“Never since plate glass was invented has there been such a smashing and shattering of it as was witnessed this evening when the suffragettes went out on a window-breaking raid in the West End of London,”
(The New York Times)
In March 1912, militant suffragettes launched an unprecedented window smashing campaign across London’s West End, designed to cause as much damage as possible, with the aim of raising the pressure on government in the campaign for votes for women. On 1 March approximately 150 women smashed windows simultaneously across the capital, and further actions took place three days later.
The Women’s Social & Political Union (WSPU) had been actively campaigning for the vote since 1903, building on the work of earlier suffrage campaigns.
While the majority of women’s suffrage campaigners pursued the vote through legal means, years of getting knocked back, ridiculed and ignored by men had persuaded Emmeline Pankhurst and her close allies that sharper measures were going to be necessary. The WSPU adopted a policy of direct action in 1905 when members, including Christabel Pankhurst, interrupted a meeting to ask politicians whether they were in favour of votes for women.
Demonstrations gradually became attempts to force their way into parliament; protests became invasions and petitioning politicians became harassing them. Women chained themselves to 10 Downing Street and other high profile buildings, were arrested and went on hunger strike.
But sustained campaigns of property destruction began in November 1910. On Black Friday,18 November 1910, a deputation of around 300 women to Parliament resulted in long and violent clashes with the police, who subjected them to violence and sexual assault.
After Black Friday, the WSPU took a fiercer militant line. The WSPU organised a large-scale window smashing campaign in November 1911.
The aim of the window-smashing campaigns was to prove that the government cared more about broken windows than a woman’s life. ‘The argument of the broken pane of glass’, Mrs Pankhurst told members of the WSPU, ‘is the most valuable argument in modern politics.’ Disruption, publicity and nuisance were seen as vital to build pressure for change.
Although a temporary truce had accompanied the government’s consultations on a Conciliation Bill, which proposed a limited granting of the franchise to some women, hopes were dashed when this Bill was shelved in favour of a Manhood Suffrage Bill to grant votes to remaining disenfranchised men. The WSPU leadership decided on a resumption of the property damage campaign.
March 1912 was marked for the second big onslaught on the capitals’ glass shopfronts…
In the weeks before March 1st, WSPU leader Emmeline Pankhurst sent out invitations to take part in a public protest for March 4th:
‘MEN AND WOMEN I INVITE YOU TO COME TO PARLIAMENT SQUARE ON MONDAY, MARCH 4TH 1912 at 8 o’clock to take part in a GREAT PROTEST MEETING against the government’s refusal to include women in their reform Bill. SPEECHES will be delivered by well-known Suffragettes, who want to enlist your sympathy and help in the great battle they are fighting for human liberty.’
However the demonstration was a decoy. While the police were to be policing the Great Militant Protest, the real action would be elsewhere…
Responses to the invitations were used to secretly recruit women (and some sympathetic men) to the sabotage campaign. This ‘Great Militant Protest’ was in fact a skilfully planned secret attack for women armed with hammers, stones and clubs to simultaneously smashing the windows of shops and offices in London’s West End.
In response to her call to action, Emmeline Pankhurst received numerous letters of reply from women up and down the country, indicating willingness or unwillingness to take part. Many of these letters were later seized by the police in later raids on the WSPU headquarters.
Hundreds of women from across the country signed up to take part in the protest, from all backgrounds, of various ages.
At 6:00 in the evening, some of the women on the demo brought out rocks they had been carrying, concealed in bags, sleeves, and attacked storefronts at a pre-arranged time. Mrs Pankhurst, Mabel Tuke and Kitty Marshall broke the windows of No. 10 Downing Street; simultaneously hundreds of women in other parts of London smashed the plate-glass windows of shopfronts, post offices, and Government departments.
Charlotte (Charlie) Marsh described the lead-up to her part in the action:
“From the Town Mall Square in Portsmouth I jumped on a bike and went with a friend to the beach at Southsea and sat on the beach and filled my pockets with pebbles, great big stones you could call them, the idea being that I should take those in my pockets to London and if whatever we had to use in London ran out, I would always have something to fall back on.
I was given the top of Villiers Street. To fill in time I went over and bought a bunch of violets, then I bought an evening paper, and then I looked at the clock and it was a quarter to six, and that was my moment. In my right hand I had a hammer, my pockets of my raincoat were bulging with pebbles, and I went over to the corner shop.
