“Kitty Marion (Katherina Schafer) was born in Westphalia, Germany in 1871. Her mother died when she was two and her stepmother when she was six, both of tuberculosis. Her childhood was spent moving between her father, “a strict disciplinarian with a fierce, violent, and evidently uncontrollable temper”.
In 1886 she moved to England to be with her sister, Dora. After learning English she adopted the name Kitty Marion and became an actress. In 1889 she was engaged for the pantomime season in Glasgow. According to her biographer, Vivien Gardner: “Her first job was as a chorus member in Robinson Crusoe at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow. Between 1889 and 1903, adopting the name Kitty Marion, she developed a modest but successful career in provincial touring theatre as a singer and dancer in musical comedy and pantomime, graduating from the chorus to minor named roles.”
Over the next few years she became a star of the musical hall and she was billed as the “Refined Vocal Comedienne”. In 1899 she appeared at the Prince of Wales Theatre in Liverpool, on the same bill as Vesta Tilley. In her autobiography she complained about the “casting couch” tactics of music-hall agents and this was one of the factors that encouraged her to join the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1908.
Kitty Marion took a keen interest in politics and in 1908 joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). She moved to Hartfield in East Sussex and was an active member of the WSPU branch in Brighton. In June she was arrested during a demonstration outside the House of Commons. She later recalled: “Two policemen, one on each arm, quite unnecessarily pinching and bruising the soft underarm, with the third often pushing at the back, would run us along and fling us, causing most women to be thrown to the ground.”
Kitty Marion was a supporter of direct action and in July 1909 she was arrested and found guilty of throwing stones at a post office in Newcastle. She was sentenced to a month’s imprisonment, went on hunger strike, and was forcibly fed. She barricaded herself in her cell and set fire to her mattress as a protest at her treatment at the hands of the doctors who she described as the “dirty, cringing doormats of the government”.
Later that year Kitty Marion joined Elizabeth Robins in helping to form the Actresses’ Franchise League. The AFL was open to anyone involved in the theatrical profession and its aim was to work for women’s enfranchisement by educational methods, selling suffrage literature and staging propaganda plays. Other actresses who joined included Winifred Mayo, Sime Seruya, Edith Craig, Inez Bensusan, Ellen Terry, Lillah McCarthy, Sybil Thorndike, Vera Holme, Lena Ashwell, Christabel Marshall, Lily Langtry and Nina Boucicault.
In October 1909 she joined forces with Constance Lytton, Jane Brailsford and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence and wrote a letter to The Times saying: “We want to make it known that we shall carry on our protest in our prison cells. We shall put before the Government by means of the hunger-strike four alternatives: to release us in a few days; to inflict violence upon our bodies; to add death to the champions of our cause by leaving us to starve; or, and this is the best and only wise alternative, to give women the vote.”
Kitty Marion continued to work as an actress and was a significant figure in the Variety Artists’ Federation and its campaign against of theatrical agents who she claimed were sometimes involved in the “white slave trade”. As Elizabeth Crawford, the author of The Women’s Suffragette Movement: A Reference Guide (1999), pointed out: “She received a WSPU hunger strike medal in a ceremony at the Albert Hall on 9 December and then went on to do the Christmas pantomime season.”
During the 1910 General Election the NUWSS organised the signing petitions in 290 constituencies. They managed to obtain 280,000 signatures and this was presented to the House of Commons in March 1910. With the support of 36 MPs a new suffrage bill was discussed in Parliament. The WSPU suspended all militant activities and on 23rd July they joined forces with the NUWSS to hold a grand rally in London. When the House of Commons refused to pass the new suffrage bill, the WSPU broke its truce on what became known as Black Friday on 18th November, 1910, when its members clashed with the police in Parliament Square. Kitty Marion was arrested during this demonstration but she was released without charge.
Kitty Marion toured the country giving lectures and musical performances. She was billed as the “Music Hall Artiste and Militant Suffragette” and after one meeting in Colchester it was reported: “The awe experienced by the audience was quickly succeeded by delight, for the lady proved a charming vocalist”.
