Emmeline Pankhurst, 1858-1928

The Suffragette Movement and Her Connection to Epsom

Emmeline Pankhurst
Emmeline Pankhurst

Emmeline Pankhurst was a British political activist and leader of the British suffrage movement which helped women win the right to vote in Great Britain.

She was born in 1858, the eldest daughter of ten children to Robert and Sophia Goulden and raised in Moss Side Manchester. Both parents had radical political beliefs and her mother was a passionate believer in the women's suffrage movement. It is thought that Emmeline attended her first suffrage meeting at the age of eight.

In 1873 Emmeline was sent to Ecole Normale Superieure, a finishing school in Paris, run by Marchef Gurard, a woman who believed that girls should be educated just as thoroughly as boys. So, as well as the usual subjects taught to young ladies to prepare them for the society of the day, they were also taught chemistry and other sciences and bookkeeping. She returned home an elegant and sophisticated young woman.

In 1878 she met and married Richard Pankhurst, a lawyer 24 years her senior and a strong supporter of women's right to vote. They had five children, Christabel 1880-1958, Sylvia 1882-1960, Francis Henry 1884-1888, Adela 1885-1961 and Henry Francis 1889-1910 [named in honour of his deceased brother].

Richard Pankhurst
Richard Pankhurst

The family moved to London in 1886 and their home in Russell Square became a meeting place for socialists and suffragists. In 1893 they returned to Manchester and formed a branch of the new Independent Labour Party [ILP].

In 1894 Emmeline became a Poor Law Guardian. This involved regular visits to Chorlton Workhouse where she was deeply shocked by the misery and suffering of the inmates. She was particularly concerned about the way women and children were treated and it reinforced her belief that the women's suffrage movement was the only way to improve the situation.

Richard died in 1898 but Emmeline continued the fight for women's rights and by 1903 along with her three daughters and other colleagues she founded the Women's Social and Political Union [WSPU] an organisation for women only and focused on direct action to win the vote. However, by 1905 the media had lost interest in the struggle for women's rights and newspapers usually refused to publish articles or letters written by supporters of women's suffrage. So, the WSPU decided to use a different approach to obtain their goal. Disruption of political meetings, stone throwing, window smashing, destruction of property and other militant acts led to the arrest and imprisonment of the women, where they eventually resorted to hunger and thirst strikes.

In 1910 a Parliamentary bill for women's rights was being negotiated but when it became clear that the government was stalling and the bill would not be passed Mrs Pankhurst led a protest march of 300 women to Parliament Square. They were met with a violent and aggressive response from the police directed by the Home Secretary Winston Churchill.

A Suffragette being force fed
A Suffragette being force fed

Again the women were arrested and imprisoned but this time in response to their hunger strikes the prison authorities were directed to force feed them. This involved the women being physically restrained while a rubber hose tube was forced up the nose or down the throat into the stomach and liquid poured through it. Holloway Prison was filled with the screams of women being subjected to this hideous practice. Many women including Mrs Pankhurst and her daughters suffered this treatment several times until the new Home Secretary, Reginald McKenna introduced a law known as the "Cat and Mouse Act" which meant that when the women were too ill or frail to put up with this treatment any longer they were released from prison until they had regained their health and then they were returned to prison to finish their sentences.

Cat and Mouse Act poster 1914
Cat and Mouse Act poster 1914

The WSPU continued with their militant actions around the country until an incident occurred at Walton-on-the-Hill on 19 February 1913 bringing Mrs Pankhurst to the attention of the Surrey Police.

At 6.10am on the 19 February, a bomb exploded at a house being built for Lloyd George, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, at Walton-on-the-Hill in the Dorking Police Division.

Postcard of David Lloyd George's House, Walton on the Hill
Postcard of David Lloyd George's House, Walton on the Hill

Bomb Outrage in Surrey. Report in The Times 11 February 1913 - Click image to enlarge
Bomb Outrage in Surrey
Report in The Times 11 February 1913 - Click image to enlarge

The following information is taken from the Police reports of that time:-
19 February 1913.

Inspector Riley of the Metropolitan Police Special Branch and Major Cooper Keys, the Chief of the Explosives Branch of the Home Office, were notified by Superintendent Coleman, the local man, about the explosion. A motor car P8487 [LF4587] was traced passing through Banstead at 2.50 am and returned at about 5am. The car was heard to leave the vicinity of the house at about 4.30am and so the fuse must have taken about 2 hours to burn down.

