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Michael
This is Tottenham Court Road in the West End of London, famous now for its electronics and furniture shops. But in 1909, on the site of the building behind me, No. 92, a police investigation was underway into a possible conspiracy to assassinate Prime Minister Herbert Asquith. The potential assassin wasn’t a German spy or a Fenian terrorist – but a small woman in a hat. She was described as a “Suffragette”. On the 27th of September Inspector Riley of the Met reported

READING
“I made enquiries late on Saturday evening at 92 Tottenham Court Rd, and the proprietor of the miniature shooting range there informed me that about 3 weeks ago two women (one of whom was described as a little woman wearing a tam-o-shanter) who were said to be suffragettes had been practicing with a Browning Pistol.

Michael
His superiors at the Home Office took the threat seriously. That shooting range had recently been used by the assassin of Sir William Curzon-Wylie, the aide to the Secretary of State for India. The Home Office’s conclusion

READING
There is now definite ground for fearing the possibility of the PM’s being fired at by one of the pickets at the entrance to the House of Commons. It seems to me that we have in fact prima facie grounds for believing, that there is something nearly amounting to a conspiracy to murder.

Michael
It’s a shocking thought. A suffragette - hatted in her tam o-shanter – lurking outside parliament for the Prime Minister to arrive at Parliament, then springing forward to shoot him.

Michael
This tableau sits uneasily alongside our image of the suffragettes as noble crusaders for constitutional recognition. When we think of suffragettes we call to mind the tactics of civil disobedience – women chaining themselves to railings, disrupting meetings, maybe going as far as breaking windows. Is there something we have forgotten to remember? That the women’s suffrage movement was prepared to go much further and to embrace lethal violence? I took the Home Office documents to an expert in early twentieth century guns at an armourer on the outskirts of London to see what ballistics could tell us about the seriousness of the threat.

Tony
What we have to do for the first shot, we have to pull the slide back and let go which will chamber it.

Michael
These pocket or overcoat pistols, if I was standing close to Carriage Gates at the House of Commons as the Prime Minister swept by in his carriage or car what chance of hitting him or indeed hitting his car?

Tony
Within ten, fifteen feet you would probably hit them. You have to remember that Franz Joseph was killed with a Browning nineteen ten which is in this calibre thirty two. The pistol involved is known as the pistil that killed eight point five million people.

Michael
I wonder if we might have a pop with these. What do you think?

Tony
Yes we can let you fire this.

Michael
Okay. I’m going to put these squidgy ear defenders in my ear. And if this lady came and practiced a few times how much better would she get at aiming?

Tony
A bit of training would improve it. But it would only show her that she has to get up close.

Michael
Okay. I’m inserting my second earplug.

Tony
Okay. That gun is now loaded.

Michael
It’s a smallish gun, fits very neatly into my hand. Ready? [Fires] Yes, a bit of a kick. The barrel definitely moves doesn’t it? You have to hold it quite steady. Even if it was only half an inch that would be quite a wide miss ...

Tony
Absolutely.

Michael
...if I hadn’t controlled it.

Tony
As you can appreciate, to a lady who fired that for the first time it would have been a shock. So if she’d gone to a range, after maybe firing ten or fifteen shots you get a little bit more used to it. Someone who’s never fired a gun, it can come as a surprise.

Krista
Ministers would walk to the House of Commons. They would not, they would not be chauffer driven in a ministerial car.

Michael
Krista Cowman is Professor of History at Lincoln University. She explains that cabinet ministers at the time were vulnerable to attack.

Krista
You could get at cabinet ministers. They were completely accessible. You could wander down Downing Street, and the suffragettes did on, on several occasions. So I think that within this context it is quite understandable. This is a period of escalating political violence across the scale, not just of women’s violence but from a whole variety of other organisations who are determined to use this form of protest as a means of advancing their aims.

Michael
Professor June Purvis is the biographer of Emmeline Pankhurst. She senses that Prime Minister Asquith was very much the focus of the suffragettes’ anger.

