Smashed windows, broken rules: the dark suffragette sites of London

London is deeply marked by the struggle for women’s suffrage – from Holloway prison where Sylvia Pankhurst was force-fed to the east London tearooms where activists plotted

When police sped to the scene of two explosions that blew out the windows of homes near HMP Holloway just before Christmas in 1913, they found a damaged wall and bomb-making equipment in the garden of 12 Dalmeny Avenue. But they never managed to pin the blasts on their chief suspects – suffragettes staying at the safe house backing on to the prison, from where the women shouted at prisoners and serenaded Emmeline Pankhurst with a cornet. More than a century later, such stories explain why London’s suffrage past is still so compelling.

The struggle for women’s suffrage in early 20th-century Britain is embedded nowhere as deeply as in London, which in 1906 became the epicentre of both the constitutional campaign and militant movement, after Pankhurst moved the Women’s Political and Social Union (WSPU) to the capital. Perhaps no single location resonates for women’s rights campaigners today as much as Holloway, the first female-only prison, where militant suffragettes were incarcerated, went on hunger strike and were savagely force-fed.

“Holloway is absolutely central to the suffragettes’ story,” says Caitlin Davies, whose book on Holloway, Bad Girls: A History of Rebels and Renegades, will be published on 8 March. “I grew up in the area and had always known about the suffragette inmates but mainly in terms of their victimisation. Now I also know that they put up a lot of resistance to the prison regime, refusing the rule of silence, for example. They were well connected and they spread the word about conditions inside.”

Davies, who led workshops at Holloway shortly before it closed, says the last women inmates were very aware of the importance of the suffragettes’ story.

19th December 1913: A woman peers through a shattered window in Holloway prison after an explosion by suffragettes who had tried to blow the place up.
A woman peers through a shattered window in Holloway prison after the explosion in December 1913. Photograph: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Around 300 suffragettes were jailed at Holloway for arson, window-smashing and other acts of sabotage, and the north London prison became a key battleground in the war with the authorities. Harrowing personal testimonies reveal how women were forcibly fed, held down while a rubber tube was pushed down the nose or throat in a life-threatening procedure that some underwent more than 200 times. A further cruelty was the Temporary Discharge for Prisoners Act, known as the “Cat and Mouse Act”, which allowed hunger strikers to be released into the community until they were well enough to be re-arrested. In a nod to the legislation, last December Islington council opened the Cat and Mouse Library next to the now-closed prison.

Now the Ministry of Justice has put the 10-acre site up for sale, and its future is contentious. Islington council says it won’t back redevelopment plans that don’t include at least 50% “genuinely affordable” homes, while local campaigners fear developers will dilute the council’s plan for a women’s building on the site.

Following their footsteps

Interest in London’s suffrage sites has been revived by the centenary on 6 February of the Representation of the People Act, which first gave the vote to women over 30 who met some kind of property qualification. Specialist tours offer the chance to walk in the footsteps of the suffragettes, who marched from their headquarters in Lincoln’s Inn House on Kingsway to the Houses of Parliament and held rallies in Hyde Park.

A defining image of the era is the funeral procession from Piccadilly to King’s Cross of Emily Wilding Davison, who died after running in front of the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby in June 1913. Many government offices, including the War Office and 10 Downing Street, as well as the National Gallery, St Paul’s and the Bank of England, were the targets of window smashing and bombs by suffragettes who gathered in West End tearooms and restaurants, like the Criterion on Piccadilly, to organise.

Suffragettes campaigning during a by-election, circa 1910.
Suffragettes campaigning during a by-election, circa 1910. Photograph: Heritage Image Partnership/Alamy

But the anniversary is also a chance to pay proper attention to places that have been overlooked in the suffragette story, says historian Sarah Jackson, co-founder of the East End Women’s Museum. Interest has been growing in East End suffragette history, and in 2014 researchers produced a map of key sites. It was in Bow that Sylvia Pankhurst led the East London Federation of Suffragettes, whose campaign was anchored in the daily reality of working women’s lives and fought for decent housing and fair pay – as opposed to the middle-class campaign on the single issue of the vote.

