Rosa May Billinghurst

LSE Library

Meet the daring, disabled suffragette.

Rosa May Billinghurst, known as May, was born in Lewisham in 1875.

She suffered polio as a child and had to use a tricycle to get about.

She was a member of the Women’s Liberal Association, and joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1907.

May founded the Greenwich branch of the WSPU in 1910. She was secretary and handwrote this annual report.

May’s campaigning work is often noted in press reports, as she handed out leaflets from her decorated tricycle.

May took part in the window-smashing campaign in March 1912, and was sentenced to one month’s hard labour.

This prison letter from Alice Ker, who was also imprisoned for window-smashing, describes May in prison: “Miss Billinghurst is here with her tricycle. She has irons on each leg, and can only walk with crutches, her tricycle works with handles. She drives it round the yard at exercise time. It is painted in the colours, with a placard, Votes for Women, on the back of it.”

This embroidery contains the names of the many women who were imprisoned for window-smashing in March 1912. May's name is in the top-left corner.

In December 1912, May was arrested on suspicion of having damaged letter boxes in Blackheath.

Emmeline Pankhurst encouraged her to defend herself in court.

May made a long defence speech in the dock. This is the first page setting out the reasons why she started campaigning for the vote. She was sentenced to eight months in prison.

May went on hunger strike and was forcibly fed, which is described in this letter to her mother.

Much effort was made to get May out of prison. Even Emmeline Pankhurst was involved.

May was released after two weeks on the order of the Home Office.

May recovered quickly from her ordeal in prison and spoke at West Hampstead Town Hall on 5 March 1913.

On 14 June 1913, May took part in Emily Wilding Davison’s funeral procession.

In the following year, May chained herself to railings at Buckingham Palace.

May remained loyal to the Pankhursts and gave support to Christabel Pankhurst’s election campaign, who stood as a Women's Party candidate in Smethwick in 1918.

May later joined the Women’s Freedom League and then the Suffragette Fellowship.

She died in 1953.

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