Dora Thewlis (1890-1976)

Dora Thewlis was a local mill worker who achieved brief national notoriety as a teenager when a photograph of her arrest at a women's suffrage march in London was printed on the front page of a national newspaper, earning her the disparaging nickname of the "Baby Suffragette".[1]


She was born on 15 May 1890, the daughter of Holmfirth weaver James Lindley Thewlis and his wife Eliza Elizabeth (née Taylor). [2]

She was born in Shady Row at Meltham Mills, which was situated just within the limits of the township Honley at the time of her birth but was then transferred to Meltham following a boundary change in 1896.[3] Shady Row is notable for being the location of one of the first co-operatives in Yorkshire, founded two decades before the Rochdale Pioneers in Lancashire.

Dora was baptised on 20 June 1897 at St. Bartholomew, Meltham, on the same day as two-month-old Mabel Thewlis.

Brought up by her parents as a Socialist, she was reportedly interested in politics from the age of seven and was more than able to hold her own in political debates. In 1907 she joined her mother as a member of the Huddersfield branch of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU).

In March 1907, she travelled down to London with a large contingent of Yorkshire and Lancashire women to take part in a planned protest at the Houses of Parliament following the failure of the second reading of Willoughby Dickinson's Bill on 8 March.[4] The police forcibly blocked entry to Parliament and, in their attempts to disperse the crowd, 75 women were arrested for disorderly conduct — including Dora and Gertrude Ellen Brook.[5] A photographer for the Daily Mirror caught the moment Dora was frogmarched away by two policemen, with her hair and clothes in disarray.

As the youngest of the arrested women — she was still aged 16 at the time[6] — it seems the authorities were keen to make an example of her and, despite not having yet been being found guilty of any offence, she was kept in solitary confinement at Holloway Prison away from the other suffragettes and forced to wear prison clothes.[7] Apparently also suffering from tonsillitis, she soon became miserable and homesick.

Much of the press coverage of her confinement and subsequent release belittled her young age, dubbing her "little Dora" and the "Baby Suffragette", and sought to portray her as someone who had been led astray by the suffragette movement. In court, the magistrate Horace Smith even implied that she had been enticed to London for immoral purposes. As Jill Liddington[8] noted in her book Rebel Girls, Smith's condescension exposed his woeful ignorance about working class life for teenage girls.

Dora was released on 27 March and escorted with a wardress back to Huddersfield. The public attention she received appears to have strained the family's relationship with the WSPU, leading to both Eliza and Dora being requested to leave the organisation a few months later.[9]

Although it is sometimes implied that Dora emigrated to Australia on her own to seek a new life, passenger lists confirm that she travelled aboard the Van Linschoten with her elder sister Evelyn, arriving into the port at Melbourne on 9 October 1912. Whether any other members of the Thewlis family had preceded them remains uncertain, but their parents sailed from London to Brisbane aboard the Demosthenes in 1920 along with their sister Mabel.[10] Their brother, James William Thewlis, also moved to Australia with his wife Mary Hannah (née Chilvers) and son, as did their sister Amy who had married Lancashire plumber Thomas Woods.[11]

Dora continued to work as a weaver and married John Thomas Dow in 1918. The couple are believed to have had two children.[12]

  • John ("Jack") Archibald Dow (1919-1976)[13]
  • Mabel Dow (?-?)[14]

By 1919, Dora was listed on the Australian Electoral Roll and therefore able to cast a vote in elections.

Her mother Eliza died on 30 July 1930 of a heart attack whilst at sea, aboard the Moreton Bay which was sailing from Australia to Hull.[15] Her father died in 1942 at Geelong, Victoria, Australia, aged 82.

Dora Dow died in 1976 at Ascot Vale, Victoria, Australia, aged 86. Her husband had pre-deceased her on 24 August 1956.

According to her grandson, Dora "remained a political activist":[16]

The sacking of the Whitlam Government in 1975 promoted numerous family debates but no one stood stronger with the Labour cause than my octogenarian Grandmother who declared to my father that a vote for the Liberal Party would be a vote against everything your family has ever stood for. Strong to the end!

Census Returns

  • 1891 — aged 10 months, residing with her paternal grandmother Lydia Newton (née Thewlis) on Old Road, Holmfirth
  • 1901 — aged 10, residing with her family at Ramsbottom, Lancashire
  • 1911 — aged 20, boarding with her sister Eveline at the house of widow Ann Nicholl, 14 Bradley Street South, Huddersfield


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Further Reading

Notes and References

  1. The nickname was also applied by newspapers to 18-year-old Vera Wentworth (Wikipedia).
  2. James and Eliza married on 8 February 1880 at Queen Street Wesleyan Methodist Church in Huddersfield. She was the daughter of stoker James Taylor of Meltham Mills.
  3. Whilst 10-month-old Dora is listed living with her grandparents in Holmfirth, her parents were residing at 42 Shady Row in the 1891 Census. Dora's place of birth was confirmed by checking her birth certificate.
  4. Willoughby Dickinson, 1st Baron Dickinson
  5. Some sources state the figure as 76 arrests, but presumably this figure includes the one man arrested on the day.
  6. Dora's age is sometimes given as 17, but this appears to be a misinterpretation of her statement "I am not a baby really. In May next year I shall be eighteen years of age." since May 1908 was at that point 14 months in the future and Dora had yet to turn 17.
  7. As a correspondent to the Leeds Mercury noted, a prisoner on remand was regarded as innocent until proven guilty, "and innocent persons are not called upon by law to wear garments solely intended to mark conviction."
  8. Jill Liddington: Rebel Girls
  9. Jill Liddington notes that Eliza's claims in the press to have been the key leading local figure in the early local suffragette movement might have been the final straw for others in the W.S.P.U., following on from the press coverage of Dora's arrest.
  10. The ship departed on 5 March 1920 and arrived on 19 April.
  11. James William appears to have travelled in late 1913 aboard the Indrapura, with his wife and son joining him the following year (travelling on the Themistocles).
  12. Mabel and Jack are named as two of their children in John Thomas' death notice in Melbourne Argus (27/Aug/1956).
  13. Born 6 July 1919. Married Marjorie Jean. Died 14 May 1998.
  14. Married Alexander Gordon Carey.
  15. The "Deaths at Sea" register indicates Eliza died whilst the ship was in the Red Sea on the approach to the Suez Canal.
  16. Comment by Chris Dow left on 7 February 2016 at Revolting Women: Dora Thewlis, Teenage Working Class Suffragette