Tomorrow is Election Day for the European Parliament and Borough elections in London; that there is universal suffrage for those of 18 and over is something that is now taken for granted. 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 1913 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.
One of them was May Billinghurst who was born in Lewisham in 1875, and grew up in Granville Park. 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. 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.
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.
While her co-defendant, Grace Michell, 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 11a.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.