There were two people looking at rings, a young boy and girl. I waited, they moved and then – bang went my hammer, and it was a great moment for me because I was so afraid that the hammer would hook, and hook me into the glass and stop me doing any more. But I found, by taking my hammer broadside, that that didn’t happen at all; it came back with me, and so on I went. And I walked down the Strand as though I was playing hockey, and I just boldly went on like that, and I did at least nine
Under questioning by police, Lillian Ball also set out an account of her actions, on the second night of mass window smashing:
“On Monday 4th March I went to the Gardenia as near as 6 o’clock as possible – I took my ticket, I went to the long room upstairs. I showed my card to several, standing on the stairs. A lady from Balham, a member of the Union, was with me.
In the room into which I went there were a good many people all women, sitting in various groups. There were no refreshments there I had no refreshments in the Gardenia.
After a time somebody came out of that room, or from that particular place – it was a woman. I forget whether we were supposed to wear badges. The woman came to me and said “Are you prepared for a long or short sentence?” I said a short one, as I had made arrangements for absence from home for 7 days.
She told me just where to go and find a small window, viz. the United Service Museum. I did not bring any implement with me. The young lady asked me if I had brought my own implements, or whatever it might be. I said No. She gave me a hammer: there were words on it “Better broken windows than broken promises”. There was only one paper on my hammer. The hammer produced Ex. 94 is like the one I had, only it had not the words on which now appear on it.
The young lady advised me to put the hammer up my sleeve.
She told me I shouldn’t have more than 7 days if I only broke one small pane. She also told me to do it before 9 o’clock I could not tell what her personal appearance was – she seemed to use great authority, and she was very abrupt, – spoke as if I was not a member of the Union at all.”
(Extracts from a statement by suffragette Lillian Ball, taken as evidence for Emmeline Pankhurst’s trial for conspiracy, March 1912.)
Attacks took place on prominent streets including the Strand, Haymarket, Piccadilly, Bond Street, Oxford Street and Regent Street, as well as in Kensington, Knightsbridge and Chelsea.
Then we walked about a considerable time, and went to Lyon’s and had some food, and then went to the United Service Museum and did our damage. One of the ladies I knew before: the other I did not know before.
I broke one window with the hammer.
A man held me first, and then the police took me, I believe to Cannon Row.
I broke the window about 20 to 9. I was arrested at once. An ambulance came, as I fainted I believe. […] “
Over 148 women were arrested, and 126 were committed for trial, following the window smashing campaign.
A Metropolitan police document survives recording a summary of insurance claims from March 1912. The list of claims for damage caused by suffragettes includes the name of each claimant and the address, damage done, amount claimed and, occasionally, extra comments. This list of buildings is a powerful testimony to the impact these campaigns had on private property across the capital. The claims highlighted broken windows, as well as damage to electric lighting systems and loss of trade.
West End firms were quickly up in arms about the damage to their property, organising a meeting on March 11th to discuss what steps could be taken to prevent a repetition of the attacks, and putting pressure on MPs.
“HC Deb 04 March 1912 vol 35 cc49-5049
Mr. NEWTON: I wish to ask the right hon. Gentleman the Prime Minister a question of which I have given him private notice: whether, in view of the extensive damage done by Women Suffragists to retail traders in London by the smashing of expensive plate-glass shop windows, many of which cannot be replaced under three or four weeks, and the consequent great loss of trade which necessarily follows, he will take steps to introduce and pass through both Houses of Parliament with all possible speed, a Bill giving the persons or firms who may be damnified by future outrages of this kind, a right of action against the funds of the Women’s Social Political Union or other suffragist body to which the delinquent in each case may belong, and meantime what steps he purpose to take for the protection of public and private property against the perpetrators and instigators of these organised attacks?
The PRIME MINISTER: I only got the hon. Gentleman’s question before I came into the House. I have not had time yet to give it the mature consideration that I should like. I am sure that he is only giving utterance to a very widespread opinion when he indicates that these disgraceful proceeding should be brought home, not merely to the wretched individuals immediately concerned, but to those who are responsible. I entirely agree with that view, but I should like to consult my right hon. Friend the Attorney-General before I commit myself further.”
The practical application of Asquith’s answer was seen the next morning: the offices of the Women’s Social and Political Union in Clement’s Inn were raided on 5 March. Emmeline Pankhurst and Mabel Tuke, the WSPU’S Honourable Secretary, were already in custody after March 1st; Pankhurst’s close WSPU allies Emmeline and Frederick Pethick-Lawrence were nicked in the raid, and all four were charged on warrants charging them with conspiracy ‘to incite certain persons to commit malicious damage to property’.
