Women's militant activism

Rise Up, Women! A look at the militant activism of the suffragette movement.

By Museum of London

Mrs Pankhurst arrrested and carried bodily by Superintendant Rolfe (1914-05-21)Museum of London

Deeds Not Words

The Women’s Social and Political Union was founded, in 1903, on the principle of ‘Deeds Not Words’. The Pankhursts, the family who headed the WSPU, sparked in their supporters a ‘spirit of revolt’ that directly challenged the male dominated society in which they lived and brought women to the forefront of public life. From the outset, confrontation with the authorities was inevitable.  

Christabel Pankhurst, Flora Drummond and Emmeline Pankhurst in Court (1908)Museum of London

Suffragettes marching to Buckingham Palace (1914)Museum of London

By taking their campaign to the streets the Women’s Social and Political Union attracted maximum publicity for their cause but also placed their supporters in vulnerable situations.

Mary Phillips, selling the Votes for Women newspaper (1907) by World's Graphic Press LimitedMuseum of London

Regular day to day campaign activities - such as selling Suffragette newspapers on street corners, delivering speeches in public spaces, and chalking pavements to announce meetings - were often undertaken by lone women, who experienced verbal and, at times, physical abuse from passers-by.

Suffragette demonstration in Whitehall (1908) by World's Graphic Press, LtdMuseum of London

Postcard, A Lancashire Lass in Clogs and Shawl Being "Escorted" Through Palace Yard (1907) by G.W., EdwardMuseum of London

The first arrest of Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney in 1905 set a marker for future tactics. As frustrations with government refusal to grant women the vote increased, so direct action became more confrontational.

Between 1905 and 1914, over 1,300 Suffragettes were arrested and many of these served multiple terms of imprisonment for a range of criminal offences from obstruction to arson.

Suffragette Arrest (1913) by Central NewsMuseum of London

Police photos of Amy Sanderson, 1907-1908, From the collection of: Museum of London
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Charge sheet issued to Florence Haig (1912) by London Metropolitan PoliceMuseum of London

Suffragette Riot at Buckingham Palace (1914) by The Press Photographic AgencyMuseum of London

Leaflet, Plain facts about the Suffragette Deputations (1910) by Women's Social and Political UnionMuseum of London

Black Friday

 Events such as Black Friday in 1910 -where hundreds of Suffragettes were subjected to manhandling and sexual assault by the police - marked a turning point in the campaign, persuading the leadership to pursue a more underground form of 'guerrilla warfare' that prioritised attacks on property. 

Telegram concerning the arrest of Maud Arncliffe Sennett (1910-11-22)Museum of London

Telegram sent by Maud Arncliffe Sennett to her husband after her arrest on Black Friday. Reads "Arrested quite safe fond love Maud."

Black Friday, 18th November 1910 (1910) by BarrattMuseum of London

Black Friday, 18th November 1910 (1910)Museum of London

Police summons issued to Janie Terrero (1912)Museum of London

Window smashing

In November 1911 window-smashing was officially adopted as a key campaign tactic by the Women's Social and Political Union. On 1 March 1912, up to 300 Suffragettes armed with hammers, stones and instructions from headquarters as to their use and timing, broke shop and office windows in the West End of London.

Toffee hammer used for breaking windows (c. 1911)Museum of London

Following this attack on the windows of 270 premises, the police discovered that 24 toffee hammers had been purchased in February from a shop in Fetter Lane, by a 'well set up intellectual lady'.

Around 220 arrests were made on March 1, and more on subsequent days, as Emmeline Pankhurst declared: ‘The argument of the broken pane of glass is the most valuable argument in modern politics’.

Whip produced as evidence against Maud Arncliffe Sennett, 1911, From the collection of: Museum of London
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Leather flail used by Lettice Floyd, c. 1912, From the collection of: Museum of London
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Catapult used for breaking windows, c. 1911, From the collection of: Museum of London
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Cosh used by suffragettes, c. 1912, From the collection of: Museum of London
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Illustrated London News report headed: Glass-Smashing for Votes! Suffragettes as Window-Breakers. (1912) by Illustrated London NewsMuseum of London

Suffragettes holding a broken window pane (1912)Museum of London

Rusholme Exhibition Centre destroyed by fire (1913)Museum of London

Arson and bombings

A number of hardened Suffragettes were prepared to go even further, by attempting to destroy property through arson and bombing.

