We’re at the end of a week of centenaries of Suffragette action. May 21 was the centenary of Mrs Pankhursts’s final big protest, outside Buckingham Palace (see last week’s blog).
May 22 1914 was the date a painting called Primavera by Sir George Clausen (not to be confused with the one of the same name by Boticelli) was slashed in the National Gallery by Maude Kate Smith aka Mary Spencer (many of the most militant Suffragettes had aliases to help them keep out of the clutches of the police).
May 24 1914 was the “Women’s May Day” in the East End’s Victoria Park. It was billed as a festival and council of war. There were to be nine platforms and forty speakers. Sylvia Pankhurst, the leader of the East London Federation of Suffragettes, had star billing, but there were numerous other notables on the cast list. These included Henry Nevison, one of the founder members of the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage who was a disillusioned ex follower of Mrs Pankhurst’s Women’s Social & Political Union, and now ardent Sylvia supporter; George Lansbury; and Miss Winson, vice chairman of the Women’s Suffrage Party in Philadelphia.
The procession to the park started in Canning Town and then swept onto Bow, where Sylvia Pankhurst was waiting for them at the Women’s Hall (her new HQ).
Sylvia marched at the centre of 20 women who were chained to her and each other. It was a spectacular site as they marched from Bow towards the little bridge that would take them over the Hertford Union canal and into the park, though Sylvia would have been safer from arrest with a substantial number of tough Eastenders around her to protect her from the police.
Outside the park gate fifty detectives were dressed in disguise as market traders, and as the uniformed police appeared to clear a space for the women to march through, the detectives began a well planned attack. They waded into the crowd with their sticks and dragged Sylvia and her guard of chained women into the park. The police used their truncheons to smash the locks of the chains. In the melee women had their faces punched, hair pulled, arms twisted and thumbs bent back. Sylvia was flung on the floor of a taxi accompanied by four swearing, punching and arm-twisting detectives.
“You’ll never get the vote!” shouted one of them aggressively.
“Oh yes, they’ll get it,” retorted his colleague sagely.
For a more detailed description of Women’s May Day, read my novel Suffragette Autumn Women’s Spring.