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Hunger strike medal awarded to suffragette ‘prepared to die’ found in drawer after more than 100 years

Posted on 29/05/2019 in Press Coverage

A Medal of Valour awarded to a militant suffragette who endured ‘the last extremity of hunger and hardship’ for her cause has been uncovered in a bureau after more than a century.

The hunger strike medal, presented to Elsie Wolff Van Sandau on March 4, 1912 – the date of an organised window-smashing campaign - has been found by Hansons Auctioneers after gathering dust for decades in a bureau in London.

The medal is housed in its original case which states: ‘Presented to Elsie Wolff Van Sandau. By the Women’s Social & Political Union in recognition of a gallant action whereby through endurance to the last extremity of hunger and hardship great principle of political justice was vindicated’.

Now, with the rare object set to go to auction at Hansons on June 27 with an estimate of £7,000-£10,000, it’s hoped her efforts to win equal voting rights for women will be recognised once again.

Miss Wolff Van Sandau, granddaughter of Dr E Schwabe, private chaplain to the late Duchess of Kent, was arrested after allegedly smashing a window in London’s Covent Garden during the March 4, 1912 campaign. She subsequently went on trial and began a hunger strike.

She was also arrested on November 18, 1910 following the infamous ‘Black Friday’ riots, a demonstration by 300 women at Westminster led by political activist Emmeline Pankhurst.

The day earned its name due to the violence meted out to protesters, some being of a sexual nature, by the Metropolitan Police and male bystanders. Police arrested four men and 115 women but all charges were later dropped. Calls for a public inquiry were rejected by Winston Churchill, then Home Secretary, but the incident sparked major changes.

In the wake of the chaotic scenes, and the fact that the violence may have caused the subsequent deaths of two suffragettes, many campaigners resumed previous forms of direct action, such as stone-throwing and window-breaking, which offered time to escape. The police also softened their approach.

The medal was discovered in a bureau drawer in a house in East Sheen, South West London, by sisters Anne Alford, 64, of Twickenham, and Joan Woolman, 61, a retired classroom assistant from Leicestershire.

But though they remember the medal from decades ago, they are unclear about its connection to their family.

Mrs Alford, a retired receptionist, said: “My family moved to a Victorian terraced house in East Sheen in the 1960s and it was our home for many years. Two great aunts lived with us and we wonder if they may have known Elsie or been connected to the suffragette movement.

“I first became aware of the medal’s existence in the early 1970s during my final exams at school. I studied the suffragettes but didn’t think to use the medal.”

The sisters rediscovered the medal when their father, Jim Nunn, was taken ill with Alzheimer’s and they had to clear his home, but there is no-one left to help them find out more.

Mrs Alford said: “We lost my dad at the age of 90 in 2018 and our mum, Edna, died in 1994. The two great aunts who used to live with us are no longer alive. I’ve done as much research as I can about Elsie, but how our family came to own the medal is something of a mystery.”

Hansons valuer Helen Smith said: “I hope this find reminds people of the sacrifices Miss Wolff Van Sandau and her fellow suffragettes made a century ago to help women gain rights many of us now take for granted.

“Her decision to go on hunger strike shows she was willing to die for her cause. Would today’s generation of women have been so selfless? We’re very proud to sell this medal, which is worthy of a museum or an important suffragette collection.”

The hunger strike medal will be sold on June 27 at Hansons Auctioneers, Heage Lane, Etwall, Derbyshire. To find out more, email [email protected].