One thing that can make life more difficult when carrying out research on a person is when they have gone by more than one name in their lifetime. This is particularly true in the case of Caprina Fahey. Born on the island of Capri, Italy (hence “Caprina”) as Charlotte Emily Caprina Gilbert on 13th September 1883, Caprina married twice and was known first as Caprina Fahey, and later in life as Caprina Knight. Even with a middle name as distinctive as Caprina, this did pose something of a challenge!
We have a medal belonging to Caprina in the Costume and Textile collections, which was awarded to her by the Women’s Social & Political Union (WSPU) in recognition of the hunger strikes she took part in whilst in prison. The medal has two bars inscribed with two separate dates: 14th March 1914 and 21st May 1914. Newspaper research has shown that on 14th March, Caprina (operating under the name Emily Charlton) was part of a group of suffragettes who attacked the house of the Home Secretary Reginald McKenna and broke 18 panes of glass using sledgehammers and life preservers.
2018 marks the centenary of the 1918 Representation of the People Act, which gave women over 30 the right to vote and was the first step towards equal voting rights for men and women. In order to mark this centenary, we are trying to find out more information about Caprina and her life so we can more fully tell her story.
What we know so far
Caprina was born Charlotte Emily Caprina Gilbert on the island of Capri, Italy on 13th September 1883. Her father was the sculptor Sir Alfred Gilbert, who sculpted the statue of Eros in Piccadilly Circus, and her mother was Alice Gilbert. Alice left Alfred in 1904 (although the two never divorced) and died in 1916.
Caprina married Alfred Fahey, a student living in the family home, in 1901. Caprina and Albert had a son, Dennis Montiford Fahey, on 10th May 1905. It appears that Alfred deserted his wife and child not long after Dennis was born, and Caprina sued for divorce on grounds of adultery and desertion on 13th February 1908. The marriage was dissolved on 23rd November that same year. The fact that Caprina was able to successfully divorce her husband at this time speaks volumes as to her determination, as divorce was by no means common in the early 20th century – especially with the proceedings being started by a woman.
Caprina first became involved with the WSPU in the summer of 1908, joining a protest at Hyde Park. She was also present at “Black Friday” on 18th November 1910, where a protest at the lack of time given to a women’s rights bill in Parliament was met with shocking violence at the hands of the authorities. Caprina continued her suffragette activities until at least 1914: the year in which she earned the two bars on her hunger strike medal.
At some point during the First World War, Caprina joined the French Red Cross and was working in France as a masseuse. It is likely that this was where she met with Edward J.J. Knight, as the two were married in Havre at some point between 1916 and 7th May 1917. We know that Caprina trained as a midwife, and her qualification date is listed as 7th May 1917. By 1930, Caprina has moved to Sussex and is fined £1 for aiding and abetting her son Dennis in driving without road fund tax. The 1939 electoral register shows Caprina and Edward living in Brighton, Sussex, with Dennis, his wife Ivy, and their three children living in Uckfield in the same county. Dennis sadly died in 1940 aged just 35.
Caprina served as an ARP warden during the Second World War, and at some point between 1939 and 1945 she and her husband moved to Hainford in Norfolk, where they would spend the rest of their lives. We know this through anecdotal evidence of the pair hosting an evacuee at their home Rose Cottage during the war. Caprina passed away on 26th October 1959 following a long illness, and her husband donated her medal to the Norwich Castle Museum that same year. Edward died in around 1962, with Rose Cottage being sold off the following year. The cottage fell into disrepair, and was demolished in around 1975 shortly after the land on which it stood was purchased by a new owner. Before the cottage was pulled down, the new owner was able to recover some items from the cottage, including a bookstand bearing the slogan “Votes for Women” and a certificate from Emmeline Pankhurst recognising Caprina for her actions in service of the WSPU.
We’ve learned a lot more about Caprina since the start of this campaign, but there is still so much that we don’t know. One thing you may have noticed is that I haven’t used any pictures of Caprina in the course of this blog post, and that is simply because we have been unable to find any! So, if you fancy yourself as an amateur detective and would like to help us piece together more about the life of this fantastic woman then please get in touch using the details below. We’re particularly keen to hear from anyone who may have known Caprina or Edward when they lived in Norfolk, or perhaps knew the Knights or Dennis and his family when they lived in the Sussex area.
If you have any information about Caprina or her family then please email email@example.com or call 01603 493655.
I would like to thank all who have been involved in this research process to date, but particular thanks are due to Freya Monk-McGowan whose hard work gave me a really solid foundation upon which to add further research. Further thanks go to Carolyn Pawley and the Ipswich researcher who wished to remain anonymous, both of whom contributed greatly to our understanding of Caprina’s life post-1914.
by Andy Bowen, Norfolk Museums Service Teaching Museum Trainee (Costume and Textiles)