Deeds Not Words! The Fight for Women’s Suffrage

An expedition around the UK to explore the history of women's suffrage

By Historic England

Suffragettes in Redcar, 1909 (1909)Original Source: LSE Library

The first British women were given the right to vote in 1918. This expedition takes you on a journey to some of the places where activists protested, committed acts of violence and died for the cause of women’s suffrage in Britain.

Deansgate, Manchester is one of the most important places in the history of women’s suffrage in Britain. The suffragists of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) tried to persuade politicians in the Houses of Parliament to give women the legal right to vote in parliamentary elections. Some campaigners for women’s suffrage felt peaceful means of persuasion were ineffective. As a result, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) was founded in Manchester, and the first act of direct action for the cause took place in the city.

Deansgate near the junction with John Dalton Street, Manchester (1884) by F Frith & Co LtdHistoric England

In 1887 the building on the corner of Deansgate housed the office of the Manchester National Society for Women's Suffrage (MNSWS). In 1903, Manchester suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst set up the more radical Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). Its motto was 'Deeds Not Words'.

Manchester Free Trade Hall. In 1868 the Manchester National Society for Women's Suffrage (MNSWS) held its first public meeting here. It is considered to mark the beginning of the suffrage campaign. The Hall is a symbol of protest and the fight for rights. It was built on the site of the 1819 Peterloo Massacre. It was here that the suffragette militant campaign began. In 1905, WSPU activists Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney interrupted a Liberal Party meeting. They were forcibly removed, Christabel then spat at a policemen. Both women were arrested.

HM Prison Manchester, Strangeways, Manchester (1933-06) by Aerofilms LtdHistoric England

This is an aerial view of Strangeways Gaol in Manchester. After their arrest Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney were tried for obstruction. Found guilty, they were sentenced to pay a fine. They refused and both were imprisoned at Strangeways – Christabel for a week, Annie for three days.

Plaque to Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney, Free Trade Hall, Peter Street, Manchester (2018-04-10) by James O Davies, Historic EnglandHistoric England

The protest at the Free Trade Hall by Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney is commemorated by this plaque inside the building. The Hall was damaged by bombing during the Second World War. It was rebuilt and continued to be used as a concert hall before being converted into a hotel.

10 Downing Street. The traditional home of the Prime Minister. The fight for women’s suffrage was a struggle to convince the politicians in charge of the country that the law had to be changed. As the fight for suffrage was a political struggle, places associated with the British Government, law making and symbols of the establishment were sites for suffragette demonstrations and direct action. In the heart of London, the Palace of Westminster, where Parliament and the House of Lords debated the affairs of the country, 10 Downing Street and even Westminster Abbey were targeted.

10 Downing Street, Westminter, Greater London (1870/1900) by York & SonHistoric England

In 1908 Edith New and Olivia Smith chained themselves to the railings of 10 Downing Street. While they distracted the police, their companion Flora Drummond slipped inside to disrupt a meeting. The protest was aimed at drawing attention to the suffragettes’ demands by creating a public spectacle.

St Stephen's Hall, Palace of Westminster (1870/1900) by York & SonHistoric England

St Stephen’s Hall at the Houses of Parliament witnessed protests during the ‘Women’s Parliaments’ held by the WSPU from 1906 to 1911. In April 1909, four women chained themselves to statues in the hall. In June 1909, Marion Wallace-Dunlop stencilled a passage from the Bill of Rights on the wall.

The Coronation Chair, Westminster Abbey, Westminster, Greater London (1870/1900) by York & SonHistoric England

Westminster Abbey was the scene of several WSPU protests. Services were disrupted and in one protest, a woman chained herself to her chair when the Archbishop was preaching. She and the chair were carried out by cathedral officials. In 1914, the 13th century Coronation Chair was damaged by a bomb.

This prison in Liverpool once held suffragette prisoners. From 1905 to 1914 around 1,000 suffragettes were sent to prison for smashing windows, setting fire to buildings and throwing stones. Many suffragettes continued to protest in prison, including refusing to eat. The authorities resorted to forcibly feeding prisoners on hunger strike. This involved prising mouths open and inserting feeding tubes down noses or throats. The 1913 ‘Cat and Mouse’ Act allowed for the early release of hunger-strikers on grounds of ill health but they could be recalled to prison when they had recovered.

Walton Gaol, Hornby Road, Liverpool (1949-05-29) by Aerofilms LtdHistoric England

Lady Constance Lytton believed her social status was the reason why she was treated leniently in prison. To test her concerns, she disguised herself as a working-class suffragette and was subjected to force feeding here at Walton Gaol until her true identity was revealed.

HM Prison Holloway, Islington, Greater London (1937-06-12) by Aerofilms LtdHistoric England

Holloway Prison in London became female-only in 1902. It was the main prison for suffragette offenders. Suffragettes were treated as criminal rather than political prisoners. In protest, suffragette Marion Wallace-Dunlop began a hunger strike at Holloway in 1909, an action that became WSPU policy.

Interior view of a wing at HMYOI Aylesbury, Bierton Road, Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire (1995-09-26) by James O Davies, Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of EnglandHistoric England

A mass hunger strike was started at Aylesbury Gaol. A window-smashing raid in London in 1912 led to the imprisonment of suffragettes at Holloway and Aylesbury. Prisoners began a hunger strike that went undetected for several days and Aylesbury became the focus for protests against force feeding.

Epsom Racecourse was the site of the suffragette movement’s most famous act. In 1909 Emily Wilding gave up her job as a teacher in order to commit herself to the suffrage movement. That year she was imprisoned in Manchester, sentenced to a month's hard labour for throwing rocks at the carriage of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George. On 4 June 1913, Davison famously left the public enclosure at Epsom Racecourse and walked onto the track during the running of The Derby. She was knocked down by King George V’s horse Anmer. Emily died of her injuries four days later.

Epsom Downs Racecourse, Epsom Downs, Epsom, Surrey (1922-05) by Aerofilms LtdHistoric England

It is not clear why Emily Davison walked on to the track at Epsom. Her death led the Daily Sketch newspaper to call her the 'First Martyr for Votes for Women.' Tens of thousands of people watched her funeral procession. Queen Mary, who witnessed the collision, described Emily as ‘the horrid woman’.

The suffrage campaign was interrupted by the outbreak of the First World War. When the war ended, it was recognised that many soldiers were not entitled to vote in parliamentary elections. The Representation of the People Act 1918 was passed, giving the vote to men aged 21 and over. It also granted the vote to women for the first time. However, only women who were 30 and over, and with certain property qualifications, could now vote. It was not until 1928 that a new Act gave voting rights to all women aged 21 and over. It was the first time that women had achieved electoral equality with men.

Emmeline Pankhurst Statue, Victoria Tower Gardens, Millbank, Westminster, Greater London (1981-02-15) by Paul BarkshireHistoric England

Emmeline Pankhurst died on 14 June 1928. To commemorate her achievements in the fight for women’s suffrage a bronze statue was unveiled in Victoria Tower Gardens, close to the Houses of Parliament, by Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin on 6 March 1930. It was moved to its present site in 1956.

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