29 March 2017 | 14 °C

Suffragette City: The London Of Feminism's Foot Soldiers

Suffragette City: The London Of Feminism's Foot Soldiers
Suffragette leader Charlotte Marsh poses for photographer Christina Broom (left); Mrs Pankhurst arrested and carried bodily by Superintendant Rolfe, 21 May, 1914. Photos courtesy of the Museum of London.

In our world of voter apathy, 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 colourful story that can be pursued across town.

Suffragettes' London

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.

This plaque is in Clement's Inn passage. Image from Open Plaques

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. Photo by Eirian Evans from Wikicommons

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.

From 1912, the WSPU's headquarters were at Lincoln's Inn, Kingsway

From 1912, their Headquarters were at Lincoln's Inn House, Kingsway. There’s a fantastic description of the extent of their destruction in London in Andrew Rosen’s book, Rise Up, Women!

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'."

Holloway Prison

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

You can hunt out memorials to the suffragettes in London today.

The grave of Emmeline Pankhurst is situated immediately to the north of Central Avenue, at the northern end of Brompton Cemetery. It was erected in 1928 and is a Celtic cross in red sandstone.

Emmeline Pankhurst is buried in Brompton Cemetery, above is a picture of her grave; she was also commemorated two years after her death with a statue in Victoria Tower Gardens.

Statue of Emmeline Pankhurst in Victoria Tower Gardens. Photo by Tarquin Binary from wikicommons

In the 1970s, a sculpture to the suffragette movement as a whole was erected in Christchurch Gardens near Caxton Hall.

The Suffragette Memorial located in Christchurch Gardens. By Edwin Russell, 1970. Image: author's own.

London Remembers lists more than a dozen memorials, including the Minnie Lansbury clock on Bow Road, and Christabel Pankhurst at LSE.

minnie_edit.jpg Minnie Lansbury Memorial Clock on Electric House, Bow Road. Image by Tom Bastin.
The English Heritage Plaque to Emmeline Pankhurst and Dame Christabel Pankhurst is at 50 Clarendon Road, Holland Park. Via the Open Plaques website

There's also a People's Plaque to Edith Garrud in Islington — Garrud was the formidable 4ft 11in ju jitsuing suffragette who trained her fellow campaigners in the martial art in order to avoid arrest.

Islington's People's Plaque celebrates the life of Edith Garrud.

Suffragettes in London Museums

The Museum of London holds the world's largest collection of objects related to the UK's militant suffrage.

Suffragette prisoner's silver hunger strike medal presented to Emmeline Pankhurst to commemorate her hunger strike in Holloway jail. See more here.

Highlights include Emmeline Pankhurst's silver hunger strike medal and handbills publicising demonstrations.

The WSPU Holloway Prisoners banner. The 80 pieces of linen are embroidered in purple cotton with the signatures of 80 Suffragette hunger-strikers who, by 1910, had 'faced death without flinching'. Read more here.

In addition, you can see the flag that stood behind Emily Wilding Davison's hospital bed as she lay dying; and photography depicting suffrage scenes throughout London.

In the 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".

Suffragette-defaced penny in the British Museum's Money room. (c) British Museum

The Women’s Library at LSE is another great resource if you're interested in suffragette history. You can even browse the digital version of their Emily Wilding Davison exhibition from a couple of years ago from the comfort of your own sofa.

Suffragette walks

Interested in finding out more? Take a Suffragettes' Walk with London Town Walks. Or download LSE Library's Women's Walk app for a self-guided walk taking in various London locations connected to the women's suffrage campaign.  

Know of any more London locations and institutions with suffragette connections? Let us know in the comments below.

Last Updated 23 February 2017