‘I soon realised that I was becoming a ‘marked’ woman.’
Extracts taken from Scotland: Her Story, The Nation’s History by the Women Who Lived It
By Rosemary Goring
Published by Birlinn
Letter to a doomed youth
Madeleine Smith, 3 July 1856
Written eight months before she is thought to have poisoned him, this letter from the middle-class Glaswegian Madeleine Smith to her lover Pierre Emile L’Angelier, an apprentice gardener, shows her excitable, dramatic and possibly erratic personality. When she became engaged to a wealthy suitor, William Harper Monnich, thereby crushing Emile’s long-held expectations, she asked him to return her letters. Knowing they were incriminating, he tried to blackmail her into marrying him. All her pleading would not budge him, and not long afterwards, he was found dead. Madeleine’s letters, discovered in the dead man’s room, and her purchase of arsenic in the weeks before his death, led
to her trial in 1857. It caused a sensation. Many refused to believe a well-brought-up young woman could have killed a man in such a sinister and premeditated fashion. Others were transfixed by the scandalous revelations of premarital sex. The charges were found not proven, that peculiarly Scottish verdict which lies between Guilty and Not Guilty. Smith went on to marry twice, have two children, and live a quiet life in England and New York until her death in 1928.
My own ever beloved Emile
I trust to Heaven you got home safe – I was not heard by anyone – So I am safe – Were you dearest any the worse of being out in the night air – Emile perhaps I did wrong in taking you into my room – but are you not my own husband – It can be no sin dearest – But I wont do it again – I was so glad to see you darling – would I could be ever with you to keep you company – You stayed so short I got nothing said to you – I had thought of so many things to ask you about – But I hope love your next visit will be longer – Emile my husband I have been thinking of all you said to me last night – Now in the first place – I promise you I shall safe as much of my pin money as I can – I shall put it to many useful things – I shall spend the money I safe on things I shall require when I am your wife. Will this please you – In the second place – I shall not go about as of old with B/- I shall go out before the afternoon – And in the next place – I shall not go to any Public Balls without getting your consent – will this please you my dear little husband – I shall try and do all I can to please you and keep your mind free and do be happy – And darling if you continue to love me I shall please you in many things – Emile if you go away and go into the French army – you know you will never return to Scotland – and of course I am your wife and I can never be the wife of any other one – So my mind is made up if you go – I shall go where no one shall see me more – I shall be dead to the World. But dearest love I trust we shall get on so that you wont go. I shall behave well for your dear sake – Yes My own My sweet Emile I shall make you happy. You shall some day I hope say you have a faithful and loving wife, And my prayer shall be that you shall never regret taking me for your wife – One of my annoyances is that I may not suit you – or that I am not half good enough to be your wife – Emile I often think we do not [know] each other much that is – we do not know the temper or character of each other – We have never seen each other but under peculiar circumstances so we shall have all that to study after our marriage. But I dont think dear love it shall be difficult to do – What do you say pet . . .
I shall now say Good Night – It is later than when you left me last night – Adieu my love my good dear husband – I adore you more and more each time I see you – You were looking in my eyes very very well last night – I forgot to tell you last night that I have had great pain in getting my first Wisdom tooth. So after I get them all you will expect something like wisdom from me. Adium sweet love my fond embrace – A dear sweet Kiss from your devoted and your truly loving your affectionate wife your own dearest true
A marked woman
Mary Brooksbank, c. 1922 or 1923
Born in Aberdeen in 1897, in what she described as ‘one of the worst slums in the city’, Mary Brooksbank (nee Soutar) became a fervent Communist, and served three sentences in prison as a result. This was something of a family tradition, her father being an ardent trade unionist. She was also a gifted songwriter, best known for ‘Oh, Dear Me’ (putting the words to the tune of ‘The Jute Mill Song’). After her family moved south, she started in a jute mill in Dundee when she was almost fourteen, and for the rest of her life agitated for better conditions for workers. In an interview with Hamish Henderson in 1968 she recalled: ‘My mother put me into service for a period; tried to make me genteel you know. She gave me a lovely outfit but it didna suit me; it was the worst thing she could have did because I saw right away the contrast between their homes and ours, you know, thon’s o’ the gentry and ours.’ She was expelled from the Communist Party after expressing her condemnation of Stalin’s inhumane policies. Michael Marra and Rod Paterson wrote a song in her honour, called ‘The Bawbee Birlin’. Here, she describes life in a mill shortly after the First World War.
