Tag Archives: Pillar box attacks

Suffragette City – The Attacks on Lewisham’s Post Office

During recent months Running Past has celebrated the work of Lewisham’s suffragettes both individually – looking at May Billinghurst, Eugenia Bouvier, Caroline Townsend and Clara Lambert, and collectively in the first of a series of ‘Suffragette City’ posts in Lee and Hither Green, all being brought together on a Lewisham Suffragettes page

This post continues with this, looking at the repeated attacks on Lewisham Post Office, Sorting Office and neighbouring pillar boxes within Lewisham Town Centre by Lewisham’s militant suffragettes, presumably members of the Lewisham branch of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU).

The main Post Office, marked PO above, was in roughly the same location as its last independent location, in Lewisham High Street within the market.  The sorting office was more or less opposite behind 108 Lewisham High Street – this is now land covered by the Lewisham Shopping Centre and would have been close to the current location of the residual Post Office within W H Smiths.

Oddly, the suffragettes weren’t the first to attack Lewisham Post Office; as Running Past has already covered, Rolla Richards, a Deptford Anarchist with mental health issues had attacked it in 1896 along with several other local Post Offices.

Before looking at the attacks, it is worth looking, briefly, at the history of and reasons given for damage to and destruction of property by militant suffragettes. The WSPU had believed in Direct Action almost from its formation in 1903 – Emmeline Pankhurst had disrupted a Liberal meeting in 1904.  The move to greater militancy and targeted damage to property seems to have been born out of a frustration with lack of progress, not just since 1903, but for a generation before. Despite a majority of MPs elected in 1906 supporting women’s suffrage Asquith (Liberal Prime Minister and opponent of women’s suffrage) contrived to ensure that Bills were never enacted.  This came to a head between 1911 and 1913 with levels of militant activity increasing dramatically.  There were also serious concerns about the extent to which the initial form of protest, demonstrations, were being met with considerable brutality by the police – notably Black Friday and events the following week in late 1910.

One of the first examples of a more direct approach was by a woman with a Greenwich link, Edith New, who smashed windows in Downing Street in 1908. This remained a rarity until 1911, but the following year 240 women were sent to prison for smashing windows, arson and pillar box ‘outrages.’

So why were the Post Office and pillar boxes targets? Presumably it was because they are obvious institutions of the state, resplendent with the mark of the monarch and would disproportionately impact on the wealthy, business and the Government. In practice, it was at least partially targeting those who were denying women the vote. One of the first recorded incidents was in 1911 when Emily Wilding Davison attacked three post boxes in late 1911 including one in Parliament Square. It started to be used on a larger, more coordinated scale in November 1912.

The post box at the main Lewisham Post Office (pictured above) was attacked on 17 December 1912, the same evening at several others in Lewisham, Lee, Hither Green and Blackheath – after the latter attack May Billinghurst and Grace Mitchell were arrested. A black, tar-like, substance was poured into the box, damaging letters (1).

There was to be another ‘pillar box outrage’ at the Lewisham Post Office on 3 May 1913 when a packet of partially burnt gunpowder was found, it had only ‘partially fired’ and around 30 letters were damaged (2).

In September 1913 there was a significant explosion and fire there, which ’caused some alarm.’ A loud bang was heard in the market and then (3)

a portion of the letter box fell into street and this was immediately followed by flames bursting from inside. The fire spread to other parts of the building which was quickly alight…..By the time the firemen arrived (from Lee Green and Ladywell) the flames had got a firm hold of a section of the premises and their efforts were directed at confining the fire to as limited an area as possible.

It took around 45 minutes to put the fire out although the local newspaper report suggested that there was relatively little damage to the building itself (4).

As the local press noted, by this stage it was obvious that the Post Office was ‘steadily becoming the objective of malicious suffragette activity in this neighbourhood.'(5). What was perhaps more surprising was that the attack in September 1913 was immediately after a public meeting in the market, which would probably have had a relatively high police presence and that no one seemed to have been watching what had become a clear target.

