘Whatever Miss Feek’s motive may have been it is obvious that, in taking part in a disorderly demonstration which involved her arrest and appearance at a Police Court, she has taken action which is discreditable to an officer of her rank and position. She has, moreover, obviously broken the well-established rule which prohibits public servants from putting themselves forward on one side or the other in political matters. It is clearly undesirable that officers of the Post Office should be committed to prison for action of this description.’
Not only was Florence arrested but she refused to be bound over (i.e. accept an offer of freedom in return for good behaviour) and elected instead to go to prison for a month. The minutes make it clear that this came out of her annual leave!
The minutes go onto say that ‘as Miss Feek was offered the opportunity of being bound over in which case she would not have gone to prison at all, her action was of a particularly wanton character.’
Florence left officials in a quandary about what to do about her conduct. Two courses of action were suggested. Option A was to recall Florence ‘to duty and then ask for an explanation. If she disobeys this order of the Postmaster General it will be a grave case of insubordination which must be followed by severe punishment or actual dismissal.’ Option B was to ignore the arrest until she returned. As she was on leave she was not neglecting her duties. It was considered that ‘if the case were an ordinary one the former [option A] course would no doubt be the best.’ It was such a serious matter however that the Prime Minister was consulted.
The Post Office decided to follow option B.
Rather intriguingly, the minutes mention a letter from Miss M C Smith, Superintendent of the female staff at the Savings Bank who expected ‘further trouble with would be martyrs if no notice is taken of Miss Feek’s conduct’. Unfortunately, this letter no longer exists but the minutes suggest that it should be made to clear to Florence that the Postmaster General viewed her conduct ‘with grave disapproval, and that any participation in a public ceremony of rejoicing or congratulation on her release would be a distinct aggravation of the offence’. This did not stop the WSPU holding a reception in London for Florence and the other ladies who had been arrested when they were released on 30 April!
‘She treats the whole matter very lightly’
Once Florence returned to work she was asked for her explanation as to her conduct. Whatever she said did not go down well with the minutes commenting that it ‘will be seen that she treats the whole matter very lightly.’
The final minute records that the Postmaster General was distinctly unimpressed!
As militant action amongst the suffragettes grew, Florence focused her efforts on working in Canning Town Women’s Settlement and helping to create the West Ham Home and Hostel for Girls. It certainly appears that she avoided any further serious trouble as she retired from the Post Office at the age of 60 having spent 40 years and 8 months in service. Her pension record makes no mention of her suffragette activities although, as you will see, it also makes no mention of her having ‘discharged her duties with diligence and fidelity to the satisfaction of her superior officers.’ Employees with an unblemished service record often had this remark added to their pension record so it is unusual not see it.
Tragically she did not have long to enjoy her retirement as she fell victim to an air raid when the County Hostel at 35 High Street, Plaistow was bombed on 15 September 1940. She was taken to Whipps Cross Hospital where she died later that day.
– Louise Todd, Archivist
The Royal Mail Archive
Pensions and gratuities applications and awards, January-February 1937 (POST 1/1071)
Secretary’s minutes to the Postmaster General, 03 March-02 July 1909 (POST 35/1284)
List of Officers of the General Post Office in London, Edinburgh and Dublin and Postmasters in England and Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, 1909 (POST 59/142)