Suffragettes, direct action and militancy

Suffragettes, violence and militancy

Some suffragettes believed that deeds, not words, would convince the government to give women the vote. Fern Riddell assesses the scale of violent direct action used by militant suffragettes, with a focus on events from 1912 to 1914.

Photograph of Annie Kenney and Christabel Pankhurst

Photograph of Annie Kenney and Christabel Pankhurst

Suffragettes Annie Kennie and Christabel Pankhurst hold a 'Votes for Women' placard.

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This is the traditional image we have of the suffragette movement – empowered women, often young, holding placards, marching, determined to win the right to vote and have their views represented on equal terms with men. Prior to 1918, 100 years ago, only certain men had the vote. Through a very long campaign, begun in the early 19th century, women over 30 and who owned property were finally given the right to have their voices heard and stand for government. It wasn’t until a decade later, however, that the 1928 Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act granted every citizen of this country the right to vote and have a say in how we are governed, who we are and what we stand for as a country.

Multiple suffrage societies formed across the country during the Victorian era, all fighting in different ways to convince the government that women deserved the right to vote. In 1903 a new society emerged that has dominated our history and understanding of the women’s movement in the UK: the WSPU, or Women’s Social and Political Movement, heading by the enigmatic Pankhurst family. Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters, Christabel, Sylvia and Adela, are well-known names in our suffrage history. But their choice to turn to violent and extreme actions, what we would define today as ‘terrorism’, is something that is rarely acknowledged. The Pankhursts passionately believed that deeds, not words, would be the only thing to convince the government to give them the vote. After decades of peaceful protest, the WSPU recognised that something far more drastic was needed to get the government to listen to those who were campaigning for women’s rights. While we are probably familiar with tactics such as window smashing, what was the real scale of suffragette violence and militancy?

‘We are fighting for a revolution!’: the escalation of violence and militancy up to 1912

‘If men use explosives and bombs for their own purpose they call it war,’ wrote Christabel Pankhurst in 1913, ‘and the throwing of a bomb that destroys other people is then described as a glorious and heroic deed. Why should a woman not make use of the same weapons as men. It is not only war we have declared. We are fighting for a revolution!’

Christabel’s new tactics oversaw a nationwide bombing and arson campaign that the newspapers quickly dubbed the ‘Suffragette Outrages’. One of the earliest recordings of this term is found in the Morpeth Herald on 20 November 1909, when a suffragette attacked a young Winston Churchill with a horse whip on the platform of Bristol railway station.[1] In the same month, Selina Martin and Lesley Hall disguised themselves as orange sellers and, armed with a catapult and missiles, attacked Prime Minster Asquith’s car in Liverpool.[2] The following year in Battersea, a clerk suffered burns as he attempted to stop a suffragette from throwing a liquid over the papers of a Member of Parliament[3] – one of the first recorded instances of a suffragette causing physical harm to a member of the public.[4] Risk or injury to the public has been vehemently denied by many suffragette historians, as well as by the suffragettes themselves, but the newspapers (and even the accounts of the militant suffragettes) prove that there were numerous instances where injuries occurred, and that personal risk, or even death, was great.

Photograph of Christabel Pankhurst

Photo of Christabel Pankhurst sitting at her desk with an isuse of The Suffragette newspaper hanging off the edge. To her left is a sofa with piles of books and demonstration materials

The issue of The Suffragette on Christabel Pankhurst’s desk features an illustration of ‘the burning of Nottingham castle during the franchise agitation of 1832’ – the content inside alludes to the use of arson, window-breaking and theft.

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One of the most dangerous suffragette attacks occurred in Dublin in 1912.[5] Mary Leigh, Gladys Evans, Lizzie Baker and Mabel Capper attempted to set fire to the Theatre Royal during a packed lunchtime matinee attended by Asquith.[6] They left a canister of gunpowder close to the stage and threw petrol and lit matches into the projection booth which contained highly combustible film reels. Earlier in the day, Mary Leigh had hurled a hatchet towards Asquith, which narrowly missed him and instead cut the Irish MP John Redmond on the ear.[8]

1912 proved to be an escalation point in the violence of the militant suffragettes. Glasgow Art Gallery has its glass cases smashed[9]; bank and post office windows were smashed from Kew to Gateshead; in September, 23 trunk telegraph wires were cut on the London road at Potters Bar; and on 28 November simultaneous attacks on post boxes occurred across the entire country.[10] By the end of year, 240 people had been sent to prison for militant suffragette activities.[11] Once in prison, these inmates were often subjected to the torture of force feeding at the hands of the prison authorities – actions which only further radicalised them and increased their commitment to the militant campaign on their release.

