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March of the women: photographing the suffragettes

The campaign to win British women the right to vote was a long and hard-fought one, waged on the street as much as in Parliament. Mass demonstrations and political marches demonstrated the passion, unity and numbers of the female suffrage campaign. Many of these were captured by Christina Broom, pioneering female photographer.

Diane Atkinson

Author, The Suffragettesin Pictures

14 December 2017

2018 marks the centenary of the 1918 Representation of the People Act, which first gave British women the right to vote. As part of our Vote 100 celebrations, we'll be publishing articles on the struggle for female suffrage and holding events at the Museum of London throughout the year.

Pioneering press photographer Christina Broom.

Christina Broom, Britain's first female press photographer c. 1910

This picture was taken by Broom's daughter Winifred.

Christina Broom took some of the best photographs of the brave women who campaigned for the vote in London in the years up to the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. One of the earliest of these images in the Museum of London’s collection is of the Suffragettes, members of the militant Women’s Social and Political Union, at their ‘monster’ meeting in Hyde Park on ‘Women’s Sunday’, 21 June 1908. Her last suffrage photograph captures the arrival of the Cumberland suffragists, members of the moderate National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, ‘Women’s Pilgrimage’ to the capital on 26 July 1913.

When Christina Broom worked at ‘Women’s Sunday’ in 1908 she was 46 years old and living at 38 Burnfoot Avenue in Fulham with her husband Albert Edward Broom and their only child, 18-year-old Winifred Margaret, known as Winnie. Due to a sporting injury in 1903, Albert Broom was unable to work, and Christina converted an interest into photography into a business. She borrowed a box camera and taught herself to be a commercial photographer, and came to earn a good living at this happy moment, now known as the 'golden age of the postcard'.

In 1908, hundreds of women were frequently and noisily taking to the streets of the capital, claiming public spaces everywhere to demand the vote. Often within easy travelling distance of the Brooms, the Suffragettes and suffragists were irresistible and photogenic subjects.

Suffragettes in Hyde Park on Women's Sunday, 21 June 1908 Broom's ability to seize everyone's attention in the crowd at platform 6 secured a photograph that successfully captured the eagerness of those attending the rally. The woman wearing the mortarboard is Irish Suffragette Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington. The officer€™ beside her is wearing a €˜Banner Captain's€™ sash, reflecting the level of organisation that was key to the success of the event that involved 700 banners.

Suffragettes in Hyde Park on Women's Sunday, 1908

Christina Broom's picture captures the eagerness of attendees to the Suffragette "Monster Rally".

A Suffragette speaker in Hyde Park, Women's Sunday, 21st June 1908. Women's Sunday was the first 'monster' meeting to be organised by the militant Women's Social and Political Union. Specially chartered trains transported thousands of Suffragettes from all over Britain to march in seven processions through central London to a rally in Hyde Park. The highly choreographed demonstration attracted a crowd of up to 300,000 drawn by the colourful spectacle of the delegates dressed in the suffragette tricolour and carrying over seven hundred embroidered banners. ‘Never’, reported the Daily Chronicle, has so vast a throng gathered in London to witness a parade of political forces’.

Suffragette speaker, Womens Sunday, 21 June 1908

Suffragettes from across Britain marched in seven processions through London to a rally in Hyde Park. The highly choreographed demonstration attracted a crowd of up to 300,000 drawn by the colourful spectacle of the delegates dressed in the suffragette tricolour, carrying over seven hundred embroidered banners.

At the 'Women's Sunday' meeting in Hyde Park, Christina Broom, who was less than five feet tall, managed to manoeuvre a tripod and a heavy half-plate box camera through the packed Hyde Park into a good position within two or three feet of platform 6 – one of 20 – and captured the earnest camaraderie of the speakers and their supporters.

Mrs Broom’s picture shows about 30 women, hugger-mugger with each other, and two youthful-looking constables completely surrounded by a sea of smiling Suffragette faces. This was the day the Suffragette colour scheme of purple, white and green, symbolizing dignity, purity and hope, was launched. Above the pyramid of women, three tricolor flags flutter in the breeze, and a chubby policeman peeps into the edge of the shot, keen to be included. Above the face of every woman is a hat – mortar-boards as worn by the university women, or heavily decorated galleon-sized structures with ribbons, feathers and artificial flowers, some also with veils.

The Daily Mail purred:

I am sure a great many people never realized how young and dainty and elegant and charming most of the leaders of the movement are. And how well they spoke – with what free and graceful gesture; never at a loss for a word or an apt reply to an interruption; calm and collected; forcible, yet so far as I heard, not violent; earnest, but happily humorous as well.
Suffragettes prepare to march in a procession to promote the Women's Exhibition, May 1909.

Suffragettes in a procession to promote the Women's Exhibition, 1909

Christina Broom.

