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Suffragettes 100: Remembering the Formidable Pankhursts

The ‘Imprisonment Medal’ awarded to Emmeline Pankhurst by the Women’s Social and Political Union, lays on top of a photograph of the Suffragette leader (copyright London Museum) as she is arrested outside Buckingham Palace while attempting to petition the king. The medal, inscribed H24, standing for Hospital Wing 2, cell 4 was where she spent her three-month sentence

6 February 1918 marked a milestone for the founders of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), Emmeline Pankhurst [1858-1928] and her daughter Dame Christabel Pankhurst [1880-1958]. Women aged over 30 who owned property were granted the right to vote by parliament. It had been a hard-worn right fought for by so many courageous women whose cause was championed and spearheaded by the Pankhursts.

50 CLARENDON ROAD, HOLLAND PARK

The combined achievements of Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst have become legendary and their bravery and devotion to women’s rights continues to inspire people around the world today. Emeline’s home at 50 Clarendon Road in Holland Park, west London became the nerve centre for the struggle for equality. It became the bastion of resistance, disobedience, plotting and intrigue. The mid-19th-century semi-detached house was Emmeline’s home from 1916 until autumn 1919 and Christabel stayed here with her mother between 1917 and 1919. It has been/ was commemorated with an English Heritage Blue Plaque.

Number 50 was also remarkable for its association with both Emmeline and Christabel and the babies they adopted during WWI. An Honour Medal for Imprisonment was awarded to Emmeline by the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1908. Police arrested Pankhurst, the founder of the movement, following a raid on the union’s offices in London on 8 October, 1908, after she called on supporters to disrupt Parliament.

Equal rights: Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst (second right) with her daughter Christabel and other suffragette leaders at a meeting

The medal is inscribed with the date of the raid and Holloway, the London prison where she was held. Letters stamped on one side of the medal indicate that she was confined in Hospital Wing 2, Cell 4, where she was on hunger strike.

The Honour Medal for Imprisonment is the earliest metal suffragette award but was superseded by the WS&PU’s Medal for Valour, commonly known as the Hunger Strike Medal. Pankhurst’s campaign reached a peak in the same year as her death in 1928 when equal voting rights were given to men and women.

EARLY LIFE

Born Emmeline Goulden on 14 July 1858 in Manchester into a family with a tradition of radical politics. In 1879, she married Richard Pankhurst, a lawyer and supporter of the women’s suffrage movement. He was the author of the Married Women’s Property Acts of 1870 and 1882, which allowed women to keep earnings or property acquired before and after marriage. His death in 1898 was a great shock to Emmeline.

In 1889, Emmeline founded the Women’s Franchise League, which fought to allow married women to vote in local elections. In October 1903, she helped found the more militant Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) – an organisation that gained much notoriety for its activities and whose members were the first to be christened ‘suffragettes’.

HUNGER AS WEAPON

Emmeline’s daughters Christabel and Sylvia were both active in the cause. British politicians, press and public were astonished by the demonstrations, window smashing, arson and hunger strikes of the suffragettes. In 1913, WSPU member Emily Davison was killed when she threw herself under the king’s horse at the Derby as a protest at the government’s continued failure to grant women the right to vote.

Like many suffragettes, Emmeline was arrested on numerous occasions over the next few years and went on hunger strike herself, resulting in violent force-feeding. In 1913, in response to the wave of hunger strikes, the government passed what became known as the ‘Cat and Mouse’ Act. Hunger striking prisoners were released until they grew strong again, and then re-arrested.

This period of militancy was ended abruptly on the outbreak of war in 1914, when Emmeline turned her energies to supporting the war effort. In 1918, the Representation of the People Act gave voting rights to women over 30. Emmeline died on 14 June 1928, shortly after women were granted equal voting rights with men (at 21).

BIG BROTHER & THE ASSASSINATION PLOT

An undated handout photo issued by the National Archive image library showing secret surveillance photographs taken in 1914 by the Metropolitan Police of suffragettes following threats that some suffragettes were planning to shoot the Prime Minister | National Archive image library

Suffragettes picketing the Houses of Parliament threatened to shoot the Prime Minister as he passed them, according to confidential files. A member of the Women’s Freedom League warned the Government that women had been practising their pistol skills and intended to take a shot at Herbert Asquith. Two protesters, one described as “a little woman wearing a tam o’shanter”, were seen at a London shooting range but police never identified the would-be assassins.

Protesters gathered outside the carriage entrance to the House of Commons for eight weeks when the threat was made in September 1909. Their tactic was to walk alongside politicians, who had none of the police protection they enjoy today, and argue with them as they entered the house. Records released today at the National Archives in Kew reveal that the Home Office was considerably more concerned about the protests than they admitted to at the time.

The pickets were tolerated to avoid antagonising the women, who often brought cases against the police when they were treated unfairly. But letters contained within the previously secret file show that the Home Office considered whether to remove them for the protection of Mr Asquith. Scotland Yard was contacted by one Mrs Moore of East Dulwich who showed them a letter from a fellow suffragette announcing her intention to shoot the Prime Minister.

An undated handout photo issued by the National Archive image library showing secret surveillance photographs taken in 1914 by the Metropolitan Police of suffragettes following threats that some suffragettes were planning to shoot the Prime Minister | National Archive image library

Mrs Moore, a moderate WFL member, said she was trying to restrain members who advocated the use of physical force in a bid to get women the vote. She told police she felt the situation was now “getting out of hand” and so informed the authorities. The Home Office noted that women used the same shooting range as Indian assassin Madar Lal Dhingra, who just months earlier shot Sir William Curzon-Wylie, aide to the Secretary of State for India, at a music concert.

The file states: “We have in fact prima facie grounds for believing, though of course not evidence, that there is something nearly amounting to a conspiracy to murder”. But civil servants concluded that in order to remove the pickets the Government would have to make public the threats to the Prime Minister’s life.

“The prominence which would be given to this in the press would probably act in the minds of these half insane women, and might suggest effectively the commission of the very act which we wish to prevent,” the file says.

“Moreover, the removal of the pickets would be looked on by them as an act of violence and injustice, and would make them furious and more ready to commit such a crime.”

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