The Suffragette Bombers
Britain’s Forgotten Terrorists
Pen & Sword Books, Barnsley, 2014
It must always be borne in mind that the sort of people who joined the WSPU and became suffragettes, particularly after 1907, tended to be those who hoped to benefit from a simple change in the law, which would give them the same rights as male householders and university graduates. This meant that suffragettes were more likely to come from well-to-do families. For instance, once suffragette militancy was under way, the police complained that they were often outwitted by the suffragette bombers and arsonists because they were using fast cars and high-powered motor bikes. Quite a few of the police reports on bombings and fires mention that motor cars had been heard roaring away from the scene. A hundred years ago, only the very wealthy were likely to have access to a car. Special Branch detectives said that sometimes suffragettes were evading pursuit by switching from one car to another. That teams of bombers could be operating with multiple motor vehicles suggests that money was no object to some of those involved.
There is also the matter of the way in which the WSPU was funded. In 1908, the Labour Party, which was beginning to take off politically, had an annual income of just £9,674. This money was raised from working men and women, who paid small subscriptions. The WSPU, by comparison, had an income in 1909 of £21,213 – over twice as much as the Labour Party. On the whole, this did not come from the shilling payments of those who joined, but was given in the form of large donations by wealthy sponsors. This was an organisation financed by the rich and powerful. A glance at the list of major subscribers to the WSPU is revealing: Lady Wolsely; Viscountess Harberon; Lady Sybil Smith; the Hon. Mrs Hamilton Russell; Muriel, Countess de la Warr; Princess Sophia Dhuleep Singh; the Hon. Mrs Haverfield; Lady Barclay; and Lady Brassey. These were the kind of women who subsidised the WSPU and upon whom the very existence of the suffragettes depended. A number of these rich women were giving over £1,000 a year, equivalent today to an annual donation of perhaps £80,000. (p. 8)
The violence increased inexorably over the next few years. Each increase in militant actions resulted in greater publicity and inspired more wealthy backers to come forward. Conversely, any diminution in violence meant a slump in income. The only year that the WSPU saw a drop in contributions was during the time that they eschewed violence during a truce which they called. It must have been obvious that abandoning militant tactics would cause their wealthy backers to withhold their financial help.
Of course, once the WSFU had found such a winning strategy, they had no motive for abandoning it. From breaking windows, the suffragettes moved to starting fires and then causing explosions. They may have been reaping the benefits of increased income and wider publicity from these tactics, but as the violence became more extreme so the membership of the organisation declined. At the same time, larger suffragist groups were growing rapidly. This meant that one of the smaller groups was being treated as though it was of greater importance, purely because it was the most aggressive and likely to engage in dangerous activity.
Other democratic groups at this time, such as trade unions and socialist parties, relied for their income upon regular, small contributions from ordinary members. This helped to ensure that they remained genuinely democratic. When the rank and file are paying, they expect to exercise some control over the party or union. This was not the case with the Women’s Social and Political Union. They were being subsidised by wealthy people in Kensington and Chelsea, who handed over their money to the leaders of the suffragettes. Since the WSPU refused after the first few years to hold Annual General Meetings, this meant that they could spend the money more or less how they pleased.
The amount of money coming into the Women’s Social and Political Union from rich donors is quite simply staggering. Cash receipts for the year 1913/1914 totalled £46,875. This approximates in modern terms to perhaps £3,750,000. Of that enormous sum, less than £50 came from the fees paid by new members. A number of donors were giving over £1,000 a year to the organisation and the only people who decided what this money should be used for were Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst.
