Looking Back: 1909, A hopeful and fearful year for Birmingham suffragettes

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.

A hopeful year - Christabel Pankhurst in the West Midlands

On Saturday 27 February 1907, Christabel Pankhurst addressed a huge crowd at a WSPU meeting in Birmingham’s Town Hall. The reaction suggests that Christabel was a powerful orator who gave a rousing speech: Votes for Women, the WSPU newspaper, said Christabel “received an ovation the like of which no woman has ever experienced in Birmingham”.

Lse Christabel Pankhurst Procession

          Image sourced from LSE Women's Library

Christabel Pankhurst was Emmeline Pankhurst’s daughter, born in Manchester in 1880, making her only 23 when she founded the WSPU with her mother in October 1903. She was arrested and imprisoned for protesting and invading political meetings on a number of occasions - she even lived as a fugitive in Paris before the First World War to avoid arrest.

After the start of the First World War the WSPU halted its militant activity and Christabel returned to England to support the British war effort. At the 1918 election, the first election at which some women were able to vote, Christabel was one of the first female parliamentary candidates, in Smethwick, West Midlands. She lost to the Labour candidate, but only by 4.4% of the vote.

Here, thanks to the collection held at British Library’s British Newspaper Archive, you can read how the March 5, 1909 edition of Votes for Women described Christabel’s speech at Town Hall. The Birmingham report starts at the top of the right-hand column:

1909 Mar Pankhurst Ovation

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

The February 1909 address was so successful that 50 new members joined the WSPU in the first week of March following Christabel’s speech.

Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence follows suit

This success and popularity might have been the reason for an immediate follow-up. Elizabeth Crawford, a historian who has written a book on the Birmingham suffragette movement, says that in April ‘Mrs Pethick-Lawrence led another Town Hall meeting’.

Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence was born in 1867 in Bristol and was already involved in women’s suffrage campaigning when she became the WSPU’s treasurer in 1906. She also founded the WSPU’s magazine Votes for Women with her husband Frederick, a socialist politician who went on to join the Labour Party. Votes for Women published speeches and articles by prominent suffragettes like the Pankhursts and advertised upcoming WSPU events around the country, such as the article above.

The local reaction

However, not everybody had been so enthusiastic about Christabel’s Town Hall address in February. The Birmingham Pictorial and Dart, a conservative satirical magazine from the late 1800s to early 1900s, was rather patronising in its reporting of the address, mostly talking about Christabel’s appearance and clothing.

Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising in a magazine which only gave half a page for a Ladies’ Column for ‘short, bright accounts of weddings in which they are interested’.

Below, thanks to the BMI Birmingham Library’s collection of Birmingham satirical magazines, you can read the Dart’s dismissive report of Christabel’s speech. It is from the 28 February issue, published the day after the speech at Town Hall:

1909 28 February Christabel Dart

          Images sourced from the BMI Birmingham Library.

A fearful year – forcible feeding

1909 is notable in Suffragette history for another, darker reason. In September 1909 there was the first forcible feeding of WSPU prisoners on hunger strike in Winson Green Jail, Birmingham.

Mary Leigh had been protesting an address by Prime Minister Asquith at Bingley Hall, which used to stand where the ICC is today. Invading and interrupting political meetings was a regular tactic of the WSPU, and there is evidence of a similar thing happening at Town Hall the year before, in October 1908.

Mary Leigh was arrested and sent to Winson Green Jail, where she went on hunger strike. This was a tactic she had used before to be released early, as prisons at the time couldn’t let prisoners commit suicide, supposedly because suicide was a crime at the time – but particularly if it provided the WSPU a martyr for their cause.

However, September 1909 saw a horrendous new response from the state, in the forcible feeding of Mary Leigh.

Wikimedia Suffragette Poster

          Image sourced from Wikimedia.

Forcible feeding was violent and humiliating, and according to Parliament's website it ‘provided powerful propaganda’, as you can see in the above poster.

In Parliament’s debate records you can read a question asked by Kier Hardie, founder of the Labour Party and its first MP, to the then-Home Secretary, Herbert Gladstone, about the Winson Green forcible-feeding:

I beg to ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department a question of which I have given private notice, whether he has any official information concerning the state of health of Mrs. Leigh and Miss Charlotte Marsh, prisoners in Winson Green, Birmingham, and whether it has been found necessary to administer food to those ladies by force, and, if so, under what authority that has been done?

Kier Hardie

A later strategy used by the state against the Suffragette’s was the so-called Cat and Mouse Act of 1913, which allowed prisons to release hunger-striking prisoners for a short time until they recover and then to imprison them again.

From the month of Mary Leigh’s imprisonment, in September 1909, it would take another 9 years and a world war before some women won the vote in November 1918.