Emmeline Pankhurst and other women’s suffragists founded the militant Women’s Social and Political Union in 1903; having come to the conclusion that the existing pressure groups campaiging to extend the vote in the UK to women had failed, taking a too cautious approach, and a new militant organisation was needed that would take the extreme measures needed to win women the franchise.
The WSPU went on to break new ground in direct action, with mass campaigns of criminal damage, window smashing and arson; many of its activists were jailed several times, (including Emmeline and her three daughters, Christabel, Adela and Sylvia), and force fed in prison repeatedly when they went on hunger strike. Both their ‘militant’ activity and the more ‘constitutional’ wing of the movement built up considerable pressure for reform up to the outbreak of World War 1; women’s suffrage became the dominant issue in British society, dividing opinion and provoking violent repression, attacks from hostile crowds of men, as well as increasing support.
In 1908, WSPU actions became more militant and more ‘aggressive’. In June that year throwing stones to break windows of government buildings was first adopted. In October, the WSPU issued a general callout for people to join in its attempt to ‘Rush’ the House of Commons, which attracted thousands of participants and led to 37 arrests.
These actions raised the WSPU’s public profile; they snap led to an increase in donations which allowed the organisation to hire more paid staff across the country.
Calling for public participation in mass actions effectively appealed to women, over the heads of the politicians and the ‘normal’ political process, with the intention of creating a public order crisis which would intimidate the government into giving women the vote. This approach was universally condemned: even pro-Women’s Suffrage newspapers like the Manchester Guardian labelled it counter-productive. It enraged the authorities, who increased penalties for arrested suffragists and slapped them with heavier charges like ‘incitement to riot’.
In 1909, undeterred, the WSPU upped the ante on the previous year’s activities…
In May, WSPU employees and militants mobilised a large crowd – press estimates ranged up to 10,000 – which attempted to storm Sheffield’s Drill Hall where an important meeting was being addressed by H. H. Asquith. A major riot nearly ensued, although the crowd did not get into the meeting. Christabel Pankhurst hailed this event as a triumph, writing that ‘the women who were barred out from the Prime Minister’s meeting called upon the general public … and to this appeal there was a wonderful response’.
Following this, the WSPU organised its ‘Women’s Exhibition’ at the Princess Skating Rink, Knightsbridge, between 13 and 26 May; the next major action was the thirteenth mass ‘deputation’ to parliament, scheduled for 29 June. Emmeline Pankhurst and other leaders of the Women’s Social and Political union had planned to deputation to see the Prime Minster, Asquith, to demand legislation regarding extending the franchise to women. A large public meeting followed by a procession to Parliament accompanied them. But a spot of sabotage was scheduled to follow if the deputation was refused access to the PM (as was expected to happen).
“On 29 June , the usual meeting in the Caxton Hall began with martial music played by the new fife and drum band; the musicians wore purple uniforms, adorned by green sashes and white braid. Subsequently, a small initial deputation set out, led by Mrs Pankhurst and composed of eight women, two of whom were elderly.”
Along with Emmeline Pankhurst, the delegation included Maud Joachim, Mrs Saul Solomon’, Miss Margesson. Mrs. Haverfield, Mrs. Menzill, wife of Colonel Menzill, and granddaughter of the late Lord Wllborne; Mrs. Frank Corbett, sister-in-law of the late member of the house, and Miss Neligan, who was 79.
The police conducted the little group to the door of the Commons, where Chief Inspector Scantlebury, the stout, red-faced head of the police attached to Parliament, gave Mrs Pankhurst a large envelope. The envelope contained a letter from Asquith’s private secretary, stating that the Prime Minister would not receive the deputation. Mrs Pankhurst threw the letter to the ground, saying that she would not accept it – she and the ladies accompanying her were subjects of the King and had come in the assertion of a right.’ As the police began to push the women away, Mrs Pankhurst lightly struck Inspector Jarvis in the face three times. He told her she was striking him for a purpose, and that he would not be perturbed… After Mrs Pankhurst gave Inspector Jarvis two stronger blows and another woman knocked off his hat, arrests were obtained.
