Suffragettes finally in the clear over kirk fire claims

St Mary's Church after the blaze. Picture: comp

St Mary's Church after the blaze. Picture: comp

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IT’S a century-old whoddunnit that gripped a sleepy East Lothian village and blackened the reputation of a burgeoning Suffragette movement.

But now historians investigating a historic fire dating back to the dawn of the First World War look set to exonerate a Votes-For-Women group branded arsonists by scandalised Whitekirk residents who watched their 12-century kirk burn to the ground.

Suffragettes often found themselves in court. Picture: TSPL

Suffragettes often found themselves in court. Picture: TSPL

Locals blamed militant Suffragettes for destroying St Mary’s Church after an incendiary notice calling for a “rebellion” was found pinned to the front door.

The church attack came in the wake of several other destructive incidents on historic buildings nearby. But despite a police investigation no-one was ever charged with the offence.

But exactly 100 years on, a local history group has reopened the case and identified a bumbling villager as the likely culprit of the devastating fire.

They suspect the blaze was started by a clumsy lay official who probably knocked over a candle within the church building, but have refused to name the individual through fear of offending his descendants.

Kate Rycroft, a member of Whitekirk History Group, appealed for more information to help support their theory.

She said: “For years it’s been claimed that the Suffragettes were behind the attack.

“There were scraps [of paper] pinned to the church door that carried a message insinuating [that].

“But to be fair, anyone could have put them there and at the time the local Suffragette movement strongly denied any involvement and actually condemned the act.”

Newspaper reports from the period suggest the Suffragettes gained access to the kirk through a back door in the middle of the night with the light from the blaze stirring villagers from their sleep.

The Haddingtonshire Courier read: “By maltreating the finest and noblest women in the country, you are driving more women into rebellion. No surrender.

“Coercion is the counsel of fools and the spur of rebellion.”

St Mary’s Church, granted protected status in the 13th century, was restored three years after being razed to the ground.

Ms Rycroft said the local historians revised the chronology of events and available evidence and concluded “it was most likely an accident caused by knocking over a candle”.

The Suffragettes campaigned for voting rights for women in the late 19th and early 20th century, particularly in the UK and United States.

One famous campaigner was Emily Davison who died after throwing herself in front of the King’s horse at Epson in 1913 to raise the profile of the movement.