E. Sylvia Pankhurst, suffragette dissident

E. Sylvia Pankhurst

Suffragettes 1913

E. Syvia Pankhurst recounts events in the Suffrage Movement during 1913. The campaign of insurrection, nuisances and wanton vandalism is described: ‘Street lamps were broken, Votes for Women was painted on the seats at Hampstead Heath, keyholes were stopped up with lead pellets, house numbers were painted out, chairs flung in the Serpentine, cushions of railway carriages slashed, flower-beds damaged, golf greens all over the country scraped and burnt with acid... Thirteen pictures were hacked in the Manchester Art Gallery.’

Women out of control in an age of chivalry and order – Arson – Works of art attacked – Bombs planted

Thirty of us appeared at Bow Street next morning; some charged with obstruction, others with window breaking and damage to pillar-boxes. I applied for an adjournment “to take legal advice,” purely to gain time to make arrangements for the East End campaign. When my case came up a week later I tried to concentrate attention on the cruel treatment of Mrs. Drummond and police violence in general. I obtained an admission from Superintendent Wells, whom I put in the witness-box, that if a policeman threw a woman down “he was exceeding his orders and his duty.” He promised that my statement that Mrs. Drummond had been so treated would be investigated. Sir Albert de Rutzen, the old Magistrate with his half-shut eyes, who always reminded me of a tortoise, ordered me 40s. or fourteen days. I said I would accept neither fine nor sentence, and began a hunger and thirst strike, but the W.S.P.U. paid all our fines anonymously without consulting us, and we came out of prison. It was the policy of the Union now to do this wherever possible.

Whilst we had been battling in Parliament Square that Tuesday night, Irish Suffragettes were arrested for breaking windows in Dublin.

It was now recalled that women had obtained the Municipal vote by a private Member’s amendment to a Government Bill, and the Liberal organ, The Nation, suggested that the Speaker’s ruling had been prompted by gout and bad temper.

The brief truce before the withdrawal of the Reform Bill and its amendments, was followed by destructive militancy on a hitherto unparalleled scale, petty injuries and annoyances continuing side by side with large-scale damage. Street lamps were broken, Votes for Women was painted on the seats at Hampstead Heath, keyholes were stopped up with lead pellets, house numbers were painted out, chairs flung in the Serpentine, cushions of railway carriages slashed, flower-beds damaged, golf greens all over the country scraped and burnt with acid. A bowling green was cut in Glasgow, the turf in Duthie Park, Aberdeen. A mother and daughter, bearing an ancient name, spent much of their time travelling in trains in order to drop pebbles between the sashes of carriage windows, hoping the glass would smash on being raised. Old ladies applied for gun licences to terrify the authorities. Bogus telephone messages were sent calling up the Army Reserves and Territorials. Telegraph and telephone wires were severed with long-handled clippers; fuse boxes were blown up, communication between London and Glasgow being cut for some hours. There was a window-smashing raid in West End club-land; the Carlton, the Junior Carlton, the Reform Club and others being attacked. A large envelope containing red pepper and snuff was sent to every Cabinet Minister; the Press reported that they all fell victims to the ruse. Boat-houses and sports pavilions in England, Ireland and Scotland, and a grand-stand at Ayr race-course were burnt down. Mrs. Cohen, a Leeds member of the deputation to Lloyd George, broke the glass of a jewel-case in the Tower of London. Works of art and objects of exceptional value became the target of determined militants. Thirteen pictures were hacked in the Manchester Art Gallery. Refreshment pavilions were burnt down in Regent’s Park and Kew Gardens, where the glass in three orchid houses was smashed, and the plants, thus exposed, were broken and torn up by the roots. Empty houses and other unattended buildings were systematically sought out and set on fire, and many were destroyed, including Lady White’s house near Staines, a loss of £4,000, Roughwood House, Chorley Wood, and a mansion at St. Leonard’s valued at £10,000. There were fires at several houses in Hampstead Garden Suburb, at the Suburb Free Church, at Abercarn Church, Monmouthshire, in the Shipcoat Council Schools, at South Bromley Station on the London underground, and in a wood yard at Walham Green. Hugh Franklin set fire to an empty railway carriage; he was imprisoned and forcibly fed. An old cannon was fired near Dudley Castle, shattering glass and terrifying the neighbourhood. Bombs were placed near the Bank of England, at Wheatley Hall, Doncaster, at Oxted Station, and on the steps of a Dublin Insurance Office. Lloyd George’s new house in process of erection at Walton-on-the-Hill was injured beyond repair by a bomb explosion. The story of a motor-car passing through the village at 4 a.m., two broken hat-pins, a hairpin, and a galosh indisputably feminine, found on the site, were the only traces of the incendiaries, Emily Wilding Davison and others, all of whom escaped undiscovered. That this was the work of the Suffragettes was usually made evident by literature deposited in the vicinity. In most cases the culprits had altogether disappeared and no clue to their identity was left. Where a capture was effected, the punishment varied considerably: up to nine months for breaking windows or the glass covering pictures; eighteen months or two years for arson. Miriam Pratt, in an unsuccessful attempt to burn an empty house, dropped her watch. Her uncle, a police constable in whose house she lived, identified the watch and gave evidence against her. (pp. 433-435.)

