Suffragette bombing and arson campaign
London - City of London Police Museum, Suffragette bombs.jpg
Two suffragette bombs, which were defused before they could detonate, on display at the City of London Police Museum in 2019
TypeSingle-issue terrorism (see classification as terrorism)
Location
TargetGovernment, infrastructure, churches, the public
DateJune 1912 – August 1914
Executed byWomen's Social and Political Union (WSPU)
OutcomeStalemate, outbreak of the First World War halts campaign
Casualties
  • 5+ killed (including one suffragette)
  • 24+ injured (including two suffragettes)

Suffragettes in Great Britain and Ireland orchestrated a bombing and arson campaign between the years 1912 and 1914. The campaign was instigated by the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), and was a part of their wider campaign for women's suffrage. The campaign, led by key WSPU figures such as Emmeline Pankhurst, targeted infrastructure, government, churches and the general public, and saw the use of improvised explosive devices, arson, letter bombs, assassination attempts and other forms of direct action and violence. At least 5 people were killed in such attacks (including one suffragette), and at least 24 were injured (including two suffragettes). The campaign was halted at the outbreak of war in August 1914 without having brought about votes for women, as suffragettes pledged to pause their campaigning to aid the nation's war effort.

The campaign has seen classification as a terrorist campaign, with both suffragettes themselves and the authorities referring to arson and bomb attacks as terrorism. Contemporary press reports also referred to attacks as "terrorist" incidents in both the United Kingdom and in the United States, and a number of historians have also classified the campaign as one involving terrorist acts, such as C. J. Bearman, Fern Riddell, Rachel Monaghan and feminist historian Cheryl Jorgensen-Earp. However, historian June Purvis has publicly contested the term and argued that the campaign did not involve terrorist acts.

Background

Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst

Multiple suffrage societies had formed across Britain during the Victorian era, all campaigning for women's suffrage - with only certain men being able to vote in parliamentary elections at the time.[1] In the years leading up to the First World War, "suffragettes" had become the popular name for members of a new organisation, the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU).[2] Founded in 1903 by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters, the Union was willing to carry out forms of direct action to achieve women's suffrage.[2] This was indicated by the Union's adoption of the motto "deeds, not words".[2]

After decades of peaceful protest, the WSPU believed that more radical action was needed to get the government to listen to the campaign for women's rights.[1] From 1905 the WSPU's activities became increasingly militant and its members became increasingly willing to break the law, inflicting damage upon property and people.[2] WSPU supporters raided Parliament, physically assaulted politicians and smashed windows at government premises.[2] In one instance, a suffragette assaulted future Prime Minister Winston Churchill with a horse whip on the platform at Bristol railway station.[1] Other militant suffragette groups were active: the Women's Freedom League attacked ballot boxes at the 1909 Bermondsey by-election with acid, blinding the returning officer in one eye and causing severe burns to the Liberal agent's neck.[3] However, before 1911, the WSPU made only sporadic use of violence, and it was directed almost exclusively at the government and its civil servants.[4] Emily Davison, the suffragette who later became infamous after she was killed by the King's horse at the 1913 Epsom Derby, had launched several sole attacks in London in December 1911, but these attacks were uncommon at this time.[4][5] On 8 December 1911, Davison attempted to set fire to the busy post office in Fleet Street by placing a burning cloth soaked in kerosene and contained in an envelope into the building, but the intended fire did not take hold.[5][6] Six days later, Davison set fire to two pillar boxes in the City of London, before again attempting to set fire to a post office in Parliament Street, but she was arrested during the act and imprisoned.[7][6]

After 1911, suffragette violence was directed increasingly at commercial concerns and then at the general public.[4] This violence was encouraged by the leadership of the WSPU.[8] In particular, the daughter of WSPU leader Emmeline Pankhurst, Christabel Pankhurst, took an active role in planning a self-described "reign of terror".[9] Emmeline Pankhurst stated that the aim of the campaign was "to make England and every department of English life insecure and unsafe".[10]

