This weekend marks the centenary of the burial of Emily Wilding Davison, the suffragette who died after running in front of the King’s horse at the Derby in 1913. Her funeral procession to St George’s Church in Bloomsbury on 14 June featured around 5,000 suffragettes dressed in white, with black armbands, carrying lilies.
In our world of voter apathy and predominantly centrist politics, the suffragettes can seem pretty alien. With hindsight, some of their actions might be dismissed as futile acts of vandalism: we now know it took the sweeping social change of a world war to really make a difference to women’s suffrage. But their story is also part of London’s story; the suffragettes’ short but idiosyncratic chapter of history makes up part of the city’s fabric. And if you’re curious, there are several threads of the suffragettes’ colourful story that can be pursued across town.
In 1906, the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) relocated its headquarters from Manchester to London. It was a turning point in the suffrage movement. Founded by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters, the WSPU aimed to promote women's suffrage through “Deeds not Words”. For the next eight years, their fight became a highly public and, at times, violent struggle.
With their new HQ at 4 Clement's Inn, Strand (now replaced by the LSE Towers), the WSPU were closer to Westminster. From 1906 onwards, the lobbying and heckling of MPs became more frequent. The WSPU set up a Women’s Parliament in Caxton Hall at 10 Caxton Street in 1907 (now apartments and offices). By 1911, the women were breaking windows (including those of shops on Oxford Street, Regent Street and Strand) and setting fire to post boxes in the City and the West End.
“On the last day of January 1913, the WSPU began a concerted campaign of destruction... Within the next three weeks, a jewel case was smashed at the Tower, telegraph and telephone wires linking London and Glasgow were cut, an orchid house was burned at Kew Gardens, [and] the refreshment house at Regent's Park was destroyed by fire.“
In 1914, after five paintings in the National Gallery and one at the Royal Academy were damaged, as well as a glass case being smashed at the British Museum, the National Gallery, Tate Britain, and the Wallace Collection were all temporarily closed. The British Museum announced it would only admit women “on receipt of a letter from a person ‘willing to be responsible for their behaviour’.”
As the suffragettes’ lawlessness increased, many were sent to Holloway Prison in Islington. When she was imprisoned for defacing St Stephen’s Hall in 1909, Marion Wallace Dunlop began a hunger strike in protest. It soon became standard practice among suffragettes, and led to the contentious force-feeding of prisoners, and later the so-called Cat And Mouse Act of 1913.
London Memorials to Suffragettes
There are many memorials to the suffragettes in London today. Emmeline Pankhurst was commemorated two years after her death in 1928 with a statue in Victoria Tower Gardens; while in the 1970s, a sculpture to the suffragette movement as a whole was erected in Christchurch Gardens near Caxton Hall. The excellent London Remembers lists eight memorials, including to Minnie Lansbury on Bow Road, and Christabel Pankhurst at LSE. There’s also a People’s Plaque to Edith Garrud in Islington.
Suffragettes in London Museums
The Museum of London holds the world’s largest collection of objects related to the UK’s militant suffrage. Highlights include Emmeline Pankhurst’s silver hunger strike medal, handbills publicising demonstrations, the flag that stood behind Emily Wilding Davison’s hospital bed as she lay dying and photography depicting suffrage scenes throughout London.
In the brilliant and recently revamped Money room at the British Museum, you can see an example of a suffragette-defaced penny from the early 1900s. It featured as object 95 in the museum’s History of the World in 100 Objects, as what’s described as a “deft act of civil disobedience and a brilliantly inventive piece of low-budget propaganda". The Women’s Library @ LSE is currently closed to the public, but you can browse their Emily Wilding Davison exhibition from the comfort of your own sofa at digital.library.lse.ac.uk/exhibitions/emily-wilding-davison-centenary.
Interested in finding out more? You can take a Suffragettes’ Walk with London Town Walks. There’s more information here: londontownwalks.com/suffragettes-walk
Do you know of any more London locations and institutions with suffragette connections? Let us know in the comments below.