Excerpts from

The Legend of Black Friday

[18 November 1910]

C. J. Bearman

Historical Research, vol. 83, no. 222 (November 2010)
Christopher J. Bearman, University of Bournemouth

DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2281.2009.00507.x

The Women’s Social and Political Union (W.S.P.U.) wove around itself a series of legends contributing to a mythology, which continues to be repeated as suffragette history. This article examines this mythology’s centrepiece, the legend of ‘Black Friday’, the allegation that suffragettes were brutally attacked by the police during demonstrations between 18 and 23 November 1910.

Suffragette demonstrations were not peaceful events but deliberate confrontations with the police. Although Black Friday was very fully reported in every national newspaper, not one noticed any violence beyond what had come to be accepted as usual on those occasions, and no instances of sexual assault. Further, it was not an isolated incident: there was another, more violent demonstration in the ‘Battle of Downing Street’ four days later, followed by window-smashing, in which many of the same women took part. The W.S.P.U. leadership at first hailed Black Friday, and the refusal to prosecute those arrested, as a great triumph for the organization: the allegation that it was done to prevent the exposure of brutality only emerged several days later.

They were not ‘peaceful deputations’ or attempts to ‘lobby parliament’ (even if that had been possible) but encounters with the police whose open intention was to provoke arrest for public order offences.17 Suffragettes then refused to pay fines or be bound over, and endured the ‘martyrdom’ of imprisonment so as to make the further claim that they were being harshly punished for doing no more than asserting their political rights. To the suffragettes themselves and their sympathizers, these tactics demonstrated women’s nobility and invincible determination: to their critics, they were the suffragette ‘double shuffle’, in which the W.S.P.U. deliberately provoked a harsh response and then laid all the blame on the authorities. To Theresa Billington-Greig, twice imprisoned for the cause, they were ‘an unworthy political game’. Other women described W.S.P.U. tactics as ‘the crooked course... between revolution and injured innocence’.18

Suffragette raids were intrinsically violent occasions, because of the women’s determination to force a way through to the Commons, the police’s duty to keep them back, and the presence of large crowds [of spectators, who rushed in large numbers to any scene of interest during this era]. Modern demonstrators are met by crush barriers and police in riot gear who do not hesitate to use batons on both sexes. Edwardian policemen had no such protections and public opinion did not allow the use of truncheons on women. So if demonstrators pushed against and grappled with them, all they could do was push them back. If the situation became desperate, mounted officers were called in. Besides that, official policy was to leave Parliament Square open, so that crowds could assemble and horse and motor traffic could still pass through. So it is necessary to imagine not just a dense crowd, but a pushing and surging one whose members were in ever-present danger from falls, horses’ hoofs, hooliganism, vehicles and sheer crowd pressure. The Daily Chronicle commented that ‘the suffragettes found themselves in the midst of a human maelstrom. They were buffeted to and fro, and had literally to fight their way through the crowd’. Injuries were all too likely: fourteen people were taken to hospital after the ‘Rush the Commons’ demonstration in 1908.27

No newspaper observed anything beyond this accepted degree of violence on Black Friday. The Manchester Guardian claimed: ‘The sight was pitiful and horrible in the last degree’, but noticed that ‘The policemen throughout appeared to keep their tempers’. Most praised the restraint shown by the police. The Westminster Gazette said: ‘The police from the first behaved with admirable self-restraint, even under the greatest provocation’. The Daily Mail reported strenuous efforts to break through the cordon: ‘Again and again a woman would break through and, after a struggle, be gently escorted back’, and praised ‘This courteous action of the police’. But The Times observed that the police methods of shoving the raiders back ‘lacked nothing in vigour’, and The Standard believed that after about half an hour the police began to get annoyed and retaliated, but its report went on ‘It may, as it doubtless will, be said that the police behaved brutally towards some of the offenders, but the aggravation they received was great, and in many cases they had to use considerable force to protect themselves from injury. The women on this occasion were reckless beyond belief’. The Westminster Gazette admitted that ‘Force was used, necessarily: but it was never used unduly’.

The Liberal press denied or declined to mention any violence on the suffragette side: the Daily News and Daily Chronicle preferred silence while the Manchester Guardian claimed that ‘Some of the women would walk up to the police with a kind of hysterical smile. None of them showed any anger or attempted violence’. However, it did mention ‘female scuffling and pushing’. Conservative papers were more forthcoming and more detailed. The Times stated that besides having helmets knocked off, ‘one [policeman] was disabled by a kick on the ankle, one was cut on the face by a belt, and one had his hand cut’. The Standard also noticed the loss of helmets besides ‘black eyes and bruised shins’. There were also male supporters in the crowd, trying to help women through the cordon and sometimes being violent. Several papers, including The Standard, noticed a man who wielded his umbrella until an injured spectator took it from him.

