Looking Back: How the WSPU electrified Town Hall

In the run up to International Women’s Day, THSH is diving into the archives for our #THSHLookingBack series:  exploring Birmingham Town Hall’s rich history as a hub of speechmaking, protesting, and campaigning in the suffragette movement, which won the vote for most women 100 years ago last year.

Electric lights at Town Hall

The start of the 1900s was a time of great political and social change – but also of technological change. This is something which ties into the story of the suffragette movement with an innovative Suffragette advertising campaign that occurred in Birmingham in 1910.

In the 18 November 1910 edition of Votes for Women, a reporter describes some high-tech advertising methods employed by the suffragettes to let the locals know about their meetings. Thanks to the British Library’s British Newspaper Archives, you can read it here:

1910 Nov Electric Lights

          Newspaper images © The British Library Board. All rights reserved. With thanks to The British Newspaper Archive.

Electric lanterns announcing ‘Mrs Pankhust, Town Hall, November 15’ – how modern!

Mrs. Pankhurst back in Birmingham

Emmeline Pankhurst was born in Manchester in 1858, where as an adult she would found the WSPU – the Women’s Social and Political Union – in 1903. This was a suffragette organisation, meaning it believed in the use of violent protest to win women the vote, unlike a suffragist group like the NUWSS, which believed in peaceful or “constitutional” protest. As such, the WSPU’s motto was ‘deeds, not words’.

Lse Emmeline Pankhurst Meeting

          Image sourced from LSE Women's Library

The group’s tactics included property damage and later even arson, putting pressure on the government and causing controversy within the wider campaign for women’s votes. At the outbreak of the First World War, the WSPU stopped militant activity and the Pankhursts acted as fierce patriots. After the war the 1918 Representation of the People Act give women over 30 the vote, and two years after her death in 1928 Emmeline was commemorated by a statue in Victoria Tower Gardens.

This November 1910 meeting wasn’t Emmeline Pankhurst first time in Birmingham – in November 1907 she had been one of the guests at a huge WSPU Town Hall meeting hosted by Nell Kenney, which also included her daughter Christabel and the WSPU’s treasurer, and co-founder of Votes for Women, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence.

Lighting Birmingham’s Town Hall

Another Town Hall story relates just how new-fangled these electric lights were. An article in the Birmingham Pictorial and Dart, a local satirical magazine, tells of one columnists visit to Town Hall, in November 1907:

1907 22 November Electric Light Dart

          Image sourced from BMI Birmingham Library

Osram lamps were originally created only the year before in 1906, so Town Hall was really on the cutting edge of electric lights.

Dark times

November 1910 is also notable in Suffragette history for much darker reasons.

Friday 18 November 1910, just 3 days after Emmaline Pankhurst’s speech at Town Hall, is known as “Black Friday” in women’s suffrage history, as suffragette protestors were violently brutalised by police during a peaceful protest.

Daily Mirror Black Friday

          Image sourced from the Daily Mirror archive via Wikimedia Commons.

In the months leading up to the protest, a Parliamentary Committee had written a women’s suffrage bill which got through to a second hearing in the House of Commons in June 1910.

However, Prime Minister Asquith prorogued (closed) parliament until 18 November and announced that the bill would get no more time in Parliament.

In response, the WSPU organised a protest on the day that Parliament resumed.

Woman And Her Sphere Black Friday Poster

          Image sourced from Women and her Sphere by Elizabeth Crawford.

At the start of the protest on 18 November the suffragettes were met by violent civilians (who the WSPU claimed might be plain-clothed police), and policemen armed with truncheons. The police beat the suffragette protesters for hours. Here you can read two first-hand accounts of “Black Friday” from women who were present thanks to the National Archives.

One harrowing example in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography reveals how Rosa Billinghurst, a disabled suffragette campaigner paralysed from the waist down by a childhood illness, had the wheel-valves for her wheelchair removed by police, who left her stranded to an angry crowd.

Lse Black Friday

          Image sourced from LSE Women's Library.

Elizabeth Crawford’s blog Women and Her Sphere has an article on a diary entry of Kate Fry, who was present at Black Friday.

In the aftermath, then Home Secretary Winston Churchill twice refused to hold an inquiry into the police brutality, which caused further anger among the suffragettes. However, he denied accusations by the WSPU that he had specifically instructed the police to assault the suffragette protestors.

But according to Fern Riddell, writing in the Guardian last year, there is something of a silver lining to the events. Though “Black Friday” itself was horrific, it served as a ‘final straw’ which caused many women to ‘suddenly enter the public and political worlds in a way they had never done before’, an upsurge of political action which led to some women winning the vote in 1918, and all women in 1928.