The celebrated English composer Dr Ethel Smyth was also an athlete and an author. She liked large dogs, met Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Dvorak and, at the age of 50, fell in love with Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst and dedicated several years of her life to the Women’s Social and Political Union. She enthusiastically responded to Mrs Pankhurst’s call to suffragettes to smash a window in the house of any politician who opposed votes for women. Dr Ethel was one of the 109 women who had joined the window smashers in November 1911 and March 1912 and ended up in Holloway Prison.
During her 2 months incarceration Dr Smyth was visited by the renowned conductor, Sir Thomas Beecham. He asked her what on earth was the country’s finest woman composer doing wasting her time in prison when she should have been creating music. Dr Ethel told him about her most recent work – a choral work based on a folk song she had heard in Abruzzo in Italy that she had dedicated to the WPSU. “Would you like to hear it?” she asked. Without further ado she made her way across the cell and leaned through the prison bars. She shouted, “Sing!” to the suffragette prisoners down below exercising in the jail courtyard.
Sir Thomas reported hearing them “singing their war chant lustily while the composer beamed approbation as she beat time with her toothbrush in almost Bacchic frenzy.”
Dr Smyth was the aunt of Norah Smyth, the friend of Sylvia Pankhurst who was pivotal in the success of the East London Federation of Suffragettes.