diamond geezer

 Saturday, February 16, 2013

In 1913 the Suffragette movement spread across Britain, fighting tirelessly for "Votes For Women". The battle was particularly intense in the East End, where Sylvia Pankhurst had set up a campaign shop at 198 Bow Road. In Sylvia's own words, this is what happened here in Bow 100 years ago.

On February 14th 1913, a week after the shop was opened, we held a meeting in the Bromley Public Hall, Bow Road, and from it led a procession round the district. Some stones were solemnly thrown at the window of a bank. My stone missed, but someone else managed to send one through the glass. To make sure of imprisonment, I broke a window in the police station, and was convicted for this and the bank window. Daisy Lansbury was accused of catching a policeman by the belt, but the charge was dismissed. Zelie Emerson and I went to prison for six weeks on Friday, and began the hunger and thirst strike, but Mrs. Pankhurst had our fines paid anonymously, and we were released at noon on Saturday. We rushed back to the shop and found it crowded with members, scrubbing the tables and arranging to march to Holloway prison to cheer us next day.

On the following Monday, February 17th, we held a meeting at the Obelisk, a mean-looking monument in a dreary, almost unlighted open space near Bow Church.

Our platform, a high, uncovered cart, was pitched against the dark wall of a dismal council school in the teeth of a bitter wind. Already a little knot of people had gathered; women holding their dark garments closely about them, shivering and talking of the cold, four or five police constables and a couple of Inspectors. We climbed into the cart and watched the crowd growing, the men and women turning from the footpaths to join the mass. One of the Inspectors stretched up to ask me in a whisper whether I intended to form a procession. I answered "No." Zelie Emerson spoke first, witty and engaging. I sat beside her, half numbed by the cold, thinking of many things in a dull way, and wondering how the damp cold would affect my throat, which had been troubling me of late, and whether I should be able to make myself well heard when my turn came.

As she stopped I was suddenly all alert. My voice rang out loud and very clear. I felt the tense expectancy about me; the thrill of sympathy responding to my words. In concluding I said I knew it to be a hard thing for men and women to risk imprisonment in such a neighbourhood, where most of them were labouring under the steepest economic pressure, yet I pleaded for some of the women of Bow to join us in showing themselves prepared to make a sacrifice to secure enfranchisement. Then amid a stunned surprise that I had said no more, for the people expected a call to action, I got down from the cart, slow and stumbling, for my feet were stiff with cold.

Half the crowd was disappointed that nothing had come of the meeting; half was wondering if something would happen yet. The police too were waiting, and would have prevented what I intended had I spoken of it. I walked slowly away toward the Bow Road, the crowd irresolute, half turning to follow, half waiting to see if someone else would speak. A few of the women pressed round me. At the corner was a brightly-lit undertaker's shop with cheap, showy monuments in its window.

I took a heavy flint from my pocket and hurled it as hard as I could. It broke the glass with a loud report, passing through it as easily as though it had been butter, I thought, recalling my bad shot in St. Stephen's Hall. Three stones went flying from close beside me; they sounded like the firing of guns. I was seized by two policemen; three other women were seized. We were dragged, resisting, along the Bow Road, the crowd cheering and running with us. Suddenly a young man darted forward with a shout: "Votes for Women!" and flung a stone through a window in the Bromley Public Hall. The people applauded: "Bravo! Votes for Women!" The police leapt upon him, wrenching his arms, hauling him along by the collar, a short, thick-set figure, struggling and breathless. It was Willie, George Lansbury's eldest son, who had promised his wife to go to prison instead of her because she had tubercular tendencies and could not leave their little daughter only two years old.

The crowd, always growing in numbers, surging around and ahead of us, roaring its cheers and its epithets, massing around the doors of the big new police station. The police fought their way through and thrust us inside. The Inspector shouted: "File out, you men, and keep them back – and shut the doors!"

There were four others inside with me: Annie Lansbury and her brother Will, pale, delicate Mrs. Watkins, a widow struggling to maintain herself by sweated sewing-machine work, and young Mrs. Moore. A moment later little Zelie Emerson was bundled in, flushed and triumphant – she had broken the window of the Liberal Club.

I looked at the others who were new to this. They all seemed satisfied and glad. Mrs. Moore sat with her fair young face a little raised and lighted by an ecstatic smile.


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