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‘Prayers for Prisoners’ and church protests

The suffragettes were known as ‘militant’ campaigners. They started by taking action through civil disobedience. Later they turned to criminal damage. However, Emmeline Pankhurst, the WSPU’s leader, was adamant that no woman should participate in activities with which she felt uncomfortable. She famously urged her members to ‘be militant, each in your own way.’ The Union called for diverse types of militancy. New types of peaceful protest were constantly developed, even as violent militancy escalated.

Prayers for prisoners

In August 1913, suffragettes started a ‘prayers for prisoners’ initiative.

Women attending church services in small groups, waited for moments during the service when the congregation would be silent. In the silence they would stand up and offer loud prayers for suffragette prisoners, mentioned by name.

‘Prayers for prisoners’ protests continued over the next year at a number of important Anglican churches including York Minster (Grade I) and St Paul’s Cathedral (Grade I). At Westminster Abbey (Grade I), services were interrupted several times in 1913 and 1914.

In one of the last ever militant protests a woman chained herself to her chair when the Archbishop of Canterbury was preaching. Both she and the chair were carried out by vergers.

Black and white photograph of Westminster Abbey, London
Westminster Abbey, London, the site of a number of militant protests by suffragettes © Historic England Archive

They also targeted smaller parish churches and some catholic and non-conformist places of worship as well. They often provoked violent responses. After suffragettes were ejected from the Lady Chapel of the new Liverpool Cathedral (Grade I listed) in January 1914, churchwardens considered barring women. Vergers carried women out of St Paul’s cathedral in October 1913.

Attacks on churches

During their most militant period, WSPU members attacked church buildings in other ways. The Union emphasized that its campaign was against property, not people, and took care to target empty buildings. This, and the importance of churches to communities at that time made them key targets.

St Anne’s Church, Aigburth (listed  Grade II*), is a typical example of an arson attack on a local church. Suffragettes set fire to the building at night. The pulpit and choir stalls were destroyed, and the new organ seriously damaged.

At Westminster Abbey, suffragettes placed a bomb under the coronation chair in St Edward the Confessor’s Chapel. It exploded, damaging the chair.

Photograph of the Coronation Chair, St Edward the Confessor’s Chapel, Westminster Abbey, London,
The Coronation Chair, St Edward the Confessor’s Chapel, Westminster Abbey, London, the target of a suffragette bomb in 1914 © Historic England Archive
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