Category Archives: Rebels & Radicals

Emily Davison and her Blackheath Home

One of the best known ‘daughters’ of Blackheath was the suffragette Emily Davison, who was born at Roxburgh House, 13 Vanbrugh Park West. She was to die on 8 June 1913 following serious injuries at Tattenham Corner on Epsom Downs four days earlier.  Roxburgh House was the middle house on the eastern side of the street on the Ordnance Survey map below (on a Creative Commons via the National Library of Scotland).

She was born on 11 October 1872 to Margaret and Charles Davison who were both from the north east.  Charles seems to have been a retired stock broker. Little is known about her early life but it seems that the family didn’t stay that long in Blackheath, while there are rumours of some time in Brockley, there next definitive location was Fulham where her father died in 1893 and the family were recorded in there in the 1891 census.  As is covered below, they had certainly moved from Blackheath by the time the 1881 census enumerators called at Roxburgh and she was at school in Kensington by the mid 1880s.

After an education that included periods at Royal Holloway College, Oxford and the University of London she taught privately for several years.  Emily joined the the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1906 and was working for them full time by 1909.   She was imprisoned eight times for a variety of offices including arson and stone throwing, force fed and had her cell deliberately flooded (Picture below on a Creative Commons via Wikipedia).

On Wednesday 4th June 1913, Davison attended the Derby at Epsom positioning herself on the inside of the track at Tattenham Corner, she ducked under the track,ran out on the course and attempted to grab the bridle of Anmer, a horse owned by King George V. The horse hit Emily and the impact fractured her skull, she never regained consciousness and died on 8th June.  There has been much debate as to whether Emily Davison intended to kill herself in the century since her death – a new analysis done around the centenary of her death suggests that she may have intended to put a sash around the neck of the King’s horse.

As for the house, Roxburgh has an interesting story beyond that of being the first home of Emily Davison and the details of those living there tell much of the decline of the area during the 20th century before its more recent emergence as a highly desirable place to live. Roxburgh was built around 1872 and the Davison family seem to have been the first occupants.  It was the middle house on the eastern side of Vanbrugh Park West (1).  While there appear to be no photographs of the house – there are several postcards of the neighbouring Vanbrugh Park (below eBay September 2016) – whose houses were very similar. The church in the background was St Andrews – which was covered a while ago in Running Past in relation to a painting by Elwin Hawthorne.

‘The housing was substantial, provided for a prosperous middle-class who could afford space for servants, gardeners, coaches and horses.’ (2)

The first time the census enumerators called in 1881, Roxburgh House was home to the Matthews – Marmaduke and Martha Ann, their 7 children and five servants. They had moved there from Sutton in Surrey where they lived in 1871. Marmaduke was a solicitor.  A decade later the parents weren’t mentioned, but may have been away when the enumerators called as the relationships to head of household were son, daughter etc.

The Matthews had moved out by the mid 1890s to Essex, they seem to have been replaced by Alfred Blechynden a respected marine draughtsman and engineer who had moved from Barrow to manage John Penn and Sons, Greenwich shipbuilders and marine engineers, a firm he had worked for for three years a decade and a half earlier. The Blechyndens were used to a comfortable lifestyle – Alfred and Elizabeth had three servants ‘living in’ in their substantial home in Barrow in 1891.  Sadly, Alfred Blechynden died from a heart attack just over a year after moving back to south east London. How long Elizabeth remained at Roxburgh is unclear, but she was eventually to return to her native north east (photo below of Vanbrugh Park – eBay June 2017).

By 1901, Roxburgh was home to Robert Watson, a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army who was 55, his largely grown up children and three servants.  In 1911 the house was vacant, although an elderly caretaker and his wife, Hugh and Caroline McLean were living there.  This was perhaps the shape of things to come, after World War 1 most of the houses around Vanbrugh Park leases were subdivided into flats or used for boarding houses for naval students at the Royal Naval College (3).  The postcard below was from eBay June 2017 would have been from this era.

