Georgina Fanny Cheffins was born into a prosperous middle class family in Hampstead in 1864. Her father, Charles Richard was a civil engineer, the son of another, very successful, civil engineer and her mother, Mary Ann (Craven) was the daughter of a Bradford mill owner. It is likely Georgina was educated at home.
Her father later, in partnership with two others, established the Gillingham Portland Cement Co Ltd and moved the family to live nearby, employing all his sons at the works. Georgina eventually left home when she was over thirty. She went to live in Sedgley, Staffordshire.
The Gillingham works which provided the wealth for Georgina to live independently
In the 1901 census, she is found in as a ‘lay sister’ in Temple Street, Sedgley. It was a working class area. Her neighbours were coal miners, brickmakers and butchers, but she had the company of another lay sister, Eva Lewis. Eva (full name Evangeline), was the same age as Georgina and the daughter of John Lewis, Bishop of Ontario. The two women would live together until Eva’s death.
It is not clear exactly what the Mission’s objectives were nor whether Georgina and Eva were members of an Anglican order or not. What is clear is that they were both well-off enough to support themselves for the rest of their lives and that both felt the need to put those lives to some good purpose,
By 1911 they were in Hythe, living at a house called ‘Dunedin’ at 24 Seabrook Road, where they kept two pug dogs. It may be relevant that the house was previously occupied by Ursuline nuns who ran a small boarding school there. Georgina and Eva were by now supporters of votes for women and were visited by a paid campaigner for the New Constitutional Society for Women’s Suffrage, (NCS) Kate Frye. They introduced her to other local supporters, helped to arrange a talk at Hythe Institute and to set up the Hythe and Folkestone branch of the organisation. Kate recorded in her diary, though, that Hythe people were just not very interested (though they were ‘very, very nice’).
The 1911 census does not record the presence of Georgina and Eva in Hythe, because they boycotted it. The Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), led by the Pankhursts, campaigned vigorously against any participation by women. They had, they argued, no direct say in any legislation yet were to face in-depth personal enquiry about their marital status and fertility. The penalty for refusal to complete the schedule was a fine of £5 or a month’s imprisonment. Suffragists were encouraged to write across their census schedule ‘No Vote, No Census’, others improvised with ‘I don’t count so I won’t be counted’. Some just stayed away from home that night, in tents or a village hall.
‘As women do not count they refuse to be counted’
Later that year, Georgina bought another house in Hythe, ‘Cravenhurst’ at 24 Napier Gardens, possibly a new build. She was having it fitted up to her own specifications. She took Kate Perry to see the work in progress in February 1912 and promised her a room of her own there, to be decorated in ‘Suffrage Colours’. Each of the various women’s suffrage groups had their own banners. That of the WSPU was green, purple and white; the Women’s Freedom League favoured green, yellow and white.
We don’t know at what stage Georgina joined the WSPU, but there were certainly copies of the Pankhurst’s writings in her house. Eva lent Kate a copy of Sylvia Pankhurst’s The Suffragette published in 1910.
Barely a month after Kate’s visit, Georgina was in prison. She and two other women were convicted of ‘maliciously damaging eleven plate glass windows, the property of Frederick Gorringe, Ltd., to the amount of £110’. The premises in question was Gorringe’s department store in Buckingham Palace Road. All the women were sentenced to four months imprisonment, which they spent in HMP Holloway.
Gorringe’s department store, with a good choice of windows
At her trial, Georgina said that she was a suffragist by conviction, because, after living and working among the very poor for more than twenty years, she had come to the conclusion that all efforts to improve their conditions were futile without the benefit of the franchise. She supported the WSPU because she felt that their militant methods gave the best chance of success.
The WSPU leadership, frustrated with the lack of progress in their campaign, had only weeks before launched a programme of direct action, ‘Deeds not Words’ , which at first only involved smashing the windows of targeted properties, though it would later become more extreme. Imprisonment was an inevitable consequence, but since 1909 many gaoled WSPU activists had adopted the hunger strike as a means of protest. The prison authorities responded by force feeding them. Georgina went on hunger strike and suffered this barbaric treatment
In Holloway, she was one of sixty-eight women who added their signatures or initials to a handkerchief, which was then embroidered by prisoners. She was also awarded by the WSPU their hunger strike medal. It was inscribed:
PRESENTED 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
Georgina’s medal, now in Australia
The imprisoned women, to keep up morale, made their own entertainment. Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence (then a leading member of the WSPU though she was later expelled) told stories; Emmeline Pankhurst reminisced about the early days of the WSPU; they sang together and acted scenes from Shakespeare.
Most of the prisoners from this bout of window-breaking were released by the end of June and Georgina returned to Hythe ‘very thin’ and very embittered. Her wrath was particularly focussed on Kate Frye’s non-militant NCS, presumably because of their lack of support for WSPU tactics.
But while she had been inside, in May 1912, the local WSPU and NCS decided that they should work together. A Suffrage Club and Shop was suggested. Miss Cheffins would be treasurer and Miss Lewis secretary and the subscription would be one shilling a year. The women found an empty shop at 83 (now 164) High Street, Hythe and the club/shop was officially opened by Lady Brassey and Lady Idina, the wife and daughter-in-law of the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, Earl Brassey, on 26 July. There was a tea party and the windows, counter and tables were decorated in the WSPU colours. Countess Brassey later addressed a public meeting at which Georgina was on the stage.
The former suffrage shop in Hythe High Street
The prison experience had its effect on Georgina. She was described towards the end of 1912 as being ‘fearfully unhappy’ and ‘unmistakeably crazy’. It was well-known that repeated force feeding caused physical exhaustion, but the effects on mental health were rarely discussed. One study, however, did conclude that it could lead to ‘neurasthenia’, or weak nerves. Today, we might think that she was suffering from post-traumatic stress, given the dreadful way in which she was violated.
The outbreak of war in 1914 put an end to the suffrage campaign. Georgina did her bit, taking a St John’s Ambulance First Aid course and a home nursing qualification. After the war, she and Eva moved to South Road, Hythe down-sizing to a more modest property, ‘Hymora’. They did, however, have a telephone installed – the number was Hythe 252.
It was at ‘Hymora’ that Eva died in 1928. She left her gold watch and a pencil drawing to her sister and the rest to Georgina who was her executor. It amounted to £7.8s.9d. Georgina moved to De La Warr Road in Bexhill, where she had family members and died on 29 July 1932
But the handkerchief she signed during the dark days in Holloway survives, having turned up at a jumble sale in West Hoathly. It is now displayed in the Priest House there
The Holloway handkerchief. Georgina’s name is top left
Details of Kate Frye’s visits to Hythe are taken from: Elizabeth Crawford (ed.) Campaigning for the Vote: Kate Parry Frye’s Suffrage Diary (London: Francis Boutle, 2013)