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WSPU Branches, Regional Headquarters and Shops

The new forms of direct action used by suffragettes caught the public imagination. Women across the country were inspired to set up new branches of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). By early 1906 there were several groups in the North West of England, in addition to the original Manchester branch. More branches emerged after the Union established a base in London where its leaders could be closer to the centres of political power.

Local branches

The Union’s new recruits in London included the wealthy socialist couple, Emmeline and Frederick Pethick Lawrence. Emmeline became the Union’s treasurer. She opened office headquarters at Clement’s Inn, Holborn in October 1906, and set about putting its national campaign on a more organised basis.

Some paid workers, known as ‘organisers’, were sent out in a summer campaign that year. Their efforts paid off with new branches opening in locations across England, including Cheltenham, Portsmouth and Sheffield. Some of the regional branches petered out after a couple of years. Others remained active until the militant campaign was suspended at the start of the First World War.

The Union’s network of branches in England extended from Cornwall to Northumberland and from Lancashire to Lincolnshire. There were also branches across London.

Regional HQs

The WSPU’s campaign progressed and many of its local branches collaborated to open their own regional headquarters. A small number, such as Manchester, rented offices which doubled as meeting rooms. In1908 shop premises began to be used. Chelsea WSPU took a short-term let on a shop at 400 King’s Road to publicize the Union’s huge ‘Women’s Sunday’ procession in Hyde Park.

Shops

The use of shops increased. In August  1908 Annie Kenney, the WSPU’s organiser based in Bristol, opened a shop at 37 Queen’s Road, Clifton, open daily from 10am to 7pm. Others opened in Liverpool, Leicester, Newcastle and Bath.

Photograph of Annie Kenney, The WSPU Bristol branch organiser and active militant protestor, in prison uniform.
Annie Kenney, The WSPU Bristol branch organiser and active militant protestor, here photographed in prison uniform. Via LSE Library

Shops provided a more permanent public presence, in addition to supporting short-term campaigns. They opened up in prime locations, where shop windows served as advertising space.

As well as campaign literature, shops sold other items. There was a range of fancy goods, such as handkerchiefs, badges and motoring scarves in the WSPU colours. They also sold jams, cakes and preserves made by members.

Photograph of a box of ‘Votes for Women’-branded hooks and eyes
'Votes for Women’-branded hooks and eyes © Via Elizabeth Crawford

Most shops had rooms behind or above which could host the weekly branch meetings and smaller public meetings, saving money on hall hire.

The prominence of WSPU shops kept the Union’s campaign in the public eye. However, they sometimes drew attacks from people opposed to the Union’s methods. The shops in Newcastle and Bristol had their windows broken by local youths following suffragette window-smashing raids in London.

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