When the 1939 Register was compiled, the house had been divided into three flats – one was empty, another was home to the Gorsuch family – the 47 year old father, Frank, was an inspector for the Port of London Authority, his wife Marjorie and daughter Mabel (19) carried out ‘domestic duties’ while son Denis (23) was an engineer. The Willoughbys lived in in the other flat, they were retired but had a a lodger too. Most of the neighbouring houses had been similarly divided and the occupations were generally manual and clerical.  There were though still a few that were lived in by single households, often with older residents.

There was some bomb damage, probably from the V-2 rocket which hit neighbouring Vanburgh Park Road on 19 February 1945, with two deaths; this completely destroyed one house and seriously damaged the western side of that road.  Several of the houses along Vanburgh Park Road West were damaged beyond repair, the same was the case for all the houses in Vanbrugh Park between the two bits of Vanbrugh Park Road.  What level of damage was suffered by Roxbrugh House isn’t clear as the initial pink colouring, indicating damage beyond repair was whited out (4).

The 99 year leases were allowed to run down by the Page Estate who had retained the freehold and would have expired in 1971.  While the Page Estate opposed redevelopment they were compulsorily purchased and new local authority housing completed in 1965 – the Vanbrugh Park Estate (5). Roxbrugh House would have been just to the right of the photograph below.

It was designed by by Geoffrey Powell of Chamberlain, Powell and Bon, the firm who designed the Barbican (6). Cherry and Pevsner describe it as ‘one of the most interesting housing estates in the borough,’ an unassuming, informal grid of flat roofed terraces with ‘distressingly unappealing cheap painted breeze blocks’ (7). The savings on the building materials enabled more to be spent on landscaping.

It is housing that has stood the test of time, although much of it has been sold under Right to Buy and those living there have no doubt changed considerably since it was built.  Average values in June 2017 on the estate were suggested to be just shy of £500k.

Notes

1 Neil Rhind (1981) Blackheath and its Environs, Vol 2 p291

2 ibid p287

3 ibid p288

4 Laurence Ward (2015) London County Council Bomb Damage Maps p163

5 Rhind, op cit p288

6 Bridget Cherry and Nikolaus Pevsner (1983) ‘The Buildings of England – London 2: South’ p274

7 ibid

Census, 1939 Register and related data comes via Find My Past 

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The McMillan Sisters and their Open Air Nursery

One of the more interesting regular South East London Open House venues is the Rachel McMillan Nursery in Deptford; it is an open-air nursery that evokes a time of the pioneering health care already covered in the blog in relation to the ground breaking work done in Bermondsey by the Salters and then taken up by the then Borough of Bermondsey at Solarium Court.

The Open-Air Nursery School & Training Centre, set up by the McMillan sisters, Rachel and Margaret, opened in 1914. Their philosophy was that children learned by exploring and would achieve their full potential through first-hand experience and active learning.  They stressed the importance of free play, particularly with craft and water activities, and also outdoor play – providing large and varied external areas for this. Such views seem commonplace now, but were very different to the teaching methods generally used at the time.

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The new school consisted of a series of  ‘shelters’ which each had bathrooms,  there was a clear daily routine

  • The school opened at 7:30 am;
  • Most children were dropped off between 08.00 and 09.00 by their mothers on their way to work in factories – often taking on roles traditionally undertaken by men, who were then on the WW1 front;
  • Breakfast with porridge and milk at 9:00 am;
  • The mornings were spent doing hand work or playing in the garden (or in the shelter in poor weather);
  • Lunch 11.30 and 12 noon;
  • The afternoon activities consisted of free play, music and games;
  • Tea at 4:00 pm; and
  • Collection of the children between 5:00 and 5:30 pm.

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Much of the early ethos remains at the nursery as the photographs above show. The nursery was filmed by British Pathé News in the 1939 (part of the footage was from a 1930 visit by Queen Mary – there is more on this later in the post).

So what of the journey of the sisters to Deptford?  Their parents were originally from Inverness but had emigrated to New York State in 1840, Margaret was born in 1860 and Rachel in 1859. They returned to Inverness following the death of their father and sister, Elizabeth, in 1865.