The campaign

Start of the campaign

In June and July 1912, five serious incidents signified the beginning of the campaign in earnest: the homes of three anti-suffrage cabinet ministers were attacked, a powerful bomb was planted in the Home Secretary's office and the Theatre Royal, Dublin, was set fire to and bombed while an audience attended a performance.[4] One of the most dangerous attacks committed by the suffragettes, the attack on the Theatre Royal was carried out by Mary Leigh, Gladys Evans, Lizzie Baker and Mabel Capper, who attempted to set fire to the building during a packed lunchtime matinee attended by the Prime Minister, H. H. Asquith.[1] A canister of gunpowder was left close to the stage and petrol and lit matches were thrown into the projection booth which contained highly combustible film reels.[1] Earlier in the day, Mary Leigh had hurled a hatchet towards Asquith, which narrowly missed him and instead cut the Irish MP John Redmond on the ear.[1] The four suffragettes who carried out the attack on the Theatre Royal were subsequently charged with offences likely to endanger life.[6]

Arson attacks continued for the rest of 1912.[4] On 25 October, Hugh Franklin set fire to his train carriage as it pulled into Harrow station.[11] He was subsequently arrested and charged with endangering the safety of passengers.[11] Then, on 28 November, post boxes were booby trapped across Great Britain, starting a 5-day long pillar box sabotage campaign, with dangerous chemicals being poured into some boxes.[1][12] In London, meanwhile, many letters ignited while in transit at post offices, and paraffin and lit matches were also put in pillar boxes.[13][14] On 29 November, a bystander was assaulted with a whip at Aberdeen railway station by Emily Davison, as she believed the man was politician David Lloyd George in disguise.[15] On 17 December, railway signals at Potters Bar were tied together and disabled by suffragettes with the intention of endangering train journeys.[16][2]

The increasing number of arson attacks and acts of criminal damage was criticised by some members of the WSPU, and in October 1912 two long-standing supporters of the suffragette cause, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence and Frederick Pethick-Lawrence, were expelled from the Union for voicing their objections to such activities.[17] By the end of the year, 240 people had been sent to prison for militant suffragette activities.[1]

Christabel Pankhurst set up a new weekly WSPU newspaper at this time named The Suffragette.[18] The newspaper began devoting double-page spreads to reporting the bomb and arson attacks that were now regularly occurring around the country.[19][20] This became the method by which the organisation claimed responsibility for each attack.[21] The independent press also began to publish weekly round-ups of the attacks, with some newspapers such as the Gloucester Journal and Liverpool Echo running dedicated columns on the latest "outrages".[1]

January 1913 escalation

Despite the outbreak of violence, at the start of January 1913 suffragettes still believed that there were some hopes of achieving the vote for women by constitutional means.[4] A "Franchise Bill" was proposed to the House of Commons in the winter session of 1912–13, and it was drafted to allow a series of amendments which, if passed, would have introduced women's suffrage.[4] However, after an initial debate on 24 January, the speaker of the house ruled the amendments out of order and the government was forced to abandon the Bill.[4] In response, the WSPU stepped-up their bombing and arson campaign.[4] The subsequent campaign was directed and in some cases orchestrated by the WSPU leadership, and was specifically designed to terrorise the government and the general public to change their opinions on women's suffrage under threat of acts of violence.[1] In a speech, leader Emmeline Pankhurst declared "guerrilla warfare".[22]

This letter box in Newport, Wales was one of many that were booby trapped by suffragettes in 1913
This letter box in Newport, Wales was one of many that were booby trapped by suffragettes in 1913

The suffragettes had invented the letter bomb, a device intended to kill or injure the recipient,[23] and an increasing amount began to be posted. On 29 January, several letter bombs were sent to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George, and the prime minister Asquith, but they all exploded in post offices, post boxes or in mailbags while in transit across the country.[24] In the following weeks, further attacks on letters and mailboxes occurred in cities such as Coventry, London, Edinburgh, Northampton, and York.[24] On 6 February five postmen were burned, four severely, in Dundee when handling a phosphorus suffragette letter bomb addressed to Asquith.[1][25][26] On 19 February, there was a suffragette bomb attack on Lloyd George's house, with two bombs being planted by Emily Davison.[27] Only one of the bombs functioned but the building was seriously damaged, although nobody was injured.[6] The explosion of the bomb occurred shortly before the arrival of workmen at the house, and the crude nature of the timer – a candle – meant that the likelihood of the bomb exploding while the men were present was high.[6] WSPU Leader Emmeline Pankhurst was herself arrested in the aftermath for planning the attack on Lloyd George's house, and was later sentenced to three years in prison.[28][29] Between February and March, railway signal wires were purposely cut on lines across the country, further endangering train journeys.[30][31]

