The escalating militant activism of the suffragettes shook the establishment and made the front page.
Established in 1903 in Manchester by Emmeline Pankurst, the suffragettes were members of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). Targeting the built environment was their thing. They set bombs, smashed windows and interrupted high profile events in their campaign for women to be granted the right to vote.
We’ve recognised 41 sites that witnessed acts of suffragette sabotage and protest across the country, and their important role in women’s history, on the National Heritage List.
Here are six that you may not have heard of:
1. Manchester Art Gallery
On 3 April 1913 Lillian Forrester, Annie Briggs and Evelyn Manesta were discovered smashing the glass of paintings at Manchester Art Gallery. This was the first attack by suffragettes on art works, and the damage to 13 pictures was estimated at £100. Upon their arrest, the women explained that they were acting in protest at a prison sentence given to Mrs Pankhurst. Forrester and Manesta were sentenced to three months in prison.
While imprisoned, their photographs were taken and distributed to public galleries, identifying the women as potential threats.
2. Walton Prison, Liverpool
Walton Gaol was the site of one of the most important suffragette prison protests in 1910. Lady Constance Lytton, an aristocratic suffragette, believed that she was treated differently to her working class comrades. She disguised herself as Jane Warton and took part in a protest outside Walton Gaol where two suffragettes were being held. She threw stones at the windows of the governor’s house and was arrested. Her medical examination as ‘Jane’ was cursory and did not pick up a pre-existing heart condition that had previously rendered her exempt from being forcibly-fed.
Lytton was released when her identity was revealed but her health never fully recovered from being violently force fed. She wrote several accounts of her treatment in Walton, consistently arguing that the legal system treated working-class suffragettes more severely.
3. Victoria Rooms, Bristol
Bristol’s thriving branch of the WSPU used the Victoria Rooms for its regular meetings from 1908. The building also hosted large public events featuring national suffragette speakers including Emmeline Pankhurst, Christabel Pankhurst and Emmeline Pethick Lawrence. The WSPU’s use of militancy was controversial and its meetings were often targeted by groups of young men intent on disruption. In 1908 the WSPU employed professional boxers to keep medical students from interrupting Mrs Pankhurst’s speech at the Victoria Rooms.
4. 55 Cookridge Street (O2 Academy, formerly The Coliseum), Leeds
Situated close to Leeds Civic Hall, the former Coliseum Theatre was a regular venue for political meetings. Several women were thrown out of the building for disrupting a speech by Liberal MP John Burns in December 1907.
When Prime Minister Asquith visited Leeds in October 1908 local suffragettes and leaders of the local unemployed held a large protest meeting outside The Coliseum. Jeanie Baines, a WSPU organiser, urged the crowd to ‘break down the doors’ of the building; she was arrested, and became the first woman to be tried by jury for a suffrage offence.
5. Her Majesty’s Theatre, Haymarket, London
The theatre was a popular site of protest for members of the WSPU, particularly after 1913 when owners of many public halls were refusing to hire them out for suffragette meetings. Theatres provided an audience, and mass protests in the West End received lots of press coverage.
Her Majesty’s Theatre Haymarket witnessed some of the most widely reported protests. In 1914 during a performance attended by the King, Queen and Princess Mary, one woman attempted to hand a petition to the King. Inside the play was interrupted when the audience was showered with suffragette leaflets thrown from the gallery.
6. St George’s Hall, Liverpool
In reaction to the WSPU’s campaign, political meetings by the Liberal party were tightly controlled with entry only by ticket or in some cases excluding women altogether.
In May 1909 Earl Crewe and Augustine Birrell MP were awarded honorary degrees by the University of Liverpool in a ceremony at St George’s Hall. Mary Phillips, a local suffragette, managed to get into the Hall the night before and hid in the organ loft and under the stage. After 24 hours without sleep she interrupted speeches to protest against the imprisonment of local suffragette Patricia Woodlock. It was several minutes before she was found and removed from the Hall.
St George’s Plateau, outside of the Hall, was used for large local demonstrations. In 1908 the local Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage (one of the earliest provincial branches of this organisation) arranged a large demonstration with platforms for militant and constitutional suffrage societies.
Written by Marina Nenadic, Marketing Executive at Historic England
- Suffragettes: 7 places where history happened
- A history of feminism through 5 finds
- Find out more about how we’re commemorating the centenary of women winning the vote at historicengland.org.uk/herstories
You have such an interest in British history, have you ever been to John Knifton’s site?