Rare suffragette banner hidden in charity shop for 10 years

Banner that provided backdrop for many Emmeline Pankhurst speeches acquired by People’s History Museum in Manchester

One of the most important pieces of suffragette history has been bought for the nation after languishing in an obscure charity shop for 10 years.

A banner that provided the backdrop for many of Emmeline Pankhurst’s most famous speeches had been tucked away in a cupboard in the Halton Moor and Osmondthorpe Project for Elders charity shop in Leeds. It had been donated as part of a house clearance, with volunteers unaware of its significance.

Embroidered with the legend “Manchester – first in the fight”, the purple banner has been bought by the People’s History Museum in Pankhurst’s hometown of Manchester and will go on display next May for the centenary of women getting the vote.

Pankhurst shared the platform with the banner at a huge rally in Manchester’s Heaton Park on 19 July 1908, when she spoke to a crowd of 50,000 people. It aimed to remind people that the Women’s Social and Political Union had started in Manchester in 1903, despite having by then moved its headquarters to London.

Manchester Guardian, 20 July 1908
Manchester Guardian, 20 July 1908. Photograph: Guardian

The People’s History Museum, which charts the history of British democracy, had hoped to buy the banner when it came up for auction this year but was outbid by a professional dealer. Jenny Mabbott, the museum’s head of collections, was heartbroken to miss out on the first chance to buy a Suffragette banner for 30 years, but gave her card to the dealer “just in case we could change his mind”.

He eventually agreed to sell up for £20,000, about a quarter of which the museum raised in just one week from a crowdfunding campaign, which saw supporters pledge amounts from £1 to £2,000 to the purchase. The rest of the cash came from an Arts Council England/V&A Purchase Grant Fund and the Heritage Lottery Fund’s Collecting Cultures programme.

Mabbott said: “The significance of this banner to suffragette history cannot be overstated. Such pieces rarely come up for sale and this combined with its quality is what prompted our campaign to acquire it.

“What makes the banner even more special is that it witnessed some of the key suffragette rallies that took place in Manchester, where the movement began. Having the Manchester suffragette banner as part of our collection will help us to illuminate to visitors this important chapter in the story of Britain’s struggle for democracy so we thank everyone who has supported our campaign.”

Mabbott and colleagues were able to establish the authenticity of the banner with the help of the Manchester Guardian. An edition from 20 July 1908 carried a report of the Heaton Park rally, which mentioned the banner alongside an anecdote about a suffragette being heckled by someone shouting: “Why don’t you get married?” Miss Woodcock of Liverpool replied: “I am kept so busy advocating women suffrage that I have no time to think of it. But just give votes to women and then I may consider my wedding.”


Helen Pidd North of England editor

The GuardianTramp

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