Some of the inspiration for the suffragettes' attacks came from the earlier Fenian dynamite campaign of 1881 to 1885.[32] Although more sophisticated explosive devices were used by suffragettes, inspiration was taken from this campaign's tactic of targeting symbolic locations, such as the Bank of England and St Paul's Cathedral.[32] Amongst the other targets selected by suffragettes were sporting events: there was a failed attempt to burn down the grounds of the All England Lawn Tennis Club at Wimbledon, while a plot to burn down the grandstand of Crystal Palace F.C.'s football ground on the eve of the 1913 FA Cup Final was also foiled.[33] During the year the grandstand of the Manor Ground football stadium in Plumstead was also burned down, costing £1,000 in damages.[34] The destroyed ground was the home of then south London club Arsenal (known as Woolwich Arsenal until 1914), and the same year the financially-troubled club moved from south London to a new stadium in an area of north London, Highbury, where they still remain today.[35] Suffragettes also attempted to burn the grandstands at the stadiums of Preston North End and Blackburn Rovers football clubs during the year.[34] More traditionally masculine sports were specifically targeted in an attempt to protest against male dominance.[36] One sport that was often targeted was golf, and golf courses were often subjected to arson attacks.[37] During some of these attacks Prime Minister Asquith would be physically assaulted while playing the sport.[37]

Response to Emmeline Pankhurst's imprisonment

In April 1913 a bomb was planted in the public street outside the Bank of England
In April 1913 a bomb was planted in the public street outside the Bank of England

On 4 April, the day after Emmeline Pankhurst was sentenced to 3 years in prison for her role in the bombing of Lloyd George's house, a suffragette bomb was discovered in the street outside the Bank of England.[29] It was defused before it could detonate in what was then one of the busiest public streets in the capital, which likely prevented many casualties.[38][39] The remains of the device are now on display at the City of London Police Museum in London.[40] Railways were also the subject of bombing attacks at this time. On 3 April, a bomb exploded next to a passing train in Manchester, nearly killing the driver when flying debris grazed him and narrowly missed his head.[41] Six days later, two bombs were left on the Waterloo to Kingston line, with one being placed on the eastbound train and the other on the westbound train.[42] One of the bombs was discovered before it exploded at Battersea when the railway porter spotted smoke in a previously crowded third-class carriage.[42] Later in the day, as the Waterloo train pulled into Kingston, the third-class carriage exploded and caught fire.[38] The rest of the carriages were full of passengers at the time, but they managed to escape without serious injury.[38] The bombs had been packed with lumps of jagged metal, bullets and scraps of lead.[38] The London Underground was also targeted: on 2 May a highly unstable nitroglycerine bomb was discovered on the platform at Piccadilly Circus tube station.[43][44][45] Although it had the potential to harm many members of the public on the platform, the bomb was dealt with.[45] On 11 April, the cricket pavilion at the Nevill Ground in Royal Tunbridge Wells was destroyed in a suffragette arson attack.[46] At many of the attacks, copies of The Suffragette newspaper were intentionally left at the scene, or postcards scrawled with messages such as "Votes For Women", as a way of claiming responsibility for the attacks.[47][1]

The high explosive nitroglycerine was used for a number of suffragette bombs, and was likely produced by themselves in their own labs by sympathisers.[48] The explosive is distinctly unstable, and nitroglycerine bombs could be detonated by as little as a sharp blow, making the bombs highly dangerous.[49]

The Nevill Pavilion, Royal Tunbridge Wells, after it was destroyed in an arson attack
The Nevill Pavilion, Royal Tunbridge Wells, after it was destroyed in an arson attack

During this time, elderly suffragette ladies had reportedly begun to apply for gun licenses, supposedly to "terrify the authorities".[24] On 14 April, the former home of MP Arthur Du Cros was burned down.[50] Du Cros had consistently voted against the enfranchisement of women, which was why he had been chosen as a target.[50] The immediate aftermath of the destruction of Du Cros's house was caught on film, with newsreel company Pathé filming the ruins while they were still smouldering.[51] Some newspapers were also targeted by suffragettes: on 20 April there was an attempt to blow up the offices of the York Herald in York.[52]

