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An Examination of Suffragette Violence

An Examination of Suffragette Violence

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English Historical Review 
Vol. CXX No. 486© The Author [2005]. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.doi:10.1093/ehr/cei119
 An Examination of Suffragette Violence* 
This
article attempts to catalogue, analyse and assess the impact of suffragette violence – that is, the bombings and arson perpetrated by members of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) and theirsympathizers between February 
1913
and August
1914
– and thereby todispel some of the myths that have accumulated around the campaign.Before
1911
, the WSPU had made only sporadic use of violence, and it was directed almost exclusively at the government and its servants. After
1911
, it was directed increasingly at commercial concerns and then at thegeneral public. Early in
1912
, there was a symbolic arson attempt.
1
In June and July of that year, there were five more serious incidents: thehomes of three anti-suffrage cabinet ministers were attacked, a powerfulbomb was planted in the Home Secretary’s office and the TheatreRoyal, Dublin, was set fire to while the audience was leaving after aperformance.
2
Some other arson attempts followed before the end of the year. But at this stage, there were still some hopes of achieving the vote for women by constitutional means. A Franchise Bill came beforethe Commons in the winter session of 
1912
13
, and was drafted to allowa series of amendments in favour of women’s suffrage – or so its sponsorsbelieved.
3
But after an initial debate on
24
January 
1913
, the Speaker ruledthe amendments out of order and the government was obliged to abandonthe Bill. Whether or not this ruling came as a surprise is debatable, but the WSPU chose to see it as a deliberate betrayal engineered by the govern-ment.
4
Our concern is the bombing and arson campaign that followed.Since the late
1960
s there has been a tremendous outpouring of books and articles about the militant suffragettes, which, if anything,
EHR 
, cxx.
486
(April
2005
)
*I would like to thank the staffs of the various archives and libraries used in researching thisarticle, particularly Beverley Cook at the Suffragette Fellowship Collection, Museum of London.This project was begun in collaboration with Dr Douglas Reid, to whom I owe a special debt of gratitude for his advice and assistance. Professor Brian Harrison read an earlier draft of this articleand I have profited from his suggestions, while I am also grateful to Chris Heppa and Lewis Jonesfor their comments and help in preparing it for publication.
1
. E. S. Pankhurst,
The Suffragette Movement: An Intimate Account of Persons and Ideals 
(London,
1977
),
362
[first published
1931
].
2
. Attacks were made on the homes of Charles Hobhouse, J. A. Pease and Lewis Harcourt. Forthe attack on Hobhouse’s home, Edward David (ed.),
Inside Asquith’s Cabinet: From the Diaries of  
 
Charles Hobhouse 
(London,
1977
),
117
. For Pease,
 Manchester Guardian
,
20
July 
1912
,
8
. ForHarcourt,
The Times 
,
15
July 
1912
,
7
. The most information about the bomb in ReginaldMcKenna’s office is given in the
 Manchester Guardian
,
8
May 
1913
,
8
, but the incident occurred in July 
1912
: see cartoon in
Votes for Women
,
19
July 
1912
,
678
. For the attack on the Theatre Royal,
The Times 
,
20
July 
1912
,
10
.
3
. For information on the amendments and some discussion, ‘Women and the Franchise Bill’,
The Times 
 
18
Jan.
1913
,
7
, and ‘Chaos in the Commons’, ibid.
22
Jan.
1913
,
6
.
4
. For contrasting views, Martin Pugh,
The Pankhursts 
(London,
2001
),
257
8
and Bentley Brinkerhoff Gilbert,
Lloyd George: A Political Life: The Organizer of Victory,
1912
– 
1916 
(London,
1992
),
54
.
 
EHR 
, cxx.
486
(April
2005
)
 AN EXAMINATION
 
OF SUFFRAGETTE VIOLENCE
366
has grown even more profuse in recent years. Despite the revisionistscholarship of Brian Harrison and Martin Pugh, which has emphasizedthe role of the non-militants and drawn attention to the failure of militancy in winning the vote, it is militancy – and, in particular, the violent militancy of 
1912
14
– which has continued to attract publicattention. But, with few exceptions, this historiography has concentratedon what may be called the ‘personal’ issues of the campaign: biographical work on the leaders and membership of the suffrage societies, theirmotivations, the violence used against them and their sufferings inprison. The aspect which has attracted little or no attention is the issueof violence on the suffragette side, in particular the number of bomband arson attacks, how they were organized, who carried them out and whether or not there was a threat to human life.
5
The only seriousattempts to examine these practical issues have come from twodistinguished male historians – Andrew Rosen and Brian Harrison. Butalthough Harrison’s essay ‘The Act of Militancy’ took for granted adegree of violence beyond anything admitted to in feminist accounts, it was a philosophical examination of the campaign rather than an attemptto enumerate the acts.
6
Although some regional catalogues have beenoffered, the only attempt in recent times to provide a national catalogueof the incidents themselves was Rosen’s in his book 
Rise Up Women! 
,and this has serious deficiencies.
7
The only previous attempt at such acatalogue was that provided by A. E. Metcalfe in
1917
.
8
This providesdetails of 
104
incidents in
1914
alone, but Rosen’s tabulation gives atotal of 
100
incidents for the whole period of the campaign. Some of thediscrepancies between these figures are easily explainable: Metcalfetabulated all kinds of suffragette militancy, including attacks on worksof art which were almost entirely omitted by Rosen. Also, Rosen didnot list the many unsuccessful attacks: his emphasis was on the eco-nomic impact of the campaign and he claimed only to tabulate the‘major acts of arson’.
9
But, even with these provisos, there remainsmuch in Rosen’s selection of incidents that is difficult to explain, and it
5
. For example, see June Purvis, ‘“Deeds, Not Words”: Daily Life in the Women’s Social andPolitical Union in Edwardian Britain’, in
Votes for Women
, ed. Purvis and Sandra Stanley Holton(London,
2000
),
135
58
. Of this article’s sixteen pages of text (
135
51
), seven are given up toaccounts of prison life, while the forms of militancy which put the women there are dismissed inas many lines (
137
).
6
. Brian Harrison, ‘The Act of Militancy: Violence and the Suffragettes,
1904
1914
’, in
Peaceable Kingdom: Stability and Change in Modern Britain
(Oxford,
1982
),
24
81
.
7
. Andrew Rosen,
Rise Up Women! The Militant Campaign of the Women’s Social and Politi-cal 
 