An earlier arrest of Mrs Pankhurst
An earlier arrest of Mrs Pankhurst

On 24 February Mrs Pankhurst was arrested in London for the bombing and later taken to Leatherhead Police Station where she was questioned and charged. Superintendent Coleman reported:
'She is being detained in Inspector Tudgay's sitting room and I have arranged with the Inspector to sleep her in one of his bedrooms tonight.'
The Director of Public Prosecutions had instructed that whilst in custody, Mrs Pankhurst should be treated with due consideration! Next day she was bailed from Epsom Magistrates' Court, having been driven to the court with the Superintendent. This made her the first person in the Surrey Constabulary area to have been "conveyed to court in a motor car."

7 March 1913 C.I.D New Scotland Yard.

Referring to the recent outrages by the Suffragettes in the Metropolitan District and at Walton-on-the-Hill, I beg to report that at 3.25pm on the 19th February last, a telephone message was received from Superintendent Coleman, Surrey Constabulary, Dorking, stating that at 6.10am that day an explosion had occurred at Sir George Riddell's house at Walton-on-the-Hill and that a tin of unexploded black gunpowder had been found in the house.

The explosion is supposed to have been caused by a five pound tin of coarse grained gunpowder which had been placed in a bedroom on the first floor. The room in which the explosion took place was wrecked in the interior and the western wall was bulging about four inches. Inquiries have been made regarding the outrage and the movements of car LF4587 [P8487] on the 18th and 19th February and in consequence of Mrs. Pankhurst's public uttering regarding this and other outrages, the Director of Public Prosecutions has decided to take proceedings against her under the Malicious Damages Act 1861.
Police holding back the crowds at Epsom Magistrates Court during Mrs Pankhurst's hearing
Police holding back the crowds at Epsom Magistrates' Court during Mrs Pankhurst's hearing

Not all the explosives detonated but it was reckoned that if they had, some of the workmen arriving on site would definitely have been killed. Lloyd George was out of the country at the time. Mrs Pankhurst was later sentenced to three years penal servitude.

Mrs Pankhurst leaving Epsom Magistrates Court accompanied by James Murray, a former MP
Mrs Pankhurst leaving Epsom Magistrates' Court, accompanied by James Murray, a former MP

In the weeks leading up to the bombing incident a number of women had, at different times, visited nearby Tadworth Village and Walton-on-the-Hill making enquiries as to the visits of prominent politicians to the nearby Walton Heath golf course and the houses used by these gentlemen when they came for weekends. Lloyd George and his colleagues from the ministry took such a liking to the Walton Heath course that they arranged to occupy houses in the neighbourhood and many attractive residences were built close to the Heath. One of these was selected by Lloyd George and built by Sir George Riddell.

This militant act was followed later in the year by the devastating action of fellow suffragette Emily Wilding Davison at the Epsom Derby meeting when she ran onto the course in front of the King's horse, resulting in her death.

At the start of WW1 in 1914 the WSPU suspended their actions in support of the governments stand against Germany. Emmeline used her meetings to urge the men to volunteer for the front line and the women to keep the country going by doing the jobs left vacant. In the years following the Armistice in 1918, Mrs Pankhurst continued to rally support for women's rights both at home and in North America but gradually her health began to fail, probably caused by the years of imprisonment and hunger strikes and also due to the fact that she had become estranged from her daughters Sylvia and Adela. In 1928 she moved into a nursing home in Hampstead where she died on June 14 aged 69, just a few weeks after women had been granted full voting rights. She was buried in Brompton Cemetery London.

Statue of Emmeline Pankhurst, Victoria Tower Gardens, Westminster, London
Statue of Emmeline Pankhurst, Victoria Tower Gardens, Westminster, London
Photo by Fin Fahey licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license

To underline her importance to the women's cause, a portrait of her was added to the National Portrait Gallery in 1929 and a statue erected in her honour in Victoria Tower Gardens in 1930.

The Legacy of Emmeline Pankhurst

Her legacy is that every female in Great Britain over the age of 18 has the right to vote in political elections and to be treated as equals with men in the eyes of the law. This should never be taken for granted and every woman should exercise her right to vote in a democratic society.

To read Mrs Pankhurst's own account about and her arrest and trial, see this extract from her book Mrs. Pankhurst's Own Story.

Janet Painter, January 2012