Catherine Wilson: a dangerous woman in UK Parliament

Dr Mari Takayanagi is Senior Archivist at the Parliamentary Archives, where she has worked in various roles including public services, outreach, preservation and access. In 2012 she was awarded a PhD in History by King’s College London. Her doctoral thesis ‘Parliament and Women c.1900-1945’, examined legislation affecting women’s lives and gender equality, the role of women in Parliamentary committees, and women staff in Parliament in the early 20th century. She is co-curator and joint project manager for Vote 100, a project to commemorate 100 years of the vote for some women and all men in Parliament in 2018.

What does it mean to be a dangerous woman in Parliament?

Back in the early 20th century, it meant if you wanted to watch proceedings in the House of Commons, you had to sit separately from men. You had to sit in a special Ladies’ Gallery, high up above the Commons chamber, with heavy metal grilles covering the window to obstruct the view. This was because you were such a danger to the Members of Parliament below, it was feared you might distract them from their work if they were able to see you watching them. A suggestion in a House of Commons Committee in 1869 that the Ladies’ Gallery could be better lit drew the response, ‘It has been decided that there should not be light in the Ladies’ Gallery, because if there was light you would see the ladies, and it has been considered that they should not be seen’.

But surely women were not really so dangerous in Parliament?

Well – 100 years ago, as a suffragette, a militant campaigner for ‘Votes for Women’, you might also attempt to chain yourself to a statue, rush the entrance, deface a wall, or hide in the building overnight. As a result of all these protests, you – and all women – were deemed sufficiently dangerous that you were banned from sitting or waiting in Central Lobby in the heart of Parliament. Instead, all women were confined to St Stephen’s Hall nearby, which effectively meant that all the protest simply moved there.

In the Parliamentary Archives we hold a set of police reports on suffragette activity in Parliament between 1906 and 1914, and one report (pictured, transcript below) shows an innovative approach by one dangerous woman to get into Central Lobby despite the ban. On 16 March 1914, a suffragette under the name Catherine Wilson came into Parliament dressed as a man, with a male companion, and made her way to Central Lobby. She was so dangerous she was already under state surveillance – the Parliamentary police had been tipped off by Special Branch ‘to be on the alert to detect a woman who dressed as a man’.

Constable Copeland duly spotted her, followed her to Central Lobby, and sat down next to her. Inspector Rogers then arrived, and wrote solemnly in his report, ‘I told her that I had my doubts about her sex’. She was then arrested after the police found a riding whip hidden in her left overcoat sleeve, and subsequently sentenced to six weeks’ hard labour.

Apart from simply being a woman, two things made Catherine Wilson especially dangerous; the masculine disguise and the whip. The whip was a weapon of choice for a number of suffragettes: well-known examples include Theresa Garnett who attacked Winston Churchill with a whip, and Helen Ogston, ‘The Woman with the Whip’ at the Royal Albert Hall. The cross-dressing is perhaps a more unusual and potentially subversive tactic.

As well as women dressing as men for particular purposes, for example in theatre and music hall, from at least the 18th century onwards there are stories in popular culture of women who cross-dressed to pass as men in life. Often reported in a sensational way in newspapers on discovery, women did this for many different possible reasons; for example to work, travel, escape relationships, or join the Army or Navy. In some cases such women passed as ‘female husbands’ of other women, suggesting lesbianism, although historians differ in their interpretation of individual sources.

By the late 19th century, some middle-class women chose to adopt more masculine forms of dress for a variety of reasons, including assertion of feminism or economic independence. Satirical images of suffragettes sometimes portrayed them in masculine clothes by way of mocking them and hinting at lesbianism, as in this postcard from the Museum of London. This also played into fears that if women had the vote, they might assume male roles – such as becoming an MP, that there could even be a ‘Mrs Speaker’. If Catherine Wilson could walk into Central Lobby by dressing as a man, who was to say what else she could get away with?

So who was Catherine Wilson?

Well, she was so dangerous she used aliases – unknown to the Parliamentary police, her real name was Clara Lambert and she also called herself Mary Stewart. Under these various guises she took part in many militant suffragette protests for the Women’s Social & Political Union. This included damaging exhibits in the British Museum with a meat chopper, which caused the Criminal Record Office at New Scotland Yard to issue a memorandum with her picture. She was imprisoned, went on hunger strike and was forcibly fed. Twice she refused to return to prison having been temporarily released under the ‘Cat & Mouse Act’, and continued to evade arrest.

So up until 1914 she was about as dangerous as a woman could be – and yet, with great irony, in 1915 with the First World War underway and women taking on many jobs previously only held by men, ‘Catherine Wilson’ became one of the first women police! The Women’s Police Service was set up by Nina Boyle, another former suffragette, to work among women such as prostitutes and female munitions workers. The case of ‘Catherine Wilson’ shows a remarkably fast transformation from enemy of the state to pillar of the state: one year she was the subject of a police report, a year later she was writing them. It demonstrates how quickly things can change, especially in a time of war; how even the most dangerous of women could be ‘rehabilitated’ if circumstances demanded.

After the war, Clara Lambert and her friend Violet Croxford went on to set up a women’s refuge and enjoy a long and peaceful retirement in Surrey. You can find out more about them at the Godalming Museum website.

Thanks also to Elizabeth Crawford for biographical information, and to The Lesbian History Sourcebook, by Alison Oram and Annmarie Turnbull, for information on historical cross-dressing.

–Mari Takayanagi


Transcript of Catherine Wilson’s police report. Parliamentary Archives, HC/SA/SJ/10/12/53

Police Office

17 March 1914


I beg to state that at 8 p.m. 16th inst., in consequence of what was told me by an officer of the Special Branch I directed all men on duty to be on the alert to detect a woman, who dressed as a man might endeavour to enter the Central Hall.

Shortly afterwards Catherine Wilson, a suffragette, address refused, entered St Stephen’s entrance accompanied by Clement H Whatley, of 70 Belvedere Road Upper Norwood S.E.

P.C.529 Copeland, who was on duty at St Stephen’s Porch, saw her enter and thought she was the woman referred to.

He followed her through St Stephen’s Hall into the Central Hall, where she sat on the seat, with Whatley, immediately outside the offices of the Attorney General and the Secretary for Scotland, the Constable taking a seat beside her.

Subsequently I spoke to her and asked her her name. She replied, “Wilson”. I told her that I had my doubts about her sex and that she would have to go to Cannon Row Police Station.

She was then arrested when a riding whip was found concealed in her left overcoat sleeve.

When charged under the Vagrancy Act with being a suspected person found in an enclosed area, she replied, “If I had carried out my purpose they would have had it hot.”

She was sentenced to six weeks Hard Labour at Bow Street Police Court 17th inst.

S. Rogers Insp.

With thanks to the Parliamentary Archives and to the Museum of London for granting the Dangerous Women Project use of the digital images in this post.  Digital image of Catherine Wilson is (c) Museum of London.