History of Archaeology
Hilda Petrie: Suffragist & Fundraiser
By Dr Debbie Challis (LSE Library)
After ten years working in public engagement at the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology UCL I left for all things in political, social and economic science at LSE Library. LSE Library holds, among other archives, the Women’s Library, which has the largest collection of material relating to women’s history, particularly the campaign for female suffrage, in the UK. My former colleague Alice Stevenson wondered if there was anything relating to Hilda Petrie (nee Urlin) in The Women’s Library @ LSE archives.
I searched and duly found a letter from Flinders Petrie dated 20 June 1912 referring to his wife’s current illness and then her inability to take on any more work for the London Society for Women’s Suffrage (LSWS) as she would be too busy working for him.*
It is, perhaps, darkly ironic that Petrie refuses activist or campaigning work for women’s suffrage on behalf of his wife as he was reliant on her skills with subscribers. It does suggest though that Flinders Petrie was largely supportive of his wife’s (and his colleagues’ and students’) involvement in the campaign for women to have the vote. However, to find Hilda’s voice one has to dig a little deeper in the archives and explore the context of her involvement more fully.
In his 1912 letter Flinders Petrie is writing to Philippa Strachey, the secretary of the LWSS, who was, like her mother Lady Jane Strachey and sister Ray Strachey, an ardent suffragist.** The London Society for Women’s Suffrage (LSWS) was affiliated to the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) and the largest such society in the UK with 4,000 paying members by 1912. It and other suffragist societies followed law abiding means of campaigning – petitions, speeches, processions – not the militant tactics used by suffragettes in the Women’s Social and Political Union (1903) or the Women’s Freedom League (1907). Women and some men in suffragist organisations had been formally campaigning for the vote since the 1860s but had become more formally organised in 1897.
In the summer of 1912 Flinders Petrie may not have approved of the NUWSS since their leader Millicent Garrett Fawcett was urging support for the Labour Party as the only political party supporting women’s suffrage, an action that divided suffragists. Many felt that the NUWSS should remain 'non-party' and kept out of partisan politics, let alone make links with socialists whom many feared were dangerous radicals. Flinders Petrie was a member of the Anti-Socialist Society. However, it is likely that he needed all assistance with his exhibition at University College London of finds from the British School of Archaeology in Egypt’s season at Kafr Ammar and Heliopolis. As Amara Thornton notes the exhibition was fundamental for Petrie's fundraising due to the system of 'partage' - dividing objects between subscribers - that was then in place. This letter reveals how reliant Flinders Petrie was on his wife Hilda in this process.
From the time of her marriage to Flinders Petrie in 1897, Hilda worked as a fundraiser for the excavations in Egypt and later Palestine until the late 1930s, which has been well documented by Margaret Drower and Rachael Sparks. Her charm was legendary and she wrote to all subscribers personally as well as arranging public lectures and writing articles for popular magazines, as Sparks has shown. Whether she was fundraising for the suffragists is, as yet, unclear but Petrie’s pocket diaries occasionally records Hilda’s attendance at suffrage meetings, such as this entry from 25 July 1913.
It is an important entry as the next day was the large rally of suffragists in Hyde Park after their month of a Great Pilgrimage from all parts of the country. This was in an attempt to be heard by the Liberal government and to change public opinion of women campaigning for the vote; arguably militant suffragette violence, such as arson, had undermined the campaign and image of women seeking the vote.
More work digging in the archives (in meeting minutes during the 1910s, for example) is needed to fully ascertain the role of Hilda in the suffragist campaign. Her role may have been limited due to the time spent outside of the country on excavations. Certainly many of her circle were involved in the campaign for female suffrage as well as writing in journals and giving lectures - public engagement for the cause that Hilda would later carry out for Egyptology and the BSAE.
For example, Hilda’s friend Beatrice Orme was sister to Eliza, the first woman to obtain a LLB (law degree) from the University of London and an early member of the London National Society for Women's Suffrage (a forerunner of the LSWS). Eliza wrote on practical solutions to problems for women and argued for education and independence for women in popular journals. By the time Eliza and Beatrice were living together in Tulse Hill in the late 1890s, Beatrice was also attending excavations in Egypt with Hilda.
Margaret Drower mentions that 'suffragette Philippa Fawcett' was one of Hilda’s neighbours and ‘idols’ when growing up. Philippa was daughter of NUWSS president Millicent Garrett Fawcett and became a senior wrangler in Mathematics at Cambridge, but could not be awarded the scholarship due to being a woman. She wrote once for a suffragette journal but, like her mother, was a suffragist.
We can surmise Hilda’s involvement and beliefs from those of her friends and acquaintances but her involvement in the women's movement is more clear and well documented through her activities during the First World War.
To be continued...
Crawford, E. 1999. The Women’s Suffrage Movement. Reference Guide 1866 – 1928, London: Taylor & Francis / UCL Press.
Drower, M. 1985. Flinders Petrie: A Life in Archaeology. London: Gollancz.
Howsam, L. ‘Orme, Eliza (1848–1937)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/37825: Published in print: 23 September 2004, online: 23 September 2004.
Petrie, William Matthew Flinders, Letter to Philippa Strachey, dated 20 June 1912, The Women’s Library @ LSE, Autograph Letter Collection: 9/01/1002
Sparks, R.2013. PUBLICISING PETRIE: Financing Fieldwork in British Mandate Palestine (1926–1938). Present Pasts 5(1), p.Art. 2. DOI: http://doi.org/10.5334/pp.56
Thornton, A. 2015. Exhibition Season: Annual Archaeological Exhibitions in London, 1880s-1930s. Bulletin of the History of Archaeology 25 (1)p.Art.2: DOI: http://doi.org/10.5334/bha.252
*20 June 1912
I regret to say that Mrs Petrie is obliged to take entire rest at present as she has been unwell lately; and she has a very tiring month before her of daily attention to subscribers at the Exhibition of the British School of Archaeology, the whole personal detail of which is in her hands.
She will therefore be unable to undertake anything else until the end of July. I write as she is away for entire rest.
Wm. F. Petrie
**Her brother was Lytton Strachey, member of the Bloomsbury Group and author of the caustic Eminent Victorians.
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