Running Past has been celebrating the centenary of (some) women ‘getting the vote’, looking at some of the awe inspiring women that were involved in the struggle in Lewisham as well as a number of posts about the branch itself and area based actions within Lewisham, Hither Green and Lee.
Blackheath, as has already been covered, was active during the late 19th century attempts to advance women’s suffrage including bills by local resident John Stuart Mill and various petitions including one in 1866. Blackheath also had a moderately active branch of the non-militant National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, which was looked at a few weeks ago. Also covered have been one of Blackheath’s most famous suffragette daughters, Emily Wilding Davison, who died after being trampled over by the King’s horse at the Derby in 1913; as well as May Billinghurst. May was a well-known, and visible, figure in the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) through her invalid tricycle who was imprisoned for a pillar box outrage on Aberdeen Terrace. This post looks at other WSPU activity within Blackheath.
Perhaps the most important element of Blackheath for WSPU activity was the Heath itself and notably, Whitefield’s Mount. It offered the opportunity for large meetings in a location that was free. The Lewisham WPSU branch was able to attract many of the leading lights nationally to speak on the Heath.
One of the early meetings there was in May 1908 (1). when Jeannie Bouvier, Caroline Townsend and Nancy Lightman (who spoke several times around Lewisham – including at Lee a couple of months later) (2). They should have spoken at Whitefield’s Mount but were attempts to take over crowd by a group of male Young Socialists – so the WSPU moved to a different ‘mound’ – it should be remembered that before World War 2 the surface of the Heath was much more serrated.
Greenwich resident, Edith New (left – on a Creative Commons) spoke on 17 May 1908 and kept ‘unruly elements’ in check by ‘her ready wit and cleverness of repartee’ in a meeting designed to help publicise a demonstration in Hyde Park that summer (3). She was to smash windows at 10 Downing Street a couple of weeks later and, along with Mary Leigh (see below) was one of the first suffragettes imprisoned for damage like this. By August 1908 ‘Votes for Women’ noted that attendances were growing for the meetings and that women of all walks of life were attending the Sunday afternoon meetings on the Heath. Winifred Auld was ‘quite a favourite’ as a speaker (5).
The first reports of organised disruption were reported in November where ‘rowdy elements’ tried to disrupt a meeting where Evelyn Sharp was the speaker on child labour to a crowd of 2,000 (7).
Helen Ogston, who used a whip to try to prevent her removal from the Albert Hall following heckling when Lloyd George refused to make a pledge on votes for women in early December 1908. She spoke about events at Albert Hall and gave a passionate defence of militant action a couple of weeks later at Whitefield’s Mount (8).
Mrs Tanner (pictured, centre above – (9)) spoke at a rally at Whitefield’s Mount on Sunday 20 June 1909 as a part of the building for the mass deputation to attempt to present a petition and speak to Asquith on 29 June 1909 (10). She had been arrested the previous year during a suffragette ‘raid’ of the House of Commons. There were also meetings at Lee Green, which Eugenia Bouvier and Grove Park resident, Lizzie McKenzie, spoke at, as well as in Lewisham Market where a Miss Smith provided the encouragement which was to mark the start of more militant activity around Westminster. Over 100 were arrested including Emmeline Pankhurst.
Mrs Tanner, who was secretary of the Brixton WSPU, was the speaker again at the last Sunday afternoon meeting of 1909 on 21 November 1909. ‘Several thousand’ came to hear her and Eugenia Bouvier, although there were again attempts as disruption by ‘rowdy youths.’ (11)
The biggest meeting on the Heath, again at Whitefield’s Mount, was in the summer of 1912 when around 30,000 attended a rally attended by Sylvia and Christabel Pankhurst, Flora Drummond and Georgina Brackenbury.
Christabel Pankhurst in her report of the rally made parallels with previous rallies of rebels on the Heath – particularly with the speech of John Ball delivered at Whitefield’s Mount.
Wat Tyler and his men were defeated by fraud. They went home too soon. We women must continue to demonstrate until the charter of our freedom is on the statute book. (12)
Hundreds of young men from Guy’s in white boaters came to disrupt the rally, they congregated in front of the lorry stage that Christabel Pankhurst was due to speak from. Jeannie Bouvier, and other Lewisham WSPU members held the fort there, whilst Pankhurst spoke from a different lorry, much to the annoyance of the students. Georgina Brackenbury, Miss Tyson and Flora Naylor spoke at the other three lorries (13).
Whitefield’s Mount wasn’t the only open air local location on the Heath used by the WSPU, Mary Leigh (arrested and imprisoned with Edith New, see above) and Emily Davison held a ‘successful’ open meeting on Blackheath Hill, presumably either at The Point or in front of the Green Man (pictured (15)).
The most badly disrupted meeting was at Blackheath Concert Halls (below) in October 1909 where the speakers were Emmeline Pethwick Lawrence, editor of Votes for Women, and Constance Lytton, one of the more aristocratic members of the WSPU. It was an important meeting for the Lewisham WSPU and the branch had been selling tickets for a couple of months (16).
The meeting was chaired by Jeannie Bouvier but the police had to be called when medical students broke up seating and let of stink bombs and fireworks (17). While the branch had to pay £12 for damage to furniture and fittings caused by ‘rowdies’ at the meeting, they still made £15 for the group’s funds from the meeting (18).
There was a physical presence in the Village – the WPSU branch had a shop for a while at 72 Tranquil Vale which served a useful purpose in terms of propaganda however seemed rather ill equipped, lacking table and enough chairs (19).
The branch was later to use a shop at 5 Blackheath Village, previously used by the NUWSS (pictured above) opposite the station – in 2018 the ‘home’ of Winckworths.
- Votes for Women 30 July 1908
- Votes for Women 28 May 1908
- Votes for Women 21 May 1908
- On a Wikipedia Creative Commons
- Votes for Women 20 August 1908
- On a Wikipedia Creative Commons
- Votes for Women 5 November 1908
- Votes for Women 17 December 1908
- Photograph via Museum of London who own the copyright, but usage in non-commercial research such as this is permitted.
- Votes for Women 18 June 1909
- Votes for Women 26 November 1909
- Votes for Women 21 June 1912
- Votes for Women 21 October 1910
- From Greenwich Photo History Wiki
- Votes for Women 10 September 1909
- Kentish Mercury 15 October 1909
- Votes for Women 5 November 1909
- Votes for Women 11 June 1909