Former mayor of Eye proud to share his home and stories of Suffragette sisters who once lived there

Charles and Sara Michell have been a big part of the Eye community for many years. Picture: Archant

Charles and Sara Michell have been a big part of the Eye community for many years. Picture: Archant - Credit: Archant

Charles Michell furthers the memory of Mary and Margaret Thompson, who lived in Eye for almost 30 years after their roles in getting the vote for women 100 years ago.

The grand entrance hall at Linden House. Picture: Archant

The grand entrance hall at Linden House. Picture: Archant - Credit: Archant

Politically the vehemently socialist Suffragette sisters Mary and Margaret Thompson and the two-time Conservative parliamentary candidate Charles Michell are poles apart, but they do share some common ground.

That is Linden House, in Eye, in which the sisters, who played such a key role in getting women the vote 100 years ago, lived with their four other spinster sisters from 1925 to 1952 and which Charles and his wife, Sara, have called home since 1967.

Charles is proud of the town and his home’s links to the Suffragette movement. Setting aside a few minutes to talk to me amid his busy schedule, he offers me a seat in his study, which is full of memorabilia of Charles’ travels, heaving bookcases full of works on twin passions politics and cricket and the Times crossword well on the way to being finished.

It turns out Charles and Sara share more than periods of residency at the impressive Georgian fronted townhouse in Lambseth Street with Margaret and Mary.

The Georgian frontage of Linden House, in Eye. Picture: Archant

The Georgian frontage of Linden House, in Eye. Picture: Archant - Credit: Archant

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The couple are very visible figures in the picturesque market town, with Charles having been Mayor of Eye in 2001, chairman of the trustees of Eye Theatre and chairman of St Peter and St Paul’s Church while Sara is deputy leader of the Mid Suffolk district authority. Mary and Margaret were also active members of the Eye community.

He says: “The sisters were good supporters of the town. Mary and Margaret were magistrates during their time here. They were big characters and did a lot of work in Eye.

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“It is said that every new baby that was born in Eye they knitted a jacket for them.”

In their final years at Linden House, when Margaret was 92 and Mary 90, the sisters wrote about the wild and often harrowing period when they were part of a movement that secured landmark legislation and brought universal suffrage to the UK.

Charles has a copy of They Couldn’t Stop Us! Experiences of Two (Usually Law-abiding) Women in the Years 1909 – 1913, which documents the sisters’ role in a movement speaking to, in Margaret’s words, “the minds and souls of people that must be awakened”.

Margaret was imprisoned three times times for her views on women’s suffrage and her work as a suffragette, while Mary was arrested and fined.

The sisters’ involvement in the suffragette movement began in 1904 when Mary, a classics teacher at South Hampstead School, in London, attended a suffrage talk given by Emily Davies at the school. She immediately joined the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, as did her sister Margaret.

On February 24 1909 Margaret was arrested at a protest at the House of Commons and was sentenced to one month’s imprisonment. In November 1911 she was arrested again after taking part in the WSPU window smashing campaign, with targets including John Lewis in Oxford Street, and was sentenced to ten days in prison.

In March 1912, undeterred she repeated her actions. She was arrested and held in remand. At the end of April she was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment in Holloway. On the June she went on hunger strike but from the June 22 to July 6 she was force fed. Margaret gave a full account of her time in prison in the book and experiences were also described in The Prison Experiences of the Suffragettes in Edwardian Britain by J Puris which details “Margaret Thompson has a facial disability resulting from a car accident; after examining her face to see if it was fit for forceful feeding the doctor decided she should be fed by cup rather than tube.”

Mary was arrested in February 1912 for playing a barrel organ in Oxford Street during the Women’s Social and Political Union self-denial week, in which members went without luxuries such as cocoa, coffee, and tea and performed extra work to raise funds for the union. Mary was also fined, but refused to pay. Fellow teachers came to her aid and paid the fine on her behalf.

It is an important story and one which Charles is keen to share. He gives a talk on Linden House and the sisters six times a year as part of the Invitation to View scheme, which offers visits to privately owned houses and other places of interest, many of which rarely open to the public.

Charles, 74, says: “We try to share the house with the town. It’s an asset of the town. We are proud to be living in the house where the Thompson sisters lived and to be able to further their memory as important figures in the history of Eye

It is worth trying to get a place. Charles is a natural storyteller, as evidenced in his two published memoirs Dim Recollections and On Second Thoughts. The house is also very impressive.

It began as a Tudor farmhouse in 1550 and was then turned into a rather grand Queen Anne style townhouse. The two phases of development can be seen as I’m given a guided tour of the ground floor with the grand Georgian entrance hall festooned with flowers (Sara’s touch) and huge oil paintings of Charles’s ancestors which through an arched doorway leads to the endearingly wonky staircase in the Tudor portion.

It is a large property with enough bedrooms to give the five sisters a room each. Charles said the home during the Thompson’s time was “run to a very stern regime. The oldest sister ruled the house.”

Despite its size and heritage, Linden House has not always been considered marketable. Charles takes wry amusement in showing me the details of the house drawn up by estate agent Strutt and Parker in 1960, which describes it as a “rather lovely house, which has been allowed to become neglected. It is situated in an area which is not of great demand.” The sale price was £2,800.

Charles bought the property some years later, but it would appear he got a bargain as well as a priceless piece of history.

To purchase Charles’ memoirs, write to Charles Michell, Linden House, Lambseth Street, Eye, IP23 7AG

To book a place on a tour of the property, visit here

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