This is the first of three posts by BELINDA BROWN on the violent reality of the terror campaign by suffragettes, in contrast to the peaceful suffragists. Despite their activities, which only by luck avoided large-scale casualties, they are now revered as heroines.
One hundred years of propaganda about the Pankhursts and the suffragettes culminated this year in Lucy Worsley’s BBC drama-documentary Suffragettes. Following the anniversaries of the attacks in Borough High Street and the Manchester pop concert bombing, I found her wallowing in their violence rather odd.
But on the whole we live in denial about suffragette violence. Earlier this year Samantha Smethers, chief executive of the Fawcett Society, urged the Home Secretary to pardon them, telling us that suffragette ‘activism’ was a ‘noble cause’, and that ‘they made such sacrifices so that we could enjoy the rights we have today’. She added: ‘In any meaningful sense of the word, they were not criminals.’
Fortunately the historian and journalist Simon Webb has taken the trouble to plough through books and primary sources. The immensely readable Suffragette Bombers is the result.
The book encourages us to imagine how we would feel if we experienced suffragette violence in a contemporary context. How would we feel about people who burned down our library? The suffragettes didn’t just burn down or bomb libraries. County council offices, court rooms, trade centres, museums, theatres, art galleries, universities and teacher training colleges were the targets of bombing and arson. Yet they have somehow escaped the label ‘terrorist’.
An early suffragette strategy focused on putting businesses, large and small, under financial pressure. This is why they smashed shop windows. As their reign of terror progressed, this extended to burning or bombing a total of 17 industrial premises, including a lino factory, a laundry, woodyards and freight yards. Imagine the livelihoods lost and the impact on families at a time when there was no welfare state.
More seriously, Portsmouth Dockyard was burned to the ground, killing two. While the suffragettes didn’t claim it, there was sufficient evidence for the New York Times to suggest that it was probably a suffragette attack.
They had a penchant for attacking sporting premises, believing this would particularly upset men. A ticking bomb was found at Oxted Badminton and Lawn Tennis Club in Surrey. The grandstand at Ayr racecourse was destroyed by fire – one of 17 sports grandstands which were targeted. Cricket pavilions and golf courses, changing rooms and refreshment stands, bowling greens and boathouses were damaged, set on fire or bombed.
Churches were another favourite because they represented the ‘patriarchy’. St Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey were attacked as well as beloved parish churches. In all 32 churches were bombed or burned down, including one in Scotland dating back to 1100.
The suffragettes focused specifically on the ordinary citizen: ‘That private citizens should be affected is inevitable, for this is war, and in all wars it is the private citizen who suffers most,’ explained Emmeline Pankhurst.
To make ordinary people’s lives difficult, they targeted the railway network and communications via telegraph wires.
Underlying their tactics was a contempt for ordinary women and men. For example after suffragettes burnt down the tea-rooms at Kew Gardens the proprietor went to the Women’s Social and Political Union headquarters to complain on behalf of her employees who had lost their jobs. She was told that she was taking ‘too personal a view of the matter’ and that the staff would no doubt be glad that they had lent support to the women’s cause.
When Emily Davison found that fires in post boxes were going out too quickly, she turned to sulphuric acid and phosphorus. A number of postmen suffered severe lung damage or burns.
Emmeline is alleged to have said ‘no cat or canary should be killed’. She appears not to have had the same scrupulous concern for human life.
The earliest terrorist attack was at the Theatre Royal in Dublin. Petrol was scattered, fires lit and three bombs went off, all while the theatre was full. No one died but it suggests a serious willingness to risk human life. This attack was carried out by fully paid-up central organisers of the WSPU.
Many of the bombs were aimed at causing maximum destruction and it was only through sheer luck and incompetence that deaths did not result. A bomb planted outside the Bank of England would, if it had not been defused by a policeman, gone off in a busy commercial area mid-afternoon. A bomb at Lime Street station, Liverpool, was packed with nuts and bolts to maximise harm. A bomb containing 24 cartridges of gunpowder was placed in the toilets of a theatre to go off during a matinee performance. The congregation at St John’s, Smith Square, had to put out a bomb containing 5½lb of gunpowder. Another bomb was lobbed into a full Territorial Army barracks.
Suffragettes burned down a great many houses and mansions (96 if you include the hotels). If you were a prominent member of society who had spoken out against the suffragettes your house was particularly liable to be attacked. The fact that such houses often had domestic staff living in them, who were on occasion nearly trapped by the fires, did not cause the perpetrators concern.
There were assassination attempts. Prime Minister Herbert Asquith had a hatchet thrown at him when he was visiting Dublin. It missed but sliced the cheek and ear of John Redmond, leader of the Irish Nationalists. Potentially lethal letter bombs were sent to Lloyd George and Henry Curtis Bennett, the chief magistrate at Bow Street. When this was unsuccessful two suffragettes attempted to throw Curtis Bennett off a cliff at Margate.
The suffragette projects became increasingly sophisticated. One involved planting a large bomb at Windleden reservoir near Barnsley. Had they been successful the whole valley would have been flooded with consequent loss of life and livelihood. They also planted two bombs underneath the Loch Katrine Aqueduct which supplied half of Glasgow with water. Luckily the lit fuses burned out before detonation on both bombs, perhaps due to the bad weather.
As a result of their reign of terror the suffragettes were, unsurprisingly, loathed by the general public. Their membership massively declined and they were reduced to a small rump group of much-hated hard core activists.
Tomorrow we will explore their transformation into today’s national treasures.
Information comes from The Suffragette Bombers; Britain’s Forgotten Terrorists by Simon Webb