“Dulwich College, the famous school in the southern suburb of London, was set on fire in two places at an early hour this morning, and suffragette literature pinned to trees in the neighbourhood with women’s hatpins is accepted as proof that a militant suffragette “arson squad” was responsible for the crime.”
In 1912-13 the militant campaign for women’s suffrage stepped up a gear.
Decade of legal agitation, several years of escalating direct action, harassment of politicians, window smashing and hunger-strikes in prison having failed to shift the weight of the male establishment, the Pankhurst-dominated leadership of the Women’s Social & Political Union prepared to turn to arson.
In July 1912, Christabel Pankhurst began organising a secret arson campaign. Attempts were made by suffragettes to burn down the houses of two members of the government who opposed women having the vote. These attempts failed but soon afterwards, a house being built for David Lloyd George, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, was badly damaged by suffragettes.
One of the first arsonists was Mary Richardson. She later recalled the first time she set fire to a building: “I took the things from her and went on to the mansion. The putty of one of the ground-floor windows was old and broke away easily, and I had soon knocked out a large pane of the glass. When I climbed inside into the blackness it was a horrible moment. The place was frighteningly strange and pitch dark, smelling of damp and decay… A ghastly fear took possession of me; and, when my face wiped against a cobweb, I was momentarily stiff with fright. But I knew how to lay a fire – I had built many a camp fire in my young days -a nd that part of the work was simple and quickly done. I poured the inflammable liquid over everything; then I made a long fuse of twisted cotton wool, soaking that too as I unwound it and slowly made my way back to the window at which I had entered.”
Some leaders of the WSPU such as Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, disagreed with this arson campaign. When Pethick-Lawrence objected, she was expelled from the organisation. Others like Elizabeth Robins, Jane Brailsford, Laura Ainsworth, Eveline Haverfield and Louisa Garrett Anderson showed their disapproval by ceasing to be active in the WSPU and Hertha Ayrton, Lilias Ashworth Hallett , Janie Allan and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson stopped providing much needed funds for the organization. Sylvia Pankhurst also made her final break with the WSPU and concentrated her efforts on helping the Labour Party build up its support in London.
In 1913 the WSPU arson campaign escalated and railway stations, cricket pavilions, racecourse stands and golf clubhouses being set on fire. Slogans in favour of women’s suffrage were cut and burned into the turf. Suffragettes also cut telephone wires and destroyed letters by pouring chemicals into post boxes. The women responsible were often caught and once in prison they went on hunger-strike.
This is the context for the attempt to set fire to Dulwich College on September 5th 1913… for which no-one was ever arrested or convicted.
Is it possible there was a South London suffragette arson squad active in 1913…? St Catherine’s Church on Telegraph Hill, New Cross, had been set on fire in May – there were widespread rumours this was also a suffragette job, though nothing was ever proved. Before that Lilian Lenton and Olive Wharry had been arrested and convicted of setting fire to the tea gardens at Kew gardens in February 1913.
More on the suffragette arson campaign: http://spartacus-educational.com/Warson.htm
Founded in 1618 by actor (and Bankside brothel-owner) Edward Alleyn, Dulwich College is an independent school, which costs £6300 a term or £12-13,000 a term for boarders… If originally founded “to educate 12 poor scholars as the foundation of God’s Gift”, over the centuries it became one of the poshest schools in the London area. It provided a hefty contingent of students to scab during the 1926 General Strike…
It’s now the biggest independent school in the country, which selects boys from the brightest 20 per cent and spends almost £8,000 a year on each pupil. Dulwich College ensures that 95 per cent of its pupils get A-C passes at GCSE and sends 95 per cent of sixth-formers to top universities – 12 or so pupils go to Oxbridge each year.
It’s the preserve of the rich. Compared to local comprehensives it commands massive resources giving the rich kids who attend a leg up to maintaining the class system for another generation. It is funded by the Dulwich Estate, which owns a huge swathe of property over this part of South London, has massive playing fields and top class facilities, but luckily is a charity so avoids a lot of tax. The estate funds Dulwich College, Alleyn’s and James Allen’s Girls’ (or JAGS), which shared £5,815,840 of moneys from the Estate in the most recent year for which there are figures (to March 31, 2015). These are also registered charities.
Earlier this year a few hundred people gathered in Herne Hill, to demonstrate against the behaviour of the Dulwich Estate. The Estate owns 1,500 prime acres of Dulwich and the surrounding area, including the freeholds on 600 flats and maisonettes and the vast majority of the shops and pubs as well as local amenities. The focus of the demo was the closure of a much-loved toy shop, Just Williams, forced out of business by a 70% rent rise combined with a more general concern about the threat of similar rent rises forcing out other shops. They are likely to be replaced by ones which, to pay those increased rents, and will be prohibitively expensive to shop in. The Estate has also proposed selling off a piece of land used as a play area by children at the local Judith Kerr Primary school for flats, and left a popular pub, the Half Moon, closed and empty for over two years. Now that they finally have a proposal for the pub they seem set to accept, it does not include a live music room, which has been a part of it for decades and which locals want re-instated.
Maybe we don’t burn it down… but we should definitely take it over… So much that could be cone to share out the resources a bit…
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online