The London deputations were the largest assemblies the W.S.P.U. was able to field, and most of the women taking part were provincial activists. The common determination was to secure arrest, and pushing, grappling and knocking policemen’s helmets off was probably as far as most went. If these tactics did not result in being led off to the police station, other forms of obstruction included hanging on to policemen’s belts or around their necks. In 1907, one woman grabbed a constable’s collar and climbed on his back.28 But among the activists was a ‘professional’ cadre composed of employees, full-time militants and branch secretaries. They included Mabel Capper, among the organizational staff in Manchester, Mary Leigh, leader of the W.S.P.U.’s fife-and-drum band, and Alice Hawkins, secretary of the Leicester branch. Hawkins was imprisoned in 1909 for her part in a violent attack on a Liberal meeting: Capper and Leigh were present at six such demonstrations that year – Capper being imprisoned twice and Leigh three times. During 1909, newspapers had noticed policemen and meeting stewards being punched, slapped, bitten and kicked, and Leigh (with Charlotte Marsh, a W.S.P.U. employee) had thrown slates and bricks at policemen trying to climb a steeply sloping roof, threatening to send them falling to their deaths. Given the presence of people like these, there is no reason to disbelieve reports of injuries to the police.29

Black Friday became the pivot on which the suffragette mythology turned, the ultimate argument for the ‘reactive’ theory of militancy, allowing suffragettes to forget the aggression of 1909 and renew their claim to be innocents who only turned their hands against others when forced into it by brutality and injustice. It reinforced their view of themselves as martyrs, lonely witnesses to truth and justice in a hostile world, and provided one of the reasons for the W.S.P.U.’s retreat from 1912 onwards into a world of its own, in which increasingly violent militancy was pursued with complete indifference to public opinion or political success.100 It is arguable that the legend, and the wider suffragette mythology, still has a political use in the ‘male oppression model’ which continues to inform much feminist writing and maintains the suffragettes as heroic role-models.101 It is understandable and perhaps excusable that pressure groups should create around themselves heroic mythologies of blacks and whites. In the struggle to get and retain the support of public opinion, it is not always possible to be scrupulous. The Liberal government of 1906-14 operated its own version of the ‘double shuffle’, and manipulated the legal system according to its own electoral advantage rather than the strict letter of the law. But the political uses and results of such legends and mythologies, then and now, nearly 100 years later, should provide a compelling reason for their rigorous examination.


17. Those unfamiliar with parliamentary procedure may not know that while individual M.P.s may be lobbied, it is not possible to lobby parliament as a body.

18. For ‘double shuffle’ and ‘unworthy political game’, see T. Billington-Greig, ‘The militant suffrage movement: emancipation in a hurry’ (1911), in The Non-violent Militant: Selected Writings of Theresa Billington-Greig, ed. C. McPhee and A. FitzGerald (1987), pp. 185-93. For ‘crooked course...’, see Pugh, March of the Women, p. 214.

27. For ‘human maelstrom’ and the quotes that follow, see Westminster Gazette, 18 Nov. 1910, p. 13; Daily Chronicle, p. 1; Daily Mail, p. 5; Manchester Guardian, p. 9; The Standard, p. 9; The Times, p. 10 (all 19 Nov. 1910). For hospital admissions, see Daily News, 14 Oct. 1908, p. 5.

28. The Daily Express, 19 Nov. 1910, p. 1, commented: ‘Some [suffragettes] clung round the necks of their captors, and were so borne off to the police station’; in a letter to the Daily Chronicle, 26 Nov. 1910, p. 3, Mary Taylor admitted seizing a policeman’s belt. For 1907, see Manchester Guardian, 15 Feb. 1907, p. 8.

29. For Capper, Leigh and Hawkins, see C. J. Bearman, ‘An army without discipline? Suffragette militancy and the budget crisis of 1909’, Historical Jour., 1 (2007), 861-89, at pp. 873-7. For punching, slapping, kicking and biting, see, e.g., Bradford Daily Telegraph, 14 Aug. 1909, p. 3; Leeds Mercury, 11 Aug. 1909, p. 5. For bricks and slates thrown, see Birmingham Daily Mail, 18 Sept. 1909, p. 6.

100. Theresa Billington-Greig commented that the W.S.P.U.’s whole policy depended on ‘produc[ing] retaliation to work up the martyr cry and the martyr spirit’ (Billington-Greig, p. 187).

101. For a plain statement of the ‘male oppression model’, see Purvis, Emmeline Pankhurst, p. 346, n. 1. For the use of suffragettes as heroic role-models, see abstract in J. Purvis, ‘The prison experiences of the suffragettes in Edwardian Britain’, Women’s History Rev., iv (1995), 103-33, at p. 103.

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