Suffragette Spectacles

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

By Museum of London

Suffragette procession at Westminster (1908) by World's Graphic Press, LtdMuseum of London

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. 

Programme of Suffragette Demonstration (1908)Museum of London

Women's Sunday (1908-06-21)Museum of London

Demonstrators arrived on specially chartered trains from over seventy towns.

Suffragette speaker, Women's Sunday (1908-06-21) by Broom, ChristinaMuseum of London

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

Suffragette Speaker at Women's Sunday (1908-06-21)Museum of London

Ticket to the WSPU Hyde Park demonstration (1908)Museum of London

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.   

Suffragette rosette and badge (1908-1912)Museum of London

Regalia of the Women's Social and Political Union (1908-1914)Museum of London

Banner of the Hammersmith branch of the Women's Social & Political Union (1910-1912)Museum of London

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

Preparing banners for Women's Sunday (1908-06-21) by World's Graphic Press LimitedMuseum of London

Preparing banners for Women's Sunday.

Banner of the Chelsea branch of the Women's Social and Political Union (1908) by Ross, HermanMuseum of London

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

Banner of the West Ham Branch of the Women's Social & Political Union (1909-1910)Museum of London

Banner of the Lewisham branch of the Women's Social and Political Union (c. 1910)Museum of London

Banner of the Ilford branch of the Women's Social and Political Union (c. 1910)Museum of London

Women's Sunday (1908) by World's Graphic Press LimitedMuseum of London

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

Votes for Women handbill (1911) by Women's Social and Political UnionMuseum of London

Women's Coronation Procession

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

Souvenir paper table napkin printed with a programme for the Women's Coronation procession (1911) by Burgess, S.Museum of London

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.

Irish contingent at the Women's Coronation Procession (1911-06-17) by Broom, ChristinaMuseum of London

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

Welsh Suffragettes, Women's Coronation Procession (1911) by General Press Photo CompanyMuseum of London

...and Wales.

Women Writers' Suffrage League, Women's Coronation procession (1911) by World's Graphic Press, LtdMuseum of London

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

Banner of the Writers' Suffrage League (1908) by Lowndes, MaryMuseum of London

Actressses' Franchise League, Women's Coronation Procession (1911)Museum of London

Banner of the Actresses' Franchise League (1911) by Housman, ClemenceMuseum of London

Car of Empire, Women's Coronation Procession (1911) by TopicalMuseum of London

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.

Indian Suffragettes, Women's Coronation Procession (1911-06-17)Museum of London

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

Suffragette Coronation Procession, 17 June 1911 (1911) by Searjeant, H.Museum of London

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.

Prisoners' Pageant, Women's Coronation Procession (1911) by Central NewsMuseum of London

Suffragette Procession (1910) by Record PressMuseum of London

Charlotte Marsh (1910) by Broom, ChristinaMuseum of London

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. 

Suffragette badge of office (1908) by National Women's Social and Political UnionMuseum of London

Speaker's Badge, WSPU Rally (1910)Museum of London

Flora Drummond (1908)Museum of London

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

Flora 'General' Drummond (1908) by Caswall Smith, LizzieMuseum of London

Peaked cap worn by Flora 'General' Drummond (1908) by Toye & Co.Museum of London

Flora Drummond campaigning (1908-1910)Museum of London

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'.

Funeral procession of Emily Wilding Davison (1913) by Central NewsMuseum of London

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.

Funeral Procession of Emily Wilding Davison (1913)Museum of London

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

Funeral of Emily Wilding Davison (1913)Museum of London

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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