This post is based on a talk I gave – under the title ‘Shooting Suffrage’- at the Women’s Library on 13 October 2005 – the hundredth anniversary of the first militant act carried out by suffragettes. Now that suffragettes are once more on the big screen – with the general release this week of ‘Suffragette’ – I thought it might be timely to reprise my research on the films that suffrage activists themselves would have seen.
‘It is 100 years to the day since Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney heckled Sir Edward Grey in the Free Trade Hall in Manchester and were arrested and sentenced to a week’s imprisonment. It is remarkably appropriate that this new stage in the suffrage campaign– a campaign that had already been running for nearly 40 years – should be commemorated by a discussion of the part played by film in its development. We shall see how the new methods that the WSPU brought to the campaign were peculiarly suited to the camera – both moving and still.
We can divide films associated with the suffrage campaign into two types -newsreel/actuality films and feature films. I’ll begin by looking at the actuality films and by way of introduction let’s look at the earliest surviving suffrage newsreel film. It was shot in Newcastle, on the occasion of a visit to the city by Lloyd George on 8 October 1909, a year that saw the beginning of a cinema boom. By the end of the year Britain had between 600 and 1000 cinemas; by 1914 the number was closer to 4500. The newsreel, of which this film would have been one item amongst several, formed part of the cinema programme – usually a prelude to the feature film. Newsreels showed for 3 or 4 days at each cinema and each reel would then circulate for several weeks. ‘News’ was, thus, not hot news – for that there were newspapers. And newsreel was limited to the peculiarity of the medium. It could never be just a filmed version of a newspaper story; it had to have its own filmically interesting subject.
You can view many- but by no means all – of the incidents – from the suffragette campaign here – as presented by Pathé in a compilation. Alas, the company did not attempt to put their films in chronological order – a test for all of you interested in the suffragette campaign. To help you out, when I’ve used them in this piece I’ve given a rough timing on the video as reference. But for most of the films I have linked in to the BFIPlayer which allows us to view a wide range of ‘suffrage silents’.
Obviously the ability to show movement was the most significant advantage that the cinematograph had over the still photograph – thus parades were made for newsreel – encapsulating news, spectacle and movement.
In the Newcastle film we can see that the procession includes not only women who supported the militant WSPU, seen wearing their ‘Votes for Women’ sashes, – even one man is prepared to proclaim his support – but also many members of the NUWSS societies –who are carrying banners from, for instance, Darlington, Gateshead and Tyneside.. This is a visual record of the fact that at this stage of the campaign both suffragettes and suffragists were prepared to make common cause in their peaceful demonstrations.
This film was produced by the Warwick Trading Company, which had been founded at the very end of the 19th century by Charles Urban, an American who came to England and concentrated on making reality films. The company’s offices were in Warwick Court, Chancery Lane (close to the WSPU offices in Clements Inn) and its cameramen travelled all around the country.
Two years before the shooting of the Newcastle film Charles Urban had produced his manifesto, The Cinematograph in Science, Education, and Matters of State. In this he wrote of the importance of cinematograph film in the study of history, noting that ‘affairs of state, royal movements, naval and military demonstrations .. are all depicted as they are actually seen by the accurate and truthful eye of the camera, and the day has arrived when motion pictures of current events should be treasured as vital documents among the historical archives of our museums. Animated pictures of almost daily happenings, which possess no more than a passing interest now, will rank as matters of national importance to future students, and it behoves our public authorities.. to see that the institutions under their control become possessed of these important moving records of present events. Books, pamphlets, prints, and the like, are perforce kept for reference, but films depicting important movements with a detail verbally impossible are lost to the nation for want of a little forethought.’
Unfortunately for us, Charles Urban’s plea was not heeded and only a handful of the actuality films that were made of the suffrage campaign have survived – but I have included links to many of them in this post.
I am sure that the Newcastle demonstration was not the first suffrage event to be filmed. For instance the previous year – on 18 June 1908 – a representative of the Graphic Cinematographic Company of 154 Charing Cross Road wrote to Minnie Baldock, one of the London-based WSPU speakers, confirming arrangements to ‘cinematograph’ her meeting to be held the next day during the dinner hour outside Waterlows factory in Shoreditch. Doubtless many more such informal scenes were filmed but, not being dramatic set pieces, have failed to survive.
