This medal is one of a small number of awards created by the WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union) to recognise the contribution that particular women made to advancing the cause of womens rights during the height of the suffragette movement.
The government of the day had resisted attempts to grant women the right to vote through legal means, and so many of the more militant suffragettes took to acts of civil disobedience in order to make their point heard. The most famous cases of these acts revolved around the women of the Pankhurst family, whose matriarch Emmeline founded the WSPU around the idea that the movement should make their point via “Deeds not words”.
Women were arrested and imprisoned for breaking the law in pursuit of their goals. They chained themselves to railings, destroyed property and in extreme cases set fires. Emily Wilding Davison, a member of the WSPU, even hurled herself in front of the king’s horse at the Epsom derby – an act that cost her her life.
The Suffragettes regarded themselves as political prisoners, and their imprisonment as an injustice that was further compounded when many of those incarcerated began to go on hunger strike and were force-fed by the prison staff.
The suffering endured by the WPSU’s members in pursuit of the noble goal of equality between the sexes was commemorated with a small number of medals created to recognise the individual hardships and horrors endured to keep the cause going. This medal is one such piece.
A Hero of the Suffragettes
Nellie Godfrey had joined the WPSU in 1909 and was first arrested in the summer of that year, demonstrating that she possessed the bravery and resilience that came to characterise the members of the movement as a whole. Nellie continued to be intensely involved in the struggle for women’s rights, and her participation in the WSPU’s militant actions continued when she was freed.
Her second arrest, the one which would earn her the recognition of her peers, came later that same year when then president of the Board of Trade Winston Churchill was undertaking a campaign tour of Lancashire. As Churchill’s car passed through Bolton Nellie threw a lump of iron at it. The makeshift projectile was wrapped in paper which read:
“ Thrown by a woman of England as a protest against the Government’s treatment of political prisoners.”
Nellie was summoned to court, and after pleading guilty was fined 40 shillings, which she refused to pay. She was sentenced to 7 days imprisonment before being released from prison on medical grounds.
This was most likely due to a change in government policy which mandated the release of suffragettes who went on hunger strike when their condition began to deteriorate. This so-called “Cat and Mouse” policy was intended to prevent the suffragettes from becoming martyrs to their cause. In response the WPSU commissioned this and a small number of other medals to recognise and celebrate the actions of those who had endured mistreatment whilst furthering the cause.
The silver medal’s obverse is inscribed with the words “Hunger Strike” with the recipient’s name inscribed on the reverse. The suspension bar is dated December 7th. 1909, and the top bar is marked “For Valour”.
The medal is enamelled in green, white and violet – the colours of the movement, which stood for Give Women Votes. The same colours are laid across the medal’s ribbon. These colours were worn by those who supported the movement, and were often built into suffragette jewellery with Amethysts for violet, diamonds or pearls for white and peridot for green.
When originally bestowed the inside silk interior lining of the medal box lid was marked with gold blocked inscription, ‘Presented to Nellie Godfrey. by the Women’s Social & Political Union in recognition of a gallant action, whereby through endurance to the last extremity of hunger and hardship a great principle of political justice was vindicated’
We purchased the piece at auction in January 2020, with all of the proceeds from the sale being donated to the Fawcett Society, the UK’s leading membership charity campaigning for gender equality and women’s rights at work, at home and in public life.
At Laurelle Antique Jewellery we have spent many years searching for authentic antique suffragette pieces for collectors around the globe, and this is the most significant piece we have ever acquired. A piece of history, preserving the memory of the sacrifices made by women of the movement that eventually led to greater equality for women in Great Britain. You can view the medal here.
If you would like to learn more about the Suffragette movement and the exquisite jewellery crafted to demonstrate one’s support for it take a look at our other Suffragette articles here:
If you have questions about a particular piece please feel free to get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org or via telephone on England: 0333 700 4500.