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PUBLISHED: 09:49 17 March 2014 | UPDATED: 09:49 17 March 2014

Did suffragettes burn Tunbridge Wells Cricket Pavilion in April 1913?

Did suffragettes burn Tunbridge Wells Cricket Pavilion in April 1913?


Kent Life’s history sleuth unearths the stories behind Kent’s rich heritage that took place in Aprils past

Fuelled by rebellion?

Flames devoured the Tunbridge Wells Cricket Pavilion as a street lamp-lighter conducted his early morning tour of the town. Spotting the blaze he reported it to the police, but it was too late.

Ninety minutes later, all that remained was a few blackened roof timbers and the outer brick walls. It was a disaster; in nine weeks-time the Nevill Ground was due to host the county’s prestigious Cricket Week.

The Tonbridge Free Press, dated Friday 18 April 1913, reported the incident beneath the headline ‘Cricket Pavilion Destroyed – Supposed work of Suffragettes at Tunbridge Wells.’

Militant women were being blamed, but were they guilty? The evidence is flimsy. The pavilion could only be accessed by climbing over a high fence as the gates were locked each evening and the groundsman had confirmed all was well on his final inspection.

The voracious, all-consuming nature of the fire implied arson but no suspicious activity had been reported. The only indication as to who could be at fault was the presence of a portrait of Emily Pankhurst, a suffragette newspaper and a portable electric pocket lamp found by fireman.

Was this entirely co-incidental? And why would suffragettes target the cricket club? A long-standing rumour relates that, when asked why women weren’t allowed in the club, a high-ranking official had responded with something along the lines of ‘of course women are allowed in the club. Who do you think makes the teas?’

The monetary value of the destruction was valued upwards of £1,000, which was covered by insurance, but it wasn’t just the destruction of the building that caused outrage, it was the loss of ‘the records of the famous Blue Mantles Cricket Club’ which were kept in the pavilion, ‘together with a number of valuable sporting prints and engravings of Kent Cricket’.

Locals, particularly sportsmen, were reportedly ‘disgusted’ at the actions of the supposed ‘female hooligans.’ Tempers were just as heated on the streets and a demonstration was held in the Great Hall to ‘protest against the recent outrage at the Nevill Cricket Ground’.

Police guarded the hall throughout the day and ‘every care was taken not to allow the admission of a suffragette.’ Col. A T. Simpson chaired the meeting and various speeches in opposition to women’s right to vote were given, including one by the author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who said that ‘he found the argument that every woman householder should be given a vote very strong, but if carried out to the full, such an electoral system would work out against the civilised law and even the laws of nature.’

Debate raged throughout Britain and, as Emily Pankhurst carried out a hunger strike in prison on behalf of women’s rights, non-militant suffragette meetings were held across the county.

Local newspapers carried reports of their speeches and a suffragette rally was planned to start at Margate on 1 July and hold functions in all the main towns, including a boycott of an afternoon service at Canterbury Cathedral, on the way to a mass meeting in London on 26 July.

Amidst all this tension, a local builder ignored the furore around him to tirelessly rebuild the pavilion, in a design almost identical to the one that was lost, and with just a few hours to spare the Nevill Cricket Ground was ready for Cricket Week.

In the spirit of peace

The idea that on Christmas Day 1914 allied and German soldiers put down their guns and enjoyed a game of football is one that endures.

Far from being a mass pre-scheduled event, contemporary reports mention small-scale, spontaneous, kick-abouts, but the relationship between football and the First World War is much stronger than first suggested.

Documents held in the Kent History and Library Centre reveal the role sport played as a leisure, propaganda and recruitment tool during the war and they are now being used to forge a link between schoolchildren and their historical communities.

Over the past eight months, Rob Illingsworth and Julia Booth of the Kent History and Library Centre have been working in partnership with the National Football Alliance, based in Kings Hill, to deliver a unique, lottery funded, project.

Through a series of filmed workshops, 100 children from five different schools have been able to explore the football-related stories of local inhabitants.

These include Alfred Coultrip, 15, whose school in Herne Bay was requisitioned by the military, and Private Allan Stanley Stevens from Sevenoaks who wrote to the editor of the Kent Messenger from the French trenches with a heartfelt request.

“Sir, being an inhabitant of Kent, do you think one of your readers would kindly send us a football? It is hard to get a football out here, and a game after the boys have come out of the trenches livens things up.”

The project culminates with a ‘Celebration of Peace Day’ at the Gallagher Football Stadium in Maidstone on 25 April 2014.

The stadium is built on the original site of the Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment’s training ground and, as part of the public celebrations, it will host a pupil exhibition and a football match played in ‘the spirit of peace’.

A poetic view

Celebrations are being held throughout Britain to mark the 450th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth.

Thousands of people are expected to arrive in his home town of Stratford- Upon-Avon to witness a grand birthday procession comprising of 1,000 people on 23 April, which is also, co-incidentally, the 398th anniversary of his death.

Kent may not be going quite that far but we do have links to the bard and he featured several of our towns and locations within his plays.

As well as writing plays and sonnets, Shakespeare belonged to a theatre company known initially as the ‘Lord Chamberlain’s Men’.

This was later renamed the ‘King’s Men’ in honour of their patronage by King James I and the company is known to have visited Dover on 4 October 1605. As the town and its dramatic coastline feature prominently within King Lear, it’s likely that Shakespeare accompanied them and, if you dare to travel to the edge of the appropriately renamed Shakespeare Cliff, it’s sure to make you feel, as the playwright describes; ‘fearful and dizzy’.

Shakespeare also makes use of the area’s undulating cliff tops for the setting of the French and British Military camps and the desolate, gale-swept landscape provides the perfect backdrop to the heavy death toll that concludes the tragedy.

Although not used for a scene, the dangerous and ever-shifting Goodwin Sands have also been used to dispense with a character from the Merchant of Venice who Shakespeare fictionally leaves ‘wracked on the narrow seas; the Goodwins, I think they call the place, a very dangerous flat, and fatal, where the carcasses of many a tall ship lie buried.’

Canterbury doesn’t feature at all, despite Shakespeare’s close friendship with Christopher Marlowe, but Rochester appears briefly and sadly not that favourably. During a conversation outside an inn, one character remarks that he ‘thinks this be the most villainous house in all London Road for fleas’.

Gads Hill, on the outskirts of Rochester, is also the setting for a robbery gone wrong when Shakespeare’s popular, but heavily flawed character of Sir John Falstaff, gets his comeuppance when he plans to rob a rich merchant travelling along the Dover Road for a laugh and gets set upon by his own companions instead.

Hopefully, on these occasions, Shakespeare wasn’t drawing from personal experience.

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