THIS month, International Women’s Day has been celebrated around the world and in East Lothian, in particular, we have paid our respects to the ‘Rural’ as it marks its 100th anniversary.
The Rural, as the Scottish Women’s Rural Institute has always been known, is often seen as a quiet, genteel organisation, offering feminine activities and friendship, but its foundation came at one of the most turbulent times in the women’s movements...and its founder, Catherine Blair, was rumoured to have been in the thick of it!
It is claimed that Catherine – who set up the very first Scottish Women’s Rural Institute, in Longniddry – may have hidden women prisoners from their jailers and helped them escape as the British justice system battled against the rise of activism in the suffragette movement.
Catherine was a known suffragette and founder of the Institute.
Born in 1872 in Bathgate, she married farmer Thomas Blair and their family home was Hoprig Mains Farm, near Gladsmuir.
Although she was an active member of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), chairing local meetings and writing many letters to the press, she did not engage in militant protest because of her young family.
However, with the support of her husband, she turned Hoprig Mains Farm into a clandestine refuge for Scottish suffragette prisoners released under the Cat and Mouse Act (the Prisoners [Temporary Discharge for Ill Health] Act).
Among those most famous for reportedly staying at the farm was political activist and nurse Edith Hudson, who was the same age as Catherine.
Edith was imprisoned in Edinburgh in 1909 for refusing to pay taxes because women were not considered ’persons’ and did not have the vote. Nannie Brown, also a militant suffragist, described her as “the first political prisoner in the new Calton Jail”.
Following her release, she travelled to London, where she was imprisoned again, for taking part in a London window-smashing raid.
In Holloway, it was reported that Edith battled against force-feeding, knocking down six prison wardens as she fought back.
In 1913, as the protests continued, Edith and three other Edinburgh WSPU members, Arabella Scott and Agnes and Elizabeth Thomson, planned to set fire to Kelso Racecourse grandstand.
They were jailed for nine months and immediately went on hunger strike.
They were released under the Cat and Mouse Act, which allowed prisoners to be freed under licence if their health became endangered.
Under the act, they had to return to prison when their licence was up but this never happened voluntarily and police officers struggled to keep them under supervision.
Edith Hudson was last seen apparently resting at the home of fellow suffragette Dr Grace Cadell, in Edinburgh. Then she disappeared, never to be heard of again.
It has long been believed she hid at Hoprig Mains Farm under the protection of Catherine Blair and her husband.
Reports later surfaced of Edith giving a talk about her earlier prison experiences, possibly to the Rural in the county.
Catherine once recalled a time when there was “a suffragette lying in our hammock in the garden, rocking with laughter at the evening paper which told of her escape to France”.