Reform: Violence and the struggle for suffrage

The campaign for women’s suffrage is often characterised by its militant factions and leaders like Emmeline Pankhurst, who used bombs and destruction of property to get their message across. That characterisation is accurate, but it’s not the whole story. In fact, militant suffrage actions didn’t begin with the Women’s Social and Political Union…or women at all.

In this episode, we explore how a lesser-known male suffrage movement called Chartism advanced the suffrage agenda and how the militant tactics of the women’s suffrage activists fit into a large historical trend.

Documents from The National Archives used in this episode: ASSI 52/212; HO 45/2410; HO 45/10700/236973; ZPER 34/1; ZPER 34/12; ZPER 34/142.

On the Record at The National Archives

What would you do to change the status quo? In our latest three-part series we’re sharing stories of protest. Using the records in our archive, we’ve pieced together stories that span 600 years of people fighting back against inequality and oppression.

History is everywhere in popular culture. But the truth is harder to find.

On the Record is a podcast by The National Archives of the UK that takes a closer look at the stories you think you know. Here at The National Archives we are the guardians of more than 11 million historical government and public records spanning a thousand years of British history. These original documents hold thousands of incredible stories…if you know where to look.

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Matt Norman: On the morning of Wednesday, May 7th, 1913, in the hours before the morning service began at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, Mr. Harrison, one of the church’s bell ringers, was cleaning out the choir when he discovered something out of the ordinary. A ticking sound coming from a small package wrapped in brown paper and newsprint. Mr. Harrison was suspicious …and cautious…enough to place the package in a bucket of water and carry it out to the garden. It was shortly taken to the police station, where it was examined by Major A Cooper-Key, His Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Explosives.

It was a bomb. The official reports concluded that the package was supposed to explode at midnight. For some reason, it had failed to detonate, leaving the church unharmed.

No one saw who left the bomb, but the police had a pretty good idea who was responsible and why they did it. That’s because the newspaper wrapped around the package was the Friday, May 2nd edition of The Suffragette, the official publication of the Women’s Social and Political Union. There were no articles or headlines on the front page of the May 2nd edition of The Suffragette….only the word “Raided,” printed in large letters in the centre.

In the blank space, someone had handwritten a note to Home Secretary Reginald McKenna, the man who’d ordered the recent raids on the Union’s headquarters.

Katie Fox: “In spite of being raided, we openly publish our paper and defy you and your so-called English government.”

Matt: These women wanted the right to vote, and some of them were ready to do whatever it took to get it.

You’re listening to On the Record, a podcast by The National Archives that uncovers stories you’ve never heard before and takes a closer look at the stories you think you know. I’m Matt Norman, and in this three-part series, I’ll be joined by my co-host Katie Fox as we examine stories of protest.

Here at The National Archives, we’re the guardians of more than 11 million historical government and public records spanning a thousand years of British history. We’re the paper trail of a nation, and our original documents have some incredible stories to tell…if you know where to look.

Matt: Ok, Katie, I know the women’s fight for suffrage in England is remembered as being particularly militant, right? Were they using violent tactics from the start of their campaign? And if not, how did they end up bombing churches and parlimentarian’s houses?

Katie: Good question, Matt. When we’re talking about the campaign for women’s suffrage in England and Wales, I think there are two common mistakes we make. Firstly, supporters of women’s suffrage were a varied group with wide ranging political opinions, class backgrounds, and life experiences. This is reflected in the many different types of suffrage societies that existed. Multiple groups employed different tactics for decades in pursuit of the vote. None of them started out with violence, and most of them never endorsed militancy.

Secondly, the idea that women had the right to vote and participate in representative democracy did not spring out of thin air. Like any other historical event or movement, it was the ideological and tactical descendent of earlier campaigns for suffrage, representation, and equal rights.

So before we can tell the story of how one wing of the women’s suffrage movement turned to violence, we need to backtrack to the 1830s, when a movement called Chartism was voicing the demand of the working classes for political reform.

