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Celebrating Suffragette courage on London history day

31 May is London History Day, and we're celebrating the theme of courage: the courage of the Suffragettes. These pioneers, who fought for Votes for Women a century ago, faced derision, abuse, imprisonment and even death. Curator Beverley Cook highlights four courageous women and the perils they faced.

Beverley Cook

Curator, Votes for Women

31 May 2018

Everyday abuse

The Suffragette Mary Phillips selling the Votes for Women weekly newspaper, October 1907. If the dating on the front of the image is correct Mary is depicted selling the first edition of Votes for Women, first published on 16th October 1907. Originally a monthly publication the newspaper was published weekly from April 1908 in a larger format. Until 1912 'Votes for Women' was the 'official paper' of the Women's Social and Political Union.

The Suffragette Mary Phillips, selling the Votes for Women newspaper

If the dating on the front of the image is correct Mary is depicted selling the first edition of Votes for Women, first published on 16th October 1907.

To be an ordinary member of the campaign for Votes for Women required personal courage. By taking their campaign to the streets the Women’s Social and Political Union attracted maximum publicity for their cause but also placed their supporters in vulnerable situations. Regular day to day campaign activities - such as selling Suffragette newspapers on street corners, delivering speeches in public spaces, and chalking pavements to announce meetings - were often undertaken by lone women, who experienced verbal and, at times, physical abuse from passers-by. Campaigning Suffragettes had to stand in the gutter, as the police would arrest them for blocking the pavement if given any excuse.

Police surveillance

Photograph depicting the reading of an arrest warrant to the Suffragette leaders for conduct likely to provoke a breach of the peace. The warrant, issued on 12th October 1908 followed a speech made by the three leaders Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst and Flora Drummond at a rally in Trafalgar Square the day before where they called for the audience to 'rush' the House of Commons. Arrested at WSPU Headquarters in the evening after the courts had closed the Suffragette leaders were detained overnight in the police cells their stay made more comfortable by a sympathetic MP who arranged for the Savoy Hotel to send in a table laid with silver and a feast served by three waiters. Found guilty at their subsequent trial the three leaders were sentenced to three months imprisonment in Holloway Gaol. Despite their arrest the 'rushing' of the Commons went ahead on October 13th without the leaders.

Search warrant being read to the Suffragette leaders, 1908

Photograph depicting the reading of an arrest warrant to the Suffragette leaders for conduct likely to provoke a breach of the peace.

WSPU headquarters raided by London police.

Daily Herald report on the Raid on WSPU Headquarters 1913

Includes three images showing papers being removed from WSPU headquarters at Lincolns Inn.

As Suffragette militancy increased, senior figures in the Women’s Social and Political Union came under increasing surveillance by the police.

Undercover police from the Criminal Investigation Department attended Suffragette meetings, notebook in hand, to record any speeches that could be seen to ‘incite violence.’ These notes were often presented as evidence in conspiracy trials.

Incriminating documents and pamphlets were also seized during police raids of WSPU headquarters.

Suffragettes being secretly photographed in Holloway prison yard.

Group of suffragettes taking exercise in the yard of Holloway gaol

The prisoners are identified on the reverse of the photo from left to right as Margaret Scott, Jane Short (the alias used by Rachel Peace) May [Margaret] McFarlane and Olive Hockin.

Surveillance photograph of Suffragette prisoners taking exercise in the yard of Holloway Prison. Taken by an undercover photographer working for the Home office.

Surveillance photograph of Suffragette prisoners taking exercise in the yard of Holloway Prison

Taken by an undercover photographer working for the Home office.

The most notorious form of surveillance was the undercover photography of Suffragettes, both in public spaces and in prison. From 1913 a photographer, sitting in a van parked in the yard of Holloway prison, undertook covert images of the most hardened and extreme ‘career’ militants who'd been arrested for criminal damage, arson and bombing.

