The Roscommon Suffragette Awarded by the Pankhursts for Hunger-Striking
In the week that a medal awarded to an Ulster suffragette (Lilian Metge) went for auction, we thought it would be interesting to talk about the only other WSPU medal awarded to an Irish suffragette (that we know of!). This was given to Leila de Cadiz, whose fascinating story is told below, and was a delight to sleuth.
Ten years ago, the auction house Bonhams offered an interesting lot for sale. It consisted of two parts.
One was a medal, attached to a ribbon bearing the colours of the Women's Social and Political Union. The front was inscribed with "Hunger Strike"; the back with "Leila Garcias de Cadiz". The pin above said "For Valour" on the front, and "Fed by Force, 4/3/12" on the back. The box in which the medal was housed had an embroidered/ fabric-printed pillow on the other side which read "Presented to Leila Garcias de Cadiz 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."
The second item was a certificate for a war badge awarded to a Miss R de Cadiz, who served as a nurse during the Great War, and is dated 1918.
What interests us here is the medal. Medals like this are commonly found in suffrage exhibitions today. They pop up in auction from time to time. They cost the London-based WSPU a pittance to produce, but now they sell for thousands. What is so unusual is that this is the one of only two medals I have found extant which was awarded to an Irish suffragette. (The other is that awarded to Lilian Metge, who was predominantly active in Ulster, and whose medal actually went on sale this week.) Do you know of another? Email us! firstname.lastname@example.org.
Who was Leila?
Leila Garcias de Cadiz and her sister, Rosalind (the Miss R. who received the VAD certificate in the same lot) were suffrage agitators well known in Dublin activist circles. Born in India, and carrying the surname of a long-ago family association with the islands off Spain, the girls were orphaned young and sent to live with their mother's relatives, the Gunnings family in Roscommon.
By 1910, both sisters were adult, living in Dublin, and members of both the Irish Women's Franchise League in Dublin and the Women's Social and Political Union in London. These two organisations did not always see eye-to-eye, and the often-nationalist IWFL frequently distanced themselves from decisions made by the Pankhursts' WSPU. Their activities were radical, even by suffragette standards, and so the two sisters used noms de guerre. Leila called herself Margaret Murphy, and Rosalind became Jane Murphy. Once you realise this, their presence in newspaper reports double!
Leila seems to have been the leader among the two, and slipped in and out of her assumed name easily. She wrote letters to suffrage newspapers under either name. Her colleagues in the IWFL certainly knew that Leila de Cadiz and Margaret Murphy were the same woman; I'm not sure if court reporters did.
The events that took place over 1912 and 1913, and the overlapping prison sentences involved, can be a bit confusing, so I've attempted to keep them separate below via headings.
Spring 1912 in Holloway, London
The occasion which caused the awarding of the WSPU medal pictured above took place in spring 1912. The sisters had travelled to London to take part in suffragette demonstrations in March, particularly in smashing windows. For this, they were arrested and retained in Holloway prison. Leila commenced hunger strike to protest their status as convicts rather than political prisoners, and was forcibly fed until the 15 of May. The date on the medal usually indicates when imprisonment commenced, so I don't know if she were forcibly fed from the 4th of March until the 15th of May (which would make 72 long horrific days), or for a time less than that.
Leila/ Margaret wrote a letter to the Lord Lieutenant outlining her motivations for the crime and the strike:
"Now the offence for which I am imprisoned is a strictly political one, I did not break windows for private spite or personal gain, I broke them as a protest to the Government who have ignored our just demand..."
(National Archives of Ireland General Prison Board Suffragette Papers, reproduced in Ireland's Suffragettes by Sarah-Beth Watkins.)
Summer 1912 in Mountjoy, Dublin
After release, it was only a matter of a few weeks before they were back in Dublin, taking part in the very first act of suffrage militant protest in Ireland. This was the window-smashing which took place at key locations across the city in June 1912. (Sidenote! This forms one of the stops on the #SuffragetteCity audioguide! Click here to follow along with that project.) Again imprisoned, this time in Mountjoy, they wrote to the Irish Citizen newspaper to thank their supporters, and this is below.
On the 19th of August, they were released ->
What Leila's WSPU medal represented had bigger repercussions than anyone at first realised.
Eight members of the IWFL had been imprisoned in Mountjoy after the events in Dublin from June to August 1912. During their tenancy in the prison at this time, two events happened which would lead to an infamous court case involving the Cadiz sisters.
The first was that, just a couple of weeks into the incarceration of the Irish suffragettes in Mountjoy, a mass hunger strike of English suffragettes in Holloway was announced. The IWFL deliberated on whether to join in, and decided not to. The Cadiz sisters, as members of the WSPU too, had protested against this decision, but were told by the WSPU to follow the Irish group's policy.
The second happened soon after, in July, when three members of the WPSU arrived in Dublin to violently protest the visit of Prime Minister Asquith. Mary Leigh, Gladys Evans, and Jennie Baines of the WSPU did not consult the Irish suffrage groups about this demonstration, and their interference was not appreciated. On their arrest, they sought political status in the prison, and the eight Irish suffragettes who were already there sought to be officially associated with their new cell neighbours. When a decision on their status was not immediately forthcoming, the English suffragettes commenced a hunger strike.
Despite the IWFL policy, the Cadiz sisters began hunger strike on the same day. After some consternation, two other Irish suffragettes (Hanna Sheehy Skeffington and Marguerite Palmer) joined in. The other four Irish did not. Forcible-feeding was not carried out on the English prisoners in Mountjoy until August, when the eight Irish suffragettes' term was up and they were released. On their release, there was a huge rift between the Cadiz sisters and the IWFL.
Their actions led to their expulsion from the Irish group early the following year (1913). Dissatisfied with this decision, they made the remarkable move of legally suing the IWFL, and taking them to court for what they alleged to be an unconstitutional expulsion according to the founding principles of the League. The case became famous and was reported on in all the papers. Below is an image of the headline on the Daily Express. The judgement did not go in their favour, however, and the case was thrown out of court, with the comment that all of the women involved were pursuing criminal activity.
As the other item in the Bonhams auction lot shows, the sisters became nurses during the Great War. They lived together for the rest of their lives in Dublin.
I include as a final document of interest the lease below, from when they were renting rooms from Patrick Pearse's mother, just three years before her death. By 1929, their need for noms de guerre was past, and they were using their given names as Leila and Rosalind de Cadiz.
They later retired to Martell's Terrace in Dun Laoghaire. The de Cadiz family grave is in Mount Jerome.