IWD- The Story of Catherine Tolson

8 Mar, 2023

IWD- The Story of Catherine Tolson

To celebrate International Women’s Day 2023, RQG member Richard Tolson shares the story of Catherine Tolson who ended up in prison as a result of her campaign for Women’s suffrage.

Catharine Tolson is my 3rd cousin 4x removed. I discovered her story 12 years ago whilst researching my wider family history. What follows is a brief account of her life with information taken from genealogical records, newspaper articles, Hansard, the Mary Gawthorpe letters and family correspondence.

Catharine was born on the 21st of August 1890 in Ilkley, Yorkshire. She was the youngest of four children born to Charles Guthrie Tolson, a Cotton Goods Merchant and Anna (nee Dymond).

Along with her sisters Hester and Helen, Catharine was educated privately at St Leonards School, St Andrews in Scotland. Her life was fairly unremarkable until she reached the age of 19 in 1909.  By that time her elder sister Helen had already served time in Holloway jail for her suffragette activities and Catharine now decided to get involved. Helen’s story is equally interesting but for brevity I have only included Catharine’s

Extracts from the Manchester Guardian 7th of September 1909: –




At the Manchester County Police Court, Strangeways yesterday, the five young women suffragists who were arrested on Saturday at the White City, Old Trafford for doing wilful damage to the halls in which the Budget meetings were in progress, surrendered to their bail. Their names were Catharine Tolson aged 19, and Helen Tolson aged 21, of “Yealand”, Park Road, Hale, Cheshire; Dora Marsden aged 27 of Chorlton Rd, Old Trafford; Fanny Helliwell aged 23 of 471 Stretford Road, Manchester; and Emily Davison aged 33 of Longhorsley, Northumberland.

The offences charged were admitted and the motive was stated to be political. The defendants arrived at the court in good time, they came in motor cars accompanied by relatives or friends, and wearing sashes on which was the motto “Votes for women”. Miss Catharine Tolson was charged with doing wilful damage by breaking windows at the ballroom, White City, Old Trafford on September 4.

Mr John Crofton who prosecuted, took the case of Miss Catharine Tolson first. Miss Tolson stood in front of the prisoners’ dock. He stated that the defendant was seen to throw something at the roof of the ballroom. A sound of breaking glass followed. Asked why she had thrown the missile she made no reply. Inspector Rutter afterwards went on to the roof and found an iron ball labelled ”Bomb”. Inspector Rutter produced the iron ball. It was he said about 11/2 inches in diameter. Mr J Calvin Brown, proprietor of the White City said that in his opinion the throwing of these missiles would very seriously endanger human life. He put the damage at 4s. Asked if she had anything to say, the defendant replied, “I did it deliberately and for a purpose”.

The Chairman; “Deliberately and for a purpose?”

The Defendant “For a political purpose.”


“We have carefully considered the evidence.”. “We find that the peace has been broken and that crime has been committed by you two persons, Catharine Tolson and Dora Marsden.”. “We make a distinction between Catharine Tolson and fine her 21s and costs or one months’ imprisonment and 4s damage to the glass. Dora Marsden, Fanny Helliwell, Helen Tolson and Emily Davison, we fine each of them £5 and costs and 4s each for damage to the glass or two months imprisonment.”

Miss Davison “We will go to prison sir for we will not pay the fine.”


The defendants before going to gaol, made no secret of their intention to resist the rules of the prison in every possible way. They would not for instance, wear prison dress or take prison food and would shout or sing or talk as they saw fit. Their friends outside have resolved to hold open air meetings under the shadow of the prison walls every evening whilst the imprisonment lasts.

Two days later the women were released after refusing to take any food. They each received a  Hunger Strike Medal from Emmeline Pankhurst at a meeting a few days later. However, they were not prepared to rest on their laurels.

On the 21st of October 1909 The Manchester Guardian carried another article regarding Walter Runciman M.P. the President of the Board of Education. After his address to a meeting at Radcliffe Liberal Club near Manchester, stones were thrown by four young women which resulted in windows being broken. A crowd hostile to the women caused the Police to arrest them for their own safety. The four were Catharine Tolson, Hannah Shepherd, Helen Gordon Liddle and Emily Wilding Davison. The four all received fines with costs, but on refusing to pay they were sentenced to one months’ imprisonment in Strangeways with hard labour. All four immediately went on hunger strike.

