What was prison like for Suffragettes?

What was life actually like for suffragettes in prison? An in depth look from how it actually felt to be force fed, what was the Cat and Mouse Act and the constant abuse and surveillance the women endured.

A little more than 100 years ago, thousands upon thousands of women across the UK were tirelessly fighting; not only for women’s right to vote, but for women to have basic human rights. 

Of this, a small chunk formed up the WSPU (Womens Social and Political Union) the militant arm of the Votes for Women fight, these women undertook illegal activities as part of their campaigning; smashing windows, vandalising property, even committing arson and organising targeted bombings.

This lead to many members of the WSPU (or as they were commonly known, Suffragettes) going to prison and in doing so, taking on a gauntlet of abuse designed to break them.

Here are 5 of the monumental barriers that were faced by suffragettes entering prison – and I guarantee by the time you finish reading them you will NEVER see the Votes for Women campaign in the same way:

Suffragette Dora Thewlis, during her 1907 arrest
16 yr old Suffragette, Dora Thewlis, during her 1907 arrest

1 . Life Long Illness

Whilst in prison, many incarcerated suffragettes chose to go on hunger strike, a move that was whole heartedly supported by the WSPU as a whole. Once released, suffragettes who had taken up hunger strike were celebrated; awarded with a medal which they’d wear with pride; a symbol of their sacrifice and a sign of respect amongst sisters.

But the personal impact of these women’s hunger strikes was more than a medal; many were left with long term health issues.

Believe me when I say, hunger striking does some serious damage to your body. Put bluntly, when you go on hunger strike you stop giving your body food and if you aren’t giving your body food, then it starts eating itself.

Muscle and fat are the first to go and after 1-2 weeks you can expect to have a lot of trouble doing something simple like standing, not to mention the high likelihood of uncontrollable (and very painful) vomiting. Should the hunger strike keep going, you can expect vision loss, hearing problems and you’ll struggle swallowing. Organs also start to be at risk of shutting down and by day 40, death is a very real threat.

Just to underline how horrific the effects of hunger striking are, here is a picture of Suffragette, Olive Wharry, after just over a month of hunger striking: 

Olive Wharry, Suffragette, after 32 days on hunger strike
Olive Wharry, 32 days into hunger strike

So it’s unsurprising that after leaving prison, it took weeks of bed rest and care for suffragettes to recover.

That meant that many women who had jobs and children to look after, simply couldn’t go on hunger strike. After all, there was no way that on their return from prison, they’d be able to work and care for kids in such a weakened state.

So we know that going on hunger strike just once will fuck up your body. But it wasn’t just once for these women.

Many suffragettes went on hunger strike several times over multiple stays in prison. That led to life long and often serious health problems.

And this all gets a whole lot worse when we factor in:

2 . Force feeding

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A suffragette being force fed, from a 1911 copy of, The Suffragette

Hunger striking was a deadly method of campaigning and the government couldn’t be seen to be letting suffragettes die. So they opted to ensure striking prisoners had enough nutrients by force feeding then.

I’m going to put a quick warning here, because – guys, force feeding was more than brutal.

Prison guards would force suffragettes into a bed or chair, where a tube would be inserted through the nose and down the throat, through which a nutritional paste would be sent.

This could happen every day for weeks.

Here’s how Sylvia Pankhurst described her experience of force feeding:

“I struggled as hard as I could, but they were six and each one of them much bigger and stronger than I…They soon had me on the bed and firmly held down by the shoulders, the arms, the knees and the ankles. I felt a man’s hands trying to force my mouth open, his fingers trying to press my lips apart — getting inside. I felt I should go mad; like a poor wild thing caught in a steel trap.”

Force feeding was essentially torture for the women that went through it. Many were left with physical injuries after the fact, including bruised jaws, broken teeth, bleeding gums and stomach pain from so much vomiting.

Not only that, but force feeding could be deadly. Suffragette Lilian Lenton almost died after the force feeding tube missed her throat and went straight into her airways.

Then in April 1913 The Cat and Mouse Act was put through

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Doesn’t the poster make it look like a winner! – 1914 anti Cat and Mouse Act poster

The Cat and Mouse Act offered a cruel new spin on the abuse Suffragettes were receiving.

Once substantially weakened from hunger strike, suffragettes were sent home. Only to be arrested and bought back to prison when they started to recover.

Which meant that they could go through the whole ordeal again, and again…and again.

And it wasn’t just this merry go round of abuse that the suffragettes had to face.

3 . Abuse by prison staff

Working class suffragettes often faced an even more gruelling prison experience. The best example of this is that of Lady Lytton. Upon hearing rumours of the rough time working class suffragettes had, she first went to prison as herself, an upper class Lady, and then took on the identity of seamstress, Jane Warton, for her second spell in prison.

Jane Warton’s time in prison was incomparable to Lady Lytton’s.

Jane was force-fed until she vomited over herself and then continued to be force-fed despite the sick that was now on her body, hair and even the prison walls.

Jane was slapped by a doctor. She almost died during another bout of force-feeding; a doctor listening to her heart, which was just about beating for 2 minutes… and then advising his assistants to continue with the feeding.

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Lady Lytton disguised as Jane Warton

There were also accounts of working class suffragettes being force-fed via their vagina or anus. An act that would have provided absolutely no nutritional benefit. The pointless pain, degradation and violation of this assault, known to those who carried it out.

4 . Surveillance Reigns 

Prison was used as a ground to monitor suffragettes movements and capture their images. After all, until arriving at prison, many of the women managed to keep up their campaigning with their identities unknown.

However by placing long lens cameras outside of prison grounds, police were able to secretly capture pictures of suffragettes whilst out on exercise, with many of these images used to create wanted posters and to warn local areas of known suffragettes.

Surveillance photograph of suffragette prisoners; 1913
Surveillance photo taken in the Holloway prison exercise yard

In some cases, guards would strong arm suffragettes into the correct position, so the cameras would be able to capture a clear face for the picture.

Notably, Evelyn Manesta, was pulled into a headlock to keep her in place for her picture. Interestingly,  the arm pushing down onto Evelyn’s throat and restraining her, was handily edited out for her wanted poster, instead replaced with a scarf.

Evelyn Mansta, headlock wanted picture
That’s some top notch turn of the century photo dickery

5 . Your life is gone 

Becoming a suffragette was not a decision to be made lightly; it could change your entire life and not for the better! It was a cause worth fighting for, but the price to fight was BIG.

