I was intereviewed on Radio Kent today about it being the centenary of the Suffragette attack on David Lloyd-George’s house.
Background to the attack:
Lloyd-George was the Chancellor of the Exchequer. You might have thought that Prime Minister Asquith or the Home Secretary (messrs Gladstone, Churchill and McKenna all did the job during the Suffragette campaign) would be their main target but nobody was vilified more by Suffragettes than Lloyd-George. This was because in opposition he had been very vocal about his support for votes for women, but once in power, though still professing to favour it, did nothing to bring it about. In fact, with the exception of Asquith, he did more than anyone to ensure the vote was not won by women. And at least Asquith had a certain awful honesty about him- he openly opposed women getting the vote and made no secret of it. Lloyd-George epitomised the Suffragette slogan of Deeds Not Words.
He may be the great hero who brought in Old Age Pensions and other much needed New Liberalaism reforms that helped the poor, and he was a fine leader of the nation through the First World War, but Lloyd-George doesn’t come out of the Suffragette struggle too well. In principle he believed women should get the vote, and was the highest ranking politician with this belief. And only 4 or 5 (Churchill was known as a “wobbler” because nobody knew whether in principle he was for or against votes for women) of the 19-strong cabinet were opposed to women getting the vote, so he could have championed their cause with plenty of support behind him. But Lloyd-George did not want to take on the Prime Minister, even after a landslide victory at the 1906 General Election left the party without any real opposition so they could afford to have a split party for a while, because he knew if he just kept his nose clean he would be the next Prime Minister. And so it proved.
Lloyd-George played golf and loved the Walton Heath course. When he was given the opportunity of having a second home built as part of a new luxury development close to the course, he jumped at the idea.
The Suffragettes had already embarked upon, amongst other acts of arson, destruction and civil disobedience, attacking golf greens by burning votes for women into them. (When I give a talk about Suffragettes, the burning of golf greens usually gets the biggest gasp of the night from my audience!) And as one of the country’s most famous courses, Walton Heath was an obvious target. So it may be that Suffragettes had already been to Walton on a reconnaissance mission when they heard of Lloyd-George’s house being built.
In early February Lloyd-George had refused to see a deputation of Suffragettes to discuss the vote. Hardly the action of someone who professed to support their cause. It would seem it was the death sentance for his still under construction house in Walton.
Suffragettes particularly liked committing arson attacks on anything large (and therefore newsworthy when they burnt to the ground) that was left unattended so there was no risk to life. Race course grandstands, cricket pavilions, boat houses, churches, castles, Kew Gardens and the second homes of the wealthy (that’s where the Welsh got the idea from!). The second home of the Chancellor, their great enemy, was an obvious target but it was left unguarded.
In the early hours of Feb 19 Suffragettes broke into the house and left two bombs on timers. Only one of them went off, nice and early before any workers arrived at the house. It was 5lbs of gunpowder left in the first floor bedroom. It caused a severe amount of damage and there is still a crack in the Grade 2 listed Pinfold Manor, which is the house today.
Nobody knows who the bombers were, but the most likely perpetrators were perhaps Norah Smyth and Olive Hockin. Norah had at one time been Mrs Pankhurst’s chaffeur, and was the financial secretary of Sylvia Pankhurst’s East London Federation of Suffragettes. In her memoirs, Sylvia claimed that Emily Davison carried out the attack, but there is no evidence to support this. Emily tended towards being a lone wolf and liked to publicise her efforts, whereas Walton was clearly a secretive mission that involved a team.
Mrs Pankhurst claimed responsibility for the attack. “We have blown up the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s house to wake him up,” she said. She was arrested in London and taken to Leatherhead police station where she was questioned and charged. Rather quaintly she was was detained in a police inspector’s sitting room and slept the night in his spare bedroom! The next day she was taken to Epsom magistrate’s court by motor car – the first person in Surrey history to be so.
She was sent to prison.
It was one of 250 acts of arson or destruction in a 6 month period in 1913.
Though one wonders whether some of the arson attacks may have been fire insurance scams. Burn your delapidated old cricket pavilion down for the insurance money and scatter Votes for Women handbills everywhere. The Suffragettes would be happy to claim responsibility. And people became so frightened of arson that insurance company pay outs were more than offset by a huge amount of new business going theeir way. Everyone’s a winner!
Except Mrs Pankhurst’s WSPU – the arson campaign was the beginning of the end for her organisation. Suffragettes became pariahs and by the outbreak of war their membership was down to 2,000. But the non-violent Suffragists were gaining popularity. By the outbreak of war the largest of the Suffrage socities, the NUWSS, had 100,000 members. And Sylvia Pankhurst’s East End Federation was also a great success in making the fight a mass movement, getting the working class on board.
Mrs Pankhurst’s publicity driven organisation had done a great job from 1903 to 1912. It had politicised a great swathe of women. The irony was these women mostly rejected her organisation but joined the overall fight for the vote.
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