May 27 1914 saw Mrs Pankhurst released from prison, having spent six days there on hunger strike after the Buckingham Palace protest (see previous blog). May 30 saw Sylvia Pankhurst released from Holloway prison, six days after she had been arrested whilst marching to Victoria Park (see previous blog). Sylvia decides that should Prime Minister Asquith refuse to receive her East London Federation deputation, she and her followers would march in procession to Downing Street in any case. Her licence under the auspices of the “Cat & Mouse” Act having expired, she would be rearrested, but she planned to not only hunger and thirst strike in prison as usual, but continue this strike upon release until the deputation was received. She was willing to die if it might help to ensure victory for the cause.
On June 10th, such was her poor health from all the hunger, thirst and sleep strikes, that Sylvia had to be taken out of her landlady Jessie Payne’s house in Bow on a bath-chair with long poles, on the shoulders of four men. The marchers included George Lansbury and other men and women sympathisers, and there were bands playing, flags flying. Sylvia was arrested and taken off to prison as expected, when the protest reached Grove Road, Mile End. But the march continued without her to Aldwych, where a line of police awaited them. But this was to be no repeat of the police violence of Black Friday 1910. Some protesters got through the police line and continued to Whitehall, where as expected the Prime Minister refused to see any of them.
The prison was picketed by Sylvia’s followers night and day. Mrs Edith Mansell-Moulin (wife of the surgeon who had attended to Emily Davison whilst she lay injured on the ground after her collision with the horse at the Derby almost a year to the day previously) organised a meeting at Caxton Hall.
June 11th hunger striking was debated in the House of Commons. Lord Robert Cecil protested against force-feeding, and instead urged deportation of militants. The Home Secretary, McKenna, defended his actions declaring he was having to deal with “a phenomenon absolutely without precedent in our history”. He was advised by MP’s to let hunger strikers die. But McKenna retorted that that after the first death, far from putting an end to militancy, it would be the greatest incentive to further militancy. “For every woman who died, there would be scores who would come forward for martyrdom…I am sure that however strong public opinion might be today in favour of letting them die, when there were 20,30,40 more deaths in prison, you would have a violent reaction of public opinion”.
June 18th Sylvia is released and perhaps the most dramatic scene in the whole history of the fight for the vote for women was about to take place. I will tell you all about it in my next blog.