‘It was also enraging to me to hear Suffragists argue, as they did, that there was no demand in the country for Womanhood Suffrage’

Ecstatic smiles

On February 14th [1913], a week after the shop was opened, we held a meeting in the Bromley Public Hall, Bow Road, and from it led a procession round the district. Some stones were solemnly thrown at the window of a bank. My stone missed, but someone else managed to send one through the glass. To make sure of imprisonment, I broke a window in the police station, and was convicted for this and the bank window. Daisy Lansbury was accused of catching a policeman by the belt, but the charge was dismissed. Zelie Emerson and I went to prison for six weeks on Friday, and began the hunger and thirst strike, but Mrs. Pankhurst had our fines paid anonymously, and we were released at noon on Saturday. We rushed back to the shop and found it crowded with members, scrubbing the tables and arranging to march to Holloway prison to cheer us next day.

On the following Monday, February 17th, we held a meeting at the Obelisk, a mean-looking monument in a dreary, almost unlighted open space near Bow Church.

Our platform, a high, uncovered cart, was pitched against the dark wall of a dismal council school in the teeth of a bitter wind. Already a little knot of people had gathered; women holding their dark garments closely about them, shivering and talking of the cold, four or five police constables and a couple of Inspectors. We climbed into the cart and watched the crowd growing, the men and women turning from the footpaths to join the mass. One of the Inspectors stretched up to ask me in a whisper whether I intended to form a procession. I answered “No.” Zelie Emerson spoke first, witty and engaging. I sat beside her, half numbed by the cold, thinking of many things in a dull way, and wondering how the damp cold would affect my throat, which had been troubling me of late, and whether I should be able to make myself well heard when my turn came.

As she stopped I was suddenly all alert. My voice rang out loud and very clear. I felt the tense expectancy about me; the thrill of sympathy responding to my words. In concluding I said I knew it to be a hard thing for men and women to risk imprisonment in such a neighbourhood, where most of them were labouring under the steepest economic pressure, yet I pleaded for some of the women of Bow to join us in showing themselves prepared to make a sacrifice to secure enfranchisement. Then amid a stunned surprise that I had said no more, for the people expected a call to action, I got down from the cart, slow and stumbling, for my feet were stiff with cold.

Half the crowd was disappointed that nothing had come of the meeting; half was wondering if something would happen yet. The police too were waiting, and would have prevented what I intended had I spoken of it. I walked slowly away toward the Bow Road, the crowd irresolute, half turning to follow, half waiting to see if someone else would speak. A few of the women pressed round me. At the corner was a brightly lit undertaker’s shop with cheap, showy monuments in its window.

I took a heavy flint from my pocket and hurled it as hard as I could. It broke the glass with a loud report, passing through it as easily as though it had been butter, I thought, recalling my bad shot in St. Stephen’s Hall. Three stones went flying from close beside me; they sounded like the firing of guns. I was seized by two policemen; three other women were seized. We were dragged, resisting, along the Bow Road, the crowd cheering and running with us. Suddenly a young man darted forward with a shout: “Votes for Women!” and flung a stone through a window in the Bromley Public Hall. The people applauded: “Bravo! Votes for Women!” The police leapt upon him, wrenching his arms, hauling him along by the collar, a short, thick-set figure, struggling and breathless. It was Willie, George Lansbury’s eldest son, who had promised his wife to go to prison instead of her because she had tubercular tendencies and could not leave their little daughter only two years old.

The crowd, always growing in numbers, surging around and ahead of us, roaring its cheers and its epithets, massing around the doors of the big new police station. The police fought their way through and thrust us inside. The Inspector shouted: “File out, you men, and keep them back – and shut the doors!”

There were four others inside with me: Annie Lansbury and her brother Will, pale, delicate Mrs. Watkins, a widow struggling to maintain herself by sweated sewing-machine work, and young Mrs. Moore. A moment later little Zelie Emerson was bundled in, flushed and triumphant – she had broken the window of the Liberal Club.

I looked at the others who were new to this. They all seemed satisfied and glad. Mrs. Moore sat with her fair young face a little raised and lighted by an ecstatic smile. (pp. 439-440.)

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

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