Families would disown daughters who joined the WSPU; inheritances were cut, engagements were called off, marriages broke down.

Often the abuse received by suffragettes who went to prison, was matched by the reception they got after being released.

Many working class suffragettes lost their jobs, leaving them penniless. This meant that many women would attempt to go to prison under false identities, in a desperate bid to both be able to fight and be able to eat when they got out on the other side.

Then of course there were the mothers, forced to leave their children behind to go to prison. Heart-breaking enough, but these women not only missed their children when they were in jail, they risked losing them all together! Branded as unfit mothers, due to their activism.

For a strong example of this look no further than Suffragette, Helen Archdale, who narrowly escaped losing her two sons, after foiling her Mother in Laws attempt to kidnap the boys, in a big to rid them of their ‘pernicious mama’

anti suffrage propaganda
Just some of the delightful anti-suffrage posctards aimed at these women

It’s important that we remember just how much the women of the WSPU gave up, in their bid to fight for women’s equality. That they not only were brave enough to take on the fight, but did so knowing they were walking into countless dangers, opening themselves up to trauma and were at risk of losing everything.

This was interesting, where can I find out more?

Well there are way to many books to choose from! BUT if you are just starting to read up on the suffragettes, I’d suggest:

Rise Up Women, the remarkable lives of the suffragettes, by Dr Diane Atkinson, this book gives a great overview of the movement, along with individual suffragettes.

The Suffragette Movement – An Intimate Account Of Persons And Ideals, by Sylvia Pankhurst, an incredible personal account of what it was actually like being part of the WSPU. Unparalleled insight, this is a must read!

Sally Heathcote: Suffragette, by Mary M Talbot, Kate Charlesworth and Bryan Talbot.Sally Heathcote: Suffragette, by Mary M Talbot, Kate Charlesworth and Bryan Talbot. The suffragette movement told as a first person graphic novel. Do I need to say more?

Hurricane Ida: How one woman took on the Hollywood patriarchy

Ida Lupino was just 14 when she became a Hollywood starlet. If you’re thinking that’s kind of a lot for a teen, you’d be surprised.

Part of a British acting dynasty, Ida wasn’t like other girls her age. She’d been prepped for a life in the limelight since she was old enough to read, so her family got her learning lines.

Fast forward a few years and Ida, now barely out of tweendom, was headstrong and self assured; unsurprising given that her acting had been helping pay her family’s bills for years!

So when Ida landed her big break, with the lead role in 1932’s, Her First Affair, she took leading an entire film in her stride; no big deal.

What was a big deal was the role Ida was playing – you see, very underage Ida was playing a nymphomaniac, who spent her time chasing men while wearing not a great deal.

Oh… and it was a role that Ida’s mother had originally auditioned for.

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just…every kind of no

Somehow, despite the icky-ness of it all, Hollywood had taken notice of Ida’s, er, ‘grown up’ performance. Just not in the way you might think.

Weirdly, Paramount wanted Ida to play Alice (y’know… the young innocent girl) in their new mega expensive film adaption of Alice in Wonderland (life lesson: never try and make sense of Hollywood decision making)

Slight problem: Ida didn’t want to play Alice.

Ida didn’t see herself as Alice. She wasn’t wide eyed and naive, she was smart, independent and desperate to be taken seriously as an adult.

So Ida did what any teenager would; she dyed her hair bright blonde and wore as much makeup as humanly possible.

After this, it’s not exactly surprising that Paramount cast another girl as Alice.

Still, Paramount saw something in Ida, soon signing her up to an iron clad contract.

And so, Ida found herself trapped on the Paramount lot, playing dumb blonde after dumb blonde. 

Ida Lupino as a young actress
Ida Lupino in full baby blonde sexualised mode

2 years into her contract, Ida was over Paramount.

Ida hadn’t come all the way to Hollywood to spend her days playing a brainless glamazon. She wanted to play bold women that made their own stories. Not only that- but she wanted to write, produce and more than anything, she wanted to direct.

Sadly in the 1930s, becoming a female director was much like becoming a unicorn    (AKA: Never. Gonna. Happen!) 

With the directing dream dead, Ida decided that if her only creative outlet was acting, you better bet your arse she was doing it her way.

So, in 1937 she did the unthinkable; she walked out of her contract.

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Not only that, breaking her contract meant Ida lost her $1,700 a week pay check… GIRL. HAD. BALLS

Barely 20, Ida had gained a lucrative studio contract, lost it (along with a heap of money) and been banned from the lot of one of Hollywood’s biggest players.

Obviously, Ida didn’t let this get to to her.

She took time off to study, returning 2 years later in, The Light That Failed, and this time you best believe she wasn’t playing a bimbo but an actual character!

Ida continued to hustle and by the mid 1940s she not only had control of the roles she played, BUT was also known as one of the best dramatic actresses of her era.

So naturally, Ida decided to become a director

Now, As discussed, this was an impossible dream! Let’s put it in context: In 1943, the sole female in Hollywood’s directors guild (Dorothy Arzne) had retired. For the next 5 years, no major film in Hollywood was directed by a woman.

I repeat: From 1943-1948, no major film in Hollywood was made by a woman. The idea that this was changing anytime soon was, quite simply, impossible.

But when had impossible ever stopped Ida Lupino?

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Oh… you know Ida’s got this!

In 1949, Ida wrote Not Wanted, a drama about the then incredibly taboo topic of unwanted pregnancy.

Three days before the film was set to shoot, the director, Elmer Clifton, suffered a massive heart attack and couldn’t continue with the project.

Ida stepped up. 

She directed The Unwanted at the last minute on a budget of basically $0, using her own wardrobe for costumes and repurposing any thrown out sets she could get her hands on.

AND she did all this whilst simaltanously fighting off censors who were at never before seen levels of horrified; not only was a film showing unwanted pregnancy, but a woman was leading the film!! Surely this scandal would not stand with audiences!

Sadly for the censors, Not Wanted went on to make millions.

ida Lupino, behind the camera
Life Lesson: Don’t mess with Ida Lupino

On the back of The Unwanted’s success, Ida set up her own production company, The Filmmakers, alongside her then husband, Collier Young. Ida wanted her production company to be different, making films that tackled social issues other people were too scared to touch. So, Her next film, Never Fear, did just that. Giving an unflinching look at life with polio (an epidemic then sweeping America)

BUT Never Fear bombed at the box office. It turned out audiences wanted escapism, not a gnarly polio flick.