June
He was a very staunch anti-suffragist so he wasn’t in favour of votes for women. And I think when the suffragettes began to be assertive, to demand their rights, this was what upset a lot of men in the House of Commons.

Michael
But she dismisses the plot described in the Home Office papers as merely the product of over zealous policing.

June
I’m not quite sure whether it’s just part of the paranoia at the time. I have never come across any evidence of women wielding guns and practising at firing ranges to shoot people. So I’m a bit sceptical of that.

Michael
It’s almost impossible to tell whether the conspiracy was foiled by the vigilance of the Police – or whether there was a plot at all. But there is evidence of violence emanating from within the suffragette movement, something that has been forgotten. Doctor Christopher Christopher is an independent researcher. His speech has been affected by illness. He’s spent the last few years investigating the occurrence of potentially lethal violence during the suffragette campaign from 1909 to the outbreak of war in 1914. He claims to have evidence that some women were willing to take their campaign to a level little short of terrorism.

Christopher
Well bombing; some bombs placed in public places. There was one set near the Bank of England in April 1913. In June 1914 a suffragette was taken into custody in Nottingham and in her suitcase was a pound of high explosive with fuses and detonators.

Michael
Professor Krista Cowman’s research has also unearthed evidence of bombings, actual and intended.

Krista
Edith Rigby placed a bomb in the Stock Exchange at Liverpool which did go off. It went off while the Stock Exchange was not working. But it’s very difficult to time these things and argue where the line is between the sort of more symbolic aspects of militant action like that and the way in which you can actually affect protection of people who are involved in the vicinity at the time.

Christopher
In July 1912 a device of some sort was planted in the Home Secretary’s office but no details got into the press until ten months later when the Manchester Guardian claimed it was a bomb which had sufficient power to wreck the office and kill anyone inside.

Krista
There are other examples where women talk about going out with bombs which didn’t actually detonate. One woman who was an organiser had a bomb in her bag on a bus that started buzzing and she had to get off the bus very quickly because obviously she didn’t want it to detonate with her, with her still holding it.

Christopher
They had a chemist named Clayton who in fact lived at Kew. And his wife was the secretary of the suffragette branch there. In April 1913 the Police made a number of raids on the suffragette headquarters and on the homes of people who worked there. And they found letters from Clayton ... he thought the targets were like the National Health Insurance Commission. And he was made payments by the suffragettes.

Michael
Arson, bomb-making and intimidation are not what we learned in history lessons about the suffrage movement. When we talk of suffragettes we’re referring to just one component of the suffrage movement. The main body was the National Union of Women Suffrage Societies called Suffragists. It had been formed in 1897 as a political lobbying group uniting the disparate groups that had campaigned for women’s votes since the 1832 Reform Act. But in 1903 an iconic figure in the battle for women’s suffrage established a breakaway movement - as Professor June Purvis explains.

Jane
In 1903 Mrs Pankhurst founded the Women’s Social and Political Union, or the WSPU as it became known. And she founded that because she was tired of the way women had been campaigning for so long for the vote for women and nothing had ever been produced. So she was tired of committees, she was tired of talk. And what she wanted was a new organisation that was women only and was concerned, as she said, with deeds not words. Initially the WSPU engaged in peaceful campaigning and then gradually, as these means failed then the peaceful means of campaigning became more militant.

Michael
The WSPU believed in direct action, embracing what they described as the “the argument of the stone”. Speaking in 1958 Charlotte Marsh made very plain what the expression meant.

Charlotte
Well it was a concerted effort on the part of women all over London to smash windows. It was on the first of March 1912 I went across to the station and bought a bunch of violets which I carried in my left hand. And in my right I carried a hammer. I walked down the Strand. When I got to a leather goods shop and then just bang and my hammer through the window. And I continued armed down the Strand for quite a way and did quite a lot of damage.

Michael
The Pankhursts believed that lobbying local MPs and working within the constraints of the law would do little to overcome the bias in the political elite against enfranchising women. This newspaper report from the Times in April 1906 illustrates what they were up against in Parliament. The article quotes William Cremner MP.