In November 1911 she was again arrested outside the House of Commons after taking part in the protest following the defeat of the Conciliation Bill, and was sentenced to 21 days’ imprisonment. When in Holloway Prison she again went on hunger-strike and was force-fed. A friend, Mary Leigh, described what it was like to experience this form of punishment: “On Saturday afternoon the wardress forced me onto the bed and two doctors came in. While I was held down a nasal tube was inserted. It is two yards long, with a funnel at the end; there is a glass junction in the middle to see if the liquid is passing. The end is put up the right and left nostril on alternative days. The sensation is most painful – the drums of the ears seem to be bursting and there is a horrible pain in the throat and the breast. The tube is pushed down 20 inches. I am on the bed pinned down by wardresses, one doctor holds the funnel end, and the other doctor forces the other end up the nostrils. The one holding the funnel end pours the liquid down – about a pint of milk… egg and milk is sometimes used.”…
Kitty Marion recalls in her autobiography that she broke windows of the Silversmiths’ Association and at Sainsbury’s at 134 Regent Street. She was arrested, found guilty and sentenced to six months’ imprisonment. Holloway Prison was full so Marion and 23 other members of the WSPU were sent to Winson Green Prison in Birmingham. She again went on hunger-strike and she was released after 10 days.
In July 1912, the WSPU began organizing a secret arson campaign. According to Sylvia Pankhurst: “Women, most of them very young, toiled through the night across unfamiliar country, carrying heavy cases of petrol and paraffin. Sometimes they failed, sometimes succeeded in setting fire to an untenanted building – all the better if it were the residence of a notability – or a church, or other place of historic interest.”
Kitty Marion decided she would join this campaign: “I was becoming more and more disgusted with the struggle for existence on commercial terms of sex … I gritted my teeth and determined that somehow I would fight this vile, economic and sex domination over women which had no right to be, and which no man or woman worthy of the term should tolerate.”
Fern Riddell has pointed out: “Kitty Marion’s hand is evident in attacks from Manchester to Portsmouth; the scope of her attacks overlays neatly into areas she had become well acquainted with during her music hall and theatrical days, which afforded her the luxury of an already established network of lodging houses and local knowledge, allowing her to visit areas and conduct militant activity.”…
In 1913 the WSPU arson campaign escalated and railway stations, cricket pavilions, racecourse stands and golf clubhouses being set on fire. Slogans in favour of women’s suffrage were cut and burned into the turf. Suffragettes also cut telephone wires and destroyed letters by pouring chemicals into post boxes. Marion was a leading figure in the WSPU arson campaign and she was responsible for setting fire to Levetleigh House in St Leonards in April 1913.
From a scrapbook she kept it seems that Kitty Marion also set fire to a train, left standing between Hampton Wick and Teddington (pictured) on 26th April: “The train was afterwards driven into Teddington Station, where an examination resulted in the discovery of inflammable materials in almost every set of coaches. Among the articles found in the train were partly-burnt candles, four cans of petroleum, three of which had been emptied of their contents, a lady’s dressing case containing a quantity of cotton wool, and packages of literature dealing with the woman suffrage movement. Newspaper cuttings of recent suffragette outrages were also found scattered about the train … The method adopted was very simple. First the cushions were saturated with petroleum, and then small pieces of candle were lighted immediately under the seats.”…
…These incidents resulted in a series of further terms of imprisonment during which force-feeding occurred. It has been calculated that Kitty Marion endured 232 force-feedings in prison while on hunger strike.
Elizabeth Robins disapproved of Kitty Marion’s arson campaign but she wrote a circular letter to over 100 leading figures asking them to bring an end to these force-feedings. Robins and Octavia Wilberforce used their 15th century farmhouse at Backsettown, near Henfield, as a hospital and helped her recover from her various spells in prison and the physical effects of going on hunger strike. On 31st May 1914, with the help of Mary Leigh, she escaped to Paris…
Kitty Marion was one of those members of the Women’s Social and Political Union who disagreed with the policy of ending militant activities. She resumed her career as an actress but continued to campaign for the vote. As she had been born in Germany, the government decided to deport her from Britain. After protests from figures such as Constance Lytton and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, she was allowed to go to the United States…
…Kitty Marion, wrote an autobiography about her experiences but it was never published. In 1930 she moved to London and gave a copy to the Fawcett Library. She worked with Edith How-Martyn at the Birth Control International Centre. but later returned to New York City and lived there until her death at the Sanger Nursing Home on 9th October 1944.”