Union
,
1903
– 
1914
(London,
1974
), see chapters
16
and
18
,
189
202
,
214
45
. Regional cataloguesare offered in David Neville,
To Make their Mark: The Women’s Suffrage Campaign in the North-East of England,
1900
– 
1914
(Newcastle-upon-Tyne,
1997
), and by Leah Leneman,
 A Guid Cause:The Women’s Suffrage Movement in Scotland 
(Edinburgh,
1995
),
274
8
.
8
. A. E. Metcalfe,
Women’s Effort: A Chronicle of British Women’s Fifty Years’ Struggle for Citizenship
 
1865 
– 
1914
(Oxford,
1917
),
309
17
.
9
. Rosen,
Rise Up Women
!,
191
.
 
 AN EXAMINATION
 
OF SUFFRAGETTE VIOLENCE
367
EHR 
, cxx.
486
(April
2005
)
has to be said that his tabulation is not only inadequate but seriously misleading.
10
There are very many difficulties in assessing the scale, range andintention of suffragette violence, of which the first and greatest isestablishing the number of incidents. Bombings and fires attributed tosuffragettes in national and local newspapers could easily exceed
500
,but a definitive set of figures could only be arrived at through a majorresearch project. My concern has therefore been to establish a minimumreliable figure, and the basis for this survey is the number of incidents‘claimed’ by the WSPU, checked, as far as possible, against newspaperreports. From
31
January 
1913
 
The Suffragette 
almost invariably carrieda page – more usually a double-page centre spread – which reportedthe outrages committed. During the periods when its printers were notactually faced with prosecution, it openly claimed responsibility by threatening headlines and subheadings.
11
The weekly issues of thenewspaper give a total of 
325
incidents. But there were several weeks in which no crime catalogue was published, and at the end of 
1913
 
The Suffragette 
published an additional selective catalogue entitled ‘A Year’sRecord’, which claimed another twelve incidents, giving a grand totalof 
337
.
12
So far as it is possible to establish,
The Suffragette 
followed theattributions in the press, although it was selective and sometimesappeared to show a degree of inside knowledge. One of the chief areasof WSPU militancy was Birmingham. On
23
August
1913
the
Birmingham Daily Mail 
reported three fires in the greater Birminghamarea, one of which was a garage fire at Handsworth in which the build-ing was gutted and some cars destroyed.
13
The newspaper did not at-tribute the incident to suffragettes, and the fire brigade did not suspectarson, but nevertheless this fire was claimed by 
The Suffragette 
.
14
If the WSPU was making wild claims, it has to be asked why it selected thisone incident: why not claim all three fires? In this instance, the mostprobable explanation is inside information from the perpetrators. It
10
. For example, given Rosen’s economic emphasis, it is difficult to see why he did not includethe destruction of Lord Inverclyde’s yacht
Beryl 
, valued at £
40
,
000
, on
21
December
1913
. It wasattributed to suffragette activity by national newspapers (e.g.
 Manchester Guardian
,
22
Dec.
1913
,
10
) and claimed by 
The Suffragette 
(
2
Jan.
1914
,
271
). At the other end of the scale, Rosen includessome incidents not claimed by 
The 
 
Suffragette 
nor attributed to suffragettes in national newspapers,e.g. the destruction of ‘Bathford’, Bath, on
23
November
1913
, which was attributed to a defectiveflue (see Rosen
, Rise Up Women! 
,
271
;
The Times 
,
24
Nov.
1913
,
6
).
11
. For example, the headline ‘No Votes, No Peace’,
The Suffragette 
,
12
Sept.
1913
,
835
. On
19
 Dec.
1913
,
222
3
, the overall headline was ‘Devastating Fires . . . Grave Responsibility of theGovernment’, and two of the subheadings were ‘Gigantic Fire at Devonport . . . Reply toMrs. Pankhurst’s Arrest’, and ‘Fire at a Scottish Mansion . . . Protest Against the “Cat andMouse” Act’.
12
. Ibid.
26
Dec.
1913
,
258
. For an example of an incident claimed in ‘A Year’s Record’ but notin the weekly issues, the burning of Hatcham church on
6
May 
1913
.
13
.
Birmingham Daily Mail 
,
23
Aug.
1913
,
4
.
14
. Birmingham Central Library, City Archives, Records of Fires MS
1303
/
187
9
.
The Suffragette 
,
29
Aug.
1913
,
800
1
.

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