The fact that the WSPU’s early organised militancy was made for the moving camera has clearly occurred to at least one pot-boiling novelist. John Jakes has a set piece at the beginning of his 1998 novel, American Dreams, in which one of his main characters, a US film cameraman working in London in early 1907, is one of three cinematographers filming a deputation led by Mrs Pankhurst to the Houses of Parliament. He describes how the cameraman sighted his camera and then cranked it ‘with a practiced, steady rhythm, one, two, three; one, two, three’ as Mrs Pankhurst ‘bore down on a cordon of policemen blocking the doors’.
In the period before the 1909 cinema boom it is likely that, rather than being intended for showing in picture palaces, such early films as that of Mrs Baldock’s meeting, were used by the WSPU for propaganda purposes. The WSPU was quick to adopt such new means of communication, for instance we know that in 1908 it projected cinematographic advertisements onto sheets displayed in its shop windows, inviting people to demonstrations and showing short scenes from the suffrage campaign. Later newsreels, such as those made by Pathé, were, of course, shown in public. They were seen not only by the casual cinema-goer, but by suffrage campaigners around the country, who could take the viewing as another opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to the cause.
For instance, on 29 March 1914 Dr Alice Ker, a leading member of the Liverpool WSPU, recorded in her diary that she went with some other WSPU activists ‘to the Picture House to see Sylvia Pankhurst leading East End women to Westminster Abbey’. This was a film of a demonstration that had taken place on 22 March – ‘Mothering Sunday’ – an event that Sylvia Pankhurst later recorded was ‘greatly minimized by the press’. Thus, although we now have no record of it, we know that the film cameras were there. It is unlikely that Dr Ker went often to the Picture Palace – cinema-going still had infradig associations – a hangover from its early gestation in the fairground and music hall.
In the 19th century the suffrage campaign could not rely on such powerful visual images – either moving or still. The only contemporary memento of what we take as the starting point of the campaign – the presentation, in 1866, of the first petition to Parliament calling for the enfranchisement of women on the same terms as men – is a printed version of the petition itself.
Although the women taking part in this early stage of the campaign were merely ciphers – signers of petitions – it took only two years for women to emerge from the privacy of their homes onto the public platform. Once in the public domain it was possible for their images on occasion to be captured in line engravings by the illustrators working for the national press. However, for most of the 19th century, the campaign was depicted in words rather than by pictures. This paucity of visual image has resulted in a lack of public awareness of the existence of this early part of the campaign – both then and now. We do, of course, have images of some the leading 19th -century campaigners – but these tend to be posed studio portraits unconnected to the promotion of the campaign itself. Perhaps the surviving type of image that comes closest to indicating an involvement in public affairs is the caricature.
Cartoon (courtesy of Manchester Archives + Partnership Blov)
Here is Lydia Becker, the campaign’s prime mover for much of the 19th century, with Jacob Bright, the campaign’s most supportive MP. Similarly, none of the events staged by the 19th-century campaigners were recorded in photographs – and they did hold hundreds and hundreds of very large public meetings throughout the country .
Besides the millions of words contained in newspaper reports, the only images left to us from this period are the occasional printed survival –such as this –
Rhoda Garrett speaking at a suffrage meeting at the Hanover Rooms, London, 1870 – an illustration from The Graphic
However, after the turn of the century, as photography became to be used to illustrate such new popular papers as The Daily Mirror – which, coincidentally, was launched in November 1903, a mere three weeks after the founding of the WSPU – so the suffrage movement adapted in order to present itself in such a way that its message would reach the public – and parliament – by means of these pictures.
A newspaper photographer from the Daily Mirror was first called out to record a suffrage demonstration in February 1906, on the occasion of the first WSPU march to Caxton Hall. And in the following months the Daily Mirror was there to record suffragettes, such as Dora Montefiore and Teresa Billington, doorstepping.the prime minister at 10 Downing Street and Asquith at his house in Cavendish Square. From then on we have a full record of the suffrage street theatre – the publicity- conscious processions and parades – that in the years before the First World War was performed not only in London but throughout the country. In the years between 1906 and 1914 hundreds of photographic images deriving from the women’s suffrage movement were published on postcards, outnumbering those relating to any other contemporary campaign.
The history of this political campaign can also be viewed as a history of how women presented themselves – and were represented. The idealization of woman as an agent of social reform, in particular her responsibility for the welfare of children, runs as a theme throughout the campaign.