The images were compiled into photographic lists of key suspects, used to try and identify and arrest Suffragettes before they could commit militant acts. This police surveillance was made more challenging because many of the woman used aliases when arrested, giving false names to the police.

As well as being used by the police, the images were also issued to public organisations at risk of Suffragette attack, such as museums and art galleries. Posted in the entrance of public buildings, any woman attempting to enter was compared to the images to prevent a potential incident.

The Museum of London holds over 60 surveillance images of Suffragettes, identified by their grainy quality.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the images is that, in many cases, they depict Suffragettes on hunger-strike, the debilitating effects of which are clearly visible.

The militant careers of these hardcore Suffragettes represent the courage and tenacity of the women, but also reveals why the tactics of ‘direct action’ continue to inspire, shock and divide opinion.

"Death without flinching": hunger strike

Emmeline Pankhurst with Nurse Pine on her release from prison and hunger strike. On 3rd April 1913 Emmeline Pankhurst was sentenced to three years penal servitude for incitement to place an explosive in a building at Walton, Surrey.

Emmeline Pankhurst recovering from hunger strike, 1913

Emmeline Pankhurst with Nurse Pine on her release from prison and hunger strike.

The Suffragette prisoners’ hunger strike protest remains one of the most poignant and disturbing aspects of the struggle for the vote. Suffragettes refused to eat and often drink while imprisoned, threatening to starve themselves to force a response from the authorities.

The Suffragette Marion Wallace Dunlop, posing before a reconstruction of the stencilled message she stamped in printer's violet ink on the wall of St Stephens Hall in the House of Commons, June 22nd 1909.

Marion Wallace Dunlop, 1909

The first Suffragette to go on hunger strike

This ultimate form of prison protest did not, however, originate from WSPU headquarters but rather was initially the lone action of the Suffragette, Marion Wallace Dunlop. In 1909 Marion was sent to Holloway on a charge of wilfully and maliciously damaging the stonework of the House of Commons.

Classified as a second division criminal prisoner she went on hunger strike in protest against not being placed in the first division as a political prisoner.

At first, fasting prisoners were released once their health began to suffer. Very soon, however, the authorities decided to introduce force-feeding. This process was agonising and humiliating for the women subjected to it.

Marion Wallace Dunlop was incarcerated in Holloway Prison for defacing St Stephen's Chapel. In June 1909 she started a hunger strike to protest being refused political prisoner status. Other suffragette prisoners quickly took up the strike. By December one hundred and ten suffragettes were refusing food. To break the strikes, the government insisted all prisoners be forcibly fed. The Women's Social and Political Union published this poster to attack the government during the 1910 General Election.

The Modern Inquisition: c.1910

Poster highlighting force-feeding methods issued by the WSPU

The WSPU issued graphic illustrations and descriptions of women struggling and being restrained whilst a tube was forced down their throat or up their nose. These shocking revelations caused considerable public concern at such brutal treatment by the authorities on vulnerable women.

Following Marion’s lead, other Suffragette prisoners quickly adopted the hunger-strike.

Grace Marcon

A surveillance photograph of the suffragette prisoner Frieda Graham. The Home Office commissioned the undercover photography of militant suffragettes from 1913. This surveillance photo of the suffragette prisoner Frieda Graham was taken as she exercised in the yard of Holloway Gaol. Such photos were used to identify militant suffragettes attempting to enter public buildings such as museums or art galleries. Frieda was imprisoned several times for militant activity. In May 1914 she received a six-month sentence for damaging five paintings at the National Gallery, but was released on 5 June after hunger striking and being force-fed.

Grace Marcon, 1913

Surveillnace photograph marked with her alias, Frieda Graham.

Grace was the daughter of Canon Marcon of Norwich. In August 1913 she was arrested and charged with obstruction during a scuffle in Whitehall between the police and a group of Suffragettes. This was led by Sylvia Pankhurst, following a demonstration organised by the Free Speech Defence Committee. Although found guilty, Grace did not receive a custodial sentence and was 'bound over' to keep the peace.

