The Women’s Social & Political Union’s militant campaign for women’s suffrage stepped up in 1906, with one of the main tactics being to invade Liberal election meetings and heckle, demand support from and put pressure on candidates.
They focused especially on the Liberal cabinet members, including Chancellor of the Exchequer, Herbert Henry Asquith (later Prime Minister).
“The general trend of events now made us feel the necessity of securing a personal interview with Mr. Asquith, and we therefore wrote asking him to receive us. He replied that his rule was not to receive any deputation unconnected with his office of Chancellor of the Exchequer, and we then wrote as follows :
To THE Right Hon. H. H. Asquith, Chancellor of THE Exchequer. Sir: I am instructed by my Committee to say that the subject of the enfranchisement of women, which they desire to lay before you, is intimately bound up with the duties of your office. Upon no member of the Cabinet have women greater claims than upon the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Your Budget is estimated on a system of taxation which includes women. Women not being exempt from taxation have a right to claim from you a hearing. Women are told that you are mainly responsible for the refusal of the Prime Minister to deal with their claim. But being convinced of the justice of giving votes to women they renew their request that you receive a deputation on an early date in order that their case may be presented to you.
Faithfully yours, E. Sylvia Pankhurst. Hon. Sec. of the London Committee of the Women’s Social and Political Union 45, Park Walk, Chelsea, S.W.
Mr. Asquith returned no answer to this, our second letter, and therefore, without making any further attempt to obtain his consent, we wrote to him saying that a small deputation would call at his house, No. 20 Cavendish Square, on the morning of Tuesday, June 19th. On the appointed day the women arrived just before 10 o’clock in the morning, but, early as it was, they were told that Mr. Asquith had already gone to the Treasury. They thereupon decided that half their number should wait on the doorstep and that the other half should go to look for him. Those who went to the Treasury were told that Mr. Asquith had not arrived, and those who remained on guard at his house were equally unsuccessful, for whilst they had been standing there waiting, the Chancellor of the Exchequer had escaped through the back door in a closed motor car.”
Two days later, they returned to Asquith’s house:
“Our determination to meet Mr. Asquith face to face was still strong, and after our failure to see him on the Tuesday we at once wrote to say that we were sending a larger deputation to interview him in two days’ time. We had now three flourishing branches of the Union in London, one in the centre and two in the East End, and some thirty or forty representatives, partly drawn from these branches and partly from our central Committee, formed the deputation. Carrying little white Votes-for- Women flags and headed by Theresa Billington, some thirty of the East End members marched off in procession for Mr. Asquith’s house ; but on arriving at the edge of Cavendish Square, they were met by a strong force of police who told them that they must at once turn back. The poor women stood still in affright, but would not turn. Then the police fell upon them and began to strike and push them and to snatch their flags away. Theresa Billington tried in vain to prevent this violence, “We will go forward,” she cried “You shall not hit our women like that,” but a policeman struck her in the face with his fist and another pinioned her arms. Then she was seized by the throat and forced against the railings until, as was described by an onlooker, “she became blue in the face.” She struggled as hard as she could to free herself but was dragged away to the police station with the East End workers following in her train. Immediately afterwards Annie Kenney, with a number of others, most of whom were members of our Committee, came into the Square. Annie knew nothing of what had taken place and, preoccupied and intent on her mission, she walked quickly across the road, but, as she mounted the steps of Mr. Asquith’s house and stretched out her hand to ring his bell, a policeman seized her roughly by the arm and she found herself under arrest. Following this, Mrs. Knight, one of the East End workers, who, because she suffered from hip disease had felt that she could not walk in the procession, came into the Square and crossed the road. On seeing none of the other women she concluded that they had already gone into Mr. Asquith’s house. She intended to join them but, just as she was about to step on to the pavement opposite No. 20, she was roughly pushed off the curb-stone by a policeman and arrested as soon as she attempted to take another step forward. Mrs. Sparborough, a respectable elderly woman dressed with scrupulous neatness in worn black garments, who by the work of her needle supported herself and her aged husband, stood watching this scene in deep distress. Noticing that two maid servants and some ladies at the window of Mr. Asquith’s house were laughing and clapping their hands, she turned to them protesting gravely: “Oh, don’t do that. Oh, don’t do that. It is a serious matter. That is how the soldiers were sent to Featherstone!”A policeman immediately pounced upon her and dragged her away.”
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online