Excerpts from

An Examination of Suffragette Violence

C. J. Bearman

English Historical Review 120: 365-397. DOI:10.1093/ehr/cei119
© Christopher J. Bearman, 2005 at the University of Hull

Notes: This was probably the author’s Ph.D thesis; he is now deceased. For some reason, not altogether clear, OUP has refused permission to reproduce the complete paper. Also by C. J. Bearman, ‘The Legend of Black Friday,’ Historical Research, 83: 693-718 (November 2010), DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2281.2009.00507.x

This article attempts to catalogue, analyse and assess the impact of suffragette violence – that is, the bombings and arson perpetrated by members of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) and their sympathizers between February 1913 and August 1914 – and thereby to dispel some of the myths that have accumulated around the campaign. Before 1911, the WSPU had made only sporadic use of violence, and it was directed almost exclusively at the government and its servants. After 1911, it was directed increasingly at commercial concerns and then at the general public. Early in 1912, there was a symbolic arson attempt.1 In June and July of that year, there were five more serious incidents: the homes of three anti-suffrage cabinet ministers were attacked, a powerful bomb was planted in the Home Secretary’s office and the Theatre Royal, Dublin, was set fire to while the audience was leaving after a performance.2 Some other arson attempts followed before the end of the year.

Since the late 1960s there has been a tremendous outpouring of books and articles about the militant suffragettes, which, if anything, has grown even more profuse in recent years. Despite the revisionist scholarship of Brian Harrison and Martin Pugh, which has emphasized the role of the non-militants and drawn attention to the failure of militancy in winning the vote, it is militancy – and, in particular, the violent militancy of 1912-14 – which has continued to attract public attention. But, with few exceptions, this historiography has concentrated on what may be called the ‘personal’ issues of the campaign: biographical work on the leaders and membership of the suffrage societies, their motivations, the violence used against them and their sufferings in prison. The aspect which has attracted little or no attention is the issue of violence on the suffragette side, in particular the number of bomb and arson attacks, how they were organized, who carried them out and whether or not there was a threat to human life.5

There are very many difficulties in assessing the scale, range and intention of suffragette violence, of which the first and greatest is establishing the number of incidents. Bombings and fires attributed to suffragettes in national and local newspapers could easily exceed 500, but a definitive set of figures could only be arrived at through a major research project. My concern has therefore been to establish a minimum reliable figure, and the basis for this survey is the number of incidents ‘claimed’ by the WSPU, checked, as far as possible, against newspaper reports. From 31 January 1913 The Suffragette almost invariably carried a page – more usually a double-page centre spread – which reported the outrages committed. During the periods when its printers were not actually faced with prosecution, it openly claimed responsibility by threatening headlines and subheadings.11 The weekly issues of the newspaper give a total of 325 incidents. But there were several weeks in which no crime catalogue was published, and at the end of 1913 The Suffragette published an additional selective catalogue entitled ‘A Year’s Record’, which claimed another twelve incidents, giving a grand total of 337.12

So far as it is possible to establish, The Suffragette followed the attributions in the press, although it was selective and sometimes appeared to show a degree of inside knowledge. One of the chief areas of WSPU militancy was Birmingham. On 23 August 1913 the Birmingham Daily Mail reported three fires in the greater Birmingham area, one of which was a garage fire at Handsworth in which the building was gutted and some cars destroyed.13 The newspaper did not attribute the incident to suffragettes, and the fire brigade did not suspect arson, but nevertheless this fire was claimed by The Suffragette.14 If the WSPU was making wild claims, it has to be asked why it selected this one incident: why not claim all three fires? In this instance, the most probable explanation is inside information from the perpetrators. It has been alleged that the WSPU claimed every suspicious property fire.15 There is some substance for this allegation in that, at the very beginning of the campaign, the organization claimed several hoaxes and one known insurance fraud.16 However, from about June 1913 such bogus incidents disappeared from the columns of The Suffragette – although hoaxes continued. From that comparatively early date, all the claimed incidents appear to have been seriously intended, and wild claims are conspicuous by their absence. For example, one of the most destructive blazes of the period was the fire at a coal wharf at South Shields in 1914, causing damage estimated at between £30,000 and £60,000.17 The fire started on a January night at about 9 p.m., the cause was not established, and Tyneside had been one of the chief areas of suffragette militancy. It would have been easy for the WSPU to claim it, but the organization did not do so. It did not even acknowledge all the offences against property known to have been committed by its membership. Edith Rigby (the joint secretary of one of its branches) planted a pipe bomb at the Liverpool Exchange building in July 1913.18 She was a genuinely idealistic woman, and her action was a relatively harmless protest which could not have compromised the WSPU in any way, but The Suffragette did not claim Edith Rigby’s bomb. It also failed to claim many incidents in which people had been injured or human life threatened.19 There is in fact a vast shadowy area of incidents that were widely believed to be the WSPU’s responsibility, but cannot be directly linked with the organization. This ‘grey area’ is too large and the issues are too complex to be examined here, and I will return to the subject elsewhere.