Still, in typical Ida fashion, she didn’t let this mammoth setback hold her back. Sure, Never Fear may not have broken the bank, but it was exceptionally well made. A fact Ida used to bag herself a three picture deal at RKO.

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Fun fact: ‘better work bitch’ is the motto of both Britney and Ida

Ida Lupino was now Hollywood’s top (and pretty much only) female director.

She was also one of the only directors with the balls to tackle some seriously sensitive material. In her time at RKO, Ida’s films delved subject matter including rape, sexual assault and gender dynamics.

Ida didn’t stop her casual groundbreaking with her films subjects. In 1953, she became the first female director to direct a noir.

The Hitch-hiker saw Ida’s unparalleled handle on the human psyche, match with a tense noir, fit a breathless tale of two men trapped in a car with a serial killer. It remains one of the best film noirs ever made:

The Hitchhiker, 1953
The Hitch-hiker: seriously this film is great, go watch it

But after The Hitch-hikers success, Ida was starting to feel a little screwed over by RKO. She wasn’t seeing anywhere near the money her films produced.

And so, just like she’d she’d done when she was 20, Ida cut ties with the Hollywood machine and went solo.

She made her production company, Filmakers a fully independent machine that could make AND distribute its own films.

This would prove to be fatal.

The Filmmakers first film, 1953s, The Bigamist, soon saw Ida and the company drowning in a never ending money pit. With Ida leading the creative, her now ex husband and business partner Collier Young led the money side of things.

Yeah; turns out Collier sucked at that.

He constantly lost investment, overspent and despite being the one to push the idea of doing their own distribution… had no idea how to do it.

By 1955, The Filmmakers was kaput and Ida wouldn’t direct a film again for over a decade.

The Bigamist, 1953 film poster
This damn film!!

Yet (as always) Ida didn’t let this latest defeat stop her.

She moved onto the small screen, starring in a CBS sitcom (the horrifically titled) Mr Adams and Eve, with her new husband, Howard Duff.

The series was popular BUT Ida wasn’t able to go behind the camera. In fact the mere notion of Ida directing an episode – therefore being her husbands boss – caused massive tension between Ida and Howard.

This was a theme in Ida and Howard’s marriage. Ida’s success as a director rankling Howard, who just wasn’t ok with his wife doing what was still seen as a man’s job.

Promo still from Mr Adams and Eve
But apparently Howard lying around in bed was a – ok (from an promo for Mr Adams and Eve)

But Ida continued despite her husband

Over the 50s, 60s and 70s, Ida directed countless TV shows, including The Masks, a now iconicly creepy episode of The Twilight Zone (for which she was the series only female director)

Ida also went back to film. With her last directing credit, 1966s female driven comedy, The Trouble With Angels.

Now guys, I’m afraid the last part of Ida’s story is far from a happy ending.

Resilient though Ida was, she wasn’t made of steel. She’d started getting a drinking problem during her marriage to Collier Young, and the collapse of their production company.

Her drinking only got worse during her marriage to Howard Duff. And though the pair split in the 1970s, Ida could never shake her drinking habit.

Then Ida reached the age where her friends started to die. Soon she was suffering more and more regular bouts of depression.

When Ida’s Mum died, she just shut down; retreating into herself, barely leaving her home.

In 1995 Ida Lupino died following a stroke.

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Ida Lupino 1918-1995

History has remembered Ida Lupino as an actress, but her real legacy is as one of films most groundbreaking directors. Forging a path for female directors as well as indie film makers.

She also bought the topics of sexual violence and gender into the mainstream AND ensured women got to tell their own stories.

Yet Ida’s influence is largely forgotten. Perhaps, unsurprising when 69 years since her directorial debut, just 1 in every 22 directors are women.

Which is why Ida’s story is so vital. It’s a legacy that needs to live on today, helping in the almighty push for women in film; after all there’s one thing we can learn from Ida it’s this:

nothing is ever impossible. IMG_2001

That was interesting, where can I find out more? Well, definitely check out Ida’s films, which still stand up today. I’d also suggest listening to the episode on Ida, on the fantastic Hollywood history podcast: You Must Remember This.

Revenge of the jilted women

For much of history, women were property. Their greatest expectation was to marry well and pop out a couple of babies (preferably boys)

So when a man promised to marry a woman, it was serious business.

Wedding planning wasn’t just a hassle like it is today. It was the starting gun for a woman’s entire world changing. Working women quit their jobs in preparation for married life (losing any source of independent income), sacrifices were made as she stepped away from her family and into her new life as wife. Illegitimate children would even occasionally spring up (because most people in the past didn’t actually wait until marriage…)

So, if after all of that, a groom changed his mind and jilted his betrothed, she was left well and truly screwed!

Depending on how well off the jilted woman was to begin with (both in terms of society and finances) a woman could not only be left disgraced but in mountains of debt. Her future prospects lying in tatters.

So what could women do when their groom bolted and suddenly they were left with no future prospects and no cash (meaning they couldn’t just stop the clocks and spend the rest of their days living in lavish Victorian gothic eleganza, a la Miss Havisham?

Girl, you know the answer….You lawyer up!

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Time to face justice asshat. 

Let me introduce you to, A Breach of Promise. It’s a handy legal loophole that allowed a person to recoup losses sustained through a failed engagement

A jilted lover could take their former spouse to court and sue for both emotional and finical damages.

Cases of a Breach of Promise started to become popular around 1650. But pretty quickly, the number of men suing former girlfriends dropped off. With society feeling that taking the ‘weaker sex’ to court was just plain ungentlemanly.

Sadly for their male counterparts, jilted women didn’t have any such qualms and by the Victorian era, the number of breach of promise cases had skyrocketed. 

breach of promise example
Example of a case of Breach of Promise from Somerset

Nine out of ten cases of breach of promise were won, with average payouts ranging from £100 to £1000 (Roughly £8000-£80,000 in today’s money)

Suddenly jilted women didn’t have to be a victim for the rest of their lives. They could reclaim not only their hard earned cash, but also their reputations.

Now illegitimate children could be properly raised, jobs could be regained and if they wanted, women could start again in a new relationship without a huge scarlett letter looming.

BUT before you crack out the prosseco, let me quickly rain on this parade – see men had grown wise to The Breach of Promise and were working on ways to get out of a costly trial.