One bomb that was found in Smeaton's Tower on Plymouth Hoe during April was found to have "Votes For Women. Death in Ten Minutes" written on it.[24] On 8 May, a potassium nitrate bomb was discovered at St Paul's Cathedral at the start of a sermon.[40] The bomb likely would have destroyed the historic bishop's throne and other parts of the cathedral had it exploded.[53] Meanwhile, suffragette action continued to cause injury to postal workers, with three London postmen being injured after coming into contact with noxious chemicals that had been poured into pillar boxes.[54] On 14 May, a letter bomb was sent to allegedly anti-women's suffrage magistrate Sir Henry Curtis-Bennett at Bow Street in an attempt to assassinate him, but the bomb was intercepted by London postal workers.[55][56] Suffragettes again attempted to assassinate Curtis-Bennett by pushing him off a cliff two days later at Margate, although he managed to escape.[57] The railways continued to be the subject of significant attacks throughout May. On 10 May, a bomb was discovered in the waiting room at Liverpool Street Station, London, covered with iron nuts and bolts intended to maximise damage to property and cause serious injury to anyone in proximity.[39] Four days later, another three suffragette bombs were discovered in the third-class carriage of a crowded passenger train arriving from Waterloo at Kingston, made out of nitroglycerine.[58] On 16 May, a second attempted bombing of the London Underground was foiled when a bomb was discovered at Westbourne Park tube station before it could explode.[53] Another attack on the railways occurred on 27 May, when a suffragette bomb was thrown from an express train onto Reading station platform and exploded, but there were no injuries.[59]

During the month of May, 52 bombing and arson attacks had been carried out across the country by suffragettes.[20]

Targeting of houses

The most common target for suffragette attacks during the campaign was houses or residential properties belonging to politicians or members of the public.[60] These attacks were justified by the WSPU on the grounds that the owners of the properties were invariably male, and so already possessed the vote.[61] Since they already possessed the vote, suffragettes argued, the owners were responsible for the actions of the government since they were their electors.[62] Houses were bombed or subjected to arson attacks around the country: in March 1913, fires raged at private homes across Surrey, and homes in Chorley Wood, Norwich, Potters Bar and Hampstead Garden were also set on fire.[19][22] In Ilford, London, three residential streets had their fire alarm wires cut.[1] Other prominent opponents of women's suffrage also saw their homes destroyed by fire and incendiary devices, sometimes as a response to police raids on WSPU offices.[63] Relatives of politicians also saw their houses attacked: the Mill House near Liphook, Hampshire was burned because the owner was Reginald McKenna's brother Theodore, while a bomb was set off in a house in Moor Hall Green, Birmingham, as the property was owned by Arthur Chamberlain, brother of Conservative politician Joseph Chamberlain (father to future Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain).[64][65] Houses were also attacked in Doncaster. After some suffragettes were thrown out of a political meeting there in June 1913, the house of the man who had thrown them out was burned down.[66] In response to such actions, angry mobs often attacked WSPU meetings, such as in May 1913 when 1,000 people attacked a WSPU meeting in Doncaster.[67] In retaliation, suffragettes burned down more properties in the local area.[67]

Deaths and further injuries

A fire that engulfed the semaphore tower in Portsmouth dockyard in December 1913 killed 2 men
A fire that engulfed the semaphore tower in Portsmouth dockyard in December 1913 killed 2 men

In early June 1913, a series of fires purposely started in rural areas in Bradford killed at least two men, as well as several horses.[68] The acts were officially "claimed" by the suffragettes in their official newspaper, The Suffragette.[68] Over the next few months, suffragette attacks continued to threaten death and injury. On 2 June, a suffragette bomb was discovered at the South Eastern District Post Office, London, containing enough nitroglycerine to blow up the entire building and kill the 200 people who worked there.[20] A potentially serious event was avoided on 18 June when a suffragette bomb narrowly failed to breach the Stratford-upon-Avon Canal in Yardley Wood, Birmingham.[69] Since there was no lock for 11 miles, a breach would have emptied all this section's water into the populated valley below, which likely would have caused a loss of life.[69][70] The next day, a suffragette named Harry Hewitt pulled out a revolver at the Ascot Gold Cup horseracing event, entering the track during the race and brandishing the gun and a suffragette flag as the competing horses approached.[71] The leading horse collided with the man, causing serious head injuries to him and the jockey.[72] Hewitt was later impounded in a psychiatric hospital.[72] The incident was a copycat event inspired by the events of the Epsom Derby on 4 June 1913, where Emily Davison had famously entered the racecourse and threw herself in front of the King's personal horse, an incident which not only killed her but that seriously injured the jockey.[72] On 19 July 1913, letter boxes were filled with noxious substances across Birmingham, seriously burning a postman when he opened one box.[73] On the same day, Edith Rigby planted a pipe bomb at the Liverpool Cotton Exchange Building, which exploded in the public hall.[74] After she was arrested, Rigby stated that she planted the bomb as she wanted "to show how easy it was to get explosives and put them in public places".[75] On 8 August, a school in Sutton-in-Ashfield was bombed and burned down in protest while Lloyd George was visiting the town, with the bombs later being found to have represented a potentially serious threat to life had anyone been present in the building at the time.[64][61] Then, on 18 December, suffragettes bombed a wall at Holloway Prison in protest of the imprisonment of an inmate inside.[53][48] Many houses near the prison were damaged or had their windows blown out by the bombs, showering some children with glass while they slept in their beds.[76] One of the perpetrators of the attack was injured by the blast.[77]