Their mother died in 1877 and Rachel remained in Inverness to look after her very ill grandmother.  Margaret left Inverness and trained as a governess.

In 1887 Rachel visited a cousin in Edinburgh, whilst there she heard a sermon preached by the Christian Socialist, John Glasse – about whom was written that he ‘gathered around him many ardent idealists, to whom he administered doses of Proudon and Marx … the faithful were favoured with the words of wisdom from the lips of Morris, Kropotkin, Stepniak and other distinguished visitors.’  Rachel was also introduced to John Gilray who gave her copies of Justice, a socialist newspaper and Peter Kropotkin’s ‘Advice to the Young’, and took her to a number of socialist meetings in the city.

The sisters’ grandmother died the following year and Rachel joined Margaret in London and both worked in homes for young girls. Rachel shared her Socialist views with Margaret and they attended political meetings where they met many of the important socialist and anarchist thinkers of the day including William Morris, Henry Hyndman, Peter Kropotkin – whose time in Bromley was covered in the blog a while ago – and Ben Tillet.

They became involved with the Christian Socialism that had first impressed Rachel in Edinburgh but also joined the Fabian Society, the Labour Church, Hyndman’s Social Democratic Federation and later the newly formed Independent Labour Party (ILP).

The moved to Bradford in the early 1890s and became involved in campaigning to improve the physical, emotional and intellectual welfare of the poorest children through improvements to housing, free school meals and early medical inspections of school children.

The sisters returned to London in 1902 and remained actively involved in campaign for free school meals, which was enacted as part of the Liberal Welfare Reforms in 1906.  They lived at 127 George Lane in Hither Green for a while after their return to London – commemorated by one of Lewisham’s maroon plaques.

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The remained convinced about the need for medical inspections within schools and opened the first school clinic in Bow in 1908.  Margaret and Rachel McMillan opened another, the Deptford Clinic, in 1910 which served a number of schools in the area providing a range of services including General health checks, some dentistry, lessons in posture and breathing.

The McMillan Nursery followed a few years later, while Rachel died on 25th March, 1917.  Margaret continued the run the Nursery also serving on the London County Council and setting up a training college for teachers and nurses in Deptford,  the Rachel McMillan College. The College was opened by the Queen in May 1930 and captured by British Pathé News; it was taken over by the London County Council after WW2 and eventually became part of Goldsmiths College.

Margaret died the following year – her friend Walter Cresswell wrote a memoir of the sisters, remarking about them

Such persons, single-minded, pure in heart, blazing with selfless love, are the jewels of our species. There is more essential Christianity in them than in a multitude of bishops.

The sisters are buried in the same plot on the Brockley side of Brockley and Ladywell Cemetery – a peaceful location despite the proximity to Brockley Road.

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Will Crooks and the Greenwich Foot Tunnel

Late last year, on a miserable rainy day I ran through the Greenwich Foot Tunnel to get a little respite from torrential rain, the blog piece I wrote was mainly about the running. However, the tunnel and the man behind it are well worth returning to. 

The tunnel owed much to the vision of Will Crooks, a Progressive Party and later Labour Party politician. Crooks was a man of humble beginnings from Poplar, who in his youth spent time in the workhouse due to his family’s poverty and, with his friend George Lansbury, used his experiences to help reform the Poplar workhouse, which become a model for how workhouses should be run.


Crooks read widely in his youth and on Sundays lectured outside the dock gates on Polar where he was a casual worker. He oratory skills were later described by a fellow Labour MP John Robert Clynes

Will Crooks combined the inspiration of a great evangelist with such a stock of comic stories, generally related as personal experiences, that his audience alternated between tears of sympathy and tears of laughter.

He became active in politics and was elected to the London County Council in early 1889 as a Progressive Party member – which had been founded the year before by a loose grouping of labour movement leaders, Liberals and the Fabian Society, including Sidney Webb.