In 1906 the plight of women such as these – the so-called ‘Sweated Workers’, women working from home for a pittance, making matchboxes or sewing shirts, was, thanks to an exhibition sponsored by a newspaper, at the forefront of the nation’s consciousness at the time when the cry ‘votes for women’ really made itself heard in the nation’s capital. And middle-class suffrage campaigners explained that if they received the vote on the same terms as men they would use it to protect their disadvantaged sisters.
However with the beginning of WSPU militancy women were also to be seen as they had never been seen before.
This was an image so contrary to what was to be expected of a well-brought up middle-class girl that it necessarily had a startling effect.
The women engaged in the suffrage campaign were not only aware of the necessity of themselves creating images that would influence their contemporaries, they also understood that images drawn from the past could shape perceptions of woman’s position in society and in political life. In 1910 Bertha Mason, a member of the executive committee of the NUWSS, converted into lantern slides numerous images of women from history and of the suffrage pioneers, adding others of ‘the present day workers’ and ‘election incidents’ to illustrate a ‘limelight lecture’ that she delivered to suffrage societies around the country.
WSPU lecturers, such as Rose Lamartine Yates and Florence Haig, also used photographs as the basis of their very popular lantern lectures. In a similar fashion, for display at their grand 1909 Knightsbridge Bazaar, members of the WSPU put together a ‘Photographic Exhibit’, depicting a history of the suffrage movement as seen through the eyes of press photographers.
The WSPU campaign moved to London in early 1906 and Christabel and Emmeline Pankhurst were joined by Emmeline and Frederick Pethick-Lawrence, wealthy philanthropists who proved adept at all aspects of propaganda. It is Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence who is credited with organizing the extremely successful demonstration held by the WSPU in Hyde Park on 21 June 1908. Both the WSPU and the NUWSS had previously marched through London, but it was only on this occasion that co-ordinated spectacle really made its mark and that the colours purple, white and green became synonymous with the WSPU.
The Artists’ Suffrage League, under the direction of Mary Lowndes, produced for this occasion many of the banners that were to be such a strong feature of suffrage processions. Banners were made to laud eminent women of the arts, science and the feminist pioneers – showing what women could achieve and to advertise the contemporary suffrage societies.
In June 1910 another in the long succession of bills to enfranchise women was introduced into parliament. Prepared by a committee representing all parties, it became known as the Conciliation Bill. The WSPU was rather optimistic that the end of the struggle might be in sight and suspended hostilities. For by this time the militant campaign had escalated dramatically and hundreds of women had already been imprisoned, many going on hunger strike and being forcibly fed. On 18 June 1910, in co-operation with the Women’s Freedom League, the WSPU staged a major demonstration in support of the bill. You can watch elements of the procession here.
Of the occasion Annie Kenney wrote: ‘The procession was six miles long and took three hours to pass a given point. We had every imprisonment represented. Hundreds of ex-prisoners in prison dress carried broad arrows mounted on sticks covered with silver paper. Representatives came from all over the world, the saying in other countries being: “once British women have won, we also shall win.” We had almost a thousand women graduates. Women graduates always, I noticed, awed the public. A woman in cap and gown roused great admiration. Forty bands played triumphant music. Banners made the procession gay and bright..’
Amongst the women marching in cap and gown near the head of the graduates’ procession look out for one of the pioneers of the suffrage movement – Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, now elderly, wearing a bonnet and carrying a stick. Also in the film look out for Mrs Pankhurst’s banner, carrying the date of the founding of the WSPU, 1903, and the ‘Prison to Citizenship’ banner, designed by Laurence Housman. Among other banners is that of the Wimbledon WSPU.
The leading section of the procession consisted of the WSPU fife and drum band, led by Mary Leigh. It had been formed the previous year.
As Annie described, we could see at the centre of the procession the contingent of 617 women, looking very dignified, dressed in white and carrying the long silver staves tipped with the broad arrow, representing all those who had been imprisoned. Imprisonment in the suffrage cause was now rewarded by the presentation of brooches and badges – in the film one of the prisoners who passes close to the camera can be seen wearing her hunger strike medal. Imprisonment and the hunger strike had become symbolic of the martyrdom women were prepared to endure in the pursuit of their goal. The film shows that many of the marchers carried flowers; and the Daily Express noted that ‘the air was fragrant with the scent of iris and lily’
You can see that this spectacle was intended to present women as dignified martyrs. The final shots, filmed in a side street, are more feisty – showing Flora Drummond, who, as Votes for Women recorded was in ‘supreme command’, posing for the camera, together with an inseparable pair of horsewomen, Evelina Haverfield and Vera Holme, who had acted as marshals.