“The suffragettes of the East End went beyond the vote and carried on the fight for equality and women’s rights for years after 1918. They also opposed the war,” says Jackson, author of Voices from History: East London Suffragettes. “Some middle-class leaders like Sylvia Pankhurst had to listen and learn from them and their experiences, and their legacy is still embedded in the community decades later.”

Sylvia had split from the WSPU after clashing with her mother Emmeline and sister Christabel over the need to mobilise working women, and it is her values that resonate for modern-day campaigners, sayes Jackson. “The suffragettes were inspiring and it is impossible to overstate their importance, but they were of their time and some of their views and positions were problematic. Young women activists of the East End today find more in common with the East End suffragettes, who were more flexible and tackled a much broader range of issues.”

A suffragette tour of east London would take in the former site of the Mother’s Arms at 438 Old Ford Road, a pub that was converted into a community hub, and Bow police station, where many women were taken after arrest for window smashing and other sabotage. Also in Bow, 46 Norman Grove was once the site of a toy factory and creche set up by Pankhurst, among other sites.

A police officer tries to remove a Suffragette from the railings outside Buckingham Palace, during a demonstration in London.
A police officer tries to remove a suffragette from the railings outside Buckingham Palace during a demonstration in London. Photograph: Central Press/Getty Images

Jackson suggests starting at Roman Road market, where the suffragettes had a stall to spread their message, and heading to 400 Old Ford Road, where a green space now marks the former site of the Women’s Hall, the most innovative women’s project of the era, where women distributed milk and food at a low-cost canteen and held radical meetings.

“It is very poignant that in the place of the Women’s Hall there is now just this green space,” says Jackson. “There is a literal gap between the buildings. The hall was the site of these extraordinary radical meetings, and the space is a symbol of the challenges that working-class movements faced in organising, in places that were not prestigious.”

From March to December, the “Women’s Hall”, a Heritage Lottery project at east London venues, will celebrate the EFLS, with two major exhibitions, a volunteering programme and other events. These include a Girls Do Science family day, to celebrate women’s contribution to science and engineering; a Working for Equality cinema, with free screenings of films focusing on women who challenged discrimination at work; and an exhibition to mark 100 years of women’s activism.

Other gaps in London’s suffrage history are finally being filled. Beverley Cook, curator of a centenary display at the Museum of London, says her research has shed light on the lives of the women who came from outside the capital to campaign, sought lodgings through an underground network, and went undercover to evade the Cat and Mouse Act.

Cook highlights how even landmarks such as Trafalgar Square deserve a second look. “For me, the images of Emmeline Pankhurst speaking in the square, surrounded by men, are still among the most powerful because this required more courage than, say, taking part in mass rallies.”

Emmeline Pankhurst addresses a meeting in London’s Trafalgar Square in October 1908.
Emmeline Pankhurst addresses a meeting in London’s Trafalgar Square in October 1908. Photograph: PA

Historic England, the body that looks after England’s historic environment, is inviting people to send in their suffrage stories for new “toffee hammer listings”, named after the tools the suffragettes used to break windows, which will be added to its list of well-known sites, such as the Pankhurst Centre in Manchester. Historic England is also working with the artist Lucy Orta and former Holloway inmates to produce a banner for Processions, a public art event in which thousands of women and girls will walk through London, Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh on 10 June.

With its sale due to be announced in spring, the Holloway site is likely to remain a focus for campaigners who demand that its redevelopment includes public housing, green space and a women’s building to reflect and honour its painful history.

Sisters Uncut, who stormed the red carpet at the London premiere of the film Suffragette, in a protest against its “celebratory” tone at a time when domestic violence services and refuges are being closed, plan more action to “reclaim the suffragette movement”. Last year they occupied the Holloway site.

“Part of the reason for reclaiming that space is redressing the legacy of trauma experienced by the women who were locked up there for years,” says Nina, a 24-year-old activist who did not give her full name. “If the suffragettes were still with us today, I think they’d also like to see a women’s building on that site.”

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Jo Griffin

The GuardianTramp

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