Monday 29 January 2018

January Guest: Rise Up, Women! The Remarkable Lives of the Suffragettes by Diane Atkinson

Diane Atkinson, author of Rise Up Women!
This month, our guest blogger is Diane Atkinson, author of Rise Up Women! The Remarkable Lives of the Suffragettes. Marking the centenary of female suffrage, this definitive history charts women's fight for the vote through the lives of those who took part, in a timely celebration of an extraordinary struggle. It is published in the UK by Bloomsbury on 8th February.

Here, Diane commemorates some of the women who attempted to infiltrate government to get women's voices heard, and who paid the price of imprisonment for doing so:


A hundred and ten years ago, on the morning of 17 January 1908, Edith New, a schoolteacher, and Olivia Smith, a nurse, members of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), arrived in Downing Street. Under their coats there were steel chains round their waists. They padlocked themselves to the railings outside Number Ten Downing Street, shouting ‘Votes for Women!’ loud enough for the Cabinet Ministers indoors to hear. Sylvia Pankhurst said: ‘Chains symbolically express the political bondage of womanhood, and the practical reason is that this device would prevent the women being dragged away’. Policemen tried to smash the padlock. ‘Considerable force was used before the chains could be broken.’ When Herbert Asquith, chancellor of the exchequer arrived, other suffragettes tried to surround him but he was protected by a circle of policemen. 

Flora Drummond
 Two taxi cabs pulled up, one was carrying two more suffragettes, Flora Drummond and Elizabeth McArthur, and during the chaos Flora and Elizabeth got into No 10. Mrs Drummond knew ‘the secret of the little knob’ in the door, and pushed it. Miss Mary Garth, ‘a frail, pale- complexioned girl,’ followed them. The three women nearly got to the Cabinet Room where they wanted to ask the Prime Minister Henry Campbell-Bannerman and the Cabinet if women’s suffrage was to be included in the King’s Speech at the opening of Parliament on the 29th January.

But Drummond, McArthur and Garth were grabbed by the porter and policemen and chucked out of the building. One supporter outside was knocked down in the melee. The Daily Mirror reported that Flora Drummond was ‘very violent’ and ‘tripped up a gentleman and he would have fallen had he not seized the rails.’ The suffragettes refused to leave Downing Street, five were arrested and taken to Cannon Row Police Station. In the afternoon their cases were heard by the chief magistrate, Sir Albert de Rutzen. Flora Drummond, Elizabeth McArthur, Edith New, Olivia Smith and Frances Thompson were sentenced to three weeks in Holloway Gaol in the second division as ‘common criminals’ and not political prisoners, which meant they could not wear their own clothes, and had to do menial work.

Edith New, right, on her release from Holloway in August 1908, after serving two months for smashing windows at 10 Downing Street with her comrade Mary Leigh, left.

The next day a photograph of Flora Drummond, dwarfed by five burly policemen, appeared on the front page of the Daily Mirror. Olivia Smith told the court she had refused to unchain herself from the railings because ‘I do not see why I should not chain myself up on a man’s fence if I like. I did not hurt the fence, I did not hurt anybody … it is my right to exert my individuality and accept my three weeks’ imprisonment.’ Edith New had already served two weeks in Holloway for her part in the protest at the House of Commons on the 8th of March 1907. Edith, a member of the WSPU since 1906, was a paid organiser, born in Swindon in 1877. Before her suffragette days Miss New was a schoolteacher in Greenwich.


Alice Hawkins, a mother of six children, who had been arrested in skirmishes with the police in Westminster in February 1907, and spent two weeks in Holloway Gaol, had opened a branch of the WSPU in her home town of Leicester. Alice, who worked in the boot and shoe industry before and after her marriage to Alfred Hawkins, was born in Stafford in 1863. In 1886 Alice went to work at Equity Shoes, a cooperative, where workers were encouraged to participate in political organisations.

Alice and Alfred, a shoe clicker – he cut the uppers from the leather – were long-standing political activists: they joined the Independent Labour Party in 1892, and met the Pankhurst family in the mid 1890s. In 1896 Alice joined Equity Shoes’ branch of the Women’s Cooperative Guild, and was active in the Boot and Shoe Trade Union. In 1906, because of its failure to promote women’s suffrage, Alice fell out with the I.L.P.

Alfred Hawkins took care of the children when Alice went to London to attend the suffragettes’ Women’s Parliament on 14th February 1907.

One day in the exercise yard at Holloway Alice saw women with babies: ‘The thought that a young life born into the world should have to spend its first months of life in prison. It was one more injustice to add to our cry for the right to stop some of these horrible things being allowed.’ She invited Mrs Pankhurst’s daughter Sylvia Pankhurst to Leicester and introduced her to the workers at Equity Shoes. Sylvia spent the summer of 1907 with the Hawkins family, drawing and painting and writing about the women in the boot and shoe trade as they worked.

In the January issue of the suffragette newspaper, Votes for Women, Frederick and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, who were the financial backers of the WSPU and editors of paper, launched the 1908 campaign. They presented readers with stark choices: 
"Are you going to play the woman or are you going to play the coward? Are you going to stand by and let others bear the brunt of battle? Are you going to say to yourself, “I will be sympathetic; I will occasionally talk about it to my friends, perhaps I will give a little money, but I do not mean to risk my reputation or friendships or personal esteem by too prominently identifying myself with the cause of my sex” … or are you made of sterner stuff than this? Are you going to come forward and say, I will be a battle comrade in the great fight; I will share the difficulties and the hardships; I will make the sacrifices that are required of me."

Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence
Frederick Pethick-Lawrence

Fred and Emmeline urged: ‘stand with us so that this year shall see the fulfilment of the promise for which women have worked so long.’

During the first six weeks of 1908 the WSPU’s headquarters in Clement’s Inn – which now employed twenty workers and had dozens of volunteers - made preparations for the three-day Women’s Parliament at Caxton Hall, February 11th –13th. The WSPU’s plan was to present a petition to the House of Commons on the first day by smuggling themselves into the building in two pantechnicons.

The Trojan Horse raid was the brainchild of Mrs Pankhurst’s son, nineteen-year-old Harry, and twenty-one women almost succeeded in their invasion.

Rise Up Women! by Diane Atkinson
Front cover, published 8th Feb 2018 by Bloomsbury

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