READING
He opposed the motion asserting that according to the last census there were three quarters of a million more female than male voters. So adult suffrage meant handing the government of the country over to a majority of the electorate who were not men but women – at which there was much laughter in the House.

Michael
In the face of such contempt, the suffragettes of the WSPU brought the campaign to the capital and targeted the government directly. But more protests brought more arrests and more women exposed to the harsh regime of prison. Instances of brutality and forced feeding fuelled the anger of the suffragettes and their action became ever more militant.

Krista
Bombing came in very much towards the end of the campaign. One of the things that happens after 1912 is that prosecution of suffrage leaders, suffragette leaders increases massively. Jail sentences increase massively. And the government start to prosecute for conspiracy. And that means even if you’ve never been involved in militancy you can actually be arrested and you can face a very long prison sentence. Many women then decided well if we’re going to be prosecuted for not actually doing anything, for just supporting, we might as well go and do something, and do it clandestinely. And this is a very dramatic shift.

Michael
As far as we know militant suffragette actions didn’t claim a single life. But in Edwardian Britain people had been killed by other protest groups using similar methods of violence.

Krista
Suffragette militancy is happening within a far broader context of political militancy. There is Irish militancy, there has been the Fenian bombing campaign in the late nineteenth century. There is the wave of strikes that sweep the country in 1911 and 1912 where we see the government bringing in the army against strikers. So this is not just women’s militancy, this is a whole spectrum of political militancy which is going on at the time.

Michael
Does this mean that we should now accept that the suffragette movement also had a terrorist wing?

Krista
One could describe it as a terrorist organisation. I think certainly the suffragettes stand within a broader spectrum of anarchists, of Fenians, of very militant trade unions who were prepared to use violent means to achieve their ends. And certainly people in their day would describe them in those terms.

Michael
Professor Jane Purvis believes that definition is unfair.

Jane
I don’t agree with that at all. I mean there’s no one universally accepted definition of what a terrorist is. Now Mrs Pankhurst would be horrified at that sort of means of trying to get your way politically because she never advocated the suffragettes killing anybody. That was really out of the question.

Michael
We take women’s right to vote for granted now and might be prepared to forgive a little violence in pursuit of so just a cause. But, Christopher Bearman thinks we should see the campaign for women’s suffrage in the context of the time. Edwardian Britain was far from democratic.

Christopher
The suffragette campaign happened in a country in which forty per cent of men did not have the vote, in which no one who was not a householder have vote. No son who lived with parents could vote. No solider who lived in barracks could vote. It was not then part of citizenship. The manhood suffrage campaign had been going since the 1760s and the 1770s but there was no sustained campaign of violence.

Michael
The most extreme militancy of the suffrage movement has been almost entirely forgotten. We’ve inherited images of women being carried away by burly policemen, of Emily Wilding Davidson caught on film as she dies trampled under the hooves of the King’s racehorse. We remember suffering and martyrdom inflicted by an oppressive male state. Why don’t we recall arson, bombs and guns? Dr Hilda Keane of Ruskin College Oxford, is an expert in Public History. She thinks the WSPU branch of the suffrage movement was very conscious even at the time of the images it created knowing that they would pass into history.

Hilda
Women who were active in the suffrage cause were not just involved in a political campaign but saw what they were doing as part of a historic movement, a historical moment in history. They saw this even as they were doing it. Hence the creation of particular iconography, badges, material culture, getting badges if you went to prison for example. So when you get to the 1920s you’ll have an organisation established called the Suffragette Fellowship which is specifically set up, in their words “to perpetuate the memory of the pioneers”. So they are saying we are making history and we are making sure that it isn’t forgotten.

Michael
Eleanor Higginson, here speaking in 1968, was a suffragette and she saw how important maintaining media profile was to the WSPU leadership.

Eleanor
They had been asking for it for sixty years before Mrs Pankhurst started asking for it. And but they asked for it in drawing rooms in a polite manner. And of course that doesn’t attract the press you see. So when Mrs Pankhurst started, the first thing she found out was ... other uses of advertisement and we had to keep the pot boiling.