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Seriously though guys… could you just not? 

Now the most obvious way to avoid a scandalous breach of promise court case would be to settle out of court (along with, you know, generally avoiding jilting people)

But if you were a special kind of dickey Victorian gent, there were ways to make sure you were part of the 10% that had their breach of promise case thrown out of court:

1. Claim that your intended was prone to lude conduct – this could be anything from bad language to reading racy books.

Anne Blakely saw her breach of promise case thrown out, after it was shown she had not only read but also owned a copy of – then infamously scandalous – Fanny Hill (gasp)

2. she’s just too ugly to marry: Charlotte Emms walked away with a pitiful £20, after it was claimed her fiancés parents were too appalled with her ‘pock marked’ face to allow their son to marry her. Nice.

3. just straight up call her a liar: in 1875, Susannah o’Sullivan, sought breach of promise, claiming her then fiancé had plied her with wine and assaulted her.

But after her asshat ex stood in court and branded Susannah’s claims a lie, the case was promptly chucked out of court, with Susannah branded ‘laughable’ by the press.

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Urgh, same. 

By the 1900s, rates of Breach of Promise cases were dropping rapidly.

The whole thing was now seen as farcical, the cases regular comedy fodder, especially in literature (probably most famous is Charles Dickens, Pickworth Papers)

Breach of Promise wasn’t doing great outside of the realms of fiction either. The media circus the cases caused meant that any plaintiff would see their entire life thrown under a microscope for public analysis. Unsurprisingly not many women were game for going through that ordeal, no matter their need.

PLUS, there was the very vital fact that what had once counted as the evidence, was now starting to look flimsy as!

With evidence that didn’t stand up under any scrutiny, the trials often amounted to little more than he said she said. And so there was suddenly a boom in women leaving these court cases branded fraudulent liars.

Were some playing the system to make a quick buck? For sure! But most were like Susannah o’Sullivan, desperate to turn around their shitty situation.

breach of promise case from Penny Illustrated .jpg
The Penny Illustrated dedication of a Breach of Promise case 

By the mid 1900s breach of promise had pretty much disappeared; though it still popped up for comedic effect (notably its used as a plot device in Hard Days Night, when Pauls grandad is accused of breach of promise by a much younger girl – ick)

Now UK law doesn’t recognise engagement as a legal contract. With Breach of Promise now nothing more than a relic, more than often used to showcase the ridiculous whimsy of the past…

This was interesting, where can I find out more? I’d suggest checking out Denise Bates book, Breach of Promise to Marry: A History of How Jilted Brides Settled Scores (absolute bargain on kindle, btw)

How unpaid work is killing off museums

Recently the Victoria and Albert Museum put up a job advert for an unpaid voluntary curatorial role. To land this job you needed, minimum, a masters degree and to be able to work for free.

Obviously as soon as this job advert went live, all of history Twitter protested. 

And the V&A duly apologised, said the whole asking people to work for free thing, had been a huge mistake and took down the job advert.

Fantastic win right? Well, kind of, but it’s also something that happens everyday in the history and heritage sector, it’s just that this one time, it was caught.

But we can’t carry on staying quiet every other time this happens. Because our reliance on these voluntary roles will inevitably end up killing our sector.

Lets look at the average route into a paid role at a museum: 

  • Undergraduate degree (ideally from a top university and in a relevant subject) 
  • Postgraduate degree (again, top uni, relevant subject) 
  • Voluntary roles in museums/archives (for an unspecified time) 
  • Part time/low pay full time role (average 18k) possible volunteering on side
  • Eventually land a full time paid role 

Can you spot the problem here? 

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Spoiler: You don’t need to be a detective to solve this ish

Now, lets not even start to focus on the whole, top university, masters degree minimum thing (though we do know that people from lower income, and also minority backgrounds are very much the minority; in terms of people attending these institutions) 

BUT can we all agree that the industry is currently asking candidates to do a metric shit ton of free work, before they can even be considered for a job.

It is insanity and it is not ok! 

By asking for so much free work, swathes of people are immediately being cut out.

It becomes not so much a matter of – who is the best for the role – and more a case of, who can afford to not get paid and still pay their rent and eat!

Spoiler: it’s probably not going to be the candidate from a minority or lower income background.

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Straight up!

But it’s not just that it’s far from an even playing field.

History needs diversity to survive 

There are two key reasons for this: 

  1. People are interested in a more diverse look at history 
  2. Museum visitor figures are falling. Too help tackle this, we need to start engaging with new audiences and communities. 

Museums have to start hiring people with a diverse range of experiences. People that can research other annals of history, give a different perspective on well trodden ground and develop ways of bringing new communities to museums.

If history and heritage starts to do this, not only will it help ensure that we as sector survive; it will make history thrive.

But how can we actually do this? 

Well, we need to ditch our dependance on voluntary roles.

Now I know nobody has a magical money tree, but we can’t have diversity if we don’t actually make museums a viable career for more people.

So lets wave bye bye to this attitude to free work: 

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Bye bye privilege fuckery!

Now thats out the way, lets say hello to:

Paid Internships and Apprenticeships!

Yup, you read that right. Paid. Minimum the living wage (£17k, and £20k for London)

By offering paid work, we’ll be able to access a broader pool of candidates than ever before. People who can bring something new and exciting to the table.

Plus we’ll actually be paying people for the hard work they do, and thats just basic ethics.

Apprenticeships can also help bring in people from the local community that maybe don’t have the degree, but that do have everything else you need to be an incredible curator, historian, conservator, etc.

Now, paying people means that budgets in other areas may need to be cut.

This is definatley something the bigger museums and heritage organisations can start to do, but understandably this isn’t something smaller museums can click their fingers and do overnight.

Long term budget changes will need to be planned out, grants may need to be applied for; it will be a ball ache and it will take a long time.

BUT it will be worth it. 

We can’t keep on blocking out the future, just because we’ve always done something one way, doesn’t mean we should continue doing it… guys we work in history, we know this.

So, lets keep on calling for diversity. Lets call out bullshit free work job adverts. If you can, start a conversation about bringing in paid internships into your department. Go to local schools and communities and find ways to bring them into your museum.

History should be everyone’s story, it should be open to everyone and we need to start making that a reality; it’s just good business. 

For more F Yeah History, check us out here on Twitter and Facebook.

