In 2018 we teamed up with researchers at Lincoln University to research the sites that witnessed the struggle for suffrage. One of our surprising discoveries was how much activists of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) used outdoor spaces for public meetings.
The WSPU set up its national headquarters in London in 1905. It then began to organise large, high-profile meetings in famous venues across the country.
The Albert Hall in London (listed Grade I), the Free Trade Hall in Manchester (listed Grade II*) and Colston Hall in Bristol (listed Grade II) were among the places used for its large rallies. These events helped to raise the Union’s profile and attract new recruits. They were reserved for the Union’s best-known speakers: Emmeline Pankhurst, its founder; Christabel Pankhurst her daughter and the Union’s main strategist; and Emmeline Pethick Lawrence, the treasurer.
However, most WSPU public meetings took place outdoors. These venues had the advantage of being free. Places which offered a natural podium were sometimes already popular sites for public meetings and often attracted reasonable crowds. The WSPU held meetings at various times at the Wellington Column in Liverpool (listed Grade II*), Richard Cobden’s statue on Camden High Street (listed Grade II), Stevenson Square in Manchester and the Town Hall Square, Bolton.
Public parks were also popular. Hampstead Heath and Wimbledon Common saw regular meetings throughout the Union’s campaign. Members would always offer copies of its newspaper Votes for Women and ‘The Suffragette’ for sale and so could raise small amounts for a local branch.
Other places appear to have been chosen to raise the Union’s public profile. Markets were popular. Meetings were held regularly at Penzance Cattle Market, the Bigg Market, Newcastle, and Birmingham’s Bull Ring. Tube station entrances were popular too, as were shopping areas.
Open-air campaigns were more common in the summer. It was easier to persuade people to stand and listen to a speaker in fine weather.
Some branches of the WSPU held holiday campaigns. Suffragettes planning a holiday were encouraged to spend at least part of it campaigning. They held meetings for tourists at popular Edwardian destinations like Bournemouth, Torquay, and the Lake District.