A poster advertising the weekly suffragette newspaper Votes for Women. The poster was designed by the suffragette artist Hilda Dallas (1878-1958) and is printed in the suffragette colours of purple, white and green. Here a suffragette is depicted as a feminine, womanly woman. This and similar representations were used by the Women's Social Political Union to attract more women supporters and to counter the views of critics who argued suffragettes had abandoned their traditional feminine roles. At the height of the campaign 40,000 copies of the newspaper were sold each week. Until 1912 Votes for Women was the 'official paper' of the Women's Social and Political Union.

A poster advertising the weekly suffragette newspaper Votes for Women, 1909

At the height of the campaign 40,000 copies of the newspaper were sold each week. ID no. 50.82/1110

In this procession image, Christina and Winnie Broom get in among these Suffragettes who are advertising the 'Women's Exhibition' held in May 1909, and whose extraordinary hats jostle for air rights, loaded up with feathers and flowers and frippery. Diaphanous motor veils hold hats in place, anchored with extravagant bows. Christina Broom is drawn to the costumes rather than the politics behind the gathering. The colour is lost in black and white: purple, white and green brightened up those days in May when these women took to the streets.

The two-week fund-raising exhibition which is being advertised on their banners was held between 13 and 26 May at the Prince's Skating Rink in Knightsbridge.

Unusually, Mrs Pankhurst is not centre stage in this shot of the Sweet Stall at the Women's Exhibition. Mrs McDonald and her daughter Flo, Mrs Thomson and Miss Leggatt are the stallholder behind the battery of sweet confectionery donated by Suffragette supporters from all over the country. The home-made sweets included 'chocolates, butterscotch and toffee and creams', and American fudge and candies donated by American Suffragettes. The exhibition raised £5,664 (approximately £600,000 today) for the 'War Chest' campaign fund, of which the sweet stall's contribution was just over £109 (now £10,000).

On 23 July 1910, Christina Broom and her daughter Winnie were among a huge throng of Suffragettes arriving in Hyde Park, who lobbied peacefully for the Conciliation Bill which the WPSU hoped would grant women the vote when debated in the House of Commons in the autumn. Several thousand Suffragettes, and members of a dozen other women's suffrage organisations, walked through London to Hyde Park carrying hundreds of banners, in step to the sound of rousing brass band music, to hear speeches by 150 well-known suffrage and feminist campaigners at 40 platforms.

Suffragette march in Hyde Park 23rd July 1910. Suffragettes included in the photograph are Emily Wilding Davison, Dame Christabel Pankhurst, Sylvia Pankhurst and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence. Over forty thousand people gathered in the park to hear Mrs. Pankhurst speak.

Suffragette March in Hyde Park, 23 July 1910

By Christina Broom. From left to right, Emmeline Pethwick-Lawrence, Sylvia Pankhurst and Emily Wilding Davison.

The Brooms set up their camera and tripod looking at three leading members of the WSPU. Standing on the left is Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, the treasurer and co-editor of the weekly newspaper Votes for Women, who was due to speak at platform 3. Next to her is Sylvia Pankhurst, who created the visual identity of the Suffragette movement, a speaker at platform 27 and an ardent campaigner, holding a portcullis (representing Parliament) with five arrow-shaped prongs (representing imprisonment). Beside Sylvia is Emily Wiling Davison, heading towards platform 30 in her academic robes; she was an ex-governess and career militant Suffragette. The presence of Davison is exciting: despite her dedicated engagement in every kind of militant protest, there are few pictures of her. In 1913 the notorious Miss Davison's life came to an abrupt end: her deathly dash was captured by a newsreel cameraman at the Derby and flashed onto cinema screens around the world, guaranteeing her the fame she craved as 'the Suffragette who threw herself under the King's horse' on 4 June 1931. She died of her head injuries four days later at the age of 40.

The Evening Standard's reporter at the Hyde Park Rally was impressed:

Saturday's demonstration was something more than a mere parade of women. From early morning crowds of women arrived from all parts of the kingdom, and were at once conspicuous by their dresses and their hats, which combined the colours of the suffragist movement, green, purple and white... The scene was a remarkable one. Probably no fewer than a quarter of a million people were assembled round forty platforms that had been erected.

It is not clear why Broom stopped photographing the women's suffrage movement in the summer of 1913. Perhaps her other work became more popular and made more money. Perhaps the escalating militancy of the WPSU was the reason for the Brooms to end this particular line of work. Between the summers of 1913 and 1914 newspapers rand stories of broken windows, arson attacks on empty houses and churches, railways stations and sporting facilities, and axe attacks on works of art and museum displays. The days of beautifully dressed, photogenic women processing peacefully through the streets of London carrying artistic banners - Broom's staple - were over.

This is an excerpt from Soldiers and Suffragettes: the Photography of Christina Broom.

Dr. Diane Atkinson is the author of The Suffragettes in Pictures and the forthcoming Rise Up, Women! The Remarkable Lives of the Suffragettes, released by Bloomsbury Publishing on 8 February 2018.

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