The Women’s Social and Political Union was formed by women members of the Independent Labour Party on 10 October 1903 to campaign for women’s suffrage. Two years later the organisation hit the headlines when two of its leading members, Annie Kenney and Christabel Pankhurst, were arrested after disrupting a meeting in the Free Trade Hall. It was the beginning of the militant campaign for Votes for Women.
The Pankhurst name was already known in Manchester before the militant campaign for Votes for Women, started in October 1905, made Emmeline, Christabel and Sylvia Pankhurst household names.
Richard Pankhurst (1834-1898) was a barrister in Manchester and active member of the Liberal Party, who worked tirelessly in support of many progressive causes such as parliamentary reform, republicanism, Home Rule for Ireland, secular education and women’s suffrage. In 1879 he married Emmeline Goulden, twenty years his junior, and they had five children. In 1883 he stood unsuccessfully for parliament in a by-election in Manchester. Recalling her father, his daughter Sylvia wrote
“Without, he breasted the storm and stress of political turmoil: at home he poured forth for us a wealth of enthusiastic affection, in the precious hours torn for us from the fabric of his vast activity, revealing to us in a fascinating and never-ending variety of the brilliant facets of his thought and knowledge. His struggle was the background of our lives, and his influence, enduring long after his death was their strongest determining factor.”
Living for a time in London in Russell Square, their house was a meeting point for radicals of all persuasions: Socialist, Fabians, Freethinkers, Anarchists, Communards. There were endless meetings and musical evenings. In 1889 the Pankhursts, along with other prominent campaigners, formed the Women’s Franchise League which campaigned not just on suffrage but on the rights of women in areas such as custody of children and divorce. The secretary was Ursula Bright.
Returning to Manchester, where they lived in Victoria Park, the family often attended the meetings of the Ancoats Brotherhood organised by Charles Rowley on music, art and science. Dr Pankhurst himself gave a series of lectures on citizenship. Disillusioned with the Liberal party both Richard and Emmeline joined the Independent Labour Party, formed in 1893. Its leading figures, such as Carolyn Martyn, Enid Stacey, Pete Curran, Tom Mann, Bruce Glasier, Katherine St John Conway and Keir Hardie, were frequent visitors to the Victoria Park house when lecturing in Manchester.
In December 1894 Emmeline took her first step onto the political stage when she was elected to the Chorlton Board of Guardians for the Openshaw district. During that winter there was high unemployment in Manchester. A Relief Committee was established with Dr Pankhurst as Secretary and another local socialist, Dr Martin, as Treasurer, whilst Emmeline went every day to collect food from the markets for the daily distribution of food from the offices on Deansgate. They were soon feeding 2,000 people each day.
In 1895 Richard stood for the ILP in the Gorton constituency in the general election but he was unsuccessful, despite working very hard on the campaign. The following year both Richard and Emmeline took part in a battle for the rights of Socialists to speak in the open air on Sundays at Boggart Hole Clough. From 1892 the North Manchester Fabian Society, and on its formation the ILP, had been holding outdoor meetings without hindrance as the Clough was private property. Things changed, however, after Manchester City Council purchased the estate. In May and June 1896 the Council issued summonses against ILP speakers such as Leonard Hall, John Harker and Fred Brocklehurst, who were fined and imprisoned when they refused to pay. This attracted a good deal of public interest and on 14 June 10,000 people attended the outdoor meeting. On 20th June Emmeline spoke to a crowd of 20,000, whilst her daughters Sylvia and Christabel collected donations. Mrs Pankhurst was also summonsed but her case was repeatedly adjourned and never came to court. On 29 June a protest was held on New Cross against the Council’s actions. and on 3 July Keir Hardie spoke at a meeting in Stevenson Square, attended by over a thousand people.
Keir Hardie was also summonsed and when he appeared before the bench on 14 July he announced that he intended to call 421 witnesses. The case was adjourned by the magistrates after the twentieth had appeared! In August the Council passed a new by-law prohibiting meetings in parks but the Home Secretary, no doubt mindful of the controversy created so far, refused to sanction it. Eventually a new by-law was passed, drafted by the Home Secretary, which promised not to refuse any reasonable request for the use of parks. Outstanding summonses were dropped. The ILP had been victorious.
Dr Pankhurst died suddenly on 5 July 1898 from gastric ulcers. He left no will and many debts. Keir Hardie and Ramsay MacDonald acted as fundraisers to raise money to build a hall in his memory which eventually opened in November 1900 as the Pankhurst Memorial Hall on St James Road, Hightown, Salford. Keir Hardie gave the first memorial lecture there on 25 November 1900.
Devastated by their loss, the grieving family sold many of their goods and moved from Victoria Park to 62 Nelson Street, Chorlton-on-Medlock. With family finances in a parlous state, Emmeline took a job as a Registrar of Births & Deaths, acting as such from 8 November 1898 to 25 February 1907. Her daughter Christabel acted as her deputy from 4 November 1903 to 5 September 1906. The registrations took place at the family home, the public attending at advertised hours.