Hilda
It was this idea of an individual taking a stand and, if you like, being a martyr to the cause. So for example, on their banners, when they had demonstrations they would have the image of Joan of Arc and Bodicea. So militant women and individual women who died for an apparently just cause.

Michael
That was how the WSPU wanted to be remembered, as victims and martyrs rather than as militants who might have killed.

Krista
I think it probably is the case that we have forgotten a lot of the more violent incidents. I think there are several reasons for this. The first reason is historical. You have to think about why the WSPU campaign ends. It doesn’t end because they’ve succeeded, neither does it end because they’ve decided to stop. It ends because the first world war breaks out. And between 1914 and 1918 Europe sees carnage on such an unprecedented scale that all of the political militancy of that sort of preceding Edwardian code of the years 1900 to 1914 looks like children play-acting in comparison with what comes after that. So I think that’s one reason that in the 1920s people aren’t anxious to revisit political militancy of that type because it just, it suddenly seems spurious in comparison with the real violence and the real carnage that’s been suffered during the war.

Michael
When the vote was finally given to some – though not all – women in 1918, those who had been involved in the movement wrote its history. According to Dr Hilda Keane, those autobiographies conformed to a formula.

Hilda
It’s almost as if there’s a collective autobiography of suffrage, a new genre suffrage autobiography because of the themes that are common to this. So although it wasn’t that the suffragette fellowship sat down with former suffragettes and said could you write your autobiography in this way, but what was an individual experience also became one that was of the broader movement as well.

Michael
There’s no disputing that the women who risked prison and who were force-fed there, were extremely brave. But some historians now believe that in recalling those incidents there is a risk that we will not understand the breadth and complexity of the suffrage movement. Reading the autobiographies of suffragettes written in the nineteen twenties you might get the impression that acts of protest were confined to London. But as Jill Liddington, author of Rebel Girls points out suffragette militancy was a national phenomenon. That’s why we arranged to meet in the Police cells beneath the Town Hall in Leeds.

We’re now deep in the basement of Leeds Town Hall, in an area where you used to find the police holding cells, and the bars are still very much in evidence here.

And, Jill, we’re now beginning the ascent up the staircase into the court room. And this is the route that would have been taken by ...

Jill
Lilian Lenton as she comes up for her trial. And we’re mounting the steps. Stone then wood.

Michael
So we’ve emerged into the dock of the courtroom. A magnificent court room actually with its towering neo-classical columns and its great chandeliers, the royal crest behind the judge. And we have absolutely a suffragette eye view of the all male court.

Jill
Yes. That was a particularly dramatic occasion because Lilian had been accused of an arson attempt in an empty house in Doncaster, just to the south from here. The prosecuting lawyer tries to put his case about Lilian’s actions, her arson attempt in the supposedly empty Doncaster house which did in fact have an elderly housekeeper living in it. And the elderly housekeeper, Miss Beacroft aged seventy two, is sitting somewhere in the public gallery. And it could have resulted in that elderly woman’s death. The jury retires, fairly briefly, and returns a verdict, unsurprisingly, of guilty. The judge sentenced her to twelve months and Lilian is led out of the court down again to the police holding cells. And so we end this dramatic scenario with Lilian back in Armley Jail again which is a very, very forbidding building on the outskirts of Leeds. I wouldn’t want to spend more than an hour there I think.

Lillian
Well I set fire to a lot of buildings. I was in prison several times, in and out, under the Cat and Mouse Act.

Michael
The voice of Lillian Lenton from 1961 giving testimony that suffragette protest was not just a London phenomenon.

Lillian
Now I think that my speciality was escapes. First one of any importance was I think when I was released from Armley Jail in 1913. I was taken to the house of a local suffragette in Leeds. When I arrived I found large numbers of detectives both at the front door and at the back door - it was a terraced house – whose job was as I’ve said not to let me get away. Nevertheless within a few hours I was out.

Michael
But if we have forgotten how violent the movement could be, and how widespread was its militancy, we also tend to overlook that the largest number of people who called for votes for women was involved in purely constitutional campaigning, they were suffragists not suffragettes, and they were men as well as women. Jill Liddington speculated that my own great grandmother (and, for that matter, yours) was unlikely to have been a suffragette on the Pankhurst model, but could easily have been a suffragist.

