by Walter Ryland

Bertha Ryland, 18?? - 19??
Elizabeth ("Bessie") Rayner Parkes (Belloc), 1829-1925
Marie Adelaide Belloc (Lowndes), 1868-1947
[Joseph-Pierre] Hilaire Belloc, 1870-1953

The television program "Antiques Roadshow", produced by the BBC and seen in the US on the PBS network, in 2000 featured as its "Antique of the Week" a silver medal in its presentation case, being offered on the auction block. The medal was not awarded by any government, but it was marked "For Valour."

The item was estimated beforehand to fetch perhaps 2,500 to 3,000 pounds. At auction, the selling price was over twice the estimate: 6,470 pounds ($9700 US). The BBC report did not name the buyer, seller or the auction house. But it did name the original recipient of the medal -- Bertha Ryland.

Bertha was never famous; indeed, there is no information to be found about her through a thorough search of the web. We don't even know if she was Miss Ryland or Mrs. Ryland. But we do know that she was a "foot soldier" in the final years of a long campaign -- that to bring the vote to women in the United Kingdom.

The story leading up to the award of that medal goes back to another Ryland woman, one who became much better-known than Bertha.

The first Woman's Suffrage Committee in Britain was founded in 1866 by Bessie Rayner Parkes, in association with her best friend Barbara Bodichon. Bessie Parkes was the granddaughter of Elizabeth Ryland (ABT 1769-1824) and Joseph Priestley, Jr. (1768-1833). Those maternal grandparents were respectively the children of Samuel Ryland (1745-1817), industrialist of Birmingham, England, and Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), the Unitarian minister who discovered oxygen.

For eight years, Bessie had been editing a magazine called The Englishwoman's Reivew, the voice for women seeking advancement in society. Traditionally, women had held a secondary place in the affairs of England, as in most of the world. They were supposed to take care of the household while the men took care of them. But the old system was not working very well.

In Victorian times, there was a shortage of men in Britain. Many were out in distant places building the Empire. Many of those who remained behind, succumbed to the working conditions of the time and tended to leave young widows destitute. But still, a working woman was limited pretty much to one of three fields: domestic service, garment work, or prostitution. Even women writers, like Bessie's discovery Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot), often resorted to male pseudonyms in order for their work to be accepted.

John Stuart Mill knew these women and paid attention to them. He introduced an amendment to the 1867 Reform Act to provide for women to be allowed to vote. It was soundly defeated in the House of Commons, but this initiated a struggle that would last for over 60 years.

Mrs. Bodichon was along for most of the ride, but Bessie was not. Shortly afterwards, she married a Frenchman named Louis Belloc, moved to France and converted to Catholicism. When she returned to Britain after her husband's death in 1872, she had lost all interest in feminist issues.

The task fell to younger women, like Bessie's daughter Adelaide and Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters, who were inclined to conduct a much stronger, more active campaign. They were very visible and strident, much like their counterparts in the United States at the same time. They were insulted, ridiculed, and occasionally mistreated. But in the face of all this, they persevered. They did win a few small victories, such as independent property rights, but the all-important right to vote continued to elude them.

The arguments in opposition seem silly now. Women had smaller brains and were incapable of political thought. Worse, they would cease marrying and having children. The Empire would collapse, indeed the survival of the human race was in jeopardy. Most men and many women felt threatened by the movement, and at times the opposition took on the character of hysteria.

Every reactionary backlash seems to incite some lunatic at the fringe to commit an unspeakable act. The most revolting example of misogynistic madness occurred in the East End of London in 1888. A number of young women were mutilated and murdered by a serial killer who wrote taunting notes to the police and the newspapers, calling himself "Jack, the Ripper." This fiend, who engendered panic among the populace, was never apprehended.