Matt: The Chartists aren’t exactly a household name.

Katie: They aren’t, which is why I asked Chris Day, our Head of Modern Domestic Records here at The National Archives, to walk me through the movement. Chris and I met in our staff reading room so he could show me some of the more interesting Chartist records we hold. It’s easier to visualise history when you have the actual primary sources sitting in front of you.
Chris Day: So Chartism really begins in 1838 with the publication of what’s known as “The People’s Charter,” it’s a document which is put together by a committee of a six sort of radically minded MPs and six working men. Basically Chartism comes out of a desire to, sort of, try and improve the lot of working people in England and Wales by giving the vote to working class men who didn’t have it for a long time before that.
Matt: Alright, hold up, hold up, let’s do a little fact check before we continue. When did men get the right to vote in the UK?
Katie: A lot later than you might guess. From the 1200s to the 1800s, only a few wealthy, land-owning men were eligible to vote in parliamentary elections. In 1838, suffrage was extended to men who rented land of a certain value. But that still only meant that one in seven men over the age of 21 could vote. Reforms in 1867 and 1884 lowered the property value needed to get a vote, but that still only enfranchised 60% of men. It wasn’t until 1918, after the First World War, that the property requirement was abolished and all men over 21 got the vote, the same year that partial suffrage was given to women.
But even though men didn’t need property to vote in the early 20th century, property could still qualify you for an additional vote, and it wasn’t until 1969 that this “plural vote” was completely abolished and the voting age lowered to 18.
Chris: So I’m looking at a Home Office document here; it’s the handbook of the People’s Charter Union from April, 1848. It gives an introduction to what the People’s Charter is and the six points of the charter, which are the demands of that movement.
And the six points are as follows. So, they call for a vote for every man of 21 years’ age or over who is of sound mind and not undergoing a crime.
They call for a secret ballot, as in you don’t have to say who you’re voting for when you vote, which didn’t exist at the time.
They called for there to be no property qualification to be a member of parliament. So at this point, when the charter is passed, and for quite a long time afterwards, to be eligible to stand to be a member of Parliament, you had to own property of a certain value. So that obviously excluded a lot of people.
The fourth point in the charter was they call for the payment of members of Parliament. For a long time, members of Parliament weren’t paid. Obviously that excluded a large amount of people who wouldn’t be able to support themselves while spending most of their time in the House of Commons.
They called for equal constituencies to represent the same numbers of people. This is still the period where we still have quite small constituencies and some places don’t really have enough representation. Places like Manchester have very few members in proportion to their population.
And the final sixth point of the charter, which is the only one which hasn’t been realised today, is the demand for annual Parliaments. The idea being that basically no one would have enough money to be able to sort of continuously buy an election and constituency if it was held every year. And also it would be a good way of sort of keeping representatives in check because they knew they were facing their electors again twelve months on from that time.
And this document really sets out those ideas and sort of it’s trying to make an appeal to other working men to buy into the movement by saying this is how we gain greater democratic representation.
Matt: Quick question…this pamphlet with the six demands isn’t a government document, so how did it end up in our collection?
Katie: Well this pamphlet wasn’t created by the government, but it did find its way into the government’s hands. The ruling class was obviously not too thrilled with the idea of a popular movement that wanted to redistribute influence to the working class.
Chris: Often the reason why we have these pamphlets is because they’re seized by magistrates or local officials from people and then sent to the Home Office. So they have examples of the things, and a lot of the documents we have here also posters, posters that were posted a sort of around towns announcing meetings and lectures, which would often attract many thousands of people.