In one of the more serious suffragette attacks, a fire was purposely started at Portsmouth dockyard on 20 December 1913, in which 2 men were killed after it spread through the industrial area.[78][79][80] In the midst of the firestorm, a battleship, HMS Queen Mary, had to be towed to safety to avoid the flames.[79] Then, two days before Christmas, several postal workers in Nottingham were severely burned after more suffragette letter bombs caused mail bags to ignite.[81]

By the end of the year, The Times newspaper reported that there had been 39 recorded suffragette bombing attacks across the country.[82]

1914 attacks

Contemporary literature showing the damage to the Britannia Pier, Great Yarmouth after it was bombed and burned down by suffragettes in 1914[83][1]
Contemporary literature showing the damage to the Britannia Pier, Great Yarmouth after it was bombed and burned down by suffragettes in 1914[83][1]

Arson and bombing attacks continued into 1914. One of the first attacks of the year took place on 7 January, when a dynamite bomb was thrown over the wall of the Harewood Army Barracks in Leeds, which was being used for police training at the time.[84] The explosion of the bomb injured one man, while others narrowly escaped without being harmed after being thrown to the ground by the force of the bomb.[84] An arson attack on Aberuchill Castle, Comrie, Scotland on 4 February also nearly caused fatalities.[25] The building was set on fire with the servants inside, and they narrowly escaped harm.[25] The next month, another cabinet minister, Home Secretary Reginald McKenna, had his house set on fire in an arson attack.[22]

Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland, one of many churches bombed by suffragettes[29]
Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland, one of many churches bombed by suffragettes[29]

One common target for suffragette attacks was churches, as it was believed that the Church of England was complicit in reinforcing opposition to women's suffrage.[85] Between 1913 and 1914, 32 churches were the subject of suffragette attacks.[60] Several churches and cathedrals were bombed in 1914: on 5 April, the St Martins-in-the-Field church in Trafalgar Square, London, was bombed, blowing out the windows and showering passers-by with broken glass.[29][86][76] A bomb was also discovered in the Metropolitan Tabernacle church in London, and in June, a bomb exploded at Westminster Abbey, damaging the Coronation Chair.[29][1][87] The Abbey was busy with visitors at the time, and around 80–100 people were in the building when the bomb exploded.[88][89] The device was most probably planted by a member of a group that had left the Abbey only moments before the explosion.[88] Some were as close as 20 yards from the bomb at the time and the explosion caused a panic for the exits, but no serious injuries were reported.[89] The bomb had been packed with nuts and bolts to act as shrapnel.[89] Coincidentally, at the time of the explosion, the House of Commons only 100 yards away was debating how to deal with the violent tactics of the suffragettes.[89] Many in the Commons heard the explosion and rushed to the scene to find out what had happened.[89] Two days after the Westminster Abbey bombing, a second suffragette bomb was discovered before it could explode in St Paul's Cathedral.[1] Annie Kenney also attempted a second bombing of the Church of St John the Evangelist in Smith Square, Westminster on 12 July, placing a bomb underneath a pew during a sermon before leaving.[90] However, the bomb was spotted by a member of the congregation, and Kenney, who was already being trailed by special branch detectives, was arrested as she left.[90] The congregation left in the church then was able to disarm the bomb before it exploded.[90]

A hospital was also targeted in Dundee on 22 May, with suffragettes burning down the building.[91] Two planned assaults on public officials also occurred during the year: in March, the Medical Prisoner Commissioner for Scotland was assaulted by suffragettes in public with horse whips, and on 3 June the medical officer for Holloway Prison, Dr. Forward, was also assaulted in a public street with whips.[22][92] Another individual was injured in July when a suffragette letter bomb ignited a moving train in Salwick.[81] After the bomb caused a train carriage to catch fire, the train's guard attempted to throw the burning materials off the train to avoid further damage.[81] In doing so, he was badly burned on his arms, although he succeeded in disposing of the material.[81] Another attempt to flood a populated area had also taken place on 7 May, when a bomb was placed next to Penistone Reservoir in Upper Windleden.[48][93] If successful, the attack would have led to 138 million gallons of water emptying into the populated valleys below, although the anticipated breech did not take place.[93]