For comparison, the average wage at that time was a little over £1 a week, although many women earned much less than this, perhaps 15s (75p) a week. The WSPU funds enabled the Pankhursts and their close friends in the organisation to give up work and live on the donations pouring in from rich sponsors. (pp. 45-46)
The hearings which took place in May  were conducted before Sir Henry Curtis-Bennett, the chief metropolitan magistrate. He made no secret of his feelings about the man – Edwy Clayton – and women in the dock and was soon a figure of hatred for the suffragette movement. When an application for bail was made on behalf of Flora Drummond, on the grounds that her health was bad and that she was suffering from an ‘internal complaint,’ Sir Henry remarked sourly, ‘She’s suffering from extensive bad behaviour.’
The newspapers reported details of the WSPU’s financial arrangements which must have made many people ask what was going on. The sums of money mentioned were so enormous that one wonders what the average working person made of it all. To give just two examples, it was mentioned that a cheque from one of the WSPU’s bank accounts had been drawn in favour of Beatrice Saunders, an officer of the organisation, for the sum of £3,706 2/6. There was a good deal of speculation in the press as to what Miss Saunders could have been doing to receive such a huge sum. Working-class women who had paid their shillings to join the WSPU would typically have to have worked for a hundred years to earn this much money!
It is hard to avoid the suspicion that information like this was being produced in court because it was precisely the kind of thing that the newspapers would pick up on. There was no suggestion that any of the figures being bandied about during the hearings at Bow Street were untrue. At any rate, neither the women in the dock nor their lawyers challenged any of it.
Another tidbit that found its way into the papers was that Christabel Pankhurst, who had for over a year been living in Paris, was paid £175 over four months in salary and expenses. This would have worked out at over £500 a year, ten times as much as the average person was earning at that time. What Christabel Pankhurst was spending this salary on, we do not know, though it is possible that some of it went towards entertaining foreign royalty.
Even the minor expenditure of the WSPU was lavish. It was the custom to give members badges and medals for various acts, such as going on hunger strike. According to the papers seized by the police during their raid on the headquarters, £90 had been spent with one firm alone on such trinkets. This represents two or three years’ wages for a female textile worker at that time.
If the intention of reading out details of the WSPU’s financial dealings in open court was to blacken them in the eyes of the public, then it probably succeeded. So steep was the decline in applications for membership after that month that the WSPU soon stopped publishing the figures. The overall impression was of a bunch of very highly-paid people for whom money was no object.
Another bomb attack was carried out against a sporting target on 12 May and even by the odd standards of the suffragettes, it was a very strange place to plant a bomb. At 5.30am, George Cook, caretaker of the premises of the Oxted Badminton and Lawn Tennis Club, arrived to work and at once became aware of an ominous ticking when he entered the clubhouse. It was coming from a metal canister with a clockwork mechanism attached to the top. He put it in a fire bucket full of water and then called the police. The bomb turned out to contain nitroglycerine. A card was later found in the grounds of the club, upon which was written, ‘Votes for Women.’
Perhaps it was because of the bad publicly that was generated by the committal proceedings, this publicity being encouraged by the magistrate, that some of the suffragettes decided to try and assassinate Sir Henry Curtis-Bennett. On 14 May, a parcel was sent to him at Bow Street. It aroused the suspicions of staff there and they called the police. The package was an ingenious letter bomb – a tin full of gunpowder had a round of ammunition fixed, so that it pointed at the explosive charge. A nail was held in place over this, with the point resting on the percussion cap of the cartridge. A sharp tap would have been enough to detonate the device.
We tend to think of letter bombs as a weapon of modern terrorists, but actually it was the suffragettes who first devised them. Later on, more sophisticated letter bombs were made, using phosphorous. Lloyd George was the intended recipient of one of these lethal packages.
When the letter bomb failed to kill Sir Henry, more direct methods were adopted. A few days after being sent the lethal package, Sir Henry was walking along the cliffs near Margate, in Kent. Two women walked towards him. He did not realise his danger until one of the women shoved him hard, trying to knock him off balance, and the second then grabbed hold of him and attempted to push him off the top of the cliff. He was very shaken by this experience, after which he was assigned detectives who accompanied him everywhere. (pp. 116-118)