A prolonged melee followed in which 3,000 police were engaged, and 108 women and 14 men were arrested… The scrimmage was watched by a number of MPs, some of whom climbed the railings of Palace Yard to obtain a better view.”
Labour MP Keir Hardie did suggest inside the chamber that the delegation should be allowed in; to little avail.
At the WSPU HQ at Clements Inn, the action had been planned meticulously in advance; down to advice to women taking part that they should expect to be roughed up by the police, and designs for wearing ‘cardboard corsets’ to help protect them from batterings in the melee. Grace Roe, interviewed in the 1960s, remembered that she “rigged up one of these in the bath and fitted it to my shape and put in cotton wool to protect my breasts and then put on my hockey outfit and set off…” Vera Horne rode around the Square on a horse passing messages and instructing groups to advance on the House until the police nicked her.
After mounted police had cleared Parliament Square, phase 2 of the action began. Small groups of six suffragettes emerged from 30 small offices that the WSPU had rented for the day and made dashes on the House of Commons. Grace Roe was one of these groups, and noticed an open gate at Palace Yard – she and others ran through to try to enter the Commons but were aught by police halfway down the yard.
Simultaneously, attacks on government buildings began:
“At nine o’clock, a group of thirteen women, using small stones wrapped in brown paper, began to break windows at the Privy Council, Treasury, and Home Offices. To avoid injuring anyone within, pieces of string had been tied to the stones, which were swung against the windows while held by the string, and then dropped through the holes. The window-breakers were arrested immediately.”
Despite their determination, the deliberate action of criminal damage didn’t come easy to some of the saboteurs; one noted
“To women of culture and refinement and of sheltered upbringing the deliberate act of throwing a stone, even as a protest, in order to break a window, requires an enormous amount of moral courage. After much tension and hesitation, I threw my stone at the window… I was immediately arrested and marched off by two policemen.”
This was the largest disturbance so far in the WSPU’s militant sabotage campaign (the previous record for arrests had been in 1907, when 74 women were nicked). At first, the WSPU disowned the action, but later gave it their approval. (This was a WSPU tactic at the time – to assert that militancy was all carried out by the rank and file of the organisation and the leadership[p had no control at all over it… in reality Christabel and Emmeline Pankhurst had a tight grip on what was planned and carried out, in many cases… This was largely a diversion to try to avoid arrests of WSPU leaders for conspiracy or incitement, but also, no doubt, a bit of deniability was involved, in case anyone did anything the leadership felt was going too far, or aroused unpopularity in the wrong quarters?)
The 108 women and 14 men arrested were taken to Cannon Row Police Station. In court next day, the WSPU’s leaders announced their intention of testing in law the right of petition. This kept the issue alive for several months until the courts could decide. As a result, action against those arrested for public order offences was suspended, but the window-breakers were tried on 12 July, and imprisoned when they refused to pay fines.
At this point a new weapon was introduced: the hunger-strike, pioneered by Marion Wallace Dunlop between 2 and 5 July. Since the autumn of 1908, the WSPU had declared that suffragettes would not tolerate ‘second division’ conditions in prison but would demand ‘first division’ treatment, on the grounds that they were political prisoners.The WSPU now announced its intention of enforcing the political prisoner demand before the window-breakers were tried, and when committed to Holloway they refused to put on prison dress and broke their cell windows. Two of the prisoners were also accused of biting and kicking the wardresses. The WSPU leadership hailed this redistance to normal imprisonment as the beginning of a ‘Prison Mutiny’, which they threatened would spread to other prisoners and other gaols. As Christabel Pankhurst said on 19 July, ‘If the suffragists broke down the awe of prison rules and regulations it would work through the prison population like a fever, and that would be a very serious matter indeed.’
Following Marion Dunlop‘s example, all the window-breakers went on hunger-strike and were released over several days at the end of July.