‘Unbind the Wing’ at Bodnant Garden: The women of Amnesty

Maggie Towse, of Amnesty UK (Colwyn Bay) and Becky Hitchens, Bodnant Garden Visitor Experience Manager, celebrate 'Unbind the Wing'.

Our suffragist Laura McLaren struggled peacefully for decades to achieve not only votes for women but fairness in marriage, work and education for all, as well as tackling controversial issues such as slavery and sex trafficking in Victorian and Edwardian society.

As part of ‘Unbind the Wing’, our celebration of women’s suffrage at Bodnant Garden, a group of local human rights campaigners from Amnesty UK (Colwyn Bay group) have shared their work defending human rights in the 21st century.

Maggie Towse, from the very active and thriving Colwyn Bay group, explains how it came about: “Colwyn Bay Group of Amnesty International is over 40 years old and one of the largest in the country. One of our original founding members Geoff attends meetings, and until recently still rattled cans on street corners. 

“Last year we received our third activism award at our AGM for Refugees: Reflections in Words and Music, in St Asaph Cathedral, which was about extending a welcome to refugees. This year, the centenary of votes for women, Amnesty UK asked local communities to nominate modern-day suffragists; 223 women were accepted for inclusion and six of those live here in North Wales.

“In February I was overjoyed when I discovered that there was massive suffrage programme being planned at Bodnant Garden, and that yes, we could be a part of it! It’s been wonderful working with a national institution like the Trust.  It gives us an opportunity to talk about the work we do in a new and relevant way, and to a new audience.”

Pankhurst Anthem

The group played a key part of our launch day for ‘Unbind the Wing’ at the garden on 26 September. They brought together a choir from people across the area, under conductor Trystan Lewis AM, who gave a rousing performance of the Pankhurst Anthem with singers from Coastal Voices Conwy, Bangor Community Choir and Welsh National Opera. Their local ‘modern day suffragists’ read extracts from Laura McLaren’s speeches, and spoke movingly about the work they are continuing today on issues of women’s health, homelessness, refugees and modern slavery.

The Colwyn Bay group have also commissioned artist Paul Pigram to make a replica of Amnesty’s Suffragette Spirit Map which will be on display in Bodnant Garden for the length of the ‘Unbind the Wing’ programme until November 23.  The map features the six local campaigners and shows a remarkable picture of activism by women now, 100 years on from that historic milestone.

Maggie said: It has been so enjoyable, fruitful and a revelation working with the National Trust! I only really became aware that the Trust was prepared to speak about difficult issues when I saw the exhibition at Penrhyn Castle, about the history of slavery and the great strike.

“As Amnesty activists we raise awareness of human rights issues, local and international, in our own communities. This project has given us an opportunity to put the work of Amnesty into a historic context and talk about its relevance in today’s world.”

Family history

“I know Bodnant Garden well. I used to volunteer here helping identify rhododendrons some years back. It’s is such a beautiful place but I was not aware of the history of the family and that it had a history of such inspirational women. To discover that Laura had as much passion about the suffrage cause as about the garden has been wonderful - and enhanced my enjoyment of the garden.”

Becky Hutchens, Visitor Experience Manager at Bodnant Garden, said: The work of Amnesty is a perfect fit with ‘Unbind the Wing’. Peaceful campaigning was what Laura McLaren and her family did. Laura was a champion of human rights in the same way the women (and men) of Amnesty are today and so many things that Laura campaigned for, in terms of equality and justice, are still not fixed. Working with Amnesty has helped us bring Laura’s story up to date.

“It has been incredibly rewarding working with the women of Amnesty, a real pleasure. It has taught me to think about myself; about how I have a responsibility to change things in life, in the way Laura McLaren, Maggie and the ‘modern day suffragists’ are doing - inspirational.”

You can find out more about Amnesty's modern day suffragists here: www.amnesty.org.uk/suffragettespirit

Singers of Amnesty UK (Colwyn Bay) with conductor Trystan Lewis AM, performing the Pankhurst Anthem for 'Unbind the Wing' at Bodnant Garden.
Singers of Amnesty UK (Colwyn Bay) with conductor Trystan Lewis AM, performing the Pankhurst Anthem for 'Unbind the Wing' at Bodnant Garden.
Singers of Amnesty UK (Colwyn Bay) with conductor Trystan Lewis AM, performing the Pankhurst Anthem for 'Unbind the Wing' at Bodnant Garden.