Aborted plots

Some attacks were voluntarily aborted before they were carried out. In March 1913, a suffragette plot to kidnap Home Secretary Reginald McKenna was discussed in the House of Commons and in the press.[94] It was reported that suffragettes were contemplating kidnapping one or more cabinet ministers and subjecting them to force-feeding.[94]

According to Special Branch detectives, there were also WSPU plans in 1913 to create a suffragette "army", known as the "People's Training Corps".[95] A detective reported attending a meeting in which 300 young girls and women gathered ready to be trained, supposedly with the eventual aim of proceeding in force to Downing Street to forcibly imprison ministers until they conceded women's suffrage.[95] The group were nicknamed "Mrs Pankhurst's Army".[95]

Outbreak of war and ending of the campaign

In August 1914 the First World War began, which effectively led the end of the suffragette bombing and arson campaign.[96] After Britain joined the war, the WSPU took the decision to suspend their own campaigning.[1] Leader Emmeline Pankhurst instructed suffragettes to stop their violent actions and support the government in the conflict against Germany.[97] From this point forward, suffragettes instead largely channelled their energies into supporting the war effort.[29] By the time of the outbreak of war, the aim of achieving votes for women was still unrealised.[98] Later in the war, the increasing focus of the WSPU and the Pankhurst leadership on supporting the war effort led to the creation of the Women's Party, a political party that continued to promote women's suffrage but that was primarily concerned with patriotic support for the war.[29]

Reaction to the campaign

General public

The violence employed by suffragettes caused angry reactions amongst some members of the general public, with some actions inciting violent responses in return. A month after the bombing attack on Lloyd George's house in February 1913, a WSPU rally was held in Hyde Park, London, but the meeting quickly degenerated into a riot as members of the public became violent towards the women.[99] Clods of earth were thrown and some of the women manhandled, with many shouting "incendiary" or "shopbreakers" at the WSPU members.[99] This was not an isolated event, as attacks on individual's houses often saw angry responses, such as in Doncaster in May 1913 when a 1,000 strong mob descended upon a WSPU meeting after several residential properties were burned down in the area.[60] After one attack on Bristol University's sports pavilion on 23 October 1913, undergraduates revenged the attack by raiding the WSPU office in the city.[69]

Wider women's suffrage movement

The "suffragists" of the largest women's suffrage society, the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies, led by Millicent Fawcett, were anti-violence, and during the campaign NUWSS propaganda and Fawcett herself increasingly differentiated between the militants of the WSPU and their own non-violent means.[100][101] The NUWSS also publicly distanced themselves from the violence and direct action of suffragettes.[1] The other major women's suffrage society, the Women's Freedom League, also opposed the violence publicly.[102]

Special Branch response

The counter-terrorist Special Branch of the police, which had been set up during the earlier Fenian dynamite campaign of 1881–1885, bore responsibility for dealing with the campaign.[103] Special Branch officers were employed to cover WSPU meetings and demonstrations in order to pre-empt offences, provide public order intelligence and to record inflammatory speeches.[104] WSPU leaders had been followed by Special Branch officers from 1907 onwards, and Emmeline Pankhurst herself was trailed by officers from the branch.[2][105] A separate suffragette section of the branch had been formed in 1909.[105]

During the campaign, attempts to attend WSPU meetings became increasingly difficult as officers were recognised and attacked.[105] The attacks became so widespread that police had to invent new and never before attempted methods of counter-terrorism.[106] These included the use of double agents, covert photo surveillance, public pleas for funding and the use of a secret bomb disposal unit on Duck Island in St James's Park, London.[106] The branch was also given extra staff in order to protect ministers and their families, who were increasingly being targeted.[105] Prime Minister Asquith wrote that "even our children had to be vigilantly protected against the menace of abduction".[105] Many arrests were also made at WSPU meetings, and raids were often conducted against WSPU offices, in an attempt to find the bomb-makers arsenal.[63][103] In one raid on the home of Jennie Baines, a half-made bomb, a fully made bomb and guns were found.[20] Raids were also conducted against the offices of The Suffragette newspaper, and the printers were threatened with prosecution.[107] Because of this, there were periods that the newspaper could not publish, but secret reserves were kept for the newspaper to publish as many issues as possible.[21][108]

