A Suffragette joins the Women’s Police Force
Special Branch is watching her.
But now she watches women
As they stir nitric acid in with sulphur.
She searches their khaki pockets and sleeves
For buttons and sweets, which don’t mix well with TNT.
Creating the Centena
I first discovered Clara Lambert under one of her aliases – Catherine Wilson. A police report from 24 April 1914 said Ms Wilson was to stand trial for smashing a display case in the Asiatic Saloon in the British Museum, and that she’d been found in the House of Commons “dressed in male attire with a riding whip in her coat pocket”.
Her militant tactics as a suffragette are well documented. What Clara did during the war has been harder to find. I had great help from the Godalming Museum in Surrey: they found that Clara joined the first Women’s Police Service (WPS), and was sent to Pembrey, South Wales, to do welfare work with women munitions workers.
I wanted to explore more themes from Clara’s life, a life that were instantly changed by the war. To do this, I’ve blurred fact with fiction – or rather, with other fact. I have no concrete evidence of what Clara did in Pembrey, or even how long she was there for. Instead I’ve used details from other WPS officers’ accounts of work at the Pembrey munitions factory. These are the themes:
Smuggling objects: Clara was an expert at this: as well as the aforementioned riding whip, she also smuggled a hammer in her muff to smash the Strand Post Office’s windows, and “produced a brand-new hatchet from beneath her coat” in the British Museum.
As a WPS officer, she would have searched women going in and out of the Pembrey factory, checking for items like buttons, cigarettes, or jewellery that could cause an explosion if dropped into the chemicals. Given her aptitude for hiding objects, I’m sure that, as inspector, nothing would have got past Clara.
Surveillance: Before the war, 16 police special branch officers followed suffragettes, taking covert photos. As a WPS officer, Clara would have been doing the watching herself. She would have monitored women’s behaviour – mostly making sure they didn’t get involved with khaki-clad men.
Malicious damage: This is how Clara’s British Museum actions were described. It’s a world away from the damage she might have seen ammunition cause at Pembrey. During an explosion in 1917, four men and two women died. The cause of the explosion was never found, and the coroner ruled that every reasonable caution had been taken to avoid it.
Women’s rights: The two women who died in the 1917 explosion were given the kind of funeral usually reserved for the military. Their coffins, on horse-drawn carriages, were draped in the Union Jack and flanked by women in their factory uniforms. It seems they were given more rights in death than the rights Clara had been fighting for before the war.
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