As Annie Kenney noted, the image of the woman as university graduate was one that was treasured by the suffrage societies, representing as it did the intellectual and – in a way – the moral heights that women could reach while still being unrepresented in parliament. The lot of the ‘sweet girl graduate’ was commonly contrasted with that of the convict or the ‘lunatic’, who suffered a similar disenfranchisement. One postcard issued by a suffrage society made the point that while such noble women as nurses, mayors, doctors and teachers didn’t have the vote, men, even if they were drunkards or physically unfit to serve their country – or even if they had in the past been convicted or classified as lunatics – could be directly represented in parliament.
Stressing its interest in using constitutional methods to achieve suffrage for women, the NUWSS was keen to influence the male electorate to join them in lobbying parliament. For a NUWSS demonstration held in Trafalgar Square on 9 July 1910, headquarters requested that banners should be made carrying the number of local electors who at the January 1910 general election had signed a petition organised by the NUWSS. Watch the demonstration here.
In this short film we can glimpse the wording of these banners – such as that shown here to the camera by the women of the Dundee NUWSS. Pathé labels the film ‘Mass Meeting of Suffragettes’ – although this meeting was that of the suffragists. At the time the popular usage of the names was interchangeable. However, I do think the BBC TV programme ‘Suffragettes Forever’, which concentrated on the militant campaign, should not have included this clip, pretending it was the work of the WSPU rather than the NUWSS. Could it be that the makers of the TV series didn’t recognise the difference? Yet again the NUWSS campaign is eclipsed even when it has staged a popular demonstration – and has taken the trouble to ensure the cameras are there to film it.
However, despite the staging of many more rallies, both in London and in towns around the country, it became clear, at the beginning of the new parliamentary session in mid-November, that the government was not prepared to give time to the bill. In July Christabel Pankhurst had promised that if the government’s veto of the Conciliation Bill was not overturned at the opening of Parliament: ‘a great concourse of women will, immediately after Parliament reassembles in the Autumn, proceed to Westminster to demand of the Government that the Suffrage Bill be forthwith carried into law.’[Votes for Women 29 July 1910]
Thus, massed ranks of the WSPU met in Caxton Hall on 18 November, the day of the opening of parliament, only to hear that because of the battle for supremacy that was raging between the House of Commons and the House of Lords, parliament was in fact going to be dissolved to allow for another general election. There was, of course, no suggestion that women were to be enfranchised before then – and so Christabel’s promise was put into effect. Once this news had reached Caxton Hall a deputation of 300 women set out, in groups of ten, to walk the short distance to the House of Commons and met with vicious treatment from large crowds of police and bystanders. You can watch it happening here.
Sylvia Pankhurst, who with Annie Kenney, was riding around Parliament Square in a taxicab, described the scene: ’as we stood up we could see that a body of men were hustling and jostling the deputation so roughly that we feared that it would never be able to reach the House. Our taxi passed slowly right on the outside of the railings that enclose the Abbey & St Margaret’s and we stopped a little to the right of the Strangers’ entrance. As soon as we left the cab we were struck in the chest and pulled this way and that by the police and by a number of men who were evidently detectives in plain clothes’.
What is clear from the film is that, in what is captioned as ‘Suffragette Riots at Westminster’, men are in the overwhelming majority. The two placards that we see rising and falling in the midst of the crowd were presumably carried by women. They are clearly being mobbed. The day, known to the suffragettes as ‘Black Friday’, became notorious for the brutality with which women were treated, both by the police and by men who clearly thought that women demonstrators were fair game for physical molestation.
The Liberals were again returned to government after the general election at the end of 1910. The Conciliation Committee redrafted its bill, which in May 1911 passed its second reading in the House of Commons. In June the government promised that time would be made for further consideration of the bill in the next session of parliament. In a spirit of optimism and co-operation all 28 suffrage societies, militant and constitutional, combined to stage on 17 June 1911 a spectacular procession to mark the coronation of George V. This ‘Coronation Procession can be seen here.
The Historical Pageant, as described in the film’s caption, related to only one small part of the long procession. Its purpose was ‘to illustrate the great political power held by women in the past history of these Isles – beginning with Abbess Hilda and attendant nuns’.
These are the wimpled figures (looking rather like nurses) that we see in the first few seconds of the film.