Given that the number of suffragette attacks was much greater than has previously been accepted, and their seriousness underestimated, it is necessary to reconsider whether militancy can be said to have ‘worked’. The consensus of historical opinion is that it did not. Andrew Rosen’s analysis showed that the WSPU signally failed to create the kind of national crisis which might have forced the government into concessions, and Brian Harrison’s examination of the opposition to women’s suffrage showed how delighted the ‘Antis’ were at a militant campaign that had done no more than alienate public opinion and place the suffrage question beyond parliamentary consideration.21 These conclusions echo the overwhelming weight of contemporary opinion in 1913-14: it was generally accepted that WSPU violence had shelved the whole question of women’s suffrage until the organization came to its senses or had disappeared from the scene.22 The only dissentients to that view were the suffragettes themselves.

Table 1: Incidents of bombings and arson, 1913 and 1914

MonthIncidents 1913Incidents 1914
January 0 8
February 7 13
March 9 13
April 32 17
May 32 12
June 21 25
July 16 15
August 32 2
September 22 0
October 23 0
November 19 0
December 19 0
Total 232 105
Average per month 21.1 15.0

The WSPU turned from window-smashing to arson in a calculated political act, not as a response to repression. The Pankhursts’ devoted lieutenant, Annie Kenney, admitted as much by stating that: ‘It was at this time (1912-13) that the burning of empty houses was resorted to. Both Christabel and her mother were against the taking of human life, but Christabel felt the times demanded sterner measures, and burning she knew would frighten both the public and Parliament.’32 The only development in the Pankhursts’ thinking between July 1912 and February 1913 was the decision to make the general public bear the brunt of the campaign, rather than specific anti-suffrage politicians. As the WSPU’s Seventh Annual Report (published in April 1913) stated:

That private citizens should be affected is inevitable, for this is war, and in all wars it is the private citizen who suffers the most. It is, in fact, by means of pressure on the private citizen that an opposing force finally achieves its victory. Moreover, in the women’s war for the Vote, the private citizen cannot complain of suffering the pains and penalties of warfare, because there is nobody who can plead innocence and irresponsibility where the question of Votes for women is concerned.33

Whatever the motivation behind individual incidents, the overall intention of WSPU violence was firstly to intimidate and secondly to punish. If the campaign had an ‘official’ rationale, it was to create an impossible situation for the government in which it would be forced to grant women the vote. But there was a powerful secondary motive in the desire, frequently expressed in suffragette rhetoric, to harass and punish anyone who disagreed with their aims or failed to support them. Brian Harrison has attributed this development to 1912 and to ‘a despairing transition from the pursuit of reform to the luxury of retaliating against the society that refused to listen’, but in fact this trend dated back to 1909, when threats were made against persons who attended Liberal meetings and suffragettes attacked their fellows in the crowd besides politicians and policemen.34

Table 4: Types of target attacked by suffragettes

Target typeNo.
House, hotel, other domestic offices 96
Haystack, corn or fodder stack, or farm buildings 36
Private sports pavilion/boathouse/shelter 34
Church 32
Railway station or other rail-related target (e.g. goods yard) 31
Public building (e.g. post office) 22
Public refreshment pavilion or resort building (e.g. pier) 20
Sports grandstand 17
Industrial premises 17
School, university, teacher training college 16
Reservoir, aqueduct, canal bank 4
Motor car or garage 3
Heather fire 2
One each of: firing of ‘Dudley Cannon’, newspaper office,
observatory, picture gallery, royal visit, steam yacht, unknown
Total 337

The only generalization that can be attempted is that most militancy was along the lines of least resistance; that is, nearly all targets were the most easily flammable, the most easily accessible, and the least well defended, rather than the most economically important or the most likely to cause large-scale public disruption.

The police were also aware that the WSPU’s motor cars were being used for arson attempts – embarrassingly aware, because they did not possess a vehicle able to keep up with them. The authorities tried to press into service a member of the Special Branch who owned a motorcycle, but this machine proved temperamental and the police were unable to resolve the problem – a situation which casts some interesting light on the value placed by governments on the security services before 1914.61

‘Terrorism’ has become a difficult and emotive word to use because of its modern association with individual or mass murder. It is accepted in some feminist writing (and excused on the ground that the WSPU was fighting a ‘just war’) but denied or shied away from elsewhere, on various grounds including claims that the WSPU did not have direct control over its militants, or that there was no threat to human life.104 As this article has shown, the role of the central organization was essential. The claim never to threaten human life was not believed by contemporaries and can be factually disproven, but is too big a question for consideration here.105 The intention of the campaign was certainly terrorist in terms of the word’s definition, which according to the Concise Oxford Dictionary (1990 edition) is ‘a person who uses or favours violent and intimidating methods of coercing a government or community’.

It has long been recognized that the militant campaign was the work of a tiny number of people, but it is doubtful whether it has been appreciated just how small the body of militants was. It is quite possible that the number of those who actually planted bombs and laid fires was about 100 or even less.108 Of course, these militants could draw on a larger number of sympathizers willing to accommodate them, facilitate their destructive efforts and assist their evasion of the authorities, but even including these sympathizers, it is not likely that the numbers who participated in the militant campaign exceeded 300 or 400. It was also recognized that militancy was largely a ‘professional’ operation organized and carried out by paid staff.


