“The story of Frances Parker is one of the most remarkable in the history of the campaign to win women the vote,” says David Erskine-Hill, auctioneer at Dix Noonan Webb. “She came from a classic establishment background, her uncle, Lord Kitchener, epitomizing military traditionalism but rebelled against that and became an ardent suffragette. She was imprisoned five times and force-fed on three occasions and was subjected to the most appalling abuse while she was in jail in Perth. The medal that she was awarded by her fellow campaigners must surely rank as one of the most important ever issued by the Women’s Social and Political Union.”
Parker’s W.S.P.U Medal for Valour is inscribed with the words ‘Hunger Strike’ on the front and her name on the reverse and also bears the dates of two of her hunger strikes and two occasions on which she was force-fed. Its ribbon bears the colours of the W.S.P.U. and the medal is in a presentation box inscribed: ‘Presented to Frances Parker by the Women’s Social and 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’. Parker bequeathed the medal to her friend and fellow-suffragette Ethel Moorhead and the vendor is a descendant of the latter. It is expected to sell for £12,000 to £15,000.
Parker’s story reads like something from the film Suffragette, released in October 2015 and starring Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter and Meryl Streep. In the movie the character played by Mulligan goes on hunger strike in prison and is subjected to brutal force-feeding. Parker experienced this in reality.
Frances Parker was born in Kurow, Otago, New Zealand in December 1874, one of five children of Harry and Frances Parker, the latter being the sister of Herbert Kitchener, later to become Field Marshal Lord Kitchener. He paid for young Frances to come to England to study at Downham College, Cambridge in 1896. She later returned to New Zealand, which had granted women the vote in 1893, and worked as a teacher in Auckland.
By 1908 Parker had gone back to Britain and become involved in the women’s suffrage movement being sentenced to six weeks imprisonment in Holloway Prison after taking part in a deputation to the House of Commons. In September 1909 she became a speaker for the Scottish Universities Women’s Suffrage Union and then chief organiser of the W.S.P.U’s activities in Glasgow and the west of Scotland. Travelling to England in March 1912 to take part in a window-smashing campaign in London, she was arrested, sentenced to four months in Holloway, went on hunger strike and was forcibly fed.
Her campaigning outraged Lord Kitchener who said in a letter to his sister that he was “disgusted” by her behaviour, adding “whatever her feelings on the subject may be, I cannot help thinking she might have some consideration for her family.”
After returning to Scotland, she was arrested in Dundee and then Aberdeen, going on hunger strike on both occasions, before becoming the W.S.P.U’s chief organiser in Edinburgh in August 1913. Having been responsible for the torching of the historic church in Whitekirk, East Lothian in February 1914, Parker and Ethel Moorhead then tried to do the same to the birthplace of Robert Burns in Alloway, Ayrshire. Parker was arrested and imprisoned.
The consequences of this were appalling. After bad treatment in Ayr Prison, Parker was sent to the jail in Perth, where she was forcibly fed with the utmost violence. That was bad enough but she was also subjected to what she later described as “a grosser and more indecent outrage, which could have been done for no other purpose than to torture”. A medical report indicated that she had been sexually assaulted.
Her family heard rumours about her terrible treatment and declining health and her brother travelled to Scotland to request her release, although he admitted that he had no sympathy for her views. Parker was allowed to go to a nursing home pending trial but, despite being near collapse, escaped. She was still on the run when the First World War broke out and her solicitor wrote to the Secretary of State for Scotland saying that the niece of Lord Kitchener, who was now Secretary of State for War, would devote her time to the war effort. The Lord Advocate decreed that the trial for attempted arson would not go ahead.
Clear of the threat of being re-arrested, Parker first ran an organization in London which put women workers in touch with employers. She then joined the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, becoming a Deputy Controller, serving in France and being appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (O.B.E.). Had he lived (he drowned in 1916), Lord Kitchener might have approved. Parker died in France in January 1924 aged just 49.
Dix Noonan Webb Ltd is one of the world’s leading specialist auctioneers and valuers of coins, tokens, medals, militaria and paper money of all types. Established in 1990, the company boasts over 250 years' combined experience in this field and stages regular auctions throughout the year.
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