The procession also included a Prisoners’ contingent – here we see them carrying their pennants, – a section representing musicians and actresses and an elaborate Empire pageant, in which women from around the world were represented.
The ‘Empire Car’ – Suffrage Coronation Procession, 1911
The message at the meeting held in the Albert Hall at the culmination of the procession was that, although it was still necessary to be vigilant, victory was within grasp.
It was the near certainty that the cause was about to be won that made an announcement from the prime minister on 7 November 1911 such a bitter blow. In this he revealed that, rather than considering the Conciliation Bill further, the government intended to introduce a bill to widen the franchise for men, and that this just might then be amended to include women. As Millicent Fawcett put it ‘If it had been the Prime Minister’s intention to enrage every woman suffragist to the point of frenzy, he could not have acted with greater perspicacity’.
Despite a joint deputation from all the suffrage societies to Asquith and Lloyd George it became quite clear that the government was adamant. The WSPU’s response was swift – Mrs Pankhurst declared ‘The argument of the broken pane of glass is the most valuable argument in modern politics ‘. On 21 November, while Mrs Pethick-Lawrence led a deputation from Caxton Hall to the House of Commons, another body of women, armed with bags of stones, set about breaking the windows of government offices and business and shop premises. On 1 March 1912 150 members of the WSPU, armed with hammers, broke the windows of West End shops and offices.
Over the next few days 220 arrests were made and on 5 March Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, together with both Emmeline and Frederick Pethick-Lawrence, were charged with conspiracy to commit damage. Christabel evaded arrest and escaped to Paris, where she was to remain until the outbreak of the First World War. At a meeting held in the Albert Hall Emmeline Pankhurst now announced the new WSPU policy of destruction of property, declaring, ‘I incite this meeting to rebellion’.
At the same time as resuming militancy the WSPU, together with the NUWSS, continued to campaign at by-elections. Tactics at the short, sharp Bolton by-election in 1912 were typical. It was reported that a remarkable number of press photographers covered this by-election – among whom we can now see was a Pathé cinematographer. You can watch his film here.
Both the Liberal candidate, Tom Taylor, and the Conservative, Arthur Brooks, gave their pledge, albeit somewhat half-heartedly, in favour of a limited extension of the parliamentary franchise to women. In a speech the Liberal contestant, Tom Taylor, was reported as saying that ‘During the last days the ladies had been like bees around him asking his views on the question. They had been at the mill, at the Liberal offices, at the Reform Club and sometimes some of them at two places at the same time (Laughter)’.
In the run-up to polling day the Bolton NUWSS society ran a non-party campaign, concentrating on highlighting the suffrage cause. The WSPU also opened an office in the town – their tactics were, however, rather different. Under the leadership of Mary Phillips, one of the most experienced of their organizers, they campaigned to ‘Keep the Liberal Out’.
A reporter from one of the local newspapers made particular mention of the campaigning that took place in the dinner hour in the neighbourhood of Kay Street, a part of the town packed with mills and foundries, writing, ‘..on no occasion can it be recalled when the battle of orators was so keenly fought as during the present contest. Today hundreds of workers had dined and returned to this fighting field by one o’clock and they were at once offered the choice of Unionist, Tariff Reform, Liberal, Free Trade, Socialist and Suffragette speakers.’
A couple of days later mention was again made of this ‘cockpit of the electoral battle. Prominent amongst the propagandists were the ladies, who got together a fair crowd. They were of the non-militant methods, but the workers see no difference between the two. They tar all with the same brush. They thought of all the awkward questions, but generally speaking the plucky soul who was up against them quite held her own.’
It is, as we now realize, quite as likely that the women speaking to the crowd were in fact suffragists as suffragettes. They were as the reporter candidly admitted ‘All tarred with the same brush’.
Besides campaigning at by-elections, the NUWSS was involved in complicated lobbying in order to ensure the best possible outcome to amendments to the Franchise and Registration Bill – the government’s bill that was before parliament. Asquith had pledged that this bill would be drafted so as to be capable of amendment to include women. However on 27 January 1913 the Speaker ruled the women’s suffrage amendment out of order. Asquith said that the government had been taken by surprise, but thanked the Speaker for saving the House from a waste of valuable time. One can see why the WSPU nicknamed him ‘Two-faced Asquith’.
