On This Day: Black Friday, 18th November 1910

Black Friday Museum of London

A suffragette struggling with a police officer during Black Friday. Photo by Rachel Barratt (Source: Museum of London).

By 1910, the women’s suffrage campaign had been gathering steam for several years. Frustrated with the lack of progress, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) were becoming increasingly militant, and their relationship with the government was deteriorating. Violence was escalating on both sides; the force-feeding of hunger strikers began in October 1909, for example. On the 18th of November 1910, around 300 members of the WSPU were treated so poorly by the police and bystanders outside Parliament in Westminster that the day became known as Black Friday.

During the 1910 general election campaign, Herbert Asquith, Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Party, promised a Conciliation Bill to allow some women the right to vote in national elections. The Liberal Party won the election, and a committee of MPs proposed legislation that would have given 1 million women the right to vote. For many suffrage campaigners, the proposals didn’t go far enough, but it was still a massive step forward, and most campaigners supported the Conciliation Bill. Many MPs also supported the Bill, and it passed it’s first and second readings in Parliament. Asquith refused to give the Bill more parliamentary time, however, and called another general election before it could become law, killing it.

The WSPU saw Asquith’s actions as a gross betrayal; they had suspended militant action on the 13th of January 1910 because of the promise Asquith made to give some women the vote, and now their hopes had been dashed. They organised a rally at Caxton Hall in Westminster, followed by a protest march to Parliament. The rally started at 12pm, after which WSPU organiser Flora ‘the General’ Drummond organised the women into groups to march to parliament and petition Asquith directly. The first group was led by Emmeline Pankhurst and included several prominent suffragettes including Dr. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Dr. Louisa Anderson (sister and niece respectively of Millicent Garrett Fawcett, Hertha Ayrton and Sophia Duleep-Singh. When this group arrived at parliament at about 1:20 pm, they were admitted, told that Asquith wouldn’t see them, and then shown out into Parliament Square where they were met with utter chaos.

Caxton Hall Black Friday

WSPU leaders at the meeting at Caxton Hall in Westminster on Black Friday (Source: Museum of London).

When the rest of the 300 marchers reached Parliament Square, they were met by aggressive police officers and male bystanders. The local A Division of the Metropolitan Police had plenty of experience policing suffragette protests, and knew how to handle them without resorting to excessive violence. Most of the policemen in Parliament Square on the 18th of November, however, were from Whitechapel and East London, and had less experience of policing WSPU protests. The women clashed with the police for 6 hours, during which time many of the women were sexually assaulted. Rosa May Billingshurst was a WSPU member who used a wheelchair. She was taken down a side street by policemen who stole the valves from her wheelchair so she couldn’t move, and abandoned her. Caxton Hall became a triage point, where injured protesters could retreat from the chaos. It appeared that the police deliberately tried to sexually humiliate the women to teach them a lesson rather than just arresting them. 4 men and 115 women were eventually arrested, although all of the charges were dropped by the Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, the following day.

The committee which had proposed the Conciliation Bill were appalled by the accounts of violence, and decided to investigate. They interviewed 135 protesters, 29 of whom described examples of sexual assault. Media sympathy was largely with the police, although plenty of people did speak out against the treatment of the protesters. There were calls for an inquiry, but Winston Churchill refused. The protest led to a change of tactics on both sides. The WSPU increasingly turned to covert protest tactics, such as window breaking and stone throwing, which gave them a chance to escape before the police arrived. The Metropolitan Police were also more careful about how they policed protests and when they made arrests.

The term Black Friday is now associated with over-the-top sales and rampant consumerism, but 100 years ago it had very different connotations. It was associated with the violent suppression of peaceful protest that became a defining moment in the campaign for women’s suffrage.

Sources and Further Reading

Hawksley, Lucinda. March, Women, March: Voices of the Women’s Movement from the First Feminist to the Suffragettes. London: Andre Deutsch, 2015.

Raw, Louise. “The Sexual Assaults Faced by the Suffragettes.” Politics.co.uk. Last modified 8 February 2018, accessed 23 October 2018. Available at  http://www.politics.co.uk/comment-analysis/2018/02/08/the-sexual-assault-faced-by-the-suffragettes

Wikipedia, “Black Friday (1910).” Last modified 21 July 2018, accessed 18 October 2018. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Friday_(1910)

Voice and Vote Exhibition at the Houses of Parliament

IMG_601p70

Me at the Voice and Vote exhibition in Westminster Hall at the UK Parliament (Photo: Graeme Awcock).

2018 marks the 100th anniversary of some women being given the right to vote in the UK. The anniversary has been marked with a whole range of events, books, documentaries and exhibitions (I have collected together all my blog posts on the topics here). One of the exhibitions is Voice and Vote: Women’s Place in Parliament in Westminster Hall at the Houses of Parliament. It is only a small exhibition, but it does a great job of putting the story of women’s fight for the right to vote in the context of the spaces women have occupied in Parliament both before and after 1918.

The exhibition is divided into 4 areas: the ventilator, the cage, the tomb, and the chamber. Each area includes a reconstruction of a particular space that women have inhabited in parliament over the last few centuries. These spaces include a ventilator shaft in the loft space above the House of Commons chamber which women used to listen to debates before Parliament was destroyed during a fire in 1834; the Ladies Gallery, a small and stuffy viewing space high up in the rebuilt chamber; the broom cupboard in which Emily Wilding Davison hid on the night of the 1911 census; the Lady Members’ room (known as ‘the tomb’) which became increasingly overcrowded as female MPs were elected in the years after 1918; and the chamber of the House of Commons, in which 208 women now sit.

IMG_5026

The Voice and Votes exhibition in Westminster Hall makes good use of its limited space (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Alongside these recreated spaces are items, documents, images and quotes that illustrate women’s relationship with the UK’s democratic system both before and after they won the right to vote. Parliament has quite substantial archival collections of its own, and many of the items on display came from these collections. Personal highlights for me were a banner used during a protest in which Muriel Matters and Helen Fox chained themselves to the bars covering the windows of the Ladies Gallery in 1908, and a pair of bolt cutters bought afterwards so that similar protests could be dealt with more easily. They were used in April 1909 to remove members of the WSPU that had chained themselves to statues in St. Stephen’s Hall. Other items are loaned from elsewhere, including papers and objects relating to Leicester suffragette Alice Hawkins, which are still owned by her family.

Voice and Vote is a small exhibition, but it makes the most of the space. It contains a lot of items and information, but it doesn’t feel overcrowded. The recreated spaces are an effective way of putting the visitor in the shoes of the women who interacted with Parliament over the last few centuries, even when they were not welcome. They are a clear way of structuring the exhibition, and they are something a bit different–a creative and novel way of engaging with history.

I would highly recommend a visit to Voice and Vote. It is well designed, and puts the campaign for women’s suffrage in wider context of women in Parliament. I also think it will appeal to those who have limited background knowledge, and those who already know quite a bit about women’s history in British politics. The capacity of the exhibition is limited, so it is recommended that you book, and it runs until 6th of October 2018.