Postcards with comic verses about suffragettes

Postcards with comic verse

This satirical card comes from a from a set of six anti-suffrage postcards. Created around 1910, the postcards were in circulation during a time of great turmoil for the suffrage campaign, demonstrating how popular culture quickly adopted the image of the imprisoned suffragette. 

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Suffragette violence in 1913 and 1914

The newspapers soon began to carry weekly round-ups of the attacks, and reports of suffragette violence are evident across the country, with papers like the Gloucester Journal and Liverpool Echo running dedicated columns on the latest outrages.[12] During 1913, a suffragette attacked the glass cabinets in the Jewel House at the Tower of London, while in Dundee, in Scotland, four postmen were severely injured by phosphorus chemicals left in post boxes.[13] In Dumbarton 20 telegraph wires were cut; Kew Gardens orchid house was attacked and its teahouse burned down.[14] In Ilford, three streets had their fire alarm wires destroyed and in Saunderton the railway station was destroyed, with placards entitled ‘Votes for Women’ and ‘Burning For the Vote’ left among the debris.[15] Croxley Station near Watford also suffered a similar fate, although the attack was initially not attributed to the militants until a suffragette newspaper was delivered to the Station Master with a scribbled inscription, ‘Afraid copy left got burnt.’[16]

Photographs showing the destruction of Great Yarmouth Pier

These before-and-after photographs of Great Yarmouth Pier show the level of damage which could be caused by suffragette action.

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NUWSS pamphlets

What does Women's Suffrage mean?

'Some people think that Women's Suffrage means breaking windows and spoiling other people's property. This is a great mistake. Only a small number of women do these violent actions': the suffragists of NUWSS distance themselves from the violence and direct action of the suffragettes in this pamphlet from 1913.

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In 1914 the destruction of homes, pavilions and churches continued, with the year containing some of the most well-known attacks on works of art, as Mary Richardson slashed the Rokeby Venus in the National Gallery in London.[17] The capital city saw a wave of cultural violence: the British Museum had mummy cases smashed, and bombs were discovered in St Paul’s and the Metropolitan Tabernacle, where a postcard was left bearing the words, ‘Put your religion into practice and give the women freedom.’[18] After the outbreak of World War One, however, the WSPU suspended their militant campaign.

BLAST no. 1, the Vorticist magazine

BLAST no. 1, the Vorticist magazine

This vorticist poem was published in response to the slashing of the Rokeby Venus in the National Gallery in London. Vorticism was full of deliberate contradictions and rhetorical oppositions, so rather than condemning the actions, the authors warn that 'you might some day destroy a good picture by accident'.

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Usage terms Wyndham Lewis: © Estate of Wyndham Lewis. Except as otherwise permitted by your national copyright laws this material may not be copied or distributed further.

Edward Wadsworth: © Estate of Edward Wadsworth. All rights reserved, DACS 2016. Except as otherwise permitted by your national copyright laws this material may not be copied or distributed further.

Concluding thoughts

The WSPU acted like a regulated army with professional soldiers, seeing the Edwardian period as a civil war between the sexes. It played heavily on the advertised language of the ‘Woman’s Army’ and suffragette rhetoric of ‘rebellion’. Directed and in some cases orchestrated by the Pankhurst leadership, these attacks were specifically designed to terrorise the government and the general public to change their opinions on women’s suffrage – not by choice, but by threats and acts of violence. Some members of the WSPU were alienated by the escalation of violence, leading to splits and the formation of groups including the Women’s Freedom League in 1907 and the East London Federation of Suffragettes in 1914. The impact of the WSPU’s extremism, much like the impact of political violence today, lost them many supporters.

This aspect of the fight for women’s rights might make you uncomfortable. We don’t want to believe that the people we idolise are capable of actions that have such little regard for others, or for themselves. But sanitising history is never a good idea. History is all around us, and it is far better to know it in its entirety, or at least as close as we can get to that, than it is to advocate myths and half-truths. And the fight for equality has never been easy.


