Mrs Despard Gets My Vote Nine Elms polling station, 14th December 1918
Truth told, I’m not savvy to the half of what she says—but o what silver- tongued fire she breathes! And what she’s done for us Nine Elms lot is worthy of a saint.
There’s some as reckon she’s earned her place in heaven by mere fact of dwelling in our heaving godforsaken corner of the globe. And though she shows herself a lady in her bearing, Mrs Despard ditched all airs and graces long ago.
Wary, we was, I’ll grant you, at first. Our barefoot sons scampering home with tales of a nurse patching grazed knees, giving tots of elixir to strengthen their bones. Mrs D. fixed ’em up with boots then. That was the start.
Most of Nine Elms must’ve trooped through her house—for her drop-in clinic, and the Despard Boys Club, what saved my Alf from too much mischief. Our Catholic Mothers group for tea and chit-chat and “nutritional advice”, taken with a pinch of salt, mind. Her blessed soup kitchens at leanest times—the men laid off, on strike or called up to war. Milk puddings for the little ones. And now the vote—
her dearest Cause. So it must matter. That’s why I’ll stand in line and put a cross beside her name. Mrs Despard gets my vote for Battersea. Imagine if she ruled the world!
A lady’s diary 1913
My fifth turn. A novice compared to some.
My gentle throat bears witness still to the three-strong force it takes to pin me back into an arch.
They’ll wait for the bruising to die down from purple to green yellow to white, for elbow marks rammed into rib and shin to fade, for a pinioned chest —made free of corset underneath prison clothing—to cast off knee welts, for gums to bud skin torn by metal jaws, for soft cheeks to hide histories of gripping hands that forced open a mouth to gag on rubber pipe.
Then they’ll start again.
This waiting affords me visits home, soft boiled eggs, a glimpse of the headlines.
Such respite is not spared for less political inmates as daily, hourly, more cells are haunted by routine wretchings and struggles that fingers rammed into ears will never blunt.
My fourth time I came here to Holloway. They spat in my food for blame their pacing nights, their shot nerves, their illnesses from pipe-phlegm. But you could not wrest this visit away from me without a fight for here I am with EP and we will be free or die.
They wait, wait for this nonsense to go away, for the stupidity to stop, for the breach to be unbroken.
And we, my sisters, we will wait too.
London Undercurrents is an ongoing poetry project by Joolz Sparkes and Hilaire, unearthing the voices of women who have lived and worked in the capital over many centuries. Their poems have appeared in South Bank Poetry and Brittle Star, and have featured on the Proletarian Poetry site.