Jill
Your mother’s family, her ancestors in Hale, in North Cheshire, somewhere around there, perhaps the nearest big town there would be a suffrage group. It would probably be a non-militant suffragists group. And perhaps your great grandmother might have got involved. She might have worn a badge. You see, you smile Michael, because we don’t think of our great grandmothers of doing things like that. But votes for women was something that took place in every single household because in almost every household there was a woman who was disenfranchised. And I think it’s that sense of votes for women everywhere and affecting every single household that we’ve, perhaps we’ve lost, by this focus on what you might call celebrity suffragettes.

Michael
Raising funds, making jam and quietly persuading people of their cause, didn’t command as much attention as being carried off to prison by a Policeman, photographed and displayed on the front page of the Daily Mail. But perhaps that’s not the only reason that we don’t remember the quiet persistence of the moderate wing.

Jill
There has been a certain amount of manipulation. For example one of the key suffrage histories is Sylvia Pankhurst’s 1931 book The Suffragette Movement. And what gets absolutely leeched out of Sylvia’s account is anything about the suffragists and about Mrs Fawcett’s much larger organisation, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, the NUWSS. So there has been a sort of slanting of suffrage history.

Michael
To help re-balance my appreciation of the suffrage movement, historian Elizabeth Crawford has unearthed some reminders of the lost suffragists. Laid before me on a felt covered table at the Women’s Library in London are mementoes of a campaign that had little connection with women chained to railings or being force-fed.

Elizabeth
We’ve forgotten to remember the vast number of people who did take part in the movement and who did nothing spectacular themselves. But whose work and commitment amounted to the drip drip on the stone that led to the ultimate achievement of the goal. I would ask you just to put on your gloves as this is archival material.

Michael
Okay.

Elizabeth
Well the two major items or the biggest items we brought out are two banners. This first one is a NUWSS – that’s a constitutional society – and it reads “17,898 men of Barnsley petition for women’s suffrage in 1913”.

Michael
A wonderful degree of precision of course, 17898. And perhaps many people wouldn’t have realised that men were involved to that extent.

Elizabeth
Indeed. In 1910 alone 280,000 male voters signed petitions in favour of women’s suffrage. This was men from all round the country. And this was in January 1910.

Michael
And now we’ve got quite a big collection of postcards.

Elizabeth
We have here from the Women’s Freedom League suffragettes at home. Mrs How-Martin makes jam. And she was a leader of the Women’s Freedom League. She had an academic degree. But there she is in the kitchen making jam.

Michael
With her pinny and her jam pot to the fore. Now we’re looking at something quite different, a plain postcard which has been posted. What’s the significance of this?

Elizabeth
Well this is from the Women’s Tax Resistance League. Obviously women paid tax but didn’t have the vote. This was a cri de coeur and this is showing that particular member of the league, the Princess Sophia Duleep Singh was having her goods distrained and sold in Ashford because she refused to pay a small amount of tax. Anyway this is inviting people, members and sympathisers of the League to come and support the sale and buy her good back, so they’d be returned to her. But the fact that they had these cards already printed to fill in with the specific details is interesting.

Michael
Yes you just had to fill in the date and where it occurs and then it urges you to take the 2.10 from Waterloo to Ashford, 2/6 return.

Elizabeth
Yes. Isn’t that nicely thought out? I think that’s a woman’s touch. Don’t you think?

Michael
I do.

Michael
The Sherman brothers wrote Sister Suffragette in 1964 for the musical film Mary Poppins.

The character of Mrs Banks, hugely preoccupied with votes for women, is a product of the modern way of remembering the suffragettes.

“No more the meek and mild subservients we” she says – “we’re fighting for our rights, militantly.”

But it is a partial view only. Like any mass protest, the campaign for women’s votes embraced extremists and moderates. When its most famous figures told their stories they were inevitably selective, conscious that their testimony would shape how their epic struggle would be remembered.

This edition of The Things We Forgot To Remember was originally broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 24th December 2007