[1] For Churchill’s whipping see ‘Suffragette Hits Churchill’, Dundee Courier, 15 November 1909, and ‘Suffragette Outrage’, Morpeth Herald, 20 November 1909.

[2] For Selina Martin and Leslie Hall, see ‘Suffragette Outrage’, Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, 28 and 31 December 1909.

[3] ‘Suffragette Outrage’, Grantham Journal, 8 January 1910.

[4] ‘Suffragette Outrage’.

[5] ‘Gunpowder and Oil’, Hull Daily Mail, 19 July 1912; ‘Prime Minister in Dublin’, Derby Daily Telegraph, 20 July 1912; ‘Suffragette Outrages’, Western Times, 20 July 1912; ‘Sensational Evidence Is Given’, Dundee Courier, 20 July 1912.

[6] Gunpowder and Oil’, Hull Daily Mail, 19 July 1912; ‘Prime Minister in Dublin’, Derby Daily Telegraph, 20 July 1912; ‘Suffragette Outrages’, Western Times, 20 July 1912; ‘Sensational Evidence Is Given’, Dundee Courier, 20 July 1912.

[7] ‘Gunpowder and Oil’, Hull Daily Mail, 19 July 1912; ‘Prime Minister in Dublin’, Derby Daily Telegraph, 20 July 1912; ‘Suffragette Outrages’, Western Times, 20 July 1912; ‘Sensational Evidence Is Given’, Dundee Courier, 20 July 1912.

[8] ‘Suffragette Outrages’, Western Times, 20 July 1912; ‘Sensational Evidence Is Given’, Dundee Courier, 20 July 1912; ‘Suffragist Outrages’, Evening Telegraph, 20 July 1912.

[9] ‘Foolish Art Gallery Outrage’, Hull Daily Mail, 6 August 1912; ‘Suffragette Outrage in Glasgow Art Gallery’, Western Times, 10 August 1912. For the telegraph cutting see ‘The Latest Suffragette Outrage’, Derby Daily Telegraph, 4 September 1912.

[10] ‘Suffragette Outrage’, Hull Daily Mail, 2 November 1912; ‘Pillar Box on Fire’, Evening Telegraph, 11 November 1912; ‘Hundreds of Letters Are Damaged’, Dundee Courier, 29 November 1912; ‘Suffragette Outrages’, North Devon Journal, 5 December 1912.

[11] ‘To-day’s Parliament’, Derby Daily Telegraph, 28 January 1913.

[12] During 1913 The Gloucester Journal ran a column called ‘The Militant Suffragists’, and the Liverpool Echo dedicated a space entitled ‘The Wreckers’ or ‘Wreckers’ to report all attacks and trials linked to the suffrage movement.

[13] ‘Our London Letter’, Derby Daily Telegraph, 3 February 1913; ‘Four Postmen Are Burned’, Dundee Courier, 6 February 1913.

[14] Telephone Wires Are Cut’, Dundee Courier, 8 February 1913; ‘Women’s War’, Western Times, 10 February 1913, ‘Latest News’, Western Gazette, 21 February 1913.

[15] ‘Women’s War’, Evening Telegraph, 10 March 1913; ‘Suffragette Outrages’, Aberdeen Journal, 12 April 1913.

[16] ‘Suffragettes Accept Responsibility For Burning Of Railway Station’, Evening Telegraph, 11 March 1912.

[17] ‘The National Gallery Outrage’, Liverpool Echo, 11 March 1914.

[18] ‘Suffragist Damage In British Museum’, Aberdeen Evening Express, 10 April 1914; ‘Bomb In Westminster Abbey’, Grantham Journal, 13 June 1914; ‘Bomb In Tabernacle’, Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, 11 May 1914.

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  • Fern Riddell
  • Dr Fern Riddell is a cultural historian and an expert in sex, suffrage and entertainment in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. She is the author of A Victorian Guide to Sex (2014) and Death In Ten Minutes: Kitty Marion. Actress. Arsonist. Suffragette (April 2018). She appears regularly on TV and Radio, writes for The Guardian, Huffington Post and Times Higher Education, and is a columnist for BBC History Magazine. Fern is also a consultant for the BAFTA award-winning BBC and Amazon drama Ripper Street, and advises on programs for BBC, ITV and worldwide.