Source Wikimedia Commons

It was perhaps little surprise that he emerged as one of the leaders of the 1889 Dock Strike and he used his oratory skills in fundraising. He was also to become the first Labour mayor of the Poplar Borough Council in 1901. He also helped to set up the National Committee on Old Age Pensions believing that pensions were the only way to keep the elderly poor from entering the workhouse – this ultimately led to the first State Pensions in 1908.
Whilst on the LCC, Crooks chaired the Bridges Committee and it was on his watch that the decision to build the Greenwich Foot Tunnel was made to allow working class people in Greenwich were able to commute to the shipyards, docks and factories on the north bank of the river on a free and reliable basis. It replaced a ferry which was both expensive and frequently didn’t operate due to fogs.     

 The tunnel was designed by civil engineer Sir Alexander Binnie and was constructed by John Cochrane & Co. The building work started in June 1899, and the tunnel opened on 4 August 1902, although it users had to wait another two years for the first lifts to become operational.


The southern entrance is a glazed cupola close to the Cutty Sark, with the northern entrance in Island Gardens. It is just over 370 metres long and 15 metres deep, with a diameter of 2.7 metres, although this is slightly narrower at the northern end as an inner liner was added following WW2 bomb damage (see bottom right photo above).
Also when on the LCC he campaigned for the provision of parks – Island Gardens too was at least partly down to Crook’s efforts, he opened the park seven years before the tunnel. The park has the northern entrance to the tunnel plus a great view back towards Greenwich.


In the 1903 there was a Parliamentary by-election in Woolwich in what was then a safe Tory seat caused by the resignation of Charles William de la Poer Beresford, 1st Baron Beresford (an honorary title, as the younger son of a Marquis, so he didn’t have the same issues as Tony Benn) to become an Admiral. The Liberals agreed not to put up a candidate and Crooks was elected for the Labour Representation Committee – becoming their 4th MP. Crooks represented Woolwich, then East Woolwich when the constituency was split, until 1921, apart from a short inter-regnum during 1910.
He is sadly not remembered on the ‘plaques’ outside the entrances (he was no longer on the Bridges Committee when they opened) and, south of the river at least, his name only lives on a street facing an embankment to the A2 in Kidbrooke. However, he was ‘captured’ several times on British Pathé News including his funeral in Poplar when the crowds turned out to pay their respects

I’m certainly not the first to have run through the tunnel, the 100 Marathon Club organised a marathon to celebrate the tunnel’s 100th birthday on 4 August 2002 – 58 ‘laps’ of the tunnel during the night. You didn’t have to be Superman to compete but it clearly helped – the finishers included a Clark Kent.

Peter Kropotkin – Anarchist, Geographer, Gardener and Bromley Resident

One of the more unexpected sights on Bromley’s streets is a plaque to the Russian anarchist and geographer Peter Kropotkin in Crescent Road, who lived there from 1894 to around 1907 when he moved to Muswell Hill.


London had been a relatively safe haven for European anarchists fleeing persecution for much of the 19th century.  Kropotkin had returned to London after being imprisoned in France for membership of the International Workingmen’s Association (the First International).

The centre of much anarchist activity in London seems to have been around Fitzrovia – something I have touched on in passing before as part of a post on Martial Bourdin, the Greenwich Observatory bomber.  It is perhaps surprising then that Kropotkin made his home elsewhere. Initially he had moved to Harrow – this was where his old friend and comrade Nikolai Tchaikovsky lived.  Both had been part of the what became known the Circle of Tchaikovsky – a society for self-education and revolutionary organisation – during the early 1870s.  Kropotkin had been imprisoned for his involvement in this in 1874 and had escaped from prison before his trial, moving to Switzerland via London.

Tchaikovsky may have been the reason for Kropotkin’s move to Bromley too, as there are suggestions that the former may have lived in College Road, which is just around the corner from Crescent Road.

