Behind-the-Scenes at the Women's Social and Political Union

Museum of London

A look inside the headquarters of the WSPU, the militant branch of the Votes for Women campaign.

Clement's Inn
In 1906 the Women’s Social and Political Union established its first official London headquarters at 3-4 Clement’s Inn, off the Strand. From here plans were turned into direct action. Meetings, deputations to Parliament and spectacular processions were organised. Propaganda material including the Votes for Women newspaper was edited, published and despatched throughout the UK. 

A remarkable series of photographic postcards in the Museum’s collection, depicting the interior of WSPU headquarters reveal a highly sophisticated organisation that relied on both salaried employees and volunteers.

The photographs, taken at Clement’s Inn in 1911, show the entire range of operational activities including the editorial department, information bureau, ticket office, and treasury.

All offices were equipped with the most up-to-date technology including electricity, typewriters, telephone switchboards, printing and duplicating machines, ensuring both efficiency and effective results.

By July 1909 the Votes for Women newspaper reported a weekly national circulation of 50,000, achieved through a highly complex distribution network.

Lincoln's Inn
In September 1912, WSPU headquarters moved to an imposing 5 storey premises at Lincoln’s Inn.

The move represented a growth in the ambitions and influence of the WSPU.

However, it also represented an ideological break between Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, and Fred and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence - editors of the Votes for Women newspaper, and original benefactors of the campaign.

Towards the end of the WSPU campaign, as Suffragette militancy increased, the police undertook several raids on headquarters.

They seized potentially incriminating documents and even, unsuccessfully, attempted to force the Post Office to cut off the telephone lines.

The resilience and strength of the organisation ensured such raids were, however, mere inconvenient disruptions to the continued running of the campaign.

Letters in the Museum collection, sent by senior figures based at headquarters such as Christabel and Emmeline Pankhurst and Annie Kenney, reveal fascinating details about the day-to-day operation of the campaign.

The letters are typed with ink in the Suffragette colours of purple and green.

Regional organisers
As well as those who worked at the ‘nerve centre’, valued workers with proven organisational and speaking skills were employed to  travel throughout the country, to ‘rouse the nation’. For many Salaried Regional Organisers, such exhausting work resulted in long-term poor health. 

One such organiser was Mary Gawthorpe.

Born in Leeds into a working-class family, Mary had studied at the Leeds School of Music before joining the WSPU in 1906.

She quickly rose up the ranks to be a salaried Organiser.

By 1908, Mary was WSPU Chief Organiser for the Lancashire area, with a brief to organise large meetings in the northern cities.

This included a successful rally at Heaton Park, Manchester, that attracted a crowd of over 150,000.

A highly intelligent and popular speaker, despite suffering ill health (including an operation for appendicitis), Mary was entirely devoted to her WSPU duties.

She was also arrested four times for militancy, enduring hunger strike and force-feeding.

In 1910, completely exhausted, she was forced to give up her demanding Organiser role due to continuing ill health.

A series of three scrapbooks in the museum’s collections, compiled by another Organiser, Ada (Susan) Flatman, reveal more details about the day-to-day responsibilities and roles of salaried regional officers.

Ada (left) pictured with fellow Organiser Alma Martel.

In 1909 Ada was appointed Organiser in Liverpool and opened the first WSPU shop in the city, which proved to be highly profitable.

By February 1911 she had been transferred to Cheltenham where, her scrapbooks reveal, she adapted her organisational skills to the requirements of the local, middle-class membership by organising a programme of drawing-room meetings with guest speakers from Head Office.

Both the activities of WSPU London headquarters and the day-to-day operation at local level ensured the campaign reached all corners of the country.

However, the dedication and commitment required by the WSPU leadership of its ‘foot soldiers’ in the field was relentless and exhausting.

As Annie Kenney wrote in 1924:
‘Nuns in a convent were not watched over more and supervised more strictly than were the organisers and members of the Militant Movement…

It was an unwritten rule that there must be no concerts, no theatre, no smoking; work, and sleep to prepare us for more work, was the unwritten order of the day.’

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