Matt: In other words, we have a great historical record of movements like Chartism because the Home Office was closely monitoring their gatherings and publications and keeping files on them.
[Musical Interlude]
Matt: The Chartists’ first demand is voting rights for every man over 21, but they have a much broader agenda than simply getting the right to cast a ballot. Why did they think universal male suffrage was so important for political reform? I mean, this may sound like a silly question today…but for most of British history, voting was for a wealthy male minority, so I assume many people never thought to challenge the status quo?
Katie: So Chris explained to me that the demand for a vote was a means to reform unjust treatment of the working class and the poor.
Chris: This is four years after the passage of the Poor Law Amendment Act, which sees many working class people no longer be able to get sort of out relief what we’d call sort of in-work benefits now. They are instead separated from their family in the workhouses. And that causes a lot of resistance. And one of the ways they seek to sort of deal with these problems that they faced as unjust treatment is to try and increase the democratic accountability of their representatives to actually represent them by giving themselves a vote.
Matt: So how successful were they in achieving their six goals?
Katie: I think the answer to that question depends on your definition of success. As Chris explained to me, the Chartists didn’t get their demands met while the movement was active, but they did lay the groundwork for later, more successful campaigning.
Chris: Although the movement itself sort of peters away, many people who are involved go on to become journalists in their own right, going from factory hands to become journalists, continue to campaign for this.
There’s an expansion of local government in this period as well, which has a sort of slightly more equal franchise, so some of these people go on to sort of agitate a local in local politics. And also there’s an acceptance by some sort of radical MPs who are middle class that there needs to be an expansion of parliamentary democracy to avoid things like Chartism, because it’s seen as a real existential threat to the British state at the time.
So that’s why I think, to a certain extent, we see in the 1860s, the 1870s, the 1880s, an acceptance on the part of Parliament, widespread acceptance. of increasing democratic voting rights. And then the campaigns of the Suffragists and the Suffragettes for female votes as well that also does a lot of work with men’s suffrage as well to sort of shift the overton window, if you will, to make this an acceptable thing that Parliament will vote for even though, you know, 10 years before it was completely opposed.
Matt: Ok so, the next logical question is…how did they shift opinions and convince parliament to eventually act on their demands? And did the Suffragettes try using these tactics before they turned to bombs?
Katie: Actually, like the Suffragettes, the Chartists combined violent and non-violent forms of protests, so there wasn’t a model for getting suffrage without violence.
Chris: They published a lot of newspapers. The Northern Star, for instance, had a very wide circulation to try and propagate their ideas, and they are also very involved in labor struggles as well. A lot of Chartist hotspots are places where there are large concentrations of people working in factories, and they’ve always linked together the ideas of democracy with this sort of early form of trade unionism.
So there are petitions, which we’ve spoken about before, because these are a way of trying to sort of force Parliament’s hand, to show the strength of the movement. Also the Chartists often had what they call conventions. So they had large conventions of working, working class men and middle class radicals to sort of pass motions and have a national movement which had a representative body, and they met annually and they were elected annually. And those who are elected to be members of the convention often used the letters MC after their name when they were talking about it. And so obviously they were trying to portray themselves as a sort of parallel parliament.
Katie: MC stands for?
Chris: Member of Convention.
Also we have evidence, for instance, of Chartists activists and communities appearing in the yards at workhouses explaining the rights that paupers are due to themselves, so that they can make sure that they get what’s due to them under the Poor Law. So there’s this element of community organising as well, with the, the fact that they would be in factories sort of agitating for reforms for workers’ rights.