An interesting article by Sarah Young suggests that Kropotkin and his wife, Sophie, were keen gardeners and that this may partially explain the reasoning behind a more suburban location for his home.  Google earth suggests that the garden isn’t actually that big though, but it certainly didn’t stop the Kropotkins naming the house ‘Viola Cottage’  – the slightly bucolic name may have given the impression of some sort of rural idyll but the reality was a new (then) 4 bedroom semi-detached house in Victorian commuter land.

Bromley was still relatively small when the Kropotkins moved there, its growth linked to railway development – Crescent Road is mid-way between Sundridge Park and Bromley North.  Perhaps they shopped just down the road at Uridges or J Morton Crouch in Widmore Road.

Kropotkin was listed as a self-employed ‘Geographer’ in the 1901 census, but his income appears to have come from articles in ‘Nature’ and the now defunct ‘Nineteenth Century’.  He also wrote articles for the Geographical Journal (1) and presented a paper at the British Association (for the Advancement of Science) (2).


His income was certainly sufficient to be able to afford to employ a young Belgian servant.  However, the income appears to have been spasmodic as there was at least one occasion when he had to borrow money from neighbours.

It would be interesting to know what his neighbours made of him – in the1901 census they included an architect, a builder’s draughtsman and a marble merchant. They may have been impressed with his regular letters to The Times on all sorts of Russian issues – such as on discriminatory laws against Russian Jews (3) and administrative exile to Siberia (4).  Certainly, a neighbour who was referred to as a Prince and appeared in at least one Court Circular (when he was seriously ill with pneumonia in the winter of 1904/05) (5) may have impressed some in commuter land.

However, they may have been less impressed with the press camping outside Crescent Road at the same time as his illness, attempting to get a response from him on the Bloody Sunday massacres.

Eyebrows may have been raised if the neighbours knew the identity of some of the visitors to Viola Cottage, which became an ‘open house for anarchist exiles and British Socialists’.  In late 1899 Emma Goldman visited several times whilst in London in and she and Kropotkin argued about the political significance of gender and anarchist thinking in America at the time.  It seems that Goldman was able to persuade Kropotkin as she has the debate concluding

 “Perhaps you are right, after all.” He beamed affectionately upon me, with a humorous twinkle in his eye.

Another regular visitor to Viola Cottage was Harry Kelly, the American anarchist, who seemed to see Kropotkin as a mentor and lived for much of his time in London in nearby Anerley. Another visitor was Fernando Tarrida del Mármol, who is buried at Brockley and Ladywell Cemetery, who seems to have stayed at the Kropotkins for a while.  

Clockwise from top left Rudolph Rocker, Harry Kelly, Emma Goldman and Louise Michel.

Paris Communarde Louise Michel was certainly a visitor, and may well have lived in Bromley too – excellent research by the Transpontine blog has pinpointed her to several south London addresses – the nearest confirmed one would be Albion Villas Road in Upper Sydenham.

Other visitors would have  included his friends Rudolph Rocker and Varlam Cherkezov, as well as Keir Hardie, although he wouldn’t see Lenin at home or elsewhere when the latter was in London

Interestingly one of his works whilst at Crescent Road ‘Mutual Aid’ challenged some of the work of one of the Bromley area’s other famous residents – Charles Darwin.  The book drew on Kropotkin’s experiences in geographical expeditions in Siberia to argue that cooperation and mutual aid are the most important factors in the evolution of species and the ability to survive.

  A map of eastern Siberia drawn by Kropotkin

Notes

  1. “The Census Of The Russian Empire.” Times [London, England] 7 June 1897: 6. The Times Digital Archive.
  2. “The British Association-A Retrospect.” Times [London, England] 11 Sept. 1897: 10. The Times Digital Archive.
  3. P. KROPOTKIN. “The Jews In Russia.” Times [London, England] 16 Apr. 1895: 11. The Times Digital Archive.
  4. P. KROPOTKIN. “‘Administrative Exile’ In Russia.” Times [London, England] 19 Oct. 1906: 5. The Times Digital Archive
  5. “Court Circular.” Times [London, England] 25 Jan. 1905: 6. The Times Digital Archive


Whitefield’s Mount – a Rallying Point for Protest and Preaching

In the middle of Blackheath, close to Goffers Road, is a small protuberance covered with what looks like broom and a few gorse bushes. It may not necessarily look that impressive but it has an interesting history. It is known as Whitefield’s Mount, or variants such as Whitfield’s Mount or Mound, or just The Mount, and has been a gathering point for centuries. Whitefield was an18th century preacher but as the Mount has much older associations and a previous name, we will return to him later.

