Sylvia Pankhurst, daughter of the WSPU founder Emmeline Pankhurst, was a driving spirit behind the Suffragettes and seemingly became more radical than her mother. As one of the key members of the Suffragettes – a movement that had a major impact on British society in the first years of the C20th – her memories are an invaluable source to historians.
The brief truce before the withdrawal of the Franchise Bill and its amendments was followed by destructive militancy on a hitherto unparalleled scale, petty injuries and annoyances continuing side-by-side with large-scale damage. Street lamps were broken, “Votes For Women” was painted on seats in Hampstead Heath, key holes were stopped up with lead pellets, house numbers were painted out, chairs flung in the Serpentine, cushions of railway carriages were slashed, flowerbeds damaged, golf greens all over the country scraped and burnt with acid. A bowling green was cut in Glasgow, the turf in Dunthie Park, Aberdeen. A mother and daughter, bearing an ancient name, spent much of their time travelling in trains in order to drop pebbles between the sashes of the carriage windows, hoping the glass would smash on being raised. Old ladies applied for gun licenses to terrify the authorities. Bogus telephone messages were sent calling up the Army Reserves and Territorial’s. Telegraph and telephone wires were severed with long-handled clippers; fuse boxes were blown up, communication between London and Glasgow being cut-off for some hours. There was a window-smashing raid in West End club-land, the Carlton, the Junior Carlton, the Reform Club, and others being attacked.
A large envelope containing red pepper and snuff sent to every Cabinet Minister, the Press reported that they all fell victims to the ruse. Boathouses and sports pavilions in England, Ireland and Scotland, and a grandstand at Ayr racecourse, were burnt down. Mrs. Cohen, a Leeds member of the deputation to Lloyd George, broke the glass of the jewel case in the Tower of London. Works of art and objects of exceptional value became the target of determined militants. Thirteen pictures were hacked in the Manchester Art Galley. Refreshment pavilions were burnt down in Regent’s Park and Kew Gardens. Where the glass in three orchid houses was smashed, and the plants, thus exposed, were broken and torn up by the roots. Empty houses and other unattended buildings were systematically sought out and set on fire, and many were destroyed, including Lady White’s house near Staines, a loss of four thousand pounds, Roughwood House, Chorley Wood, and a mansion at St. Leonard’s valued at ten thousand pounds. There were fires at several houses in Hampstead Garden Suburb, at the Suburb Free Church, at Abercarn Church, Monmouthshire, in the Shipcoat Council schools, at South Bromley station on the London Underground, and at a wood yard at Walham Green. Hugh Franklin set fire to an empty railway carriage; he was imprisoned and forcibly fed. An old cannon was fired near Dudley Castle, shattering glass and terrifying the neighbourhood. Bombs were placed near the Bank of England, at Wheatley Hall, Doncaster, at Oxted Station, and on the steps of a Dublin insurance office.
Where a capture was effected, the punishment varied considerably: up to nine months for breaking windows or the glass covering pictures; eighteen months or two years for arson.
Then, swift as a shaft of light from a thunderous sky, followed a tragic happening. Emily Wilding Davison rushed out on to the Derby racecourse, and was fatally injured in stopping the King’s horse. She had long believed that the deliberate giving of a woman’s life would create the atmosphere necessary to win the victory, and bring all the suffering of the militants to an end. That had been her intention when, in prison, a year before, she had flung herself over the corridor railings. A statement she then wrote revealed she had made three successive attempts to kill herself, twice being caught by the wire netting forty feet below, and finally throwing herself on to the iron staircase. Already in that fall she had received injuries from which she never fully recovered. Her statement, sent at the time to the “Suffragette”, was not published until after her death, for there had been a general desire at Lincoln’s Inn House to discourage her in some tendencies; some of her colleagues even suggested her attempt had been a sensational pretence. She was condemned and ostracised as a self-willed person who persisted in acting upon her own initiative without waiting for official instructions. All such criticism was now forever silenced; she had risen to the supreme test of her faith. There remained only the memory of her brave gallantry and gay comradeship, her tall, slight, awkward figure and the green elusive eyes in the small, jauntily poised head.
On the eve of the Derby, she went with two friends to a WSPU bazaar in the Empress Rooms, Kensington, where, amid the trivial artificiality of a bazaar-fitter’s ornamental garden, and the chatter of buying and selling at the stalls, she had joined in laying a wreath on the plaster statue of Joan of Arc, whom Christabel had called “the patron saint of Suffragettes”. With a fellow militant in whose flat she lived, she had concerted a Derby protest without tragedy – a mere waving of the purple-white-and-green at Tattenham Corner, which, by its suddenness, it was hoped would stop the race. Whether from the first her purpose was more serious, or whether a final impulse altered her resolve, I know not. Her friend declared she would not thus have died without writing a farewell message to her mother. Yet she had sewed the WSPU colours inside her coat as though to ensure that no mistake could be made as to her motive when her dead body should be examined. So she set forth alone, the hope of a great achievement surging through her mind. With sure resolve she ran out on to the course and deliberately flung herself upon the King’s horse, ‘Anmer’, that her deed might be the more pointed. Her skull was fractured. Incurably injured, she was removed to the Epsom Cottage Hospital, and there died on June 8th without regaining consciousness. As life lingered in her for two days, Mansell Moullin performed an operation, which, in surgeon’s parlance, “gave great temporary relief”, but the injured brain did not mend.