Today in London’s radical past: Flora Drummond invades 10 Downing St, 1908

“Now in January 1908 as members of the Cabinet were arriving to discuss the programme for the ensuing session, suffragettes streamed into Downing Street and one of them began to address the group of sightseers. The police dashed across to stop her and found that she and a nurse had chained themselves to the area railings of No. 10. Files and hacksaws had to be fetched from Scotland Yard to free them. Meanwhile they kept shouting raucously ‘Votes for women’. Amid the confusion Mrs. Drummond, known as ‘The General’, arrived in a taxi-cab and, eluding the police, forced her way into No. 10, but was promptly ejected. On two subsequent occasions the suffragettes threw stones and broke the windows of the house, shouting: ‘Next time it will be bombs’; later, for picketing the street, some were at last arrested.”

(No. 10 Downing Street, A House in History, R. J. Minney)

(In those days you could walk right up Downing Street, folks, yes, even right up to the 1980s… )

Born in 1878 in Manchester, Flora McKinnon Drummond (née Gibson, later Simpson), was a British suffragette, nicknamed The General for her habit of leading Women’s Rights marches wearing a military style uniform ‘with an officers cap and epaulettes’ and riding on a large horse, Drummond was an organiser for the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) and was imprisoned nine times for her activism in the Women’s Suffrage movement.

In the early 1900s Flora was active in the Fabian Society and the Independent Labour Party. When in 1906, Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney were nicked in Manchester for hassling Liberal election candidate, Winston Churchill. Flora witnessed their arrest, and joined the Women’s Social and Political Union on their release. Moving to London, by the end of 1906 she had served her first term in Holloway after being arrested inside the House of Commons.

Flora was known for her daring and headline-grabbing stunts. As well as invading 10 Downing Street, later in 1908 Flora hired a boat and sailed up the Thames to Parliament, so she could lecture about women’s suffrage to the MPs sitting on the riverside terrace.

She was a key organiser of the Trafalgar Square rally in October 1908, for which she received a three month term in Holloway, along with Christabel and Emmeline Pankhurst for “incitement to rush the House of Commons”. All three rejected the option of being bound over to keep the peace for twelve months instead of a custodial sentence. Flora was early in pregnancy when she was imprisoned, and was granted early release on the grounds of ill-health, after fainting.

In October 1909 she was the organiser of the first militant procession in Edinburgh.

Drummond’s terms in prison, including several hunger strikes took a physical toll on her and in 1914 she spent some time on the Isle of Arran to recover her health. Subsequently she concentrated her efforts on public speaking and administration rather than direct action thus avoiding further arrest. She remained prominent within the movement and in 1928 she was a pall-bearer at the funeral of Emmeline Pankhurst.

Flora Drummond died in 1949 following a stroke at the age of 70.

Another interesting element to Flora’s story:

As a natural extension of her role as march organiser, Flora captained the WSPU Cycling Scouts. The WSPU Cycling Scouts were formed in 1907 as a means of spreading the suffrage mission to areas beyond urban centres, especially throughout the countryside. The London branch of the Suffragette Scouts was the best known and Flora, who was then based in the WSPU’s Clement’s Inn head office, served as their captain and champion. Each Saturday up to thirty suffragettes dresses in the purple, white, and green colours of the union, their bicycles decorated with flags and other WSPU swag, set out from their meeting spot in Sloane Square for a destination on the outskirts of the city or beyond.

In an interview with the Pall Mall Gazette, Flora outlined the group’s tactics, explaining “We ride into a district, introduce ourselves to the police, and tell them we are going to hold a meeting in the village square. Then we get on a chair or a box, as the case may be, form our cycles into a group around it, and deliver the gospel of votes to women. We go to those places where there is no branch, and where our work is not known yet so well as it should be; our object, which we have no difficulty in accomplishing, being to form new branches.”

WSPU branches around Britain, including Scotland, were encouraged to form their own brigades of Cycling Scouts along the same line of the one Flora captained. The Suffragette Scouts were an important part of the WSPU’s extension work, and one of the most intensive uses of bicycles as part of the suffrage campaign.

From a really excellent blog on the history of women’s cycling,

http://www.sheilahanlon.com/

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online:
http://alphabetthreat.co.uk/pasttense/calendar.html

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