The Woman That Made The Winter Olympics

Madge Syers dreamed of Olympic gold; a figure skater, she was world renowned as one of the best skaters alive, surely she was set for the medal podium! Well, at least she would be, if women were allowed to compete in figure skating, which they must definitely were not!

But Madge wasn’t going to let that stop her

Madge Syers
Madge, refusing to be stopped by physics or patriarchal bullshit

One of 15 children (Madge’s Mum definitely deserves a medal!) Madge fell in love with figure skating in her late teens, this love only intensified when she met her coach (and future husband) Edgar Syers.

The couple started skating as a pair, as well as individually. Both pushing each other to up their game.

They even wrote guides to figure skating, including one which was entirely poetry (natch).

But all the skating prose in the world couldn’t give Madge what she really really wanted – the right to compete.

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Madge is going for gold….your gold gents

You see, women weren’t allowed to compete in figure skating, BUT after some serious combing through the rules, Madge worked out that the World Championships rulebook didn’t actually specify anything on gender.

So she packed up her skates and headed off to the 1902 World Championships.

When Madge took to the ice, the crowd were memorised. In part because, oh my god a woman on the ice, and in part because our girl was seriously dressed to impress (pearl necklace and all!), but mainly because she was really bloody good!

By the end of the competition, Madge had placed second, beating a whole host of the worlds best male skaters.

In fact the gold medalist, Ulrich Salchow, was so impressed with Madge’s bravery and talent, he presented her with his medal; showing he believed her to be the true winner!

The International Skating Union was not having this.

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Wow. A group of old timey men being dicks. Shocker.

The International Skating Union immediately met to discuss the problem that was Madge.

Their solution was to bar women from their competitions entirely. Citing 3 reasons:

  1. Long skirts prevented judges from having a good view of a skaters footwork
  2. It was hard to compare a woman’s talents to a man
  3. A woman may be romantically involved with a man; which could lead judges to over marking

In response to point 1, Madge shortened her skirts to the knee.

For points 2 and 3…well they were bullshit, so Madge skated on regardless.

Madge Syers skating
Pointing to all the fucks she gives (btw they are faaaaar away)

Though she couldn’t compete in the World Championships anymore, Madge kept herself busy by winning as many other competitions as possible.

By 1906, Madge had made it impossible for female skaters to continue being ignored, so surprisingly her old foes, The International Skating Union, created a female figure skating championship.

Madge obviously won the gold.

In 1908, figure skating became an official Olympic sport (weirdly as part of the summer olympics).

It was pretty obvious to everyone by now that refusing entry to women was not an option; Madge would find a way to skate anyway.

And so at the 1908 London Olympics, Madge took to the ice once more. Her skills amazed the judges, who praised her as being in

‘A class of her own’

Ain’t that the truth!

By the end of the competition, Madge had won bronze in the pairs skating and gold as an individual skater; making her the first ever female figure skating Olympic champion!

Thanks to Madge’s refusal to EVER give in, the door was now open for female skaters. And they came in by the boatload, transforming figure skating into the batshit sport of insane feats of human athleticism that we know today:

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I MEAN!!!!!!!

The Mother of Modern Tarot: Pamela Colman Smith

Pamela Colman Smith was a gifted artist who had a love of the occult. She illustrated the worlds best known tarot cards, as well as books by Bram Stoker, WB Yeats AND she contributed artworks for the women’s suffrage movement!

And yet, her works are often overlooked; she even gets omitted from her own tarot.

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Pamela… WHAT A BABE!

A Well Travelled Lady!

Pamela (known as Pixie to her mates) was born in Pimlico in 1878, her family then moved to Manchester before heading to Kingston, Jamaica when she was 10.

Pixie became engrossed in Jamaican culture and folklore, something that would influence her work throughout her career, she even wrote and illustrated a book of Jamaican folk tales, called Annancy that’s still in print today!

In 1893 her family moved to Brooklyn and Pixie went to the very fancy Avant Garde Pratt institute to study art and illustration.

Sadly she had horrific health issues throughout her three years there and thus never graduated.

BUT Pixie was a ridiculously talented student; even without a degree she immediately started getting paid work as an illustrator (which as any one who has ever done art degree will tell you, is stupidly impressive!)

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You betta weeeeerk!

One of Pixies first paid gigs was working with Bram Stoker (Y’know that goth bloke who wrote Dracula)

This proved to be a really enriched and satisfying partnership, with Pixie illustrationshis book on famed Shakespearian actress Ellen Terry and then his final book The Lair of the White Worm.

Pixie had a knack of partnering her work up with equally amazing writers; WB Yeats (imaginatively titled) The Illustrated Verses of William Butler Yeats

A Change of Scenery

Sadly Pixie’s beloved mother passed away in 1896 and needing a change Pixie joined a travelling theatre group as a set designer (as you do)

This period really influenced her artwork with grand theatrics, bold prints and colours galore.

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Everyone loves a lovvie!

While doing all these varied projects our girl still found time to support women’s suffrage.

She provided artwork to the cause in America, coming up with bold and simple designs that got the message across.

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One of Pamela’s Suffrage Artworks

Her friendship with Bram Stoker and W B Yeats led Pixie to becoming a member of the occult loving group the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, in 1901.

The group, made famous by Alistair Crawley, had a fascination for all things occult, supernatural and weird.

And it’s this world of all things creepy that would influence Pixie in her most famous work!

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Oooooooh SPOOKY!

The Raider Waite Smith Tarot

Arthur Edward Waite was a fellow member of Golden Dawn and he took an interest in Pixie’s artwork; see he wanted to created a new tarot deck that would help bring tarot into the mainstream; he reckoned Pixie was the artist for the job!

Quick explanation of what tarot is for those of you unfamiliar: Tarot cards are a deck of usually 78 individual cards used for foretelling and insight. You have the main arcana made up of 22 cards and a set of minor arcana split between wands, swords, pentacles and cups. Each card has a different meaning and by grouping cards selected at random you can compose a story or reading for yourself or another person.

ANYWAY!

Pixie was given free reign to re vamp tarot and she really sunk her teeth into it.

She came up with a set of theatrical cards that really refined each one’s individual meaning. The most astonishing feat is Pixie was able to create the entire deck, almost 80 individual pieces of art in just 6 months!

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The Waite-Smith Tarot. All of these designs are from Pixie

Waite wrote a book to accompany the set and it was first published in 1909 by publishing house Rider.