Less than a month later there was an almost repeat at around 7:00 pm on a Saturday evening in early October 1913 a loud explosion occurred at the Post Office and moments later flames were seen to be coming from the letter box. A large crowd gathered and while the flames were put out quickly hundreds of letters were damaged or destroyed (6).

Late in 1913 wax vesta matches and gunpowder were found in the post box at the Post Office, but they failed to explode.  The same evening there was also an attack on a pillar box in Lee High Road, that too failed to ignite as intended (7).

There was a further attack on Saturday April 18 1914 when phosphorous in an envelope and a cycle tyre containing a black liquid, wrapped in ‘The Suffragette’, was pushed through the letter box at Lewisham Post Office. The same evening an envelope containing sulphur was put in a post box at 160 Rushey Green (above). The damage on this occasion was quite limited.

As for the Lewisham Post Office while the attempts to destroy it, initially by Rolla Richards and then suffragettes, failed – it was very badly damaged in the V-1 attack on 28 July 1944 (it is on the right edge of the photograph above). It was initially rebuilt as a Post Office after the war although is now used for other retail purposes.

 

Notes & Credits

  1. The Suffragette 27 December 1912
  2. Lewisham Borough News 12 September 1913
  3. ibid
  4. ibid
  5. ibid
  6. The Suffragette 10 October 1913
  7. The Suffragette 4 January 1914
  8. The Suffragette 1 May 1914

Thank you to the always helpful Julie Robinson at Lewisham Archives in terms of press cuttings held there from Lewisham Borough News

Picture Credits

The picture of the Post Office is courtesy of Luke Anthony Briscoe on the excellent Catford and Lewisham Way Back When Facebook Group.

The picture on the pillar box in Catford is via Google Streetview.

The map is on a Creative Commons via the National Library of Scotland

The photograph of the destruction of the town centre in 1944 is on a Creative Commons via the Lewisham War Memorials Wiki

Suffragette City – Hither Green & Lee

During 2018 Running Past has covered several of the leading suffragettes who lived in Lewisham with posts on Clara Lambert, Eugenia Bouvier and Caroline Townsend along with an update on the post on May Billinghurst. This post seeks to bring together some of the other suffragette and suffragist activity in Lee and Hither Green that hasn’t been covered so far, it will be followed by a similar one on Lewisham and possibly one for Blackheath too before the year is out.

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Source eBay September 2016

Nancy LightmanThere were occasional public meetings at Lee Green, seemingly outside  including one addressed Nancy Lightman in July 1908 (1), Lightman (pictured – 2) was a teacher who regularly appeared on Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) platforms, particularly in the early days of the campaign – she spoke at a large suffragette demonstration held in Hyde Park on 21 June 1908.

A later one was addressed by a  Mrs Brailsford on 4 October 1910 who gave ‘a most interesting address’; her name appears a lot in reports of local activity so she was probably a member of the Lewisham WSPU branch (3).

One of the regular features of the WSPU campaign in Lee and Hither Green, and elsewhere, were attacks on pillar boxes.  They were targets because they were seen as an obvious institutions of the state, resplendent with the mark of the Monarch and would disproportionately impact on the wealthy, business and the Government who were denying women the vote.

May Billinghurst’s conviction for a ‘pillar box outrage’ in December 1912 has already been covered in Running Past; the same evening as she was arrested pillar boxes attacked in Beacon Road, Staplehurst Road (then probably on the corner of Leahurst, where the post office was then located and Northbrook Road – all between 6:30 and 7:30 pm – with tar being placed inside. While The Suffragette reported two arrests this was presumably May Billinghurst and Grace Michell – no one seems to have been charged for the Lee and Hither Green ones (4).

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The original Victorian Beacon Road pillar box attacked is still there at the junction with Hither Green Lane (see above). I did suggest to Royal Mail, that it might be appropriate to paint it in suffragette colours of purple, green and white – sadly, their courteous response declined the request.

In early 1913 there were further reports of ‘pillar box outrages’ outside 124 Burnt Ash Road (almost opposite Upwood Road) which had a copy of ‘The Suffragette’ posted into it, along with another at the junction of Manor Park and Northbrook Road (5) – below.