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Whether the Mount is natural or a barrow or other man made construct is unclear, certainly there are pre-historic barrows and evidence of early activity in the area, but an archaeological report on a site within a few metres of it makes no such claim for the Whitefield’s Mount. It is likely that it the Mount was a little bigger than it currently is as it was used as a 17th century butt for artillery practice – in March 1687 John Evelyn noted in his diary

I saw a trial of those develish, murdering, mischief-doing engines called bombs, shot out of a mortar-piece on Blackheath. The distance that they are cast, the destruction [which] they make where they fall, is prodigious.

Prior to the development of the route of the current A2 across the heath it would have been at the main cross roads, which is shown in John Roque’s map of the 1740s – one of the roads headed of for the delightfully named ‘Dowager’s Bottom’ (roughly where Tranquil Vale is now).

The mound was formerly referred to as ‘Wat Tyler’s Mound’ as there were apparently speeches to the rebels in the Peasant’s Revolt there on 12 June 1381 before they marched on to London. The speakers included John Ball, whose name lives on through a school in Blackheath, whose sermon stirred the rebels

When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men. For if God would have had any bondmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who should be bond, and who free. And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty.

Just over a hundred years later, it seems that the Mound was used for the same purpose by Michael An Gof, and Thomas Flamank, the leaders of the revolting Cornishmen prior to the Battle of Deptford Bridge (the first post on this blog covered this). It has been suggested that the Mound was the place of burial for many of the fallen Cornishmen that day.

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It was a regular gathering point for the Chartists – meetings there had become a regular feature by May 1839 and were of a size to cause concern to the authorities. The Blackheath stop of a speaking tour by Peter McDouall in July 1842 brought around 4,000 to the Mount.

The Mount wasn’t the only place on the Heath used by the Chartists – Feargus O’Connell spoke from a ‘van’ outside Princess Sophia’s estate in 1844, presumably this was the Rangers House as she was the Greenwich Ranger until she died later that year.

However, the Mount seems to have been the main location used as Chartist meetings there continued throughout their existence, there was notably a meeting of Woolwich, Deptford, and Greenwich Chartists on 9 April1848 to rally support for a massive demonstration the following day in Kennington. The Blackheath rally was described in the not entirely sympathetic London Universe, a Catholic penny paper

Meeting in Blackheath.—On Sunday morning an open-air meeting of the Woolwich, Deptford, and Greenwich Chartists, took place, in spite of the rain, at Whitfield’s Mount, Blackheath. A Mr. Robinson was selected to preside. A determined intention was expressed to attend the demonstration next day, and an attempt was made to get up the Marseillaise hymn, which signally failed. The speeches were extremely inflammatory.

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A poster for Kennington from Wikipedia

Robinson’s ‘inflammatory’ speech included the rallying call

We are determined to conquer tomorrow; nothing shall put us down. We shall not be terrified by bullets or bayonets; they have no terrors for oppressed starving men.

Political meetings and rallies there continued into the early years of the 20th century. It was the location for protests against the London County Council taking over the responsibilities of the former School Boards in 1903.

More importantly it was the location for regular suffragette meetings. The Lewisham, Blackheath and Greenwich area seems to have been an area of strength for the movement and a hundred metres or so away May Billinghurst attacked a post box (there was a post on this here a few months ago). It was reported in April 1909 that

On Sunday afternoon the meetings were resumed at Whitfield’s Mount, Blackheath, when Mrs. McKenzie took the chair and Miss Hewitt, of Manchester, and Mrs. Bouvier, of Lewisham, were the speakers. There was an exceptionally large crowd. Whilst the last-named lady was speaking, a man commented that she was telling “the same old story.” Mrs. Bouvier acknowledged that that was true, and said that if the male voters were tired of “the old story” the best thing they could do was to write the Cabinet members urging the enfranchisement of women. Until they secured the vote they would continue to tell “the old story” at Blackheath and elsewhere (laughter and hear, hear).