In a later news article, Emily Wilding Davison described their experiences: –

“Taking exercise yesterday morning in the prison yard” Miss Davison continued, “I saw Miss Catharine Tolson and Miss H.G Liddle. Miss Liddle made a sign to me which indicated that she was being forcibly fed with the stomach pump and she gathered that the same treatment was being applied to Miss Tolson. They both looked very unwell. She believed that Miss Shepherd, the fourth of the militant suffragists committed, was in hospital.”

At the conclusion of their sentence on the 22nd of November 1909 the Manchester Guardian reported that three of the women had been released at 11pm at night and abandoned on the streets of Manchester in complete defiance of the arrangements that had been carefully made for their release. This was supposedly to avoid a demonstration the following day. The women, weak from hunger were abandoned outside the Women’s Social and Political Union Office which was closed and had to find their own way home.

This caused outrage, especially from Catharine’s father and other supporters of the women with Keir Hardie M.P. taking up the case in parliament. An extract from Hansard states: –

“Mr Keir Hardie (Merthyr Tydfil, Labour) asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department whether he could say under what circumstances Catharine Tolson and two other women suffrage prisoners were turned out from Strangeways Prison about 10 o’clock last Friday evening and driven in a cab to the offices of the WSPU in Oxford Road, Manchester, and left their on the street, the offices being closed; whether one of the women fainted twice before finding accommodation fore the night; whether Miss Tolson did not reach home until 3.30 in the morning having had to walk from Altrincham to Hale through the fog; whether Miss Tolson’s father had arranged with the Governor of the prison that he would meet his daughter and the other two ladies at 8.15 on Saturday morning, the day on which their sentences expired, and had given an undertaking that there would be no demonstration; and for what reason and by whose instructions was this arrangement departed from.

Herbert Gladstone M.P. the Home Secretary poured cold water on the statement saying that it was full of inaccuracies and the women had left the prison shouting and singing. However, later newspaper articles and copies of letters regarding the arrangements proved Keir Hardie’s statement to be true.

In a personal statement to the Manchester Guardian on the 1st of December 1909, Catharine wrote: –

“I see that Mr Gladstone said we left the prison shouting and singing; this is not true. I was forcibly fed all through my imprisonment, and I had been in the prison infirmary for the last three weeks of it. On the last Sunday we had no food at all. The prison food was left for us to eat but we did not touch it, and for the remaining five days I was forcibly fed twice each day through the nose. On the Friday of my release, I was last forcibly fed at 5 o’clock. I was asleep when the Matron came. We dressed and went quietly…..There was neither shouting or singing.”

After this event things seemed to go quiet for a while, though Catharine’s name along with that her sister Helen appears on the embroidered WSPU Holloway Banner which features women who were on hunger strike in Holloway prison in 1910.

Catharine, her sister Helen and sister in law Florence, accompanied by Catharine’s mother can also be found on the passenger list of the S.S. Clyde sailing from Southampton to New York on the 29th of March 1911, for a “holiday”, but probably to protest by avoiding the 1911 census taken on the 2nd of April as many other suffragettes did.

The First World War in 1914 brought a halt to suffragette activities. No evidence for Catharine serving in WW1 can currently be found, but her sister Helen certainly served as a nurse in the Royal Naval Nursing Service.

Catharine’s fire and determination persisted however, and family correspondence shows she went to Russia following the Revolution of 1917 to serve as a nurse in the famine that followed in 1921. She returned to Britain in 1923 suffering from Tuberculosis and died on the 3rd of March 1924 aged 33.

Catharine and Helen are both remembered on the Suffragette Roll of Honour held at the national Archives.

On a personal note, I would like to express the great affection these women in. Although they are distant cousins, I am delighted to be related to them and immensely proud of their lives. In varying ways, they both had the courage of their convictions and were prepared to stand and fight for what they believed to be right, no matter what the cost. Helen and Catharine have never had the recognition they deserve as almost all the women they were imprisoned with, including Emily Wilding Davison are well known names in the suffragette movement. They endured the same rough treatment, imprisonment and force feeding, and still carried on, they have my utmost respect and admiration.

The Holloway Banner 1910

Clare O'Grady