Public History in Comic Form – Sally Heathcote: Suffragette

I was incredibly lucky to be given a signed copy of Mary Talbot, Bryan Talbot and Kate Charlesworth‘s new publication, Sally Heathcote: Suffragette last week by my friend Will Brooker. Aside from being very excited to see a young, female, red-haired suffragette on paper (mild projection of myself into the past), I couldn’t wait to read it as a form of public history.

Front cover of Sally Heathcote: Suffragette. Reproduced with kind permission of Kate Charlesworth.

Front cover of Sally Heathcote: Suffragette. Reproduced with kind permission of Kate Charlesworth.


I read it twice over two days: once to enjoy the story, and the second to identify the sources used and explore the way the past is represented throughout. Mary Talbot included extensive notes at the end of the comic, which are detailed in providing historical context and references to the original sources (I rarely enjoy reading foot or end notes, but this was a different matter).

Sally is a maid-of-all-trades who becomes involved, first through work, and then through activism, with the Suffragette movement. Sally’s fictional, but her story intertwines with real historical figures of the Suffrage movement, with real events. We see Sally at marches, in Holloway prison being force-fed and at the funeral procession of Emily Wilding Davison. Rather than write a review of Sally Heathcote, I wanted to pull together some of the sources used in Mary’s research and writing, which include numerous publications, protest songs, and letters. One of the most enjoyable aspects of my research is exploring the creative ways in which different people or institutions make the past come alive, for the public and historians alike. Some of the events and sources referenced in Sally Heathcote are ones I have used to teach in class, and so it was fascinating to see them used differently in illustrative form.


A few times throughout the story, protest songs, both Suffrage and anti-Suffrage are used. Like most people would (…right?), I went straight online to see if I could hear recordings of the songs. Suffrage songs used popular songs or rhymes and added new, politically charged lyrics to them. Some of these you can read on The Suffragettes website, and they detail the popular songs they should be sung in tune to. I’ve heard some of these songs chanted and sung at women’s marches through London over the last few years, and it’s incredible to think that they are still in use today (and remarkable that there is still occasion for them to be sung). Here’s a recording of a modern suffragette singing ‘Rise up Women!’, which Sally sings as she works.

Later on in the story, Sally visits a music hall with her sweetheart, Arthur. The second song they hear is one called ‘Put me Upon an Island’, an anti-suffrage song. It includes the lyrics “Put me upon an island where the girls are few, put me amongst the most ferocious lions in the zoo. You can put me on a treadmill and I’ll never, never fret, but for pity’s sake don’t put me with a Suffragette.” With apologies for the quality, below is a recording of it.


Some of the panels I enjoyed the most were Charlesworth’s reworkings of Suffrage press, including from Votes for Women and Suffragette, both published by the WSPU. Both newspapers were clearly significant primary sources for Sally, and they appear many times in the illustrations: Sally is seen selling Votes for Women, and the posters of the WSPU appear in public places (as do other political posters, including war propaganda). The image below shows Charlesworth’s reworking of the WSPU’s 1913 ‘Cat and Mouse Act’ poster, which campaigned against the ‘Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health) Act’. The Act allowed the early release of Hunger Strike prisoners, until they were recovered well enough to return to prison. It was likened to a cat playing with a mouse before devouring it. You can see images of the Act on via the Parliamentary Archives.

Charlesworth's reworking of The Suffragette front page on the Cat and Mouse Act. Reproduced with kind permission of artist.

Charlesworth’s Cat and Mouse Act poster. Reproduced with kind permission of artist.


Much of the material culture included in the story can be seen at several museums across the UK. The Museum of London in particular holds an impressive selection of Suffrage ephemera (and if I remember correctly an array of Votes for Women items in their shop.) Further north, Manchester’s People’s History Museum also has a significant collection of Suffrage material. I just wanted to pull out a few of the objects to flag up here, as there are so many of them, and in many institutions. The opening page of Sally shows an elderly Sally in a nursing home, with a box of Suffragette ephemera open next to her. One of the objects is a medal, bearing Sally’s name and the inscriptions ‘Hunger Strike’ and ‘For Valour’. These badges were presented to Suffragettes who had endured hunger strikes in prison, in the name of their cause. Below is one such medal, awarded to Emmeline Pankhurst in 1912, after release from one of her many periods in Holloway Prison.

The story follows Sally’s memories of her involvement with the Suffragettes, and we later see her on a march where she meets fellow Suffragette Elsie, who is wearing a political prisoner badge (see above right). These were presented to women who had emerged from Holloway, where they had not been recognised as political prisoners. As one of Sally’s fellow Suffragettes explains, it was an insult to treat the Suffragettes as “a common criminal!” The illustration of such objects, as well as banners used in marches, brings to life the efforts of the Suffragettes in their Cause.

As a form of public history, Sally is remarkable in the way it uses sources alongside imagination to weave a historical narrative. But for me, its greatest success is the way it conveys something to the reader today about the past – the significance of what has gone before us. Good public history does far more than tell a historical narrative to the public today; it makes it significant, even relatable. Sally reminds us, indirectly at first, but later abruptly so, that women fought and died for the vote. In the lead up to the European elections in just a few weeks, the history Sally tells and the message it conveys becomes more significant. It is public history that reminds us of past wrongs, and jolts us to use our hard-won right to do something about injustices today.

– You can currently see material relating to Sally Heathcote: Suffragette at the British Library’s Comics Unmasked exhibition.


One thought on “Public History in Comic Form – Sally Heathcote: Suffragette

  1. Pingback: British suffragette movement history discovery | Dear Kitty. Some blog

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