At the very moment when the government was extracting itself from its pledge, suffragist protesters paraded outside Parliament, their billboards calling MPs to ‘Put Honour First’. Watch here. The man you see leaving the House of Commons, looking very dapper in his top hat, is Sir Edward Grey who, it was rumoured, had threatened to resign from the cabinet if the suffrage amendment was defeated. As it was, because the amendment had been ruled inadmissible, he was not put to the test.
The immediate effect was that all the suffrage societies united in demanding a government bill to give women the franchise, this being now regarded as the only possible solution. The WSPU had been on a truce while the suffrage amendments were being considered. However as soon as news of the Speaker’s ruling became known, Mrs Pankhurst made clear that this was at an end. ‘It is guerilla warfare that we declare this afternoon’.
Wargrave church badly damaged by suffragette arson
And guerilla warfare was what followed. Besides the firing of pillar boxes and damage to such ‘masculine’ property as golfing greens and cricket pitches, individual members of the WSPU pursued a policy of arson. Parliament passed what was called the ‘Cat and Mouse Bill’. Under these new regulations prisoners on hunger strike, rather than being forcibly fed, could be temporarily released from prison, without any remission of their sentence and then recalled a little later when they had recovered their strength. Needless to say very few of the ‘mice’ were so obliging – and by enacting the Bill the government actually encouraged the most desperate –or adventurous – members of the WSPU to create a sub-culture of terrorism. As long as the ‘mice’ were not thought to be involved in further militant activity, the police made no serious attempts to recapture them. .
However, some very active ‘mice’ managed to evade capture, using their freedom to carry out what they called their ‘work’. You can see what here what happened to, Levetleigh, at St Leonards in Sussex, the home of the local MP, Arthur du Cros, which was set on fire on 13 April 1913.
The arsonist was ‘Kitty Marion’, a variety actress, or, as she was billed, ‘A Refined Vocal Comedienne’, who, although German born, had lived in England since 1886 and was a long-standing member of the WSPU and of the Actresses’ Franchise League.
She was only captured after committing her 5th arson raid. This last one was a spectacular. In June, two months after burning down Levetleigh, she and another suffragette destroyed the Grand Stand at Hurst Park race course, apparently as a tribute to Emily Wilding Davison, who had died earlier that month at nearby Epsom. In an unpublished memoir Kitty Marion gives a detailed description of the arson at Hurst Park, remarking ‘We both regretted that there was no movie camera to immortalise the comedy of it’.
For, on 4 June 1913 the suffragette movement had gained its first real martyr when Emily Wilding Davison stepped onto the Derby racecourse and attempted to hold the bridle of Anmer, the King’s horse.
The camera was, of course, set up to record the race – with no knowledge that such a dramatic event was to be enacted in front of it. Was it possible that Emily Davison chose to position herself at that point at Tattenham Corner so that the camera, which would have been obvious to her, set as it was at a level well raised above the crowd, could not fail to capture her action? You can watch the race here. There are other views of the incident to be found on Youtube.
As you see Emily Davison was thrown to the ground, suffering a serious head injury. She never regained consciousness, and died on 8 June. On 14 June she was accorded a martyr’s funeral. The long, impressive procession made its way through the streets of London to St George’s Church in Bloomsbury, where the service was conducted by the vicar, a supporter of the Church League for Women’s Suffrage. From there the coffin was taken to King’s Cross, and on by train to her home town, Morpeth in Northumberland. You can watch both funeral processions here.
Here is a still of the cortege at St George’s Bloomsbury. I pass the church several times a week – and often wait at the bus stop just beside it – picturing the scene as shown in the film – with the figure in white with her back to us saluting the coffin.
Shortly after the WSPU staged this display of mourning and spirituality, the NUWSS began their ‘Women’s Suffrage Pilgrimage’. Their organization was by now so effective that it had taken only a couple of months to plan. The idea was to gain public support by launching a concerted nationwide demonstration. The NUWSS organized their members to walk to London from all parts of the country, along set routes, carrying banners and holding meetings as they went – in order to meet for a rally in Hyde Park on 26 July.
Here we see the start of the Pilgrimage from the south-west –walking, and bicycling, from Land’s End to London. The women were urged to wear a uniform for the occasion – a white, grey, black or navy- blue coat and skirt or dress. Hats were to be simple and in one of the main designated colours. For 3d headquarters supplied a compulsory raffia badge, a ‘cockle shell’, the traditional symbol of a pilgrimage, to be worn pinned to the hat. One of those taking part later recorded that she felt ‘very self conscious in sash and cockade’, NUWSS members were not so used to public parade as were those of the WSPU. Although the news camera was there in Hyde Park, if they did film anything of the pilgrims and platform speeches these have disappeared. All we see in this surviving film is the interest of chaps in seeing themselves on film.