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There were reports of further attacks on post boxes in unspecified locations in Lewisham and Hither Green later in the year on 26 October (6).  Late in 1913 wax vesta matches and gunpowder were found in the post box in an unspecified location in Lee High Road but they failed to explode (7).

In July 1913 there was a march from various locations within Kent which was converging on Blackheath that was organised by the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies who supported a more gradualist and non-militant approach to attempting to get the vote for women. They were described in the local press as the ‘law abiding and constitutional groups in women’s movement.’  (8)

The marchers, who were described as ‘pilgrims’ gathered in Taunton Road to march to Whitefield’s Mount on Blackheath before heading towards New Cross, Deptford and eventually Hyde Park a couple of days later. They received some barracking but nothing of the level often received by the WSPU. Banners on show included – ‘Home makers demand the vote.’  (9)

At the other end of the spectrum of suffrage and suffragette activity was the likely burning down of a cricket pavilion in Lee.  Suffragettes had started attacking sports facilities in early 1913 after Asquith’s Government had rejected demands for Votes for Women; it marked an extension on the damage to property of the window smashing campaigns.   The pavilions, golf clubs and the like attacked tended to be those not allowing woman members and left unattended for long periods.

northbrookCricket

In January 1914 the Northbrook Cricket Club pavilion was burned down – it was somewhat ironically located just off Burnt Ash Road, next to the railway – its pavilion was mid-way along what is now Holme Lacey Road (10).

Press reports nationally in ‘The Times’ were circumspect about who or what was responsible, noting that ‘nothing was found to support the theory that suffragists were responsible’ (11).  Elsewhere though there were strong indications that it was the work of the WSPU; the Daily Herald merely reported the fire not mentioning any possible cause or culprit – however, they carefully juxtaposed the report with an advert for the paper’s ‘Suffrage Week’ which was to start a few days later (12).

While responsibility was not directly claimed for the blaze either locally or nationally, it was covered as part of a series of reports  in that week’s ‘The Suffragette’ (see bottom right hand corner below) headed ‘Fires and Bombs as Answer to Forcible Feeding’ – so the implication about the cause of the fire was pretty clear (13).

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While as noted above the arson attacks on pavilions tended to be on buildings left unattended for long periods, there may have been an added ‘incentive’ in this case – the club was named after previous Lords of the manor and major landowners – the Northbrooks, who were Liberals in the House of Lords, the then Baronet having been a Liberal MP before succeeding to the Earldom in 1904.  Oddly, it wasn’t the first time the pavilion had burned down – there had been a major fire there in the early 1890s (14).

No one was every arrested or charged with the fire.

In terms of the activists in Lee there were a three households that were really important in the struggle for votes in Lee – the Townsends who lived at 27 Murillo Road on what was then referred to as The Firs estate. One of the sisters, Caroline Townsend was covered in a post in early 2018.

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The second was 62 Manor Park – this was home to the Leighs – John, a Canadian, and Eda an American had 4 daughters and a son, the adult daughters in the 1911 census included Cornelia, 20, and Gladys, 18. One of these two, probably Cornelia, generally known as ‘Nellie’, organised the sale of ‘The Suffragette’ (15) and its earlier incarnation, ‘Votes for Women’ (16) in Lewisham for much of the time it was produced, it isn’t totally clear though as she was just referred to a ‘Miss Leigh’ – however, ‘Nellie’ appeared in a photograph of branch activists in 1913.   It was presumably Nellie who organised jumble sale collections too (17). Nellie was to live in Lewisham until her death in 1977, Gladys died in Sussex the year before. There was presumably at least tactic support for the cause of women’s suffrage from John and Eda, as the house was used for displaying the new Lewisham banner in July 1913 (18). Saturday rallies were held there too from the spring of 1913 (19).