The deck went on to become the most popular and recognised tarot deck in the world, it’s just referred to usually as the Rider Waite Tarot, often omitting Pixies name.

WHICH IS A FUCKING TRAVESTY!

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FUCKING FUMING BABES!

As so many of these stories do, Pixie’s had a bit of a shit ending. She moved to Cornwall and died in obscurity as a pauper in 1951.

And yet, in such a short space of time Pixie had an incredibly diverse and interesting career that spanned across multiple art forms.

It’s a travesty that she isn’t recognised for her work, particularly with bringing tarot into the mainstream and giving the cards new life.

That was interesting, how can I find out more?

Well if you fancy reading some of Pamela’s work her storybook Annancy Stories is still in print. And if tarot has peaked your interest Macus Katz and Tali Goodwin have written an interesting guide on the Waite Smith Tarot that includes more of Pamela’s history and influences.

Sara Westrop is passionate about making history accessible (and fun!) for everyone. A disabled, queer writer from just outside London, who loves writing about the unsung chapters of history.

The Horrifying History of Hair Dye

Hair dye is by no means a new invention. In fact since early recorded history, people (particularly women) have been transforming their locks, just not in a way we – or anyone with even an ounce of sanity – would guess!

Rome: DIY Bleach and Horror  

In early Rome, it wasn’t uncommon for ladies to attempt to colour greying hair with a root touch up, because apparently women aging has never been ok.

Anyway for this grey be gone, a concuction of boiled walnut shells, ashes and, er, earthworms, would be ground together to form a lovely dark paste.

But it wasn’t just dark haired ladies getting in on the gross dying action, blondes were also having fun (groan)

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Trust me, you’re not gonna wanna touch that hair when you find out how the Romans dyed it.

In this era, blonde hair was used to mark sex workers.

This was done either by using blonde wigs (taken from Germanic folk the Romans had handily invaded) OR by dying the hair.

Now if you thought earthworms were bad, then you’re going to want to strap in for the next bit, because all kinds of no.

To achieve blonde hair, a woman’s hair was slathered with anything from ashes to pigeon shit and then pissed on.

I know. I’m sorry.

BUT, this grimness does actually have some science behind it! See pee contains ammonia which acts as a bleach, which in turn, helps dye hair blonde.

Isn’t history the best?!? 

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I’m sorry…it only gets worse from here

Elizabethan Pain and Price-tags 

Elizabeth I bought lip liner to the world, as well as using lead to lighten your skin (you win some you lose some) but it wasn’t just makeup that Lizzy was pioneering; she was also waaay ahead in the hair game!

A queen of iconic hair, it’s perhaps unsurprising that a lot of women in her court wanted in on Lizzys legendary locks.

And so ladies would pluck back their hairlines to achieve that trademark high Elizabethan forehead (ouch!)

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But just look at that forehead, totes worth it

Colouring was also a big thing, with red and blonde both the beauty ideals of the day.

 

Blonde was achieved with a seriously expensive mix of cumin seeds, saffron, oil and celadine, effectively pricing anyone but noble borns from the faux blonde hair racket.

Still, you can’t knock a good false blonde down and women once again resorted to pissing on their heads to bleach the fuck out of their hair.

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I’m sorry blondes, I promise this is probably the last mention of pee bleach.

Luckily, going red was a much nicer process.

Elizabethan ladies opted for henna, a method that is still really popular today.

Note: I’ve been dying my hair red for over a decade; the success rate of a decent colour using henna is like 0.0001%, so don’t be trying no Elizabethan dye jobs at Home.

The 1600s: It get’s better. I guess… 

In 1602, Sir Hugh Platt published, Delightes for Ladies; a handy guide of hints, tips and recipes for women. Hugh even included some hair care know how that didn’t suggest dead insects or piss as hair dye ingredients!

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awwww, look how happy the blondes are!

But, don’t applaud just yet! 

 

Yeah. Turns out Hugh reeeally didn’t like women having hair; suggesting using sulphuric acid to dye their locks a fetching blonde.

Don’t worry though, Hugh makes it clear you shouldn’t touch the acid, just rub it all over your scalp. 👍

Thankfully by the end of the 1600s, wigs took over from highly dangerous chemicals.

These wigs not only allowed women to turn thier hair into towering pieces of ornate artwork, but also play with colour.

Marie Antoinette was a huge fan of pastels, with her wig collection looking a lot like a very hairy sweet shop!

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Pastel hair and a flower crown!! Girls basically ready for Coachella

Sadly all pastel haired dreams must come to an end and the French Revolution did away with the trend for spectacular coloured wigs.

In its place was the Titus.

A groundbreaking short hair cut that both acted as a protest to the French Revolution and meant women didn’t have to spend hours piling on pounds of hair.

But sadly the Titus was all about looking natural, meaning hair dye was out…

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Damn you the Titus’s simplistic natural beauty!!!

But then in 1856: Everything changed

A teenage science nerd called William Perkin was trying to synthesise quinine (a medicine now used to fight maleria) to impress his teacher. Because. Nerd.

Sadly, William totally failed.

BUT he did accidentally create a purple shade, which he dubbed Mauvine.

This was the first synthetic dye!

Mauvine went on to help medical research, build up the textile industry, create new types of food manufacturing and tons more!

But let’s be real, the real success here was opening up hair to a whole rainbow of chemical colours!

By the 1920s women were all over chemical hair dyes!

Sure you left the salon with a burning scalp, but your hair was really pretty, so fair trade right?

OBVIOUSLY NO

Messing around chemicals is a dangerous game. Then putting that mess on your head is basically asking to be maimed.

Nobody is a better testimont to this than Hollywood star, Jean Harlow

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Hair so good, it doesn’t even move

Jean Harlow’s nickname was, The Platinum Blonde.

This meant, that as well as acting, being the blondest blonde in Hollywood was basically Jeans number 1 priority.

But this was no easy feat. Nobody was naturally that blonde.

So Jean went to extreme lengths to reach her famed platinum hue.

According to Alfred Pagano, Jeans hairdresser:

“We used peroxide, ammonia, Clorox, and Lux flakes! Can you believe that?”

No Alfred I can’t believe that!

Mainly because mixing literal household bleach (Clorox) and ammonia creates a highly noxious gas which can ultimately lead to kidney failure.

Jeans hair was dyed using this deadly deadly mess ONCE A WEEK FOR YEARS.

