When McChrystal kept stumbling across a mysterious name, ‘Rosaline McCheyne’ in old Suffragette meeting records, her interest was piqued. The deeper she dug, the more she realised that those who ‘do the admin’ are just as important for a revolution as those on the frontline.
Jane McChrystal’s new book The Splendid Mrs. McCheyne pulls the Suffragette Rosaline McCheyne out of the ‘dregs of history’ and into the spotlight. She was a key member of The East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS) who ran a local Mother and Baby clinic in Bow.
Complete with an interview with a living relative Anne Padfield, what started off as a volunteer research project about Rosaline McCheyne for the Women’s Hall Exhibition in 2018 would soon become McChrystal’s raison d’etre for the next year of her life.
McChrystal, a retired librarian and psychologist, was always interested in history, and in the history of East End in particular.
‘I was born in Manor Park and spent my childhood there, so I was always interested in East End history.’
After a full working life as a librarian before retraining as a psychologist, her retirement meant she was finally able to pursue those interests, which she did by volunteering for a Women’s Hall event at the Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archive, which was a showcase of the East End Suffragettes.
There, looking through old meeting records of the ELFS, she discovered that the name of one Suffragette, Rosaline McCheyne, kept popping up.
‘It interested me because Rosaline didn’t say much,’ says McChrystal. ‘She was a silent, but basically an omnipresent figure.’
This is what struck McChrystal most about this mysterious Suffragette; she was not a frontline campaigner like Sylvia Pankhurst. So who was she and what was her role?
As her research progressed, she soon realised that this mysterious McCheyne was a different type of activist compared to ‘The Pankhursts and the Nellie Cressalls of the world,’ as McChrystal says.
We now rightly celebrate the frontline activists; Sylvia Pankhurst for example, was the public face for their cause who would lead marches and perform speeches in Victoria Park. But Rosaline McCheyne was a different, yet no less important member needed by any activist movement.
‘You need the people doing admin, running the day-to-day activities. They’re the glue that holds together a movement,’ says McChrystal.
During her research for the exhibition, it wasn’t until she came across a copy of the Suffragette newspaper, the Women’s Dreadnought, that McChrystal discovered just how crucial McCheyne was to the Suffragettes.
‘It was a farewell article, as she was leaving the ELFS,’ says McChrystal. ‘It listed all her accomplishments: she helped to run the stall at Roman Road Market, and she actually helped run a mother and baby clinic.’
This clinic, which was at 53 Leonard Street, helped feed starving families, one of many such initiatives to alleviate East End poverty the Suffragettes would run during the First World War.
McChrystal’s curiosity was piqued. As part of this exhibition, she and the other volunteers had to pick a special topic, event or person to research and present for the showcase. McChrystal was still pondering who or what she might pick.
Then later that day, as she was taking the bus back from her volunteering session at the archive library in Mile End back to her current home on the banks of the Thames on the Isle of Dogs, when her bus was diverted from its normal route.
‘As I was trying to decide what topic of research to focus on for the exhibition, my bus was diverted from Bow Road, and I came through Fairfield Road,’ she says.
55 Fairfield Road was the home of the very same Rosaline McCheyne.
‘I thought, “Yup, this is it. I was meant to research her.”’
McChrystal, who is innately academic and curious, became excited by the concept of original research.
‘I love opening up a box of documents and thinking, “How many people before me have laid eyes on this?” The answer is not very many.’ But at this point, McCheyne was still very much a research project.
But it was when she reached out to one of McCheyne’s living relative, Anne Padfield (neé McCheyne), that this project became personal.
‘I reached out to Anne and she had a lot more personal research because she was already looking into Rosaline.’ Padfield, who is a farmer in Essex, was able to give McChrystal more personal information on what kind of a person McCheyne was through secondhand recollections of Padfield’s mother, who knew the Suffragette.
‘It was exciting because I now had a living connection to Rosaline,’ says McChrystal. ‘I had more information about the social history side of her life because of my research and [Padfield] had the more personal information and we were able to put our two separate streams together,’ she says, weaving her hands together in demonstration.
The two then bonded over their shared mission to bring a woman who has contributed to history, but has largely been forgotten by it.
‘We’re still in touch,’ says McChrystal.
Throughout our interview outside her flat, surrounded by the industrial landscape of the Isle of Dogs, she only refers to Rosaline McCheyne by her first name and drops insights about her personality (‘She was obviously a caring person’, says McChrystal at some point).
McChrystal has surmised these little details about McCheyne’s personality through her research. However, the effect is like how one speaks about a friend; it is difficult to believe these two women are lifetimes apart.
When asked if McCheyne feels like someone she knows, personally, she says in an assured manner, ‘Well, yes. I’ve built up a picture of her, and some of those details may or may not be true.
‘For example, when you see her in photographs, she always seems to stand on the edge and she always looks off to one side. She clearly doesn’t like being in the limelight,’ McChrystal chuckles.
And this question of who we should remember from and history and why is what McChrystal says she wants readers to get most out of the book; that McCheyne’s story, and the role she played in the background during that crucial fight for women to have a say in democracy was just as important.
‘I feel like [myself and Padfield] pulled her out of the dregs of history, just as she was about to be forgotten.’
You can buy The Splendid Mrs. McCheyne from Waterstones and select online retailers.
Can you help us?
As a not-for-profit media organisation using journalism to strengthen communities, we have not put our digital content behind a paywall or membership scheme as we think the benefits of an independent, local publication should be available to everyone living in our area.
If a fraction of the local 40,000 residents donated two pounds a month to Roman Road LDN it would be enough for our editorial team to serve the area full time and be beholden only to the community. A pound at a time, we believe we can get there.