Racecourse stand wrecked by suffragettes (1913) by Record PressMuseum of London

The Suffragette newspaper reported over 300 incidents of arson and bombing between 1913 and 1914.

Newspaper report on the Explosion at Holloway Prison (1913)Museum of London

In December 1913, Suffragettes detonated explosives against the walls of Holloway Prison, to protest the treatment of female suffrage campaigners held there.

Lady White's house burned by Suffragettes (1913) by Central NewsMuseum of London

The Suffragettes tried to only attack unoccupied property and hoped never to endanger human life.

Washers used in 'pillar box' work (1909-1914)Museum of London

Growing experience and confidence resulted in the development of more sophisticated incendiary and bomb making devices.

Within the Museum of London collection are two metal washers used to devastating effect in Suffragette ‘pillar box’ work. Posted along with an incendiary device, they were intended to cause maximum destruction to the letters within.

Scrapbook compiled by the Suffragette Kitty Marion Page 19 (1909-1916) by Marion, KittyMuseum of London

Although some Suffragettes, including Kitty Marion, were charged for arson and bombing, many of the attacks remained unsolved, as the Suffragettes became more skilled in evading the police surveillance, and established a network of safe houses.

Newspaper report on Suffragette attacks on artworks (1914)Museum of London

Attacks on culture

Suffragette attacks on artworks, including the slashing of the Rokeby Venus at the National Gallery by Mary Richardson, resulted in the closure of many London art galleries and museums to female visitors.  Between March and June 1914 there were 14 separate attacks on artworks at the National Gallery, Royal Academy, National Portrait Gallery, Birmingham City Art Gallery, Royal Scottish Academy and the Doré Gallery, as well as 2 attacks on cases at the British Museum. Twelve Suffragettes were arrested for these attacks. 

Newspaper report of Suffragette attack on artworks at the Dore Gallery (1914)Museum of London

Newspaper report on the Suffragette attack on the portrait of Henry James at the Royal Academy (1914)Museum of London

Portrait of Thomas Carlyle damaged by Suffragettes, The Central Press Photos Limited, 1914, From the collection of: Museum of London
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Police guarding the National Gallery, 1914, From the collection of: Museum of London
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Note to 'Se. Suffrage' from 'Reeve 112 Vassall Road Brixton' (1910-1914)Museum of London

Suffragette ‘outrages’ drew some surprising responses.

An extraordinary letter in the Museum collection addressed to 'Se. Suffrage' and signed 'Reeve 112 Vassall Road Brixton' informs WSPU Headquarters that he has the 'means to assist you in your plots' through access to the Royal Dockyard, and 'could cause thousands of pounds damage easily'.

As a condition of helping, he requests that the Suffragettes 'must pay sum of few pounds for expenses first and what you think fit afterwards on completion'.

Newspaper report on a Suffragette demonstration at Westminster (1910)Museum of London

In general, however, as Suffragette militancy became more extreme, resulting in considerable disruption to day to day life, the media and public began to turn against the Suffragettes.

Newspaper report on the arrest of Emmeline Pankhurst at Buckingham Palace (1914)Museum of London

Postcard, We Want the Vote (1909) by Cynicus Publishing Company LtdMuseum of London

As well as negative newspaper reports with images of women being arrested, commercial postcard publishers also satirised the Suffragettes as being unwomanly and having abandoned their traditional domestic roles as wife and Mother.

Postcard, Mummy's a Suffragette (1909)Museum of London

Anti-suffrage postcard, Home, sweet Home, Striking Example of a Suffragettes Home' (1909) by Davidson BrothersMuseum of London

In the Museum of London collections we also hold several items of hate mail, sent to individual Suffragettes, with threatening and abusive messages: the most chilling forms of anti-Suffragette material.

Postcard sent to Minnie Turner (1912)Museum of London

Anonymous threatening postcard sent to Minnie Turner.

Postcard with anti-suffrage sentiments (1913)Museum of London

Postcard sent to Annie Williams, WSPU Organiser for Wales in 1913: "We have not heard of any injustices being inflicted upon the Women of this country except the abominable, execrable, and diabolical outrages perpetuated by Female Hooligans who are a disgrace to their sex and to their nation and who ought to receive punishment to the utmost rigour of the law."

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