The life of the women workers of Dundee, right up to the thirties, was, to put it bluntly, a living hell of hard work and poverty. It was a common sight to see women, after a long 10-hour day in the mill, running to the steam washhouses with the family washing. They worked up to the last few days before having their bairns . . . Infant and maternal mortality in Dundee was the highest in the country, worse even than Lancashire. Children of 12 were given badges enabling them to sell papers in the street. Even the police had their Bootless Bairns Fund, for bootless bairns were a common enough sight in those days. So were low wages, unemployment, profiteering in food, lack of proper medical attention, bad housing conditions, and, of course, the ever-prevalent ignorance, superstition and fear.
The women in particular had much to be afraid of. Fear of losing their jobs, fear of losing their health, fear of losing their bairns, fear of offending, even unwittingly, gaffers, priests, factors, and all those whom they had been taught were placed by God in authority over them.
Unemployment continued to grow. How could it be otherwise? The imposition of the Versailles Treaty on a defeated Germany virtually made slaves of the German people, compelling them to produce the goods which we had formerly made. The British and American industrialists reaped a rich harvest by way of reparations but had to subsidise their own unemployed wage slaves. In the meantime, mass demonstrations were taking place. One in particular comes to mind. It was during the first Armistice Day, that day when two minutes’ silence is held in memory of our ‘glorious dead’. Yes, ‘these bundles of bloody rags’, mentioned by Churchill. With our banners of protest mentioning the numbers of unemployed, the homeless, the widowed and orphaned, we marched. One of our unemployed ex-servicemen had a banner depicting a soldier rising, looking up at these numbers, and saying, ‘If this is what I fought for, thank Christ I’m dead!’
A local minister, the Rev. Harcourt Davidson (noted for his drinking habits), stopped our demonstration, then the police, who had been waiting, commenced arresting our leaders. We were charged with breach of the peace. I got 40 days’ imprisonment, Jock Thomson, our chairman, got 60 days, and some 20 others got fines and lesser sentences. Every day we spent in gaol there were mass demonstrations outside. We could hear the people singing and shouting to cheer us up . . .
I was soon to learn that original thinking, like original sin, brought its own punishment. I found that, because of my activities, I could not get a job, and if I did, I could not keep it long.
I recall a great rally held in the Caird Hall, and sponsored by all the religious denominations in the city, against Bolshevism. One of the posters, a gigantic affair, showed a worker being led blindfold into a chasm. Over the brink was a black cloud labelled ‘Communism’. Evidently plenty of money was behind this political rally, for there was no mistaking its purpose, hidden under the cloak of religion. No sooner did the chairman start to speak than there were interruptions from all over the hall. During a lull, I asked the chairman why the reverend gentlemen had made no protest at the mass slaughter between 1914 and 1918? I was immediately seized and hustled out to a waiting van.
Next day in court I pleaded guilty. The sheriff, Malcolm, asked why I had protested the previous evening. I pointed out that this had been advertised as a religious meeting, but was in fact political. He agreed, saying, ‘International politics, Mrs Brooksbank!’ He then fined me three guineas.
I soon realised that I was becoming a ‘marked’ woman. Once, while addressing a meeting outside the High School gate, in answer to a question I said that until the working class took possession of the –— means of production and became rulers of the country, we would always have unemployment, so long as we had production for profit. That night I was taken from my home by the police and kept in custody without being informed with what I was being charged.
Our organisation got a solicitor, a young man called Carmichael, a partner of Grafton Lawson. Next day I was told that I was charged with sedition. I was taken downstairs into a room where a sheriff’s clerk read a long rigmarole. Then I was taken into court. Carmichael came over and in a very paternal tone of voice asked me to plead guilty. He told me that it would go hard with me if I didn’t, as sedition was a very serious offence.
He said he was sorry to see me mixed up with all these riff-raff, I was very young, etc., etc. I asked him if he was being paid to represent me, or my accusers, whereupon he became very annoyed. When the Court proceedings opened, I promptly pleaded ‘Not Guilty!’ Carmichael addressed the sheriff, saying that this young woman had received a poor education and did not realise the seriousness of what she was saying. I interrupted, asking if I could enter the witness box. The sheriff replied, ‘Certainly’.
I said I admitted that what I said was only what a former Labour Prime Minister had once said, but in different terms. I protested that I was not asking the 500 or so people at the meeting to take over the administration of the country. Came the verdict: ‘Not Proven!’
Scotland: Her Story, The Nation’s History by the Women Who Lived It by Rosemary Goring is published by Birlinn, priced £20.00