And then of course we also have a sort of more violent aspects. So there are plots to sort of, you know break factories up, go against local employers sabotage things, attack local officials.
Matt: It sounds like violence went hand-in-hand with more quote-un-quote “legitimate” forms of protest throughout the active years of the Chartists.
Katie: This actually surprised me, because it’s the campaign for women’s suffrage that really gets associated with militancy and violence…
Matt: …even though the fight for suffrage had always been just that…a fight…where the people who believed in their right to democratic representation were willing to do whatever it took to get that right.
Katie: It seems likely that there would be violence when you look at it that way, because what small group of powerful elite men has ever willingly given away that power without a considerable amount of outside pressure?
Chris: So throughout Chartism’s existence, I think similar to sort of later female suffrage campaigns as well, you see a tension between people who basically want to adopt a peaceful means to try to achieve the vote and those who believe that the only way to successfully achieve their demands is through violent means. And you see these sort of high points of sort of peaceful democratic campaigning, so these petitions, the huge amount of Chartist newspapers you find around the country, particularly in places like Lancashire and the Black Country and the potteries. And they sort of counterpoint with the more violent outbreaks.
And if we have a look at this document as well…this is a report from the Illustrated London News, from 1842, which accounts for a riot in Preston. And we can see here basically the Chartists assemble in the town in August and they make clear that they’re making a demonstration, and what they do is they go around the factories in the district trying to stop work: smashing windows, pulling men away from their work. The military are involved. What’s called the Riot Act is read. Basically, it’s a command for people to disperse, otherwise they will be arrested.
As a local official is reading the Riot Act, a stone is thrown at them and they are knocked down and they are kicked when they’re on the floor. More stones start to be thrown. Then the military started firing. One man is killed, well he is shot and then subsequently dies. As he’s about to throw a stone, he’s shot and several other people are injured. And so you see throughout particular, these flashpoints after these big sort of peaceful moments of petitioning when they’re not even listened to.
[Musical interlude]
The reason why we have the vote is because of the actions of people like the Chartists and subsequently the Suffragettes and Suffragists. It’s only through this agitation that there would’ve been any progress made.
These designs and sort of demands they make under the six points are dismissed as being ridiculous when they first make them in 1838, but they continue to curry favour amongst members of Parliament, and then by the 1880s and 1890s when further extensions to the franchise are made, these have become normally acceptable ideas, and that wouldn’t have happened without the Chartists.
If we see the way they conduct their campaigns, both the non-violent and violent ways, you can draw a direct line between the early campaigners for parliamentary reform, the kind of people we see set the Peterloo Massacre in 1819 and before that as well, through to the Chartists in the 1830s and 1840s and 1850s. And then there’s a sort of direct line you can draw to the Suffragettes and Suffragists you start to see the spring up in the late 1860s and through the latter part of the 19th century.
Matt: I know our goal in the episode so far was to clarify the origins of the Suffragette movement so we could understand why they turned to militant tactics, but to be perfectly honest with you, I think we’ve also made things a bit more complicated.
Katie: That’s a common side-effect of historical research…it complicates the depiction of history as a timeline, a series of actions that follow one another, all leading to a single conclusion. But the history of suffrage is complicated, and the campaign for women’s suffrage doesn’t fit neatly onto the timeline after male suffrage in the steady march of progress. These campaigns overlapped, with each other, and with all the rest of the complicated history going on in the late 19th and early 20th century.
For more details on the Suffragettes and their long struggle, I sat down with another expert here at The National Archives.

