Friday, 18 April 2014

The suffragettes and the National Gallery

I seriously wonder sometimes if the entire nation suffers from some strange form of collective amnesia when it comes to the suffragettes! Everybody remembers that some suffragettes slashed pictures in art galleries. Here is an exhibition about this phenomenon which is being held at the National Portrait Gallery this summer;

What is really weird though is that no mention is being made at all of the attempt by the suffragettes to blow up the National Gallery by means of 10lb of dynamite;,1498013

Why is there this determination to sanitise the  suffragettes and airbrush their more dangerous expoits from official history?

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Behind the propaganda

The image that many of us have today of the suffragettes is that of suffering martyrs; being imprisoned and forcibly fed when they went on hunger strike. To many at the time, they were a dangerous nuisance. Their habit of burning down and blowing up buildings made them exceedingly unpopular with a lot of ordinary people; both men and women. Here is a cartoon from Punch;

Suffragette terrorist attacks in 1913 and 1914

The transport infrastructure has always been a favourite target of terrorists. The suffragettes were no exception. Below is Saunderton railway station; burned down by the suffragettes;

The suffragette campaign of violence culminated with several bombs exploding in the weeks leading up to the start of World War I. A notable attack was the detonation of a nail-bomb in Westminster Abbey, at a time that it was crowded with tourists;

The first terrorist bomb of the twentieth century to be detonated in Northern Ireland.

On August 1st, 1914, a large bomb  exploded outside Christ Church Cathedral, in the Northern Irish town of Lisburn. The blast, caused by a charge of dynamite, damaged some ancient windows and left a crater four feet deep. This, the first terrorist bomb to be planted in Ulster in the twentieth century, was set off not by the IRA, but by a group of suffragettes. Just one more episode in the forgotten history of suffragette terrorism.

Sunday, 13 April 2014


London bomb attack by the suffragettes

Suffragette attacks on working people; the postal system

Many of the more violent and extreme activities of the suffragettes have been airbrushed from history. Few people today have heard of the bombing of Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland, to give one example, or the explosions which took place in London churches. The one form of violent protest which is widely known about is the damaging of letters. This is usually treated as a bit of a lark; little more than harmless vandalism. The tactic of attacking pillar boxes by setting fire to the contents or pouring acid into them was started of course by Emily Davison, about whom we shall have much to say in later posts. A campaign was started in 2012 to celebrate the centenary of Davison's death. The inaugural meeting of this group was addressed by Diane Atkinson; a historian who writes about the suffragettes.  Her speech may be seen here;

The arson attacks on the postal system are describe by Atkinson as; 'bold and brave' actions against, 'the establishment'. This is such an extraordinary and distorted perspective, that it is worth looking back and seeing who the victims of the arson attacks initiated by Emily Davison actually were. Here are a few random examples of the kind of people being targeted in this way by the suffragettes. On January 29th 1913, fires began at sorting offices in Croydon and York. These fires were caused by phosphorus; the fumes from which caused permanent lung damage to several workers. On February 5th, that same year, five postal workers were injured, four of them seriously, when packages that they were handled exploded and caught fire. On February 22nd, another postal worker was badly burned when a parcel caught fire as he was handling it.
Far from being 'bold and brave' attacks on, 'the establishment', the arson against pillar boxes was actually a series of cowardly, hit-and-run attacks against ordinary working people. On July 19th 1913, six fires broke out in pillar boxes in Birmingham. A postman was severely burned and left with disfiguring scars to his hands, when he handled letters which had been drenched in concentrated Hydrochloric Acid. On December 22nd, mail bags in Nottingham caught fire, injuring a number of workers. The following year, on July 11th 1914, a train caught fire in the north of England, when a mail bag burst into flames. A man called Barlow was very badly burned as he tackled this fire.

These are a just a few of the injuries which resulted from the suffragette tactics of starting fires by means of sending dangerous chemicals through the post. It is worth remembering that the working men who were injured were, like the suffragettes themselves, not allowed to vote at that time, because they were not householders.

Newspaper headlines in 1913 and 1914

Suffragette bombers

The aim of this blog will be to explore the terrorism undertaken by the members of the Women's Social and Political Union; led by Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst. These women became known after 1906 as 'suffragettes' and it is sometimes forgotten that they carried out a large number of bombings across the whole of the United Kingdom. There were simply too many of these to provide a full list, but among the most notable were the explosions caused at Westminster Abbey in 1914, the bombing of Christ Church Cathedral in Ireland that same year, the attack on the Kibble Palace in Glasgow's botanic gardens and the attempts at mass-murder by planting bombs at reservoirs and blowing up canals to cause flooding. Over the next few days, I shall be looking at one or two of the more serious incidents of this kind. In the meantime, it is worth reflecting on the fact that the first terrorist bombings in Ireland of the twentieth century were carried out not by Irish nationalists, such as the IRA, but by agents of the Women's Social and Political Union.