Having had occasion recently to study this photograph, I felt compelled to attempt to deconstruct its meaning. Why should a young woman, chained to a row of railings, be photographed in an otherwise empty street?
I know, of course, that suffragettes, chains, and railings are a well-known trope – although that ploy was actually rarely used during the Edwardian suffragette campaign. But why was this woman photographed in this particular place? If she was actively protesting one might expect her to be surrounded by policemen or, at the least, crowds of onlookers.
I believe that this is, in fact, a staged event, re-enacting an earlier chaining that took place when there was no photographer to capture the scene. An artist did, however, reconstruct the protest.
Some time ago someone – and I can’t remember who – mentioned to me that they thought the woman was Helen Fox, a member of the Women’s Freedom League, who, with the intrepid Muriel Matters, chained herself to the grille in the Ladies’ Gallery in the House of Commons on 28 October 1908. You can read about the incident here.
Moreover, my informant suggested that the photograph may have been taken very close to the Women’s Freedom League office at 1 Robert Street, just south of the Strand. I had a hazy memory that the person who might have told me this was Naomi Paxton, whose research centres on the Actresses’ Franchise League, which had its office at 2 Robert Street. When I put my query to Naomi she replied that she doubted that she was the source of my information but most kindly suggested that, as she was working in the Strand, she’d take a detour to Robert Street. And this is the result.
I think that there is no doubt that it was at this street corner that Helen Fox stood in order to have her photograph taken. Photographs, interior shots, also exist of her sitting with the chains wrapped round her waist; presumably the purpose of this street photograph was to demonstrate more clearly what could be done with a length of chain and a padlock. As well as, by association, immortalising Helen Fox’s action in the House of Commons. I imagine that, as the site was adjacent to their office, the Women’s Freedom League had arranged for this photograph to be taken as fuel for their propaganda campaign.