Rearrested in October, on a charge of obstruction and assault, Grace did on this occasion receive a sentence of two months in Holloway.

In May 1914, using the alias Frieda Graham, Grace was arrested for damaging five paintings at the National Gallery, including Giovanni Bellini's The Agony in The Garden and Gentile Bellini's Portrait of a Mathematician. Found guilty at trial, she was sentenced to six months' imprisonment.

Released on 5 June, delirious from her hunger strike, she cut off the long hair seen in her surveillance photograph.

Born Katherina Maria Schafer in Germany, Kitty came to England in 1886 at the age of 15 and soon started touring the country in variety theatre. From 1908, when she became a member of the Women’s Social and Political Union and the Actresses' Franchise League, Kitty combined her life as a militant with that of her music hall career as a 'vocal comedienne.'

Kitty was arrested multiple times for militancy, the first in June 1909 for taking part in the WSPU deputation to the House of Commons. She was also sentenced to five terms of imprisonment, her first in October 1909 when she and Dorothy Pethick were sent to prison for throwing a stone at a post office window in Newcastle.

Whilst in prison, Kitty went on hunger strike, was forcibly fed and set fire to her cell. On her release in December she went on to perform in the Christmas pantomime season.

The Suffragette Kitty Marion arrested for heckling David Lloyd George to the Royal National Eisteddfod, Wrexham, Wales, Thursday September 5th 1912. Kitty Marion gained admission to the meeting with the sole aim of heckling Lloyd George. As a result of her action Marion was set upon by the crowd and 'received blows and abuse from every side, my hat being torn off and hair pulled down', as depicted in the image. During her subsequent imprisonment Marion complained in a letter to a fellow prisoner that her beautiful auburn hair was 'falling out dreadfully here' (in prison). Whilst she believed this was as a result of her treatment by the hostile 'mob' in Wrexham it is more likely the poor condition of her hair was due to her prison hunger-strike.

Kitty Marion arrested at the National Eisteddfod of Wales in 1912

She had heckled Lloyd George.

Stands at Hurst Park Racecourse burned down by the Suffragette Kitty Marion, 9 June 1913. Recreation grounds were a common target for suffragette arsonists. Such attacks, usually carried out at night, achieved maximum publicity without threatening lives.

Stands at Hurst Park Racecourse burned by suffragettes

Such attacks, usually carried out at night, achieved maximum publicity without threatening lives.

In March 1912 Kitty took part in the window smashing campaign, using a hammer to smash windows on Regent Street. Because Holloway prison was full, she served a 6 month sentence at Winson Green prison in Birmingham.

In 1913, Kitty and Clare Giveen were found guilty of causing a fire which destroyed the grandstand at Hurst Park racecourse. The fire, which was one of several that Kitty claimed to be involved with, caused over £7000 worth of damage.

It is also assumed Kitty was responsible for the arson attack on the house of Arthur du Cros, the MP for St. Leonard’s in Sussex, as well as other arson attacks in 1913 and 1914.

Olive Wharry

In December 1911 Olive was arrested for taking part in the WSPU window smashing campaign, and sentenced to two months imprisonment for breaking a window at the offices of the Law Land Company. At her trial she declared that she had never broken the law before, but considered it the duty of every 'self-respecting' woman to take part in the protests.

In March 1913, Olive was charged with setting fire to the tea pavilion in Kew Gardens. On arrest she used the alias Joyce Locke. Found guilty of arson, Olive was sentenced to 18 months in the second division, for criminal prisoners.

Imprisoned in Holloway, Olive immediately went on hunger-strike and was released after 32 days under the terms of the Cat & Mouse act weighing just over 5½ stone (36kg). Like many hundreds of Suffragettes, Olive courageously risked her health and life to protest the disenfranchisement of women.