In August 1913, The Blackheath Local Guide and District Advertiser reported that Blackheath Suffragists met with the Kent group of the non-violent National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies at Lee Green on 24 July before marching to Whitefield’s Mount. The Suffragists wore scarlet, white and green sashes and carried banners inscribed “Home-makers demand votes” and “Law-abiding women”. The newspaper report noted that there was no hostility and all appeared to pass quietly. This was the Kent leg of the Women’s Suffrage Pilgrimage which saw marches bringing 50,000 women from all over the country converge on Hyde Park on 26 July.

As was noted earlier, the current name “Whitefield’s Mount” is named after George Whitefield an 18th century evangelical Anglican preacher who was one of the founding fathers of Methodism. He used The Mount to preach to large crowds, estimated as being up to 20,000, singing from the meetings could be heard 2 miles off, and his voice 1 mile away (Nosier than the recent onblackheath festival!). It was at one of Whitefield’s meetings that the young John Wesley’s first field-preached London in June 1739

It was used in the 19th century by Baptist Minister George Charles “Bo’sun” Smith as an open air pulpit to preach in particular to soldiers from Woolwich barracks and sailors from naval hospital in Greenwich.

There is still a tradition of open air ecumenical religious meeting there on Good Friday each year – it isn’t clear whether this goes back to Whitefield’s time but certainly there were certainly open air religious meetings there in 1905. The meetings though are now to the west of the Mount, the density of the broom would make it hard to do anything other than play hide and seek there.

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The Scottish Political Martyrs Memorial

With the Scottish Independence Referendum happening tomorrow, it is perhaps worth reflecting on a group of men who are commemorated at Nunhead Cemetery, not by gravestones but by a large memorial – the Scottish Political Martyrs.

It is a large granite obelisk is unlike anything else in the cemetery and acts as a memorial to five political radicals from the late 18th century – Thomas Muir, Thomas Fyshe Palmer, William Skirving, Maurice Margarot, and Joseph Gerrald who were all transported to Australia.

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The backdrop to their protests was the French Revolution, which led to universal male suffrage in France in 1792, abolishing all property requirements as a prerequisite for allowing men to register and vote. It is not surprising that events on the other side of the English Channel inspired British radicals wanting similar rights and Societies for Political Reform were set up in many places in the country.

Muir was a Glasgow lawyer who had set up the Scottish Association of the Friends of the People with William Skirving, a Midlothian farmer, in July 1792, and seems to have been attempting to bring together the disparate groups across England and Scotland. The “new Tory” Government of Pitt the Younger was determined to stamp out these views, infiltrated the groups and arrested the leaders. In a series of trials with hand picked, unsympathetic juries Muir, Fyshe Palmer and Skirving were all sentenced to transportation, along with Margarot and Gerrard who were delegates from The London Corresponding Society.

Of the five, Muir escaped from Australia but was wounded on his tortuous trip back to Europe and died in France in 1799; Margarot returned to Britain but died in poverty; Fyshe Palmer died of dysentery on his return voyage; Skirving died in Australia of yellow fever; and Gerrard died of tuberculosis soon after his arrival in New South Wales.

They were not the only trials relating to campaigns for universal male suffrage – three of the other leading London Corresponding Society members – Thomas Hardy, John Horne Tooke and John Thelwall were tried, unsuccessfully for High Treason in 1794.

The memorial itself came out of the next significant organised demands for political reform – the Chartists – at a meeting at the Crown and Anchor in Clerkenwell in 1837 it was decided to commemorate the Scottish Martyrs with memorials in both Scotland and London, although it took until 1851 for the Nunhead memorial to be completed.

A Suffragette Pillar Box Attack in Blackheath

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.

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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.

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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.