Today in London herstory, 1908: Suffragettes rush on Parliament

1907-8 saw a sharp stepping up of the campaign by UK women to win the vote. Successive rejections of lobbying of MPs, attempts to get political parties onside and other conventional measures had pushed the Women’s Social & Political Union into direct action…

In September 1908, WSPU leaders Emmeline Pankhurst, her daughter Christabel, and Flora Drummond decided the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) would organise a ‘rush’ on the House of Commons – an attempt to enter en masse to demand the vote for women.

A deputation would attempt to enter ‘enter the House, and, if possible, the Chamber itself’.   To advertise the event, Christabel had thousands of handbills printed, as follows:

‘Women’s Social and Political Union

VOTES FOR WOMEN
Men & Women
HELP THE SUFFRAGETTES
To RUSH THE HOUSE OF COMMONS
ON TUESDAY EVENING, 13th October, 1908 at 7:30

What Christabel meant by `rush’ was not made entirely clear on the leaflet, but asked to explain, she said, `By rushing the House of Commons, the suffragettes mean going through the doors, pushing their way in, and confronting the Prime Minister.’…

On 8 October, in the WSPU offices, Christabel apparently showed the new flyers (`Have you seen our new bills?’) to a visiting police officer, Inspector Jarvis.

On Sunday 11th October the WSPU held a large rally in Trafalgar Square, where Emmeline, Christabel and Flora addressed the crowd. Emmeline Pankhurst records that the police were present at the rally and had them under close surveillance, taking notes of the proceedings and following them [Emmeline Pankhurst My Own Story].  The next day all three were served with the summonses instructing them to attend Bow Street police station that afternoon, on a charge of ‘conduct likely to provoke a breach of the peace in circulating . . . a certain handbill calling upon and inciting the public to do a certain wrongful and illegal act, namely, to rush the House of Commons’. None of the women obeyed the summons, however, instead going to a WSPU meeting in Queen’s Hall. Although the police were present at this meeting they did not arrest the women, but again ordered that they should attend Bow Street the following morning, the 13th, the day of the ‘rush’.  Again the women failed to turn up, eluding the police for a day, the three women presented themselves for arrest at 6 p.m., just before the demonstration.  (They had spent most of the day sitting in the Pethick-Lawrences’ roof­-garden, reading newspapers.) They consequently were unable to attend the ‘rush’ themselves.

That evening, about 60,000 people gathered in the vicinity of Parliament Square.   Five thousand constables had been placed on special duty, and the square was completely cordoned off.   As on previous occasions, groups of suffragettes tried to force their way past police lines, and were arrested for trying to do so.

Suffragette Constance Lytton, who witnessed the rush, wrote an account tells of a mixed gathering, women and men, those supporting the cause and those against, together with ‘curiosity-mongers who were fascinated by the fight although without interest for its cause’.

During the course of the evening, twenty-four women and thirteen men were arrested, and ten people were taken to hospital. One woman – Labour MP Keir Hardie’s secretary, Mrs Travers Symons – managed to enter the floor of the House while debate was in progress. Rather than make her way to the Ladies’ Gallery as expected she ran through the doors into the Chamber where MPs were debating the Children’s Bill.  She shouted ‘leave off discussing the children’s question and give votes to women first’ before being bodily removed by the attendant.

The day after the rush, Emmeline Pankhurst, Flora Drummond and Christabel Pankhurst appeared at Bow Street court ,charged with conduct likely to provoke a breach of the peace.  The subsequent trial lasted two days, attracting much press and public attention.

The women argued in court that ‘rush’ did not imply violence or any illegal act.  Christabel Pankhurst, a trained lawyer (though as a women unable to practice professionally) defended all three in court, causing a sensation when she tried to call two cabinet ministers as witnesses.  The judge found all three defendants guilty, and imprisoned them when they refused to pay fines.

The WSPU however considered the whole event a success, as the events had won them a lot of publicity.
After serving her sentence, Emmeline Pankhurst was released from Holloway Prison in December 1908.  She was met by a carriage escorted by two bands, women riding white horses and 200 women in white dresses.  The parade was followed by a breakfast of 350 people to celebrate the achievements of her action and she was awarded a WSPU medal to mark the event.

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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