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How is that shit even legal???!!!???

Thousands upon thousands of women attempted DIY versions of Jeans famous platinum dye recipe, with sales of bleach and ammonia sky rocketing

Thankfully the trend was short lived.

Jeans hair all fell out, which meant she stopped dying it and went to wigs.

But the deadly dyes effects remained.

Jean died of kidney failure aged 26. It was a slow and painful death: almost certainly down to her famed hair dye recipe.

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Jean Harlow: Literally killed by marketing

Mercifully, Jean was one of hair dyes last casualties.

By the 1950s mainstream brands like L’Oréal were selling hair dye that dyed hair blonde by lightening, rather than replying on bleach, or you know…piss.

The following decades were defined by hair colour, from the bright colours of the 1980s to the highlights of the 1990s and early 00s (oh hey ‘The Rachel’!)

Now it’s estimated around 70% of women dye their hair , which is pretty unsurprising when you release what a historic love affair we’ve had with colour (and that we know longer need pee to be on trend!)

This was interesting, where can I find out more? Fashions in Hair, the first 5000 years, by Richard Colson is a cracking book. But its retail price is mighty expensive, so best bet for that one is checking out your local library!

Another great (and affordable…) read is Face Paint, The Story of Make Up, by Louise Eldridge, which looks at historic beauty trends.

 

Sex, Power & the French Revolution: The scandalous life of Madame Du Barry

A cheap whore that got lucky; that’s the general historic consensus on Jeanne Bécu, more commonly known as Madame Du Barry. The rival of Marie Antoinette, scandalous mistress of Louis XV and joke of the French Revolution.

But I’d argue that there is WAY more to this lady than history has warranted her. 

The tale of Madame Du Barry verges on unbelievable. This is a story jam packed with love, sex and an EXTRODINARY  leading lady – oh, and at the end the entire cast is beheaded…

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Go on….

Jeanne Bécu was quite literally born into scandal. The illegitimate daughter of a seamstress, she was the result of a remoured (a quickly covered up) love affair with a local friar.

Yet despite her salacious start in life, Jeanne had a priveledged upbringing.

Her mother worked for an incredibly wealthy and powerful man, who just happened to be her former lover. This worked in favour of the precocious young Jeanne and she became an unofficial part of the household. Doted on by the staff, her  mother’s boss and even his mistress.

But this lush life came to a sudden end when Jeannes Mum married. The days of being showered with attention and gifts were over. And the family moved away from the household that had so adored Jeanne.

Soon money became more of an issue and Jeanne was shipped off to a convent.

Unsurprisngly this was not an environment that suited the fun loving and feisty Jeanne.

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Convents, not the natural home for teenage sass…

So as soon as she could Jeanne left the convent. And at just 15, Jeanne was making a living on the streets of Paris.

She worked selling low grade trinkets in the cities dingy side streets. In addition to a string of other short lived jobs and even shorter lived affairs…

Just surviving day to day was a struggle, but Jeanne still remembered her small taste of oppulance. She was determined to get that life back and was more than happy to work her arse off to get it.

Her endless jobs, hard work and good looks, caught peoples attention. Soon the back streets of Paris were abuzz about the beautiful and charismatic Jeanne.

A young Jeanne by François-Hubert Drouais
A young Jeanne by François-Hubert Drouais

Jean-Baptiste du Barry, had heard all about Jeannes beauty and he decided he wanted her on his books.

A ‘procurer’ of high class mistresses (read, Pimp) Du Barry thought Jeanne would be his crowning jewel and was desperate for her to join his merry band of mistresses.

Jeanne was totally down with this!

Becoming a mistress to the Parisian elite would allow Jeanne to get out of the gutter, maintain much of her independence, AND earn more money than she could dream of.

Finally Jeannes’ ship had come in… even if it was driven by Captain Creep.

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An accurate representation of Jean-Baptiste du Barry

Despite Captain Creep being at the wheel, Jeanne took Paris by storm. Becoming the mistress to political power players and influential courtiers.

She was the IT girl and everyone wanted a piece of her…including The King of France.

Jeanne had caught the Kings eye during a quick trip to Versailles (to see one of her many lovers) and upon meeting her King Louis XV was immediately entranced.

The king announced he wanted Jeanne as his main mistress. 

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The King in question, Louis XV

Slight snag; only titled, married, noble women could become the Kings mistress and Jeanne was a girl from the back streets of Paris with no ounce of noble blood…

But no matter! This was love!!

And so in a very real Cinderella story, the Kings men searched all the brothels of Paris, for the creep that could make their dreams come true.

And they found him!

Jeanne was married to her former pimp, Jean-Baptiste du Barry’s brother. He was then promptly paid to fuck off, making Jeanne just technically married.

The King then invented a fictional noble lineage for Jeanne, before transforming her old clothes into a fabulous gown and lavishing her with one of the most ornate wigs French court had ever seen.

Jeanne was now Madame Du Barry, and she was ready for her official debut as royal mistress extraordinaire.

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I’m shocked Disney has not made this yet!!!

Sadly the French Court didn’t get the whole ‘Cinderella story’ memo.

To them Jeanne was a ‘whore’. Sure she’d been cleaned up, but she was nothing more than a cheap guttersnipe who got lucky.

Women literally had to be bribed to become friends with Jeanne.

Those that didn’t ‘befriend’ Jeanne, remained irate that this strumpet had been chosen as mistress over noble born ladies. And so, in true OTT mean girls spirit, they started spreading rumour and gossip filled pamphlets about Jeanne across court.

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Who knew Mean Girls was inspired by Versailles?!

Almost as soon as she arrived at court, Jeanne had everyone around her actively pushing for her failure.

But she didn’t buckle. Instead Jeanne did what she always did. Worked.

Taking up classes in manners and etiquette, to help own her new role.

Not only that but just to prove that she was more than the cheap gold digger she was painted as, Jeannes first favour from the King wasn’t a request for money, political power or jewels…it was for mercy.

Infact, Jeanne became known for saving people from execution; falling to her knees and refusing to get up until the King agreed to spare lives.

She notably saved a debt ridden couple from beheading and a young women who was due to be hung after not reporting her still born child as dead.

Things were looking up for Jeanne,as she started cementing her place in court.

And then Marie Antionette turned up.

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In 1770 Marie Antionette married the Kings grandson (and heir).  joining the French Court.

