Tag Archives: suffragettes

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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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.