E. Sylvia Pankhurst, suffragette dissident

E. Sylvia Pankhurst

Suffragettes 1912

E. Syvia Pankhurst’s recounts events in the Suffrage Movement during 1912. The arson campaign is detailed and the very lax regime for suffragettes at Holloway prison is described: ‘The prevailing freedom... transformed imprisonment. The Dx wing was given over to the Suffragettes; cell doors were unlocked; prisoners could go about in the pavilion as they pleased, and visit each other’s cells. They wore their own clothes; a dancer, who had come from Paris to go to prison, sent for her ballet skirts and gave lively exhibitions of her art for the delight both of the prisoners and the wardresses, who agreed that Holloway had become a jolly place indeed.’

‘Our voices are of God’ – Militancy – Women more deserving of the vote than working men – Mass insurrection

When Parliament met, the Reform Bill was at last in the King’s Speech. The Conciliation Bill obtained a third place in the ballot, but attention was diverted from it to the Reform Bill, and the proposed Women’s Suffrage amendments thereto. The W.S.P.U. issued a statement that it had “ceased to be interested” in the Conciliation Bill, or in any scheme short of a Government proposal. There was an indescribable rage of excitement. Every Ministerial utterance was suspect. Thousands of lynx-eyes sought a trick in every phrase, and eagerly scanned the pages of Votes for Women for the punctilious analysis of the subterfuge they would assuredly find there. Masses of women beyond the membership of the Union looked to its leaders, above all to Christabel Pankhurst, to steer the franchise cause through the shoals and quicksands which beset its path. “Miss Christabel Pankhurst has never been wrong!” was the members’ oft-heard cry. She exhorted them to the fight with passionate references to Joan of Arc as “the greatest woman in history. We know that, like hers, our voices are of God. They are! They are!” It was firmly believed that militancy, and only militancy, could advance the cause; only because the truce had lasted too long had the Cabinet now dared to introduce its Reform Bill for men only.

Mrs. Pankhurst had returned from America; she would lead the next militant action. On February 16th, at a welcome dinner to released prisoners who had been stone throwers the previous November, she declared (Connaught Rooms, Kingsway, 1912):

‘The argument of the broken pane is the most valuable argument in modern politics... That we are to-day awaiting the issue of dissensions in the very heart of the Government itself... is due to Mrs. Pethick Lawrence and her deputation of November 21st.’

Unversed in subtleties, Mrs. Pankhurst saw one clear fact: women had toiled for the vote for fifty years, and for six years had fought and suffered for it with seldom-exampled passion; the Government had replied by offering more votes to men, who did not even care for them. The assertion was true; the minds of such class-conscious young workmen as were unable to qualify for the household franchise were then almost wholly occupied with economic issues. To this denial of political justice, women, in the W.S.P.U. opinion, could only reply by revolution. Mrs. Pankhurst declared that the only legitimate criticism of the militants could be that their weapons had not been sufficiently strong. “The argument of the stone, that time-honoured political weapon... is the argument I am going to use!”

Whilst Mrs. Pankhurst was uttering those words, a new incitement was being delivered. A Member of the Government, the Right Hon. C. E. Hobhouse, addressing an Anti-Suffrage meeting in the Colston Hall, Bristol, observed:

‘In the case of the Suffrage demand there has not been the kind of popular sentimental uprising which accounted for Nottingham Castle in 1832, or the Hyde Park railings in 1867. There has been no great ebullition of popular feeling.’

That speech was like a match to a fuse. “We can win the victory of Votes for Women by far less drastic methods of protest than those indicated by Mr. Hobhouse,” replied Mrs. Pethick Lawrence in Votes for Women; but there were others in the Union who held an opposite opinion, as was presently to appear.