The family kept up their political activity, opposing the Boer War and thereby attracting much public hostility and some violence. In November 1900 Mrs Pankhurst was elected as a Socialist candidate on the Manchester School Board.
But by 1903 Emmeline and Christabell had become increasingly disillusioned by the lack of interest shown by the ILP whose leaders were, with the exception of Keir Hardie, either lukewarm on the issue of votes for women or in the case of Philip Snowden actively hostile. Thus on 10th October 1903 Emmeline called a meeting of like-minded ILP women at her house and they formed a new organisation – the Women’s Social & Political Union.
Initially the WSPU’s efforts were directed solely toward getting motions passed at ILP branches urging the leadership to take action. Keir Hardie gave his support, while Emmeline toured the branches and was elected onto the ILP Executive at its conference at Easter 1904. At the Easter conference in Manchester in 1905 the Pankhursts held a reception for delegates in their home.
After much lobbying they managed to get a Private Members Bill before the Commons, sponsored by the Liberal MP John Bamford Slack. On 12 May 1905 women packed the lobby of the Commons in support of the bill but it was talked out, being at the bottom of the order paper.
In the summer of 1905 Annie Kenney (1879-1953) a mill worker living in Lees, Oldham, who was a member of the local ILP and its choir, heard Emmeline and Christabel speak on women’s suffrage and immediately offered her services. She was soon fully involved as a public speaker. At her urging the Pankhursts set up stalls at wakes fairs in Stalybridge, Mossley and other Lancashire towns. Another recruit to the cause was Theresa Billington, a Socialist who had been brought up Catholic but become an agnostic. She was a teacher in Manchester who was a founder of the Manchester Teachers Equal Pay League. She became a paid organiser for the WSPU in June 1905.
With a general election in the offing (which many expected the Liberals to win), on 13 October 1905 Sir Edward Grey, a leading member of the Liberal Party (he was to become Foreign Secretary) came to speak in Manchester at the Free Trade Hall. The WSPU wrote to him, asking him to receive a deputation, but he did not reply. Christabel and Annie Kenny joined the audience, intending to heckle and with luck be arrested and imprisoned. This is Sylvia’s account from her book, The Suffragette Movement.
“Sir Edward Grey was making his appeal for the return of a Liberal government when a little white “Votes for Women” banner shot up. “Labour Representation” was the cry of the hour. Christabel thrust Annie Kenney forward, as one of the organized textile workers, and a member of a trade union committee, to ask. “Will the Liberal Government give women the vote?” Other questions were answered; that question was ignored. When it was persisted in, Annie Kenney was dragged down by the men sitting near her, and one of the stewards put a hat over her face. Christabel repeated the question. The hall was filled with conflicting cries; “Be quiet” “Let the lady speak” In the midst of the hubbub the Chief Constable of Manchester, William Peacock, came to the women and told them that if they would put the question in writing, he would take it himself to Sir Edward grey; but it went the round of chairman and speakers, and non of the vouchsafed a reply. When Sir Edward Grey rose to acknowledge a vote of thanks, Annie stood on a chair to ask again, whilst Christabel strove to prevent her removal; but Liberal stewards and policemen in plain clothes soon dragged them both from the hall. Determined to secure imprisonment, Christabel fought against ejection. When detectives thrust her into an ante-room she cried to her captors: ”I shall assault you!”; she retorted, when they pinioned her; “I shall spit at you!”. Her threat was not carried out in a very realistic manner, but she made as though to accomplish it, and she also managed to get a blow at the inspector as she and Annie Kenney were flung out of the building. Yet still she was not arrested. Outside in South Street she declared that they must hold a meeting , and when they attempted to address the crowd now flocking out of the hall, her desire was attained; they were now arrested and taken to the town hall.”
The women appeared in court the following day. Annie Kenney, speaking in her own defence, said that a large crowd had assembled, and, she admitted, blocked the street; but so long as they were to receive such treatment she, as representing thousands of factory women who had no votes, would be compelled to make the same kind of protest. They were fined but refused to pay and hence Christabel was sentenced to seven days imprisonment and Annie to three days. They were placed in the Third Division, wearing prison dress and eating prison food. According to Sylvia, Winston Churchill (then a prospective Liberal candidate for a Manchester seat) went to Strangeways prison to pay the fines but the governor refused to accept the money. Keir Hardie telegraphed his support. “The thing is a dastardly outrage, but do not worry, it will do immense good to the cause. Can I do anything?”
On their release a great crowd greeted them and Eva Gore-Booth and Esther Roper presented them with flowers. On 20th October both women addressed a crowded meeting in the very hall from which they had been ejected a week earlier. Keir Hardie also spoke. It was the beginning of the militant campaign for Votes for Women which over the next nine years would involve thousands of women and shake British society to the core.
Article by Michael Herbert