Upon seeing Jeanne, Marie asked what she did and was told that Jeanne gave the King ‘pleasure.’

To which Marie Antionette said:

‘Oh, then I shall be her rival, because I too wish to give pleasure to the King.”

Yeah… Marie Antionette was very green.

But sadly if Jeanne thought that sweet (and VERY naive) Marie was going to be her first real friend at Court, she was all kinds of wrong.

She had in fact just met her very own Regina George (in sheeps clothing)

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This bitch..

When Marie Antoinette discovered what Jeannes job actually was, she was disgusted. Feeling that Jeannes mere presence was degrading.

BUT Marie’s hatred of Jeanne wasn’t just down to properiety.

Marie Antoinette was just weeks into her marriage, but she was still struggling to have sex with her new husband. Infact the pair hadn’t even consummated the damn thing!

Now this openly sexual woman was being thrust in her face constantly.

That’s not the basis for a lasting living friendship.

And so, egged on by the court, Marie Antoinette did what any young woman does when faced with someone they hate….

she froze the bitch out.

Marie Antoinette and her entourage indulged in long bitch sessions about Jeanne and developed a fun habit of throwing lavish parties…where Marie just accidentally always forgot to invite the Kings Mistress.

Not only that but Marie Antoinette refused to acknowledge Jeanne in public.

Now this wasn’t like the parties and snide comments. This was a HUGE deal. For Marie to not acknowledge the Kings mistress broke all kinds of court etiquette and appeared to send a message that she was questioning the Kings decision making.

It’s the historic equivalent of you striding across the office, punching your bosses PA in the face, flipping their desk and calling them a bitch.

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Big no no!

But it wasn’t just Marie going after Jeanne. Shots had been fired by both sides in this battle.

Jeanne orchestrated the removal of one of Marie Antoinette favourite courtiers. She also loved nothing more than openly and loudly talking about Marie Antoinettes bedroom issues with her new husband.

BUT Marie Antoinette icing out Jeanne had taken things to far… it had gone from a mutual dislike to an actual threat to Austrian French relation. This fued had to end!

So on New Years Day 1772, Marie Antoinette ended the fight in style.

She cooly walked over to Jeanne in one of Versailles packer corridors. Waiting until she had everyone’s attention, Marie stared Jeanne down and said

“There are a lot of people today at Versailles”  

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The weirdly polite shade of it all!

With the feud between Marie Antoinette and Jeanne now at an end, you’d be forgiven for thinking things would chill out for Jeanne.

Nope!

In April 1774 King Louis XV caught Smallpox.

By May he was dead.

Marie Antoinette and her husband were now ruling France…and with Jeannes’ rival now Queen, that could only mean one thing.

Jeanne was out on her arse. 

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Madame Du Barry, by Elisabeth Vigée LeBrun

Just like that, Jeanne was once more sent to a convent.

But she didn’t stay there for long. Jeannes’ mistress-ing work had paid off and she could afford to buy herself an amazing house out in the country. Out of the way of Marie Antionette but still the lap of luxury, it was perfect.

So there Jeanne lived. Hosting salons for Frances best artists, doing charity work in her local area and taking as many lovers as she wanted,

But we all know that this story can’t end in pastoral bliss. Why?

THE FRENCH REVOLUTION! 

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‘Do you hear the people sing, singing this won’t end well’

By the 1790s, the revolution was in full swing. Many of the courtiers that Jeanne knew, had already met with the Guillotine and so she was doing her best to keep a low profile out in the country.

But then in 1791, Jeanne had her jewels stolen in the night.

Desperate to get them back she launched an investigation. Traveling between France and London to look for them.

King Louis XVs mistress running around Europe on a hunt for her missing jewels soon caught attention…and not the right kind.

It turns out the French Revolution is not the climate in which to become a bougie Carmen Sandiego. The people were calling out for Jeannes blood.

In 1793 she was arrested and on the 7th Dec that year, Jeanne was sentenced to death. Madame du barry.jpg

Jeanne was an emotional wreck (to be fair, wouldn’t you be!?!) she was to die the next day and had no clue how to get out of it.

But then she had an idea!

In the morning, when guards arrived to cut off Jeannes hair -in preparation for her execution-she calmly told them that she wanted just a few hours grace, so she could tell the Revolutionaries where a load of her valuable jewels were.

Surely these stupidly expensive jewels would result in her freedom.

So Jeanne spent hours informing the guards of where all her hidden gems were.

After she finished the guards left….and the hairdresser came back to chop off Jeannes hair in preparation for the Guillotine.

This was the Revolution; they weren’t going to play fair. 

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Yeah…not known as the most friendly time in history

When Jeanne boarded the wagon that was to take her and the other doomed nobles to the Guillotine, she was a damn wreck.

The French elite prided themselves on remaining stone faced as they traveled to their deaths. They wouldn’t show a flicker of emotion about their imminent demise.

Jeanne wasn’t playing this game.

Whilst the others in the cart stayed haughtily neutral. Jeanne screamed, wept and begged onlookers to help her.

This unnerved the gathering crowds. Jeanne was the first person they had ever seen show any kind of fear about the whole ‘about to get my head chopped off’ thing. Suddenly this wasn’t such a fun day out…

When the cart arrived at the Guillotine, Jeanne was too scared to get out, having to be bundled onto the scaffold ‘like an animal’.

She continued weeping, wailing to the crowd

‘You are going to hurt me! Why?’

Then she saw the executioner and broke down even more.

Rather than enjoying themselves, as usual, the crowd was clearly deeply unnerved by what was about to happen. This caused the executioner to work faster than usual.

He thrust Jeanne onto the Guillotine. She turned to him crying:

‘one moment more, please monsieur, do not hurt me’

As Jeanne cried for mercy, the blade came down. Madame Du Barry 4

And so ends the tale of Jeanne, more commonly known as, Madame Du Barry. A woman who pulled herself out of poverty and into power. Who lived openly as a sexual being and in doing so felt the wrath of those around her.

Who overcame time after time, only to die at the hands of those she had grown up with.

This was interesting, where do I find out more? It’s weirdly hard to get hold of decent books on Madame Du Barry. A lot seem to have gone out of print/don’t exist in most  book shops/online outlets.

So first, check out your local library and if that leaves you empty handed, I fully suggest checking out the below:

Madame Du Barry, The Wages of Beauty by Joan Haslip 

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