Suffragettes in the Old Bailey

The Representation of the People Act which was passed on 6 February 1918 for the first time in the UK extended the right to vote to women. Not all women; this was a grudging compromise granted only to those aged over 30 who were property holders (it took another 10 years for women and men to get the vote on equal terms). But nonetheless this was a momentous event in British democratic history, given just how unthinkable and downright laughable the very idea of it had been only a few years earlier.

The arguments for and against were rehearsed a number of times in Parliament from the late 1860s (first being seriously raised by JS Mill during debates about reforms to men’s suffrage in 1867) up to the beginning of World War I without ever getting very far; one of the biggest sticking points was always the fear of allowing women to have any say over the Empire’s military forces. The Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) was formed in 1903 out of frustration at the glacier-like progress being made by the women’s suffrage campaign at the time, and the term “suffragette” was coined to describe this new wing of the movement.

Suffragettes, some more (in)famous than others, made a number of appearances at the Old Bailey before the Proceedings ceased publication in April 1913, charged with arson and other forms of damage to property. We don’t tend to think of suffragettes as ‘terrorists’, but at least some of these were serious offences which could have resulted in injury to people, not just to property, and they certainly saw themselves as militant fighters for a cause: as one of them put it, ‘she wanted to make the two ladies understand that they were at war, and in war even non-combatants had to suffer’. I’ve found thirteen trials, though there might be some I’ve missed. Some were identified by the keyword ‘suffrage’ or ‘suffragette’, some by information in the text of the trial and/or the identity of the defendant.

ALICE CHAPIN, Damage to Property > other, 16th November 1909 (‘interfering with a certain ballot box then in use for the purpose of a certain Parliamentary Election for the Parliamentary Division of Bermondsey, by introducing into the said ballot box divers liquid chemicals’, ‘attempting to destroy a certain packet of ballot papers then in use for the purposes of the said election’ and assaulting an election officer)

ALISON NEILAN, Damage to Property > other, 16th November 1909 (‘interfering with a certain ballot box then in use for the purposes of a certain Parliamentary Election for the Parliamentary Division of Bermondsey, by introducing into the said ballot box divers liquid chemicals’ and ‘attempting to destroy a certain packet of ballot papers then in use for the purposes of the said election’)

EMILY WILDING DAVISON, Damage to Property > arson, 9th January 1912 (‘attempting to place against a Post Office letter-box a match and other dangerous substances; placing in a Post Office letter-box matches and other dangerous substances’)

EILEN PITFIELD, Damage to Property > other, 19th March 1912 (‘feloniously setting fire to a basket containing shavings and other things at the General Post Office’)

EMMELINE PANKHURST, FREDERICK WILLIAM PETHICK LAWRENCE, EMMELINE PETHICK LAWRENCE, Damage to Property > other, 14th May 1912 (‘conspiring together and with one Christabel Pankhurst to unlawfully and maliciously damage and inciting others to unlawfully and maliciously damage certain property, to wit, glass windows, the property of the liege subjects of our Lord the King’)

MAY BILLINGHURST, GRACE MICHELL, Damage to Property > other, 7th January 1913 (‘unlawfully placing in a certain Post Office letter box… a certain deleterious fluid, and thereby injuring the said letter-box and contents’)

LOUISA GAY, Damage to Property > other, 7th January 1913 (‘unlawfully placing in a Post Office letter-box… a certain deleterious fluid, and thereby injuring the said letter-box and its contents’)

MARGARET JAMES, Damage to Property > other, 4th February 1913 (‘pleaded guilty of unlawfully and maliciously damaging divers glass windows’).

ELLA STEVENSON, Miscellaneous > other, 4th March 1913 (“unlawfully sending for transmission by post a postal packet containing a dangerous substance… and placing in a Post Office letter box a dangerous substance likely to injure the said letter box and contents”)

OLIVE WHARRY, Damage to Property > arson, 4th March 1913 (‘feloniously setting fire to a certain building belonging to His Majesty the King, and feloniously setting fire to certain things therein’).

OLIVE HOCKIN, Damage to Property > arson, Damage to Property > other, 1st April 1913 (‘conspiring with others unknown to feloniously set fire to a building and certain matters and things therein… placing in a post office letter-box a certain fluid’)

ISABEL IRVING, Damage to Property > other, 1st April 1913 (‘Unlawfully and maliciously damaging certain glass windows, the property of the Roneo Company, Ltd., to an amount exceeding £5’)

EMMELINE PANKHURST, Damage to Property > other, 1st April 1913 (‘feloniously procuring and inciting a person or persons unknown to commit felony’)

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