A couple of weeks after this, the cameras were back to film another demonstration in London. On 10 August 1913 Sylvia Pankhurst appeared as a speaker at a rally in Trafalgar Square. By now she was out of sympathy with many aspects of WSPU policy, in particular she was not in favour of the arson campaign. Her idea was that pressure should be brought on the government by the working-class, in particular the women of the East End, where she was building her power base. Sylvia was at this time a ‘mouse’, on the run from the police.
She described how ‘Eluding the police I drove to the Square and sprang from a taxi into the East End procession as it came swinging round from the Strand. The marchers hoisted me to the plinth, and a crowd of them jumped up beside me as a body-guard’. She then led a crowd to Downing Street.
In spite of the ‘rushes’ made by the crowd to protect her, she was rearrested in Downing Street and returned to Holloway. You can watch the film of this scene on here.
Through the first few months of 1914 the damage escalated – suffragettes attacked churches, mansions, grandstands, golflinks, and even paintings in the National Gallery and Royal Academy. But in contrast with all this violence the WSPU was still able to stage an attractive spectacle to pass through the streets of London. There is film of this May Day Pageant, which took place on 1st May 1914 and aimed to promote sales of the WSPU paper, the Suffragette. Although it was organized at very short notice and police permission had not been sought – because they knew it would be refused – the WSPU had obviously, however, had the foresight to alert the Pathé film crew
A month later, on 21 May, Mrs Pankhurst was rearrested while leading a deputation to Buckingham Palace. She had hoped that the King would receive them. Needless to say the palace gates were kept firmly closed. You can watch the scene here.
This was no staged spectacle. Outside the palace women, armed with clubs, battled with the police. Scenes such as these – and those previous ones of Black Friday and of Sylvia Pankhurst being arrested in Trafalgar Square – must surely have seemed scandalous to the viewing public. The palace battle was headline news and the next day the police raided the WSPU headquarters and closed it down.
The battle at the Palace is the last extant reality film of the pre-war suffrage campaign. The days of spectacle and of organised demonstration were past. The WSPU now had no fixed headquarters and its organisers were harried by the police from office to office around London. The NUWSS, while still growing steadily, was devoting itself to political negotiations, a strategy that had little appeal for the camera. And with the outbreak of war on 4 August 1914 this stage of the suffrage campaign came to an end.
The WSPU suspended its activities in order to support the war effort and in 1915 organised, with Lloyd George, a ‘Right to Work’ rally – a demand that women should be allowed to undertake war work. You can watch the women marching here. Kate Frye (actually by now Mrs John Collins) was one of the company.
During the war leading members of the WSPU travelled extensively both in Britain and abroad as government emmisaries, explaining the Allies’ war policy. In the Pathé compilaton (at 11mins 46 secs), filmed on 8 November 1916, we see Mrs Pankhurst speaking in Trafalgar Square, telling her audience about the government’s policy in Greece and Rumania. She is the second of the speakers shown – the first is Norah Dacre Fox.
On 4 November 1917, by which time it could be seen that women’s enfranchisement was at last about to be realised, a cameraman was on hand to witness the launch of a new organization. See here as the former leaders of the WSPU, Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, Annie Kenney and Flora Drummond, arrive at the Queen’s Hall, north of Oxford Street for the occasion.
However, after Christabel was unsuccessful when she stood as MP for Smethwick at the general election in 1918, the Women’s Party lost momentum. But even so the erstwhile members of the WSPU continued to be well aware of the power of publicity. They ensured that Emmeline Pankhurst was honoured with a statue. You can watch here as Stanley Baldwin unveils it in 1930.
That statue became the focus of a reunion held each year on 14 July – Mrs Pankhurst’s official birthday. Even in the years after the Second World War the increasingly elderly suffragettes – who had formed themselves into the Suffragette Fellowship – came to pay homage to their former leader. Watch a filmed suffragette reunion here.
The publicity given to their cause by the actuality films – whether enhancing their dignity as they marched in symbolic procession or broadcasting their ability to commit acts of terrorism – surely played its part in shifting the perception of what a woman could be and made more possible – at last – her involvement in the constitutional political life of the country.’
The second part of this talk will discuss the comic ‘Suffrage’ feature films.
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