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A History of London: Suffragette City

Sheila Hancock with Museum of London curator Beverley Cook
Every object tells a story: Sheila Hancock explores the Museum of London's collection of suffragette memorabilia with curator Beverley Cook

Dissent, violence, arrest, prison, incarceration - the steps middle and upper class women took in the early years of the 20th century to win the right to vote were long and painful.

As part of the BBC's ongoing A History of the World season, Sheila Hancock tells the story of the suffragettes through objects from their campaign and the London places that still resonate with their presence.

It's hard to recall now but Edwardian London was a very traditional society.

Only 60% of men, those who owned property, could vote in general elections; women, along with the poor, criminals and the insane, were denied this right.

A BBC London documentary presented by Sheila Hancock shows that some were starting to demand a voice.

The first indication that change was afoot came in June 1908 with Hyde Park as the setting for a major spectacle designed to stun society.

The Rt Hon Tony Benn sets the scene of a violent suffragette protest at Parliament

Women from all over the country arrived on specially chartered trains to "a monster rally", according to Dr Diane Atkinson, author of Votes for Women.

"They had 20 platforms with about half a dozen speakers, all talking about what a good idea it would be for women to have the vote," she explains in the programme.

Refined ladies were not supposed to demonstrate in public spaces.

But Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters, Christabel and Sylvia, thought differently.

They and their supporters in the Women's Political and Social Union wanted to stir up a 30-year-old quest for women's suffrage by influencing public opinion with deeds not words - a suffragette motto and call for militant action.

Purple, white and green

Objects in the Museum of London's collection of memorabilia help bring this dramatic story to life.

Suffragette button badge
Button badge designs included one with a photo of Emmeline Pankhurst

The protestors adopted a set of colours for a new uniform, complete with military sash, presented for the first time in Hyde Park - purple for dignity, white for purity and green representing fertility and hope for the future.

The sash was joined by the motoring scarf and button badges, sold for one old penny, in a brilliant example of early marketing and merchandising.

There was also a board game, the Pank-a-Squith, named after the-then prime minister Herbert Asquith, a Liberal who thought the WPSU a mere irritant.

The idea of the game was to move around a spiral grid taking a suffragette from her home at the top of the board and avoiding a series of obstacles until she eventually reached the House of Commons in the middle.

A suffragette belt and harness
Protestors famously used the belt and harness to chain themselves to railings

The defining object of the whole campaign, however, was the belt and harness - used by protestors to chain themselves to the railings of No 10 Downing Street and adapted from previous use as a restraint in lunatic asylums.

Then there was the domestic toffee hammer, a lightweight, easily concealed device that could also destroy windows and property in order to get the government to sit up and take notice.

By 1910 as violence grew, arrests were becoming more frequent.

Horrors of force feeding

There was also another mass protest in Parliament Square on 18 November, an ugly event that came to be known as Black Friday for the police intimidation and number of running battles that ensued.

All suffragettes were given the choice of paying a fine or going to prison; nearly all chose the latter for the publicity it brought to the movement - even though the consequence was incarceration within the grim walls of Holloway Gaol.

The women demanded the status of political prisoners.

A poster image showing suffragette force feeding
The horrors of force feeding became a rallying point for the suffragette cause

When they didn't get it, they went on hunger strike, provoking a swift response from the government: force feeding through a tube stuck down the throat with a combination of brandy and milk or raw eggs poured into a funnel at the other end.

Society was deeply shocked and the horrors of force feeding became a rallying point for the suffragette cause.

The idea of giving women the vote was gaining ground.

I don't blame the suffragettes for behaving as they did...
Roy Hattersley, author of The Edwardians

"I don't blame the suffragettes for behaving as they did," says the Rt Hon Roy Hattersley, author of The Edwardians.

"Their violence, not just physical violence breaking shop windows along Regent Street and Oxford Street, was an intellectual violence as well," he continues.

But the most extreme suffragette action was yet to come.

Stepping into men's shoes

On 4 June 1913 Emily Davison, a Blackheath-born WPSU member, arrived at the Epsom Derby intent on making a dramatic public protest - by fatally throwing herself in front of the King's horse.

Footage of the event is still with us today.

Militant suffragette Emily Davison's dramatic public protest at the Epsom Derby in 1913

Six thousand women, including factory workers, teachers, actresses and journalists, marched to St George's Church in Bloomsbury for the funeral, a seminal moment for the suffragette campaign.

When the first world war erupted a year later women stepped into men's shoes and did the jobs traditionally done by men; the die was now firmly cast.

By 1914 women over the age of 30 had won the right to vote, extended to all women in 1928.

But was all the violence really necessary?

The question interests Professor Sally Alexander of Goldsmiths College, London: "Was it militancy or years of long and steady campaigning?" she asks.

"The answer is, it has to be a combination of the two."

Roy Hattersley, meanwhile, is clear about the part played by bitter struggle.

"The suffragettes are the only protest movement in the history of Great Britain that have actually succeeded by violence," he maintains.

Watch again on BBC iPlayer: A History of the World: Suffragette City

A to Z: Suffragettes
07 Jan 09 |  Politics
Suffragettes: The battle for the vote
19 Mar 09 |  Politics
Suffragette memories at Westminster
03 Nov 08 |  Politics
Spy pictures of suffragettes revealed
03 Oct 03 |  Magazine
How to play Pank-A-Squith
28 Oct 09 |  Today


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