Today’s Guardian website carries a story about an autograph album which is to be auctioned next week. Contained within the book are the thoughts and signatures of a number of leading suffragettes, many of whom were imprisoned in the course of demanding vote for women. This post is not a plaintive plea for some kind benefactor to purchase and donate the album to a museum (although someone should, and get in contact if you’re feeling generous). No rather it is a homage to that most humble of things – the signature.
Working in archives and in museums you get to spend a lot of time with objects, to be honest it’s one of the reasons why I do it. And the thing about objects, especially old ones, is that they have a certain quality about them, a resonance that speaks of the past. This is especially true when they are handwritten, or include the signature of a famous person. I don’t want to delve into the metaphysical but with handwriting, or signatures, the person leaves something on the page. And when in the presence of it you are linked – just for a second – to the person who wrote it.
Both the People’s History Museum and the Working Class Movement Library are full of treasures that have passed through the hands of some of British politics’s most important figures. The above is a piece of paper from the Labour History Archive of the People’s History Museum. It’s the signatures of a group who attended an informal meeting in London on 22nd March 1915. Their purpose was to discuss ‘the Board of Trade’s proposals in regard to the registration of women for war service.’ I’m still researching the history of this conference, and will write more about it soon but for now I’ll just show the bit of paper that was passed round the table for the attendees to sign. The top name is George Lansbury, who gives his organisation as Poplar Trades Council but would go on to lead the Labour Party between 1932 and 1935. The third signature on the list is Sylvia Pankhurst, who by this time had left the Women’s Social and Political Union to form the East London Federation of Suffragettes. She also signed the book mentioned in the Guardian article. Also on there is the name A. Susan Lawrence – this is Arabella Susan Lawrence who was one of the first female MPs.
The thought of this bit of paper being passed around to be signed by those present is, I think, a heady one. The Working Class Movement Library’s copy of William Morris Complete Works Volume I also contains the marks of those who once held it. Originally gifted to the Irish-born Scottish miners’ leader and Labour MP Robert Smille, the dedication simply reads ‘from a few friends + well wishers in the movement’. As you can see the well wishers were some of the leading names in labour and trade union circles. Amongst others the signatures include future Prime Minister James Ramsay MacDonald, Ernest Bevin, the man responsible for organising Britain’s workforce during World War 2 and who served as foreign secretary from 1945, and George Lansbury (again).
‘If walls could talk’ – perhaps signatures do?