At the time, planting bombs was officially a hangable offence, and so suffragettes took special measures to avoid being caught by police when carrying out bombing attacks.[47]

Impact and effectiveness

A 1913 cartoon, showing "Dame London" welcoming a suffragist, while behind her a suffragette holding a bomb threatens London
A 1913 cartoon, showing "Dame London" welcoming a suffragist, while behind her a suffragette holding a bomb threatens London

At the conclusion of the campaign in August 1914, the attacks had, in total, cost approximately £700,000 in damages (equivalent to £68,680,000 in 2020), although according to historian C. J. Bearman this figure does not include "the damage done to works of art or the more minor forms of militancy such as window-smashing and letter-burning".[109] Bearman also notes that this figure does not include the extra costs inflicted by violent suffragette action, "such as extra police time, additional caretakers and night watchmen hired to protect property, and revenue lost when tourist attractions such as Haddon Hall and the State Apartments at Windsor Castle were closed for fear of suffragette attacks".[109] With these additional considerations, Bearman asserts, the campaign cost the British economy between £1 and £2 million in 1913 to 1914 alone (approximately £130–£240 million today).[109] There was an average of 21 bombing and arson incidents per month in 1913, and 15 per month in 1914, with there being an arson or bombing attack in every month between February 1913 and August 1914.[110] Bearman calculates that there was a total of at least 337 arson and bombing attacks between 1913 and 1914, but states that the true number could be well over 500.[109] By the end of the campaign, more than 1,300 people had been arrested and imprisoned for suffragette violence across the United Kingdom.[111]

The extent to which suffragette militancy contributed to the eventual enfranchisement of women in 1918 has been debated by historians, although the consensus of historical opinion is that the militant campaign was not effective.[112] With the aim of gaining votes for women still unrealised by the outbreak of war in 1914, the WSPU had failed to create the kind of "national crisis" which might have forced the government into concessions.[113] Historian Brian Harrison has also stated that opponents to women's suffrage believed the militant campaign had benefited them, since it had largely alienated public opinion and placed the suffrage question beyond parliamentary consideration.[114] In May 1913 another attempt had been made to pass a bill in parliament which would introduce women's suffrage, but the bill actually did worse than previous attempts when it was voted on, something which much of the press blamed on the increasingly violent tactics of the suffragettes.[115] The impact of the WSPU's violent attacks drove many members of the general public away from supporting the cause, and some members of the WSPU itself were also alienated by the escalation of violence, which led to splits in the organisation and the formation of groups such as the East London Federation of Suffragettes in 1914.[1] Bearman has asserted that contemporary opinion overwhelmingly was of the view that WSPU violence had shelved the question of women's suffrage until the organization "came to its senses or had disappeared from the scene".[116] At the time it was largely only suffragettes themselves that argued their campaign had been effective.[116]

In the 1930s, soon after all women over the age of 21 had received the vote under the Representation of the People Act of 1928, some historians asserted that militancy had evidently succeeded.[116] The Suffragette Fellowship, which compiled the sources on the movement that were often used by later historians, also decided in this decade that they were not going to mention any of the bombings in any of the sources.[20] This was partly in order to protect former suffragettes from prosecution, but was also an attempt to step away from the violent rhetoric and to change the cultural memory of the suffragette movement.[20] Many official sources on suffragette violence are only now beginning to be released from archives.[20]

Some feminist historians and supporters of feminist icon Emmeline Pankhurst such as Sandra Stanley Horton and June Purvis have also renewed the arguments that militancy succeeded, with Purvis arguing that assertions about the counter-productiveness of militancy deny or diminish the achievements of Pankhurst.[117] However, Purvis's arguments have been challenged by Bearman.[112] Revisionist historians such as Harrison and Martin Pugh have also attempted to draw greater attention to the role of the non-militants, such as those in the anti-violence National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) (known as "suffragists"), and emphasised their understated role in gaining votes for women.[118]

