24/04/1914…what really happened on that fateful night?
The real story of Evaline and Florence
Picture the scene…….
It’s 1914 and an unusually chilly May in the popular seaside resort of Felixstowe.
Coastal fogs are obscuring the shore and frost carpets the famous spa gardens.
The previously sleepy county of Suffolk has been experiencing stirrings of unrest during the last couple of months. Largely ignored for much of the women’s suffrage which is currently causing disruption across the nation, Suffolk has now become hotbed of activist activities.
In recent weeks, Felixstowe and the surrounding towns and villages have received an influx of female visitors who are excitedly anticipating a conference for women teachers occurring in Lowestoft.
These seemingly mundane events have become popular occasions for spreading the suffrage word.
The locals are suspicious and watchful of any newcomers in the area, and it seems and not without reason.
In line with their motto, “Deeds not words”, the suffragette’s movements had become increasingly more militant.
On the weekend of the conference the pavilion on the Great Yarmouth pier is subject a devastating act of vandalism. The entire structure and much of the pier is gutted in an arson attack. The crime is accredited to Suffragettes, who have just been denied permission to hold a meeting on the site.
Evaline and Florence
Just days later, two women who had previously been staying in Lowestoft for the conference, moved to a guesthouse in Ipswich.
These women were Evaline Burkett, a secretary from Birmingham with membership to the WSPU and who already had three criminal convictions, and her young friend Florence Tunks from South Wales, a relative novice to the WSPU militant activities.
On the morning of Friday 24th April, the two women were seen leaving their Ipswich lodgings on bikes.
They were reported to have been cycling in the direction of Felixstowe, passing Bucklesham Farm, a property owned by the local MP Mr Pretyman. Later in the day, two stacks of wheat were reported to have been set alight and luggage labels found tied to nearby hedges reading “Votes for Women” and “Asquith is responsible, apply to him for damages”.
Evaline and Florence told the owner of the guesthouse that they were going to the theatre for the evening and as there was no transport back, they would stop at a friend’s for the night.
Instead they travelled to Felixstowe where they had rented a beach hut.
Early in the evening they were spotted leaving the hut and shortly after in the vicinity of the Bath Hotel, near to the Bartlet Hospital.
The Bath Hotel
The Bath Hotel, a popular resort at the start of the 20th century, was famous for its hot and cold seawater baths and illustrious guests. On this day it was closed for refurbishment ahead of the upcoming holiday season.
At around 4am on Sunday morning the emergency services were notified that a fire had engulfed the hotel.
A large crowd gathered around the site; Evaline and Florence amongst them. Despite their best efforts, the firefighters were unable to put the fire out and by 9am, the entire hotel was completely burnt out, leaving only a skeleton of the original building.
After a quick investigation of the site, everything pointed to arson and it wasn’t difficult to guess the culprits.
A window into the kitchen had been found broken and lined with cotton wool stuck to the sides with soft soap, allowing the arsonists to enter and escape quickly.
Surrounding trees were strewn with more luggage labels reading “There can be no peace until women get the vote” and “No Vote means War, Votes for Women mean Peace”.
The two women returned to the Ipswich guesthouse where they were promptly arrested and remanded in custody with no access to legal representatives.
101 years and 1 blue plaque later
Over a century later and we see Evaline and Florence’s actions in a very different light. In their own time they were imprisoned for their actions. Today, they are celebrated as courageous women who fought for what they believed in and credited for contributing to the introduction of democracy to Britain.
The Bath Hotel, today known as Cautley House, stood in disrepair for decades; its elegance a thing of the past.
But now, thanks Gipping Homes’ redevelopment, Cautley House has been returned to its former glory and is now home to 12 luxury apartments.
Evaline and Florence and the cause they represented are by no means forgotten however.
Last year, on the 100th anniversary of the fire, the Felixstowe Society unveiled a blue plaque, mounted on the exterior of Cautley House, commemorating the events of that momentous morning in Felixstowe’s History.