Vicky Iglikowski-Broad: I am Vicky Iglikowski-Broad, Principal Diverse Histories Record Specialist at The National Archives.
Essentially, the women’s suffrage movement started in a kind of official way around the 1860s. Although there had always been individuals that supported the cause of women’s suffrage before that. Women did have rights in local government, but what they didn’t have until 1918 was the electoral franchise, or the right to vote in a general election, or to sand as politicians in Parliament.
There were mass campaigns to change this. And you have figures like John Stuart Mill and various women supporting these campaigns in the 1860s to try and get women’s suffrage discussed in Parliament and to be a priority. Through the decades after that you see extreme frustration with the lack of change. Despite the well organised protests, despite the mass numbers of people involved, and the national nature of these protests, they really weren’t having the impact that that these people wanted them to.
In 1903, you get the founding of the Women’s Social and Political Union in response to the sheer frustration at the lack of change over the previous few decades.
So this organisation, the WSPU, is founded by Emmeline Pankhurst in Manchester with her daughters, and they decide that they really need to take action to change things. And they essentially work under the motto “Deeds not words,” which is slightly misleading because actually they, they did campaign in a lot of traditional ways as well. They held mass meetings, presented petitions and deputations to Parliament and they also relied a lot on literature to try and spread their message. But they also went to greater extremes targeting properties and windows and things like that when they realise that they weren’t getting as far as they wanted through legal means alone.
Matt: So how connected, or separate, were the non-violent and militant branches of the Suffragettes?
Katie: There was actually a lot of effort put in by groups on each side of the militant debate to distance themselves from the other. The main division was between the Suffragettes–a term that described the militant factions–and the Suffragists–who used more traditional methods of protest. The division was not cut and dry though; many people were supporters of multiple societies.
Vicky: The Suffragists were the non-militant campaigners. They were the bulk of the movement before the turn of the century, the 20th century. So they campaigned through many methods, mainly holding mass political meetings and doing petitions to Parliament but they were largely unsuccessful despite the huge efforts they were going to.
In opposition to this, you have the Suffragettes their name is derived from the Suffragists but was kind of tweaked in opposition to them. And essentially they are the militant side of the movement. They are born out of the frustrations of a lack of change. And are determined to look at different methods of protest. And arguably they don’t know quite where that’s going to go, but it develops into quite a radical militant movement that ends up targeting property and doing quite extreme things.
So the kind of lengths that the Suffragettes went to where things like the targeting of MPs houses….there’s a particular protest black Friday outside Parliament…
So Black Friday is quite a contentious moment. And in many ways that changes their campaigning going forward. They increasingly turn to target property. And so you see that in the literature at the time, the way the Suffragettes are being reported on that it’s a campaign that’s escalating fast.
Matt: Black Friday…what happened and why is it significant?
Katie: Black Friday is the name given to an infamous violent protest by the Suffragettes on 18 November 1910. Though there had been other moments of false hope in the long campaign for suffrage, 1910 saw a new chance to make some progress. Parliament had been considering a bill that would give a million wealthy property-owning women the vote.
Matt: Was there wide support for the bill among the women’s suffrage campaigners?
Katie: For obvious reasons, some felt it was far too small of a victory. Women of all classes, races, and backgrounds had been campaigning for decades at this point, and to settle for only the elite achieving that goal was a controversial decision. There had always been debate in the movement as to whether accepting partial reform was worth compromising or if it was worth seeing no reform until universal suffrage for women could be achieved. But the bill was supported by the Women’s Social and Political Union, the organisation headed by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters. As the time to vote on the bill came closer, Emmeline Pankhurst announced that the women under her command would stop all militant actions.
Matt: A cease fire…
Katie: Yes, but it was a fragile peace. Women’s suffrage may have been the sole focus of the Pankhursts and the Suffragettes, but the Prime Minister had other priorities. So despite there being some support amongst MPs for votes for women, the bill was once again dropped.
Matt: Meaning the Suffragettes had taken a nine month hiatus from militant action for nothing.
Katie: You can imagine how frustrated they were after coming so close to some sort of victory.
It was a perfect storm.
Three hundred Suffragettes, led by Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, were already gathered for a peaceful march to Parliament when they heard about the decision.
The peaceful march quickly devolved into chaos as the women and men marching in support of women’s suffrage were met with lines of police.
The police response was brutal. Women were beaten, thrown to the ground, and sexually assaulted. One disabled Suffragette was even grabbed and thrown from her wheelchair.
The front page of The Daily Mirror featured a large photograph of men in dark coats leaning in over a woman curled up on the ground with her hands protecting her head.
It was the Suffragettes who called it Black Friday, and it became a turning point in the campaign.
