Playground Protesters! Raising the profile of the Suffrage Movement in Manchester

Finalist for the Best Contribution to a Heritage Project by Young People at the Historic England Angel Awards 2018.

One hundred years after England celebrated the Representation of the People Act of 6 February 1918, the cry of "Votes for Women" rang out in Platt Fields park, Manchester. The eye-catching procession of schoolchildren dressed in turn-of-the-century outfits and waving flags, was just one of the highlights of a project that invited children from 10 Heritage Schools in the area to remember the suffrage movement and its impact on their city – not to mention experience some of the passion and determination that underpinned it.

Passionate cause

Manchester played a unique role in the movement that achieved the first vote for women a century ago. The city is widely recognised as the home of the Pankhurst family who led others in the struggle but perhaps less widely as the centre of many working class women's groups that were precursors to the nationwide campaign.

The Playground Protesters project helped to highlight the important role of Manchester in the campaign for the vote, including the lives of some of the early feminists who sowed the seeds of political activism.

To celebrate the centenary, pupils from 10 local schools researched the people and places in Manchester that were pivotal to the suffragists and explored creative ways to share their findings with others.

All the schools are part of the Heritage Schools programme, which recognises the importance of school pupils' contribution to projects that recognise the significance of local history. To prepare, teachers attended workshops and were given special access to archive materials to develop their own knowledge of the suffrage movement.

Guided by Angela Rawcliffe at the Manchester Libraries Local Studies Centre Archive and other partners, such as the Pankhurst Centre, the primary and secondary schoolchildren taking part in Playground Protesters developed their own projects that focused on individual figures such as suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst and councillor Margaret Ashton, and explored wider issues affecting women's lives in Manchester a century ago.

At that time the suffragettes made rosettes and banners by hand to demonstrate women’s capacity and creativity. The Playground Protesters project invited participants to emulate them by creating their own colourful banners and posters exploring key personalities and historic sites. Some of the artwork formed part of an exhibition at Manchester Central Library from May to June. The children also wrote and delivered speeches.

Why this category?

The Playground Protesters project showed children why the suffrage movement is still relevant by encouraging them to put themselves in the places of those who fought for a right that is taken for granted today.

It also ignited their passion for the local heritage and encouraged their research skills as they dug deep into library and archive materials on some less well-known aspects of political and social history of Manchester. The project also stimulated their creativity as the children looked for innovative ways to express their findings to a wider audience.

“Deeds not words” was one of the messages that featured on posters carried aloft by schoolchildren who recreated a march for suffrage in Platt Fields park. But the message might easily have applied to the pupils from Heald Place, St James’s and Claremont Primary School themselves as they donned Edwardian-style clothing, carried banners in the signature purple, white and green of the suffragettes and delivered speeches, to the surprise of passers-by.

The project also caught the attention of local media, including Granada Television, which broadcast a short report on the march in Platt Fields, helping to maintain the spotlight on Manchester during wider centenary celebrations.

But the children also understood the more serious point of their performance in the park, said Elaine De Fries of the Pankhurst Centre, who went along with them in character as Emmeline Pankhurst. “The children are really interested. They totally believe that women should be equal,” she said. “They’ve learnt about their heritage in Manchester and the history of the vote. I think it’s been an amazing way to teach history and to talk about female empowerment.”

The march was filmed and broadcast by Granada television.

“The children are really interested. They totally believe that women should be equal. They’ve learnt about their heritage in Manchester and the history of the vote. I think it’s been an amazing way to teach history and to talk about female empowerment,” said Elaine De Fries of Pankhurst Centre, who joined them on the march as Emmeline Pankhurst.

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