The case inspired Bessie's daughter Adelaide to write a novel based on the climate of fear. Her earliest works were published under the masculine pen name Philip Curtin. Now married to Frederick Lowndes, she signed The Lodger (1913) as Marie Belloc Lowndes. Adelaide, it should be noted, had banded with a group of other "radical" women writers to use the written word to promote the cause, although The Lodger's feminist propaganda is subtle:

"It hadn't taken the landlady very long to find out that her lodger had a queer kind of fear and dislike of women. When she was doing the staircase and landings she would often hear Mr. Sleuth reading aloud to himself passages in the Bible that were very uncomplimentary to her sex. But Mrs. Bunting had no very great opinion of her sister woman, so that didn't put her out. Besides, where one's lodger is concerned, a dislike of women is better than -- well, than the other thing."

In the end, the man who liked "uncomplimentary" Scriptural passages turned out to be the vicious killer. The book was a best seller, and is generally considered to be Mrs. Belloc Lowndes's best work.

Bessie's son, Hilaire Belloc, had a very different outlook from that of his sister. He was an influential editor and Member of Parliament who was perhaps the country's most outspoken opponent to giving women not only the vote, but any higher education as well. He won elections repeatedly on that platform, overcoming the political liabilities of being not only Catholic but also French-born. He, as much as anyone else, continued to thwart feminist legislation in the House of Commons.

By the early twentieth century, the women's rights campaign had gone on for so long that many became bored with it. Newspaper editors, including Hilaire Belloc, refused even to print letters dealing with the subject. It was time to turn up the volume

Suffragettes began to employ confrontational tactics, creating disturbances at political meetings and chaining themselves to fences and so forth. It must be said that sometimes their acts seemed excessive, but most of it was limited to vociferous demonstrations. Either way, they were often arrested. Sometimes the charge was disturbing the peace, sometimes it was assault. (Oddly enough, when ruffians disrupted women's political meetings, authorities were often slow to intervene.) The women refused to pay fines and went to jail instead. This dramatized the situation, for the brutal treatment they endured shocked the nation.

This is what befell Bertha Ryland. She was a veteran of quite a few demonstrations. In one of these near the end of 1911, she got carried away with righteous zeal and broke a window. For this, she received a sentence of six months. Insisting that she was a political prisoner and not a common criminal, she went on a hunger strike, refusing to eat.

The authorities, already beleaguered by bad publicity, clearly could not permit a prisoner in their custody to starve herself to death. Their solution was to restrain the prisoner and perform force feeding. Exactly how this was done need not be related here; those in need of further details may consult the link below. Suffice it to say, it was not pleasant.

Bertha Ryland survived the ordeal. When she emerged from jail, she was a heroine. Like others who had stayed the course, she was greeted joyfully upon release and paraded triumphantly through the streets in a wagon bedecked with flowers. Mrs. Pankhurst's organization, The Women's Social and Political Union, presented her with their silver Medal for Valour, the very medal which fetched such a fancy price at auction in 2000.

As a tangential footnote, Hilaire Belloc was an early aficionado of the motion picture and organized efforts to encourage promising British filmmakers. One of his special proteges was Alfred Hitchcock. Like Hiliaire, he was also a product of English Catholic schools and shared much the same philosophical background. Hitchcock's breakthrough project was the movie version of Mrs. Belloc Lowndes's best seller, The Lodger (1926). He turned the story around: in his movie, the lodger was innocent, and the heroine's silly suspicions caused a great deal of needless trouble. (On second thought, perhaps this footnote is not totally irrelevant, after all.)

Sad to say, the movie was out before women's votes in Britain. Though some women received limited voting rights in 1917, true universal suffrage became a reality only in 1928, eight years after the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in the United States.

Mrs. Belloc Lowndes was able to vote in the first universal elections, but her mother Bessie, who got the ball rolling so long before, died in 1925 and did not live to see the day. We cannot be sure that Bertha Ryland survived to cast her ballot, but, assuming she did, it is nice to speculate that Election Day might have been one occasion when she was sure to wear her medal to the polls.

Interview: Diane Atkinson on Suffragettes "Shoulder to Shoulder".

 

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