1. E. S. Pankhurst, The Suffragette Movement: An Intimate Account of Persons and Ideals (London, 1977), 362 (first published 1931).

2. Attacks were made on the homes of Charles Hobhouse, J. A. Pease and Lewis Harcourt. For the attack on Hobhouse’s home, Edward David (ed.), Inside Asquith’s Cabinet: From the Diaries of Charles Hobhouse (London, 1977), 117. For Pease, Manchester Guardian, 20 July 1912, 8. For Harcourt, The Times, 15 July 1912, 7. The most information about the bomb in Reginald McKenna’s office is given in the Manchester Guardian, 8 May 1913, 8, but the incident occurred in July 1912: see cartoon in Votes for Women, 19 July 1912, 678. For the attack on the Theatre Royal, The Times, 20 July 1912, 10.

5. For example, see June Purvis, ‘“Deeds, Not Words”: Daily Life in the Women’s Social and Political Union in Edwardian Britain’, in Votes for Women, ed. Purvis and Sandra Stanley Holton (London, 2000), 135-58. Of this article’s sixteen pages of text (135-51), seven are given up to accounts of prison life, while the forms of militancy which put the women there are dismissed in as many lines (137).

11. For example, the headline ‘No Votes, No Peace’, The Suffragette, 12 Sept. 1913, 835. On 19 Dec. 1913, 222-3, the overall headline was ‘Devastating Fires ... Grave Responsibility of the Government’, and two of the subheadings were ‘Gigantic Fire at Devonport ... Reply to Mrs. Pankhurst’s Arrest’, and ‘Fire at a Scottish Mansion ... Protest Against the “Cat and Mouse” Act’.

12. Ibid. 26 Dec. 1913, 258. For an example of an incident claimed in ‘A Year’s Record’ but not in the weekly issues, the burning of Hatcham church on 6 May 1913.

13. Birmingham Daily Mail, 23 Aug. 1913, 4.

14. Birmingham Central Library, City Archives, Records of Fires MS1303/187-9. The Suffragette, 29 Aug. 1913, 800-1.

15. A common allegation, but never given any foundation. See for example Leneman, A Guid Cause, 146.

16. For an example of a hoax, the firing of the ‘Dudley Cannon’ on 8 April 1913 (actually perpetrated by some young men). For an example of an insurance fraud, the fire reported at ‘Welham Green’, The Suffragette, 30 May 1913, 541. For the real circumstances of this incident, The Times, 31 May, 5.

17. Northern Echo, 26 Jan. 1914, 1; Manchester Guardian, 26 Jan. 1914, 9.

18. The bomb exploded on 5 July 1913. For a report of the trial and sentence, The Times, 31 July 1913, 8.

19. For example, on 11 July 1914 there was an explosion in one of several mail bags being conveyed by train from Blackpool, caused by a glass tube containing sulphuric acid and ‘flashlight powder’, a typical suffragette device for causing pillar-box fires. This explosion ‘badly burned’ the train guard about the hands and arms and set fire to several other mailbags and the railway carriage itself. See Manchester Guardian, 13 July 1914, 9.

21. Rosen, Rise Up Women! 242-5; Brian Harrison, Separate Spheres: The Opposition to Women’s Suffrage in Britain (London, 1978), 181-99.

22. For supporting argument and references, see below.

32. Annie Kenney, Memoirs of a Militant (London, 1924), 187.

33. WSPU Seventh Annual Report, 1913, 16. Copy in the National Archives: HO45/10700/236973.

34. Harrison, ‘The Act of Militancy’, 47. Verbal threats of injury or death were made and a threatening poster issued by suffragettes before a demonstration outside the Bingley Hall, Birmingham, in September 1909. One suffragette was convicted of having thrown a stone into the crowd when they refused to support her: another, on being sentenced, shouted: ‘We condemn the men who go to the next political meeting to death – to death!’. See Birmingham Daily Mail, 18 Sept. 1909, 2, 22 Sept. 1909, 4; Manchester Guardian, 23 Sept. 1909, 14.

61. Rosen, Rise Up Women!, 216-17.

104. For an acceptance that the WSPU’s campaign was terrorist, Cheryl R. Jorgensen-Earp, The Transfiguring Sword: The Just War of the Women’s Social and Political Union (Tuscaloosa, 1997), 2-13.

105. In 1913-14 there were between twenty and thirty-five incidents of suffragette bombings and arson in which human life was threatened, their number depending on how such a threat is defined. I intend to explore this question elsewhere. For one example (the arson at Abercuhill Castle, Perthshire, in February 1914), see Leneman, A Guid Cause, 173.

108. For example, ibid. 242, states that ‘By 1914 front-line militants numbered only a few hundred at most’. I have not seen any material which would substantiate Mitchell’s accompanying assertion that some of them were ‘well-born agents provocateurs infiltrated by the police’.

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