Emmeline’s daughter Christabel Pankhurst was also named in the same warrant. Whether by design or chance, she was not present at Clement’s Inn on March 5th, and police did not locate he, despite some effort: “For two days now Miss Christabel Pankhurst has played hide-and-seek with a hundred detectives. It has been tiring work – for the detectives. All through Wednesday night they crouched in obscure corners at Clement’s Inn waiting, hoping, conspiring against this lady wanted’ for alleged conspiracy.” (The Standard, 8 March 1912)
As the main WSPU figurehead still at large, Christabel decided to avoid arrest, disguised herself and escaped to Paris, from where she edited the WSPU newspaper and directed the tactics of those in the fighting line at home.
For many of those arrested after the WSPU action it was their first offence. The sentences at the trial ranged from 14 days to six months; 76 women were given sentences of hard labour. Harsher sentences were meted out to working class suffragettes, obviously…
Holloway Prison was jammed to the rafters; women were sent to Aylesbury and Winson Green Prisons. So many suffragettes were locked up routine discipline and control broke down: exercise time and work became mass singing sessions; women sewed suffrage banners and handkerchiefs. The normal running of the prison was subverted and undermined… Resistance was expressed as creation, as poems were written, songs composed…
It wasn’t all fun and games inside though. Many suffragettes were denied even usual prison facilities, and despite their demand for political prisoner status it was not granted. Within a month many had gone on hunger strike in support of the demand for political status. Prison authorities then began, with the full backing of the government, to force feed the hunger strikers, with screws and prison ‘doctors’ pushing tubes into their stomachs.
Emmeline Pankhurst & the Pethick-Lawrences were charged with conspiracy to incite violence; in May 1912 they went on trial (charges against Mabel Tuke had been dropped in April).
“On May 15th began the conspiracy trial—The defendants made
no denial of the changes; the burden of their argument was that
the Government had dealt falsely with the Votes for Women Cause. Accepting the charges as they did, the hostile speech of Justice Coleridge was not necessary to secure a conviction. Party feeling in a Judge is unbecoming. The jury displayed a more generous spirit. While finding the defendants guilty, they added:
We desire unanimously to express the hope that taking into consideration the undoubtedly pure motive that underlie the agitation which has led to this trial, you will be pleased to exercise the utmost leniency in dealing with the case.”
However, “the Judge pronounced sentence of nine months’ imprisonment, and refused, in harsh terms, the application of the prisoners to be treated as First Class misdemeanants.” (Sylvia Pankhurst, The Suffragette Movement)
At this time, in prison, as everywhere in society, class determined everything. Prison life was actually split into ‘divisions’, usually demarcating your social background. Those convicted of white collar crime, and Upper and Middle class offenders, could normally expect to be sentenced to the First Division, which allowed them some privileges – including being able to have visitors, send letters, order in their own food and even booze.
However, those convicted of suffragette window smashing were sentenced to the second division, without such rarified ‘perks.
The ‘second division’ sentence of 9 months on the three leaders “disturbed people who were far from sympathising with the militant methods, and caused a great deal of astonishment and indignation.”
The WSPU announced that unless Mrs Pankhurst and the Pethick-Lawrences and the window-smashers already on hunger strike and being forcibly fed, were transferred to the First Division the leaders would join them. On 19 June they did join, though forcible feeding was one horror to which Mrs Pankhurst was not subjected.
After a huge protest by over 100 MPs and a number of international figures including Marie Curie (who had just been awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry), the French socialist Jean Jaurès, authors Romain Rolland and Upton Sinclair, the leaders were transferred to the First Division.
And those who were serving longer sentences faced brutal force feeding by the prison authorities using tubes down the throat; which left a number permanently injured. Some tried to barricade themselves in their cells. Emily Wilding Davison injured herself seriously jumping over a staircase. The furore led to most of the hunger striking suffragettes being released in July.
The events of 1912 were to prove the opening salvo for two years of militant violence in the WSPU campaign. Banks, post office and art gallery windows were smashed from Kew to Gateshead; in September, 23 trunk telegraph wires were cut on the London road at Potters Bar; and on 28 November simultaneous attacks on post boxes occurred across the entire country. By the end of year, 240 people had been sent to prison for militant suffragette activities.
As many went on hunger strike immediately, they faced the torture of
force feeding at the hands of the prison authorities – actions which only further radicalised them and increased their commitment to the militant campaign on their release.
Window smashing evolved into arson; militant suffragettes became semi-fugitives, filmed and photographed by Special Branch, alternately arrested, forced fed then released when they became very ill, and then re-arrested as they recovered. Almost until the outbreak of World War 1, the struggle for the right to vote became a war of attrition, increasing militancy and vicious reprisal…