Matt: And this is the context in which we see the Women’s Social and Political Union planting a bomb in St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Vicky: So the Women’s Social and Political Union used many methods to try and get the right for women to vote. From the targeting of things like the Regent’s Park tea pavilion, the Kew Gardens tea pavilion, things like that. But also the targeting of MPs’ homes. So sometimes this was through explosive devices being left, sometimes it was through arson attacks. But really there was quite a range of activity.
Essentially the campaign spiraled. So some of the major campaigns would have been at one point targeting shop windows for example in the West End. When that kind of proved unsuccessful, it escalated into the targeting of a property on more of an extreme scale.
There were things happening all over the country, like telephone wires being cut. postboxes were widely targeted. We have testimony of people getting their hands burned because of the chemicals that were put in. And we also have records to do with the actual kind of chemical mixtures that were, were created to make some of the explosive devices as well. So there’s a real range of ways that the Suffragettes did target property.
When we look at some of the images of buildings, it’s quite striking to see the structures of these buildings barely surviving. I think sometimes the extremes of the militant suffrage movement aren’t fully acknowledged, that it was quite a violent movement, and it’s lucky that people didn’t die.
Matt: Where did all these militant actions and guerilla tactics lead?
Katie: Following the failed bomb in St. Paul’s, the Suffragettes escalated their actions into the first half of 1914, bombing more churches and using all the tactics they knew to advance their cause.
Matt: I’m guessing our listeners probably all know what happened in the second half of 1914…
Katie: The outbreak of the First World War, which would last until 1918. As the militant campaign reached its most extreme point, it was defused by the onset of war, which put an abrupt end to the militant Suffragette tactics.
Vicky: From 1903 to 1914, the Women’s Social and Political Union ran increasingly militant campaigns. But by 1914, they’d really reached an extreme. There wasn’t much further that they could go. But war was also announced, and so that, that kind of pauses the movement for a while. It’s not then until 1918 that women, on certain terms, finally won the vote.
So many men had been abroad fighting, many women who had contributed to the war effort. And so there needed to be some electoral reform to enfranchise working class men. And at the same time women were enfranchised on certain times as well.
So men over 21 gained the vote. But there seemed to be a real fear in the government about having a female dominated electorate. So essentially women do get the vote but not on equal terms as men.
In 1918, 8.4 million women gained the vote for the first time. So these were women who were over 30 and met a property qualification. Many of the Suffragettes and Suffragists would have not met the property qualification potentially. There were lots of working class women involved. But it wasn’t until 1928 that they gained the vote on equal terms.
Matt: After all that violence on the part of the Chartists and Suffragettes to win the right to vote, it took the most violent, bloody war people had ever waged to shake the status quo up enough that universal suffrage could be passed through parliament.
Katie: But of course, those post-war reforms were passed on the foundation of ninety years of campaigning by many different groups with different angles, agendas, and ideas on how to go about reform and what methods were justified in such a noble struggle – groups that included the Chartists, Suffragists, and Suffragettes we’ve been talking about in this episode.
Vicky: It took a very long time for women to gain equal political representation. It took decades just for women to be even partially enfranchised. We also often oversimplify the movement. But there were many suffrage societies that campaigned through many different ways such as tax resistance, census boycotts… you had leagues such as the Actress’ Franchise League, so it was really a varied and creative campaign. They were also supported by a lot of men at the time, sometimes family members and partners.
Katie: And would it be fair to say that people like you and I, Vicky, wouldn’t have had the vote had these women not campaigned.
Vicky: Absolutely. Yeah. Many women wouldn’t have the vote if it weren’t for the pioneering individuals that campaigned.
But equally there was a lot of pressure put on the government to get working class men the vote as well.
Matt: Until the property qualification for men was dropped in 1918, I wouldn’t have had the right to vote or run for Parliament either if it weren’t for the struggle of those who dedicated themselves to winning that right for us.
[Musical Transition]
Katie: It’s hard to talk about historical protests, because they are always complicated and messy affairs. We have the luxury of hindsight and knowing how things turn out. Perhaps it’s enough to acknowledge that these movements for democratic representation in this country were made up of real, complicated, flawed people. And to reflect on how very different our country and society is today because we have the right to vote and choose our representatives.

[Musical Interlude]

Matt: Thanks for listening to On the Record, a production of The National Archives at Kew.

In the next episode of On the Record, we’re going to share another story of protest, this one about how Black people in Britain used the law and the spectacle of the courtroom to fight racial discrimination.

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Thank you to all the experts who contributed to this episode. This episode was written, edited, and produced by Hannah Hethmon.

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