Jill Craigie and her suffragette film

Gillian E. Murphy, London School of Economics (LSE) Library

8 July 2019


This blog is adapted from a paper I gave at the British Women Documentary Filmmakers 1930-1955 symposium held at LSE on 5 April 2019. Here I will focus on a film proposal by Jill Craigie which never became reality. The source for this paper is Jill Craigie’s archive which is held in LSE’s Women’s Library. I’m approaching this as a historian and archivist.

Jill Craigie was born in Fulham in 1914 to a Russian father and Scottish mother. She had an unhappy childhood, spending most of her time between different boarding schools, and she took solace in writing. She left school at 18, first working as a journalist on a teenage magazine. At the age of 19 she married sculptor, Claude Begbie-Clench; they had a daughter, Julie, but the marriage did not last. Jill flirted briefly with acting in 1937, landing a small role in a circus melodrama, Make- Up, co-written by Jeffrey Dell, who later became her second husband.

During the Second World War, Jill worked as an air-raid warden, and while waiting for the siren to signal approaching enemy aircraft, she had a lot of time to read. One of the books she read was Sylvia Pankhurst’s autobiography The Suffragette Movement. Sylvia was one of the daughters of Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), the militant group who campaigned for women’s suffrage. The book marked a turning point for Jill and, in a rough autobiographical account held in Jill Craigie’s archive, she wrote about this revelation. She greatly enjoyed Sylvia’s colourful writing and the way Sylvia presented a social scene through the eyes of an artist. Sylvia’s work made Jill think about women’s lives and the relationship between men and women. She said it made her a feminist.

Photograph of Sylvia Pankhurst, c. 1910 (courtesy of LSE Library)

According to Jill’s memoir, one of the first things she did after reading The Suffragette Movement was to attend a meeting in Trafalgar Square to hear MP Edith Summerskill protesting against the Government’s proposal to pay female victims of air raids less compensation than men. Jill then came across an announcement in the newspaper about former suffragettes gathering on 14 July to lay flowers at Emmeline Pankhurst’s statue at the Houses of Parliament. No date is given in Jill’s memoir, but it must have been sometime in 1943 or 1944. Laying flowers at Emmeline’s statue was an annual event since 1930 when the statue was first erected. The statue was later moved in 1958 to its present position, just to the north, in Victoria Tower Gardens.

Unveiling of the statue of Emmeline Pankhurst, 1930 (courtesy of LSE Library)

Jill decided to go along to the flower-laying ceremony. Reflecting on the event in her memoir, Jill added: “I have to confess that I had a double motive for wishing to meet the suffragettes….I had just started what I hoped might become a splendid career in the film industry.” She imagined the idea of a suffragette film: “The subject as conceived for the screen would be primarily one of spectacle mingled with politics yet offering plenty of scope for emotion, romance, comedy, violence, suspense, despair and tragedy. I dreamed that one day I would make a great film about the struggle for the vote, historically accurate…”

As Jill approached Emmeline’s statue, she saw older women wearing Votes for Women sashes and WPSU badges. She felt an intruder but once the women noticed her, they welcomed her. This piqued Jill’s interest even more and she began researching the suffrage movement. Initially, Jill worked like an oral historian, interviewing suffragettes and encouraging them to write down their stories. In Jill’s archive there is a lot of primary source material such as letters, speeches, leaflets, compiled by her to add context to her planned film.

Jill entered into correspondence with various suffragettes relating to the possibility of a suffragette film. On 9 June 1944, Jill wrote to Sylvia Pankhurst: “I am writing a script covering a large part of the women’s movement. I am anxious that the film should be historically accurate and this would naturally mean re-enacting some of the great scenes in which you played the leading role….” Jill wanted to include Emmeline Pankhurst and hoped Sylvia would not object. She ended the letter with “I have a very great admiration for your past achievements….”

Jill also received a letter from Emmeline Pethick Lawrence, who had been treasurer of the WSPU, telling her that Christabel Pankhurst would prove difficult. Christabel had moved to the States in 1921, returning briefly to be made Dame of the British Empire in 1936. She had become a Second Day Adventist and very conservative. Christabel wanted to be represented by a committee of suffragettes. Other letters were to Annie Kenney and Helen Archdale, who became a mediator between Jill and Annie.

Christabel Pankhurst in New York, c. 1914 (courtesy of LSE Library)

Over the summer of 1944, Jill tried to make arrangements to see these women in an attempt to come up with a plan for a film. This proved impossible as there was much rivalry between the different factions, a hang-over from the suffrage campaign. In August, Jill wrote to Emmeline Pethick Lawrence: “I’m still winding my way through the maze of suffragette politics.” There are hints in the letters about how Jill might approach the suffragette film. In one of the last letters from Sylvia to Jill she said: “You indicated to me, I think, to represent the Movement through the eyes of a girl today looking back on it.” Sylvia then gave her opinion on this: “there are advantages in that method but it tends to make the events appear remote and to sacrifice the human quality of it all.”

In the following month, Jill wrote to Helen Archdale: “I have been advised by the producer of another company [which is not named] that if I get it into a shooting script form, then there would be no difficulty in going to production, he would back it, or partly so. But not worth my while doing this if Annie Kenney is difficult. In the meantime I am filling in time doing a documentary about post-war planning as I can’t bear to be out of work any longer.”

The documentary referred to by Jill became The Way We Live which was released in 1946. The film is told through the eyes of a bombed-out family in Plymouth; Craigie did not want to impose her own opinions on the film. She saw herself as an interpreter of the ideas of the architects, the town councillors and the people of Plymouth.

Jill would probably have taken a similar approach in her suffragette film, not imposing her own views, but portraying the movement through those who had lived it and to represent this through film. However, no consensus could be reached. The suffragette film project was put on hold and the film was not produced.

Jill’s interest in the suffrage movement never diminished and she continued to collect material on the subject, keeping in touch with many suffragettes. Her archive also contains her drafts for a book ‘Daughters of Dissent’ which was never published.

Find out more about Jill Craigie’s archive and other collections at LSE: www.lse.c.uk/library and twitter @LSELibrary. We also have lots of suffrage images on our Flickr account which you can see here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lselibrary/


Dr Gillian Murphy is the Curator for Equality, Rights and Citizenship at LSE Library. She moved to LSE with the Women’s Library in 2013, where she had worked as an archivist for many years. Gillian promotes the Women’s Library collection and the Hall-Carpenter Archives through exhibitions, talks, blogs and workshops.

http://www.lse.ac.uk/library/people/gillian-murphy


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