In 1918 the Representation of the People Act gave votes to British women for the first time. Although full gender equality in voting rights wasn’t achieved until ten years later, the act was the most significant milestone of all in the campaign for women’s suffrage. To mark this important centenary Historic England worked with professor Krista Cowman of the College of Arts at Lincoln University, a specialist in the era, to identify the buildings which witnessed the story of the struggle for women’s suffrage.
The suffragettes’ campaign was heavily bound up with the built environment
The campaign for women’s suffrage is a much wider story than that of the suffragettes, and scholarly discourse persists as to whether it was the peaceful suffragists, or the militant suffragettes, who made the greatest contribution. Because their campaign was more heavily bound up with the built environment, the project chose to focus on the activity of the suffragettes in the HerStories listing project.
A militant tendency
Emmeline Pankhurst founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in Manchester in 1903. One of a great number of suffrage organisations, it grew to become the largest and most important of those which used direct action to get its message across.
Pankhurst, along with her daughters, was an expert orator and propagandist, and ran aspects of the WSPU campaign as might a military tactician. Initially union members carried out relatively small acts of civil disobedience, such as protesting at political meetings or interrupting speeches.
1905 marks the beginning of what became known as the militant campaign. In this year, Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney went to a Liberal party election meeting at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester. They unfurled a banner reading ‘Votes for Women’ over the balcony, and demanded to know whether a Liberal government would give women the vote. A scuffle ensued and the pair were arrested. As became the union’s policy, they refused to pay a fine and so were imprisoned.
This began nine years of militant direct action by women determined to get the right to vote. As the Free Trade Hall stands on the site of the Peterloo massacre, in which protestors seeking voting reform were charged by cavalry in 1819, Pankhurst and Kenney’s arrest had huge symbolic resonance.
Our partners in Lincoln scrutinised editions of the suffrage publications Votes for Women and The Suffragette to build a picture of the places which were the setting for the events of the campaign. The project was thus able to identify those locations which could tell the story of the militant campaign, from its founding in Manchester to its migration to London, and including its methods of campaigning and propagandising, its regional growth, the varied and innovative methods of protest which it employed, and the cruel punishments the suffragettes endured. The result was a list of many hundreds of sites – far more than could be addressed in a single listing project – and so the main themes which arose were identified, and summarised in a series of web pages.
In addition amendments were made to 42 listings. The aim was to enhance the list descriptions, adding further information about the role that these sites played in the struggle for women’s suffrage.
Most were sites of protest and sabotage, acts which in themselves encompassed a broad range of activities, from the disruption of important political meetings, to open-air rallies, to protests at churches and theatres. The latter in particular provided protestors with a captive audience, and there were a number of instances of women interrupting performances to deliver their message. Reception was sometimes hostile, with women being roughly ejected. London’s Duke of York Theatre and Her Majesty’s Theatre both witnessed such events, and their descriptions have been updated to reflect this.
Militancy escalated significantly after ‘Black Friday’ (18 November 1910), during which protesting suffragettes suffered violent, and sometimes sexual, abuse from police in Parliament Square.
At a subequent WSPU meeting at the Albert Hall Pankhurst incited her members to rebellion, encouraging each woman to respond in her own way. From this late period there were numerous instances of arson, window-smashing, pillar-box attacks, and bombings.
The suffragettes were very careful to ensure that in their attacks on buildings, people were never affected. They would often target the sorts of venues that were empty at night, such as recreational buildings, churches and meeting halls. Bombing attempts included those on the spectacular Sefton Park Palm House, Liverpool; the Spinner’s Hall, Bolton; and the Smeaton Tower, Plymouth.
In 1913 two home-made incendiary devices were laid at Pinfold Manor, Surrey, which was under construction for David Lloyd George, then Chancellor of the Exchequer in Asquith’s Liberal government; only one exploded, causing damage which remains evident in the fabric of the building. Post boxes began to be attacked in 1911; the project identified two listed examples which were set on fire, and has recorded these events in their list descriptions. The full list of designated places the project identified as associated with the suffragettes – including those mentioned above – is available in the Historic England news section.
Designation and historic stories
The project captured the stories of some of the highest profile suffragettes: Emmeline Pankhurst’s historic importance as a pivotal figure in the campaign has been recognised in the upgrading of her grave in Brompton Cemetery, London, to Grade II*, for example.
Emily Wilding Davison’s reckless and fatal entry onto Epsom Racecourse, Surrey has been recorded in the list entry for the Prince’s Stand there.
Lady Constance Lytton featured in two of our amendments. Hailing from Knebworth, Hertfordshire Constance joined the WSPU in 1909 and soon set up a local branch, though her main activities took place away from her family seat. In February 1909 she was part of a ‘deputation’ of women who marched from a WSPU ‘Women’s Parliament’ meeting at Caxton Hall, London, to the Houses of Parliament to deliver their resolutions to the Government. It resulted in the first of four prison sentences: a month in Holloway.
Lytton was concerned about the treatment of women in prison, particularly the issue of forcible feeding, which was sanctioned by the Government in 1909 in reaction to the suffragette’s hunger strikes. Convinced that her own aristocratic status had brought her favourable treatment, Lytton disguised herself as a working-class seamstress and adopted the pseudonym Jane Warton. She was arrested in disguise during a protest outside Walton Gaol, Liverpool, in January 1910 and the cursory health check she was given failed to identify her heart condition. She was then force-fed eight times during her two-week sentence of ‘hard labour’. Later that year Lytton suffered a heart attack and a series of strokes, which paralysed the right side of her body; she taught herself to write with her left hand in order to complete her book Prison and Prisoners.
Her work is considered to have helped bring an end to the barbaric practice of forcible feeding and to have contributed to prison reform. The project recorded Lytton’s significant contribution to the women’s suffrage campaign in the list entries for Walton Gaol and the Lytton family Mausoleum.
Though concentrated in urban centres, the struggle for suffrage was countrywide and cut across class divides. Some of the forms of protest developed by the suffragettes were innovative, audacious and courageous; others were formulaic, repetitive and ubiquitous, while the bombings and arson attacks of the last years of the campaign were desperate and dangerous. The suffragette’s plight can be told through our stock of listed buildings, and the HerStories project has made the first steps towards representing on the list this important aspect of women’s history. There is more to be done however, and readers are invited to share suffrage stories associated with listed buildings by adding historic information, photographs and web-links via Enriching the List.
About the author
Rachel Williams Grad Dipl Cons (AA)
Listing Adviser with Historic England
Rachel has worked in the organisation and its predecessor for the last ten years, in the Western and Southern listing teams.