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It is possible that Eda Leigh was a regular speaker in the early days of the campaign – a Mrs Leigh is frequently mentioned giving speeches in the area – including one in Catford in August 1910 (20).  However, the speaker is much more likely to be Mary Leigh.  A ‘Mrs Leigh’ was also involved in the day to day activity in the branch; she was more likely to have been Eda from Manor Park rather than Mary though.

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The other family was the Llewhellin’s of 114 Burnt Ash Hill, above,  a house probably built by John Pound. The parents were Arthur Jones Llewhellin, the mother was Sarah Jane (nee Thomas) – both were from Pembroke Dock in south west Wales, where they married in 1873. Arthur worked for the Inland Revenue and the family moved around a lot with children being born in Dublin, the Potteries, Malvern, Greenwich and Lewisham (Olive). In terms of the local WSPU branch both Sarah and more particularly Olive were active members. Sarah was widowed in 1906 and living on her own means in the 1911 census. Sarah was mentioned several time in ‘The Suffragette’ for donations, producing food for sale and catering, including for the Annual Branch meeting in 1912 (21).

Olive was one of many suffragettes who refused to register in the 1911 census. Olive’s activity was a mixture of militancy and organisation. She was arrested twice – the first time was with Clara Lambert in late January 1913 after smashing the windows of the Hamburg American Line in Cockspur Street off Trafalgar Square. While Olive was remanded in custody, unlike Clara, she was later discharged (22).

She was also arrested as part of protest by the Cymric Suffrage Union, which she was also a member of, due to her Welsh ancestry, when Lloyd George refused to see a deputation (23).

Lewisham Suffragette banner

Olive was the driving force behind the Lewisham WSPU banner, above, (24) – she had designed a well-received poster for the office window in 1912 (25). This seems to have led to her designing the banner (26) and being in charge of the fundraising for it (27).  She is pictured bottom right below, with Caroline Townsend to the left; above her to the left is Clara Lambert and a Miss Warwick to the right (28).

WSPU banner

Olive was Branch Treasurer from early 1913 (29) and briefly acted as Branch Secretary  in mid-1913 (30). She was an occasional speaker at public meetings held most Sunday evenings at 7:00 in Lewisham Market – such as on Sunday 21 September when she spoke with Eugenia Bouvier (31).

Olive became a teacher, registering in 1927, when she was living in Stockwell.  She was living in Poole in Dorset in 1939, she later returned to London –she died in Wandsworth in 1972.

 

Notes

  1. Votes for Women 30 July 1908
  2. Picture copyright is held by the Museum of London, but use is allowed for non-commercial research purposes such as Running Past.
  3. Votes for Women 14 October 1910
  4. The Suffragette 27 December 1912
  5. Lewisham Borough News 3 January 1913
  6. The Suffragette 31 October 1913
  7. The Suffragette 4 January 1914
  8. Lewisham Borough News 1 August 1913
  9. ibid
  10. Map on a creative commons via the National Library of Scotland
  11. The Times 26 January 1914
  12. Daily Herald 26 January 1914
  13. The Suffragette 30 January 1914
  14. Blackheath Gazette 28 April 1893
  15. The Suffragette 12 September 1913
  16. Votes for Women 15 July 1910
  17. The Suffragette 12 September 1913
  18. The Suffragette 4 July 1913
  19. The Suffragette April 11 1913
  20. Votes for Women 26 August 1910
  21. The Suffragette 25 October 1912
  22. 31 January 1913 The Suffragette
  23. The Suffragette 13 October 1913
  24. The banner is part of the collection of the Museum of London, as is the photograph who allow its use for non-commercial research such as this.
  25. The Suffragette 25 October 1912
  26. The Suffragette 4 July 1913
  27. The Suffragette 20 December 1912
  28. The photograph of the Lewisham Banner is part of the collection of the Museum of London (on a creative commons)
  29. The Suffragette 24 January 1913
  30. The Suffragette 1 August 1913
  31. The Suffragette 19 September 1913

Census and related data comes from Find My Past

Thank you to the always helpful Julie Robinson at Lewisham Archives in terms of press cuttings held there from Lewisham Borough News