Classification as terrorism

During the campaign, the WSPU described its own bombing and arson attacks as terrorism, with suffragettes declaring themselves to be "terrorists" in 1913.[119][120] Christabel Pankhurst also increasingly used the word "terrorism" to describe the WSPU's actions during the campaign, and stated that the WSPU's greater "rebellion" was a form of terrorism.[92] Emmeline Pankhurst stated that the suffragettes committed violent acts because they wanted to "terrorise the British public".[20] The WSPU also reported each of its attacks in its newspaper The Suffragette under the headline "Reign of Terror".[20][9] The authorities talked of arson and bomb attacks as terrorism,[120] and contemporary newspapers in the UK[121] and in the United States[122] also made use of the term "Suffragette Terrorism" to report on WSPU attacks. One instance of this was after the bombing attack on David Lloyd George's house in February 1913, when the Pall Mall Gazette reported the attack under the specific headline of "Suffragette Terrorism".[24]

The bombing and arson campaign has seen classification as a single-issue terrorism campaign by academics,[123][124][125] and is classified as such in The Oxford Handbook of Terrorism.[126] Many historians have also asserted that the campaign contained terrorist acts. Rachel Monaghan published three articles in 1997, 2000 and 2007 in terrorism-themed academic journals in which she argued that the campaign can be described as one that was terrorist in nature.[127][123][128] In 2005, historian C. J. Bearman published a study on the bombing and arson campaign in which he asserted: "The intention of the campaign was certainly terrorist in terms of the word's definition, which according to the Concise Oxford Dictionary (1990 edition) is 'a person who uses or favours violent and intimidating methods of coercing a government or community'. The intention of coercing the community is clearly expressed in the WSPU's Seventh Annual Report, and, according to Annie Kenney, that of coercing Parliament was endorsed by Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst themselves. The question is therefore not whether the campaign was terrorist, or whether the WSPU (in 1912–14) can be called a terrorist organization, but whether its terrorism worked."[129] Bearman later published a further article in 2007 which also claims that the suffragette campaign was a terrorist one.[130]

Fern Riddell has also highlighted that, as well as being actions that would be defined as terrorism today, suffragette bombing and arson attacks were considered terrorist attacks at the time.[20][1] Some feminist historians have also agreed that the campaign was a terrorist one, such as Cheryl Jorgensen-Earp, on the grounds that the WSPU were fighting a just war.[129] Other historians who have asserted that the campaign involved terrorism include Paula Bartley, Laura Mayhall and George Legg.[131][132][32]

Feminist historian June Purvis has consistently objected to the characterisation of suffragette actions as terrorism, in part arguing that the WSPU leadership was not responsible for the actions of some of its members.[133] Arguing that the leadership of the WSPU emphasised that their followers were instructed not to endanger human life, she has asserted that suffragettes cannot be compared to modern-day terrorists.[120] She has further argued that the suffragettes did not kill or harm anyone.[23] However, Purvis's arguments remain controversial. Fern Riddell has criticised claims that the suffragettes did not cause harm or intend to cause harm, stating: "The newspapers (and even the accounts of the militant suffragettes) prove that there were numerous instances where injuries occurred, and that personal risk, or even death, was great".[1] Rachel Monaghan has argued that the use of letter bombs by suffragettes can be seen to call into question whether the WSPU truly aimed to avoid endangering human life, while C. J. Bearman has criticised Purvis directly, claiming that it is inaccurate to state that the WSPU was not responsible for the actions of its paid members, and has called this assertion "grotesque".[25][134] Purvis maintains that those who support the assertion that the suffragettes committed acts of terror "seek to condemn these radical women who were campaigning for their democratic right to the parliamentary vote".[23]

Influence on later campaigns

The campaign in part provided the inspiration for later bombing and terrorist campaigns in Britain, such as those conducted by the Irish Republican Army (IRA).[98] The S-Plan of 1939 to 1940 utilised the tactic of undertaking incendiary attacks on pillar boxes, and also saw the planting of explosive devices.[98] The tactic of packing nuts and bolts into bombs to act as shrapnel, often regarded as a later twentieth-century IRA invention, was also first employed by the suffragettes.[39] Several suffragette bombings, such as the attempted bombing of Liverpool Street station in 1913, saw the use of this method.[39] The combination of high explosive bombs, incendiary devices and letter bombs used by suffragettes also provided the pattern for the IRA campaigns of the 1970s and 1980s.[135] Unknown to many, the first terrorist bomb to explode in Northern Ireland in the twentieth century was not detonated by the IRA but by the suffragettes at Lisburn Cathedral in August 1914.[135] Suffragette tactics also provided a template for more contemporary attacks in Britain.[2]

Timeline of the campaign

See also: List of suffragette bombings

Below is a timeline of some of the major recorded events in the campaign:

1912

1913

1914

See also

References

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Bibliography