Universal suffrage for those of 18 and over is something that is now taken for granted; it wasn’t always thus though. A pillar box on the edge of Blackheath may not seem the most obvious place for a piece of political history, but on 17 December 1912 an earlier version of this pillar box, in roughly this location, was one piece of the jigsaw in getting Votes for Women.
A postbox on Aberdeen Terrace, which included some of what is now Pagoda Gardens, was the target of local suffragettes and had a black dye poured into it by three women, including one in an early wheelchair. Two of them were followed by a witness into Blackheath and then arrested.
The woman in the wheelchair was Rosa May Billinghurst, Rosa was her mother’s name but she was generally known as May. She was born and grew up at 35 Granville Park (below) in Lewisham in 1875 – the road runs up from close to the station to the Heath.
The family, including May, moved just around the corner to 7 Oakcroft Road, below, although like many suffragettes she was not recorded when the census enumerators called in 1911.
As a child she suffered total paralysis from polio, that left her disabled throughout her adult life. However, this did not prevent her becoming politically active in the Women’s Liberal Association before becoming a member of the Women’s Social & Political Union (WSPU) in 1907. May’s parents provide significant financial support to the WSPU around this time. She is pictured below (via Wikipedia on a Creative Commons)
In 1910 she founded and was the first secretary of the Greenwich branch of the WSPU and that same year she took part in the ‘Black Friday‘ demonstrations where she was thrown out of her adapted tricycle and arrested. She was arrested several more times, and jailed for a week in 1911 for ‘obstruction’ in Parliament Square and for a month in 1912 for window smashing. It has been argued that
her hand-propelled invalid tricycle gave her a special advantage in the propaganda battle they were waging. It made it difficult, if not impossible, for the media to portray May as a howling harridan with little care for the safety of others
After her arrest in Blackheath, May Billinghurst was apparently pleased about being caught, telling the arresting officer “With all the pillar boxes we’ve done, there has been nothing in the papers about it – perhaps now there has been an arrest there will be something.” It has been suggested that as many as 5,000 letters were damaged by the WSPU attacks. The press referred to them as ‘outrages’ (see Times Thursday, Dec 19, 1912; pg. 12)
Billinghurst kept her correspondence which is now housed at the London Metropolitan Univeristy, Women’s Library, with summaries are available on-line. It is clear that was a lot of support for her with Emmeline Pankhurst, advising May to defend herself and that
‘Your defence of course is the need for the enfranchisement of women and the failure to get it by peaceful means’.
It seems that the Government was highly fearful of the case, and another similar one in Tanners Hill and according to a letter from Bilinghurst, the Court took the unprecedented step of banning women from the public gallery at The Old Bailey for the cases.
Her co-defendant, Grace Michell, lived in St Stephens Road in Lewisham; she was in poor health, and ‘influenced’ by Billinghurst and was bound over to keep the peace, May Billinghurst was sentenced to 8 months imprisonment; and, as she had said that she would do in letters to friends and family, went on hunger strike and was force-fed with other suffragettes. Her letters say she never voluntarily took food.
On Jan.15 I felt too weak to resist their pouring food down my throat and from Jan. 16 at 12 noon until Jan 18 at 11 a.m. when I was released, no food whatever passed my lips.
May Billinghurst was released early due to ill health but had recovered enough able to speak at a public meeting in West Hampstead in March 1913 and took part in the funeral procession of the Blackheath born, Emily Wilding Davison in June – her early life, and the history of her home, was covered in Running Past in 2017.
Like many in the WPSU May Billinghurst took part in pro-war demonstrations early on in World War 1. She ceased to be politically active once women’s suffrage was granted after the, although she did attend the funeral of Emmeline Pankhurst in 1928 and the unveiling of her statue in Victoria Tower Gardens in 1930.
She moved to what is now Surrey at some point. For some of her time there, she lived with her brother, the artist Alfred John Billinghurst and an adopted child, Beth. In the 1939 Register she was living in Sunbury on Thames on ‘private means’ with one other redacted person there. She died in a nursing home in Weybridge on 4th July 1953.
Census and related data come via Find My Past