This blog was written and researched by Dr Alison Ronan of Manchester Metropolitan University.
Looking for Phillis Skinner, who was not exactly who I thought she was…. A tale of historical detection and some luck!
I have always been intrigued by anti war activist and socialist Phillis Skinner because I knew tantalising little about her! I knew that in July 1917 she was arrested with two other women, Mrs Hayes and Emma Jones, for handing out leaflets near the Prees Heath Army training camp in Whitchurch Shropshire, in what became known as the ‘Peace Crusade Case’. They must have been wearing these badges! Phillis and Mrs Hayes were imprisoned for six months for prejudicing recruitment. Questions were asked in the House of Commons by Quaker MP George Trevelyan, about the right to dissent in wartime and the imprisonment of these two Manchester women.
I knew that Phillis Annie Skinner was married to conscientious objector J. Allen Skinner who was imprisoned in late 1916 and was court martialled at Prees Heath. I also knew that Phillis became the occasional editor of the local Manchester Conscientious Objectors Newsletter in 1918 and she had a great turn of phrase – extorting her readers to protest after the City Council wanted to give Lloyd George the freedom of the city in 1918, ‘ What Manchester does today- comrades we have a lot to do!’ Or in November 1918 when COs were still imprisoned ‘ It is our duty clamorously and unceasingly to agitate.’
I knew that Allen Skinner was released from prison in the summer of 1918 on the grounds of ill health and that he and Phillis lived in Mauldeth Rd in Ladybarn. And that was about all I knew.
I had searched for the Skinners on the 1911 census but no luck and so I put their story in the back of my mind.
And then this year, a few things happened that have meant I have been able to build up a much more detailed picture of both Phillis and Allen Skinner and Mrs Hayes.
The first things was that I spent a few days in Bristol University Archives, looking at letters written by Manchester musician Frank Merrick to his wife Hope Squires while he was imprisoned in Wormwood Scrubs 1917-1919 as an ‘absolutist’ conscientious objector ( this is a whole other blog!) and her letters to him. 100 letters or more.
In her letters to Frank, Hope Squires Merrick, writing from her home in Parsonage Rd,talked about her friend, Phillis Skinner! And about Mrs Hayes. And suddenly I remembered that there had been a short announcement in the Manchester CO journal about the marriage of Mrs Hayes to a CO in July 1918 and that she had spent time in the ‘mansion of the Blest’ – ah, this was the Mrs Hayes who had been arrested with Phillis in the summer of 1917.
Suddenly another Phillis Skinner emerged from these letters: Allen and she had a child, a little boy whom Hope said was finally back home with her…presumably he had been looked after by friends while Phillis and Allen were both in prison? The little boy – Jack – came to tea at Hopes’ in the summer of 1918, – ‘he is a darling’ – with his mother and Mrs Hayes and they ate lentil and barley rissoles (the Merricks were vegetarians). Phillis had her hair cut by Hope, she refused help from the local CO Maintenance Committee and tramped across town to visit Allen in the hospital. I also discovered that Allen was 28 and Phillis was 37.
Then I discovered the wonderful Family History team in Central Library. We found that Allen Skinner had married a Phillis Watson or Emerson in December 1912. And then again the trail finished.
But George in the Family History team was not to be beaten. Two days later, I learnt that Phillis Emerson was born in Lewisham London in 1874. And that was why it was so hard to find her. She was not 37 in 1918 but 44!
Phillis Emerson had married Ernest Vivian Watson, a maker of scientific instruments in 1895, they lived in Greenwich and they had a daughter Enid in 1898 who died in infancy.
In the 1911 census Ernest and Phillis were living in Peckham Rye and they had been married for 16 years – and then ….. In 1912 Ernest began divorce proceedings against Phillis who by that time had left London to live with Allen Skinner in a small house in Longsight. So what had happened ? How had she met Allen Skinner? Both were members of the ILP and perhaps they had met at a local meeting? It seemed a momentous decision to make in 1912- to run away to another city and live with a much younger man.
Allen Skinner (b1890)came from Camberwell in London and worked for the GPO. By 1912 he had a job with the GPO in Manchester but whether he and Phillis decided to move to Manchester together in 1912 or whether Phillis moved up to live with him is still unclear, but once the divorce between Ernest Watson and Phillis became absolute in late 1912, Allen and Phillis married at Chorlton Registry Office. Both of them were members of the Manchester Central ILP branch and Allen was arrested almost immediately after the passing of the Military Service Act in 1916. He was released in 1918 on ill health grounds and spent a long time in hospital with bad arthritis in his legs.
Their son John(Jack) E Skinner was born in 1915 in Lewisham, perhaps Phillis went back to her family home to give birth, I guessed that his middle name was Emerson and on a Google search discovered that a John Emerson Skinner born in Lewisham in 1915 and whose mother was Phillis, had briefly emigrated to Argentina in 1938. He had been a dancer at Dartington Hall in Devon and was a CO in WW2, joining a dance troupe. This again – is another blog!
Allen Skinner and Phillis continued to be peace activists. They moved back to London after the war and after Phillis’ death in 1950, Allen went on to become the editor of Peace News in 1956. He was also on the early committees of CND. He died in 1974.
Mrs Hayes was also hard to trace: at first I only knew her as Mrs Hayes with no clue about her name or her age. But again through the Family History team, we discovered that Edwin Rodway had married a Maud Hayes in 1918 and that John P Hayes, a 28yr old bookkeeper from Hulme, had married a Maud Edwards (b 1884) in 1906. That seemed likely. There were 2 Maud Edwards in Manchester in the 1901 census, both born in 1884 so I need to do more exploring.
But in the 1911 census Mrs Maud Hayes now aged 25, was living in Moss side with the family of George Worthern, a cabinet maker. Was this where she met Edwin Rodway, also from Moss Side? And did George know a Mr Hardy who ran a furniture shop in All Saints, which was mentioned by Hope Squires as a place where Bertrand Russell used to stay when he visited Manchester. Did Maud become part of a more political group once she left John P Hayes? Did she meet Phillis and Allen through these contacts? They might have been quite a celebrated couple?
But in 1917, John Hayes died. And in 1918 Maud and Edwin married. As the local CO journal reported
Not often do we hear of our COs walking from the prison to the altar. But such a thing happened on Tuesday July 22. Mr Rodway who was discharged from Winchester prison on June 28 celebrated his release in a most tangible manner by taking’ unto himself a wife’. The happy bride Mrs Hayes being herself a staunch CO. It is of interest to know that she also has done term in the ‘mansion of the Blest’ just twelve months ago.
Maud and Edwin were still married in 1939, 21 years later and living in Heswell Avenue Manchester.
There is still lots more to find out about these two couples – how did Phillis meet Allen? Was it love at first sight? Did their politics bring them together?
How did Maud Hayes get involved with the anti war movement? How did she meet Edwin Rodway? Did the Skinners and the Rodways stay in touch once Phillis and Allen moved to London?