A handbill calling the public to a protest meeting in Parliament Square on March 4th was issued with the signature of Mrs. Pankhurst, who also wrote to the Prime Minister, announcing that she would bring a deputation to elicit from him a statement upon the Referendum. Warned by the window smashing of November, the police were preparing for the event. On Friday, March 1st, at 4 p.m., whilst a conference was actually being held at Scotland Yard to devise measures for the protection of shopkeepers, an unadvertised outbreak occurred. In Piccadilly, Regent Street, Oxford Street, Bond Street, Coventry Street and their neighbourhood, in Whitehall, Parliament Street, Trafalgar Square, Cockspur Street and the Strand, as well as in districts so far away as Chelsea, well-dressed women suddenly produced strong hammers from innocent-looking bags and parcels, and fell to smashing the shop windows. There is nothing like a hammer for smashing plate glass; stones, even flints, are apt to glance off harmlessly. The hammers did terrible execution. Shop assistants rushed out; traffic was stopped. Policemen blew their whistles and called the public to aid them. Damage amounting to thousands of pounds was effected in a few moments. Lyons, the A.B.C. and Appendrodt’s suffered in several branches. The great shipping firms in Cockspur Street; Cook’s, Burbury’s, the Kodak, Swan & Edgar, Marshall & Snelgrove, Joy’s, Liberty’s, Fuller’s, Swears & Wells, Hope Brothers, the Carrara Marble Works and a host of other famous shops were victims. Jewellers were not spared. In fashionable Bond Street few windows remained. Police reserves were hurried out, shopkeepers were warned all over London, police stations were besieged with complaints. Mrs. Pankhurst had meanwhile driven to Downing Street in a taxi and broken some windows in the Prime Minister’s residence, in company with Mrs. Tuke, her first act of militancy, and Mrs. Marshall, wife of the solicitor to the W.S.P.U. Two hundred and nineteen women were arrested, but many window breakers escaped. On Monday morning “the Mænads,” as The Times called them, turned their attack on Knightsbridge, Brompton Road and Kensington High Street. Again the outbreak was unexpected; few constables were about, and in Knightsbridge the military police from the barracks arrested the destroyers before the civilian police arrived. That day the British Museum and all the picture galleries in the centre of London were already closed, the shop fronts in Trafalgar Square and neighbourhood were covered with hoardings or wire screens. Nine thousand police were stationed in the Square. As in November, the sentences on the window smashers ranged from seven days to two months, but the prisoners committed to the sessions for damage over £5 were more severely dealt with, sentences ranging from four to eight months. The Coal Strike had begun on March 18th. In the midst of the great industrial struggle the W.S.P.U. had thrust itself into the limelight again! (pp 372-374.)

‘Israel Zangwill, the wit of the Suffrage movement’

Arson attacks against churches and historic buildings

Militancy was now assuming a new and serious aspect.. In December, 1911, and March, 1912, Emily Wilding Davison and Nurse Pitfield had committed spectacular arson on their own initiative, both doing their deeds openly and suffering arrest and punishment. In July, 1912, secret arson began to be organized under the direction of Christabel Pankhurst. When the policy was fully under way, certain officials of the Union were given, as their main work, the task of advising incendiaries, and arranging for the supply of such inflammable material, house-breaking tools and other matters as they might require. A certain exceedingly feminine-looking young lady was strolling about London, meeting militants in all sorts of public and unexpected places, to arrange for perilous expeditions. Women, most of them very young, toiled through the night across unfamiliar country, carrying heavy cases of petrol and paraffine. 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. Occasionally they were caught and convicted; usually they escaped. They exercised every possible care to avoid endangering human life, but works of art, the spiritual offspring of the race, were attacked without ruth. (p. 401.)

‘Hermann Levi said of her [Ethel Smyth] that she was the most musical human being, save Wagner, he had ever met’

High times in Holloway

The W.S.P.U. weekly meetings in the London Pavilion were thronged; great gatherings were held in the London Opera House and in the Albert Hall, where a record collection of £10,000 was taken, and Annie Besant declared that posterity would crown with honour the martyrs of the present struggle.

For a brief period there were high times in Holloway; it had become a veritable Liberty Hall. McKenna, the new Home Secretary, had modified, it is true, the famous Rule 243A, introduced by Winston Churchill to avoid the recurrence of the hunger strike when militancy was resumed in 1910. Even in its modified form McKenna refused to apply it fully to the majority of the Suffragette prisoners. Only a minority of them were allowed to have food sent in from outside, and those who had it got only one parcel, weighing 11lb., brought once a week by the W.S.P.U. motor-car. But food was a minor question; it was the prevailing freedom which transformed imprisonment. The Dx wing was given over to the Suffragettes; cell doors were unlocked; prisoners could go about in the pavilion as they pleased, and visit each other’s cells. They wore their own clothes; a dancer, who had come from Paris to go to prison, sent for her ballet skirts and gave lively exhibitions of her art for the delight both of the prisoners and the wardresses, who agreed that Holloway had become a jolly place indeed, and in after years often recounted the pleasures of that brief interlude. The Brackenbury sisters modelled little animals of squeezed bread and presented them to the officers; funny drawings and humorous writing appeared daily. (pp. 376-377.)

E. Syvia Pankhurst, The Suffragette Movement: An Intimate Account of Persons and Ideals, Longmans, London, 1931

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