Suffragette Spectacles

Museum of London

A look at how the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) created vibrant, iconic, and theatrical demonstrations to get their message across.

Women's Sunday
London provided the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) with the opportunity for staging visually spectacular set-piece demonstrations that attracted international media attention. Women’s Sunday, the first ‘monster meeting’ to be held by the WSPU, brought Suffragettes into the capital from all over the country in June 1908. They marched in seven different processions through central London to a rally in Hyde Park. 

Demonstrators arrived on specially chartered trains from over seventy towns.

On reaching Hyde Park, they were addressed by over eighty speakers.

Colour scheme
The highly choreographed demonstration saw the launch of the purple, white and green colour scheme. It attracted a crowd of up to 300,000 - drawn by the colourful spectacle of the delegates dressed in the tricolour, and carrying over seven hundred embroidered banners.   

Local branches of the Women's Social and Political Union raised funds to create their own banners.

Preparing banners for Women's Sunday.

This banner, from the Chelsea branch, depicts Holloway prison, with a Suffragette prisoner waving a banner with the slogan 'Votes for Women'.

‘Never’, reported the Daily Chronicle, 'has so vast a throng gathered in London to witness a parade of political forces’.

Women's Coronation Procession
 Three years later, on 17 June 1911, the WSPU staged an even more spectacular event, the Women's Coronation procession. 

Held a week before the coronation of George V, this was intended to enlist the King’s support for the proposed Conciliation Bill that would have given some women the vote.

The four-mile procession through central London culminated in a rally at the Royal Albert Hall, and involved over 60,000 delegates from both regional and international suffrage groups dressed in national and historical costume.

Groups represented the demand for Votes for Women from regions like Ireland...

...and Wales.

Different processions also had their own place in the procession, like the Writer's Suffrage League.

The centrepiece of the procession was the magnificent Car of Empire float that preceded the procession of women from all corners of the Empire, including India, Canada and Australia.

Jane Fisher Unwin organised Indian women living in the UK to take part in the procession.

From 1910 The Prisoners' Pageant formed the most dramatic section of all Suffragette processions, and usually included leading members of the Women's Social and Political Union.

As well as carrying their own imposing prisoner's banners, individuals also carried smaller emblems symbolic of imprisonment.

Organisation
The staging of such processions was organised with military precision. Senior figures were appointed to official roles to ensure efficiency. Colour Bearers, such as Charlotte Marsh, had the responsibility of carrying ‘the great silk standard of the WSPU’. Chairmen ensured all official rally Speakers kept to time, and Banner Captains led sections of the processions. 

One figure always prominent at such events was Flora ‘General’ Drummond, who often directed proceedings on horseback in her unique regalia.

For Women’s Sunday, Flora was responsible for all seven processions arriving safely in Hyde Park in time for the speeches.

The week before the event, Votes for Women defined Drummond's role: 'She will be in constant touch with every one of the processions, and will make it her business to see that every one of them is in marching order, and that all the arrangements are complete and satisfactory'.

Emily Wilding Davison's funeral
The most dramatic and last set piece event choreographed by the WSPU was the funeral procession of Emily Wilding Davison in 1913. Intended to accord Emily the status of martyr, the procession of Suffragettes - which accompanied her coffin from Victoria Station to a memorial service at St George's Church, Bloosmbury - brought London to a respectful and silent standstill.

Those taking part were required to wear either white, purple, scarlet or black according to their role and position in the procession.

As white succeeded purple, and scarlet followed black, the resulting spectacular effect resembled, as noted the Manchester Guardian, 'the long unfurling of a military banner’.

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