Next year, 6 February will mark the centenary of the Representation of the People Act of 1918. The Act granted the vote to women for the first time, though only to those over the age of 30 with a property qualification – it was extended to all women over the age of 21 on 2 July 1928. The start of the women’s suffrage movement, which helped to push for this Act, is often credited to have gained momentum here in Manchester with the establishment of the Manchester National Society for Women’s Suffrage by Lydia Becker in 1867. Also founder of the Women’s Suffrage Journal in 1870, Becker was a suffragist and an inspiration to Moss Side-born Emmeline Pankhurst, who was the leading figure of the suffragette movement in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Source: Manchester Central Library – Archives+.
As Manchester is such a significant place in the movement for suffrage, the city’s Central Library holds an abundance of original suffragette documents and materials in its archives. From Emmeline Pankhurst’s hand written letters, to meeting banners, and also the unique little item at the centre of this post – the ‘Holloway Prison brooch’.
Holloway Prison brooch – part of the Manchester Central Library Archive+ collection.
Just as soldiers are awarded medals for their bravery, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) presented the ‘Holloway Prison brooch’ to soldiers of its own cause. These brooches were given to women who had been imprisoned at Holloway, in London, for their efforts in the campaign for women’s suffrage.
First presented at a mass demonstration at the Royal Albert Hall in London on 29 April 1909, the brooch was designed by Sylvia Pankhurst, second daughter of suffragette matriarch Emmeline, known as Mrs. Pankhurst. It was described as the ‘Victoria Cross of the Union’, demonstrating how revered it was among the Union members. The design is made of the portcullis symbol of the House of Commons, and a broad arrow symbolising convicts, in the colours of the WSPU – green (hope), white (purity) and purple (dignity). Source: Royal Albert Hall.
Anti-suffrage propaganda, illustrating the prison uniform, adorned with the broad arrow. Source: Flickr Archives+.
While ‘suffragists’ believed in peaceful campaigning, members of the WSPU were ‘suffragettes’ who led militant and violent campaigns to draw attention to their cause for women’s enfranchisement. Frustrated with the lack of parliamentary support, suffragettes often resorted to breaking shop windows, raiding the Houses of Parliament and even protesting at the gates of Buckingham Palace – for which Emmeline Pankhurst was famously arrested on 21 May 1914. She demanded to see the King, with many newspapers reporting on the incident and photographs showing Mrs. Pankhurst being dragged away by police.
WSPU member Hannah Mitchell recounting a ‘raid’ on the House of Commons in October 1906. She wrote of the growing anger of the suffragettes after their plea to the Prime Minister had been denied, and the resulting arrest of 11 women, including the Pankhursts. Images from the Manchester Central Library Archive+ collection.
The horrific treatment and conditions that women faced in prison has often been documented, from hunger strikes to force-feeding. To acknowledge their ‘bravery and sacrifice’, the names of every suffragette (some of whom were men) imprisoned between 1905 and 1914 was included in a ‘Roll of Honour’ booklet, based on the recollections of former suffragettes and compiled by the Suffrage Fellowship c. 1950. Emmeline’s experience of Holloway was documented in ‘The Suffragette’ on 11 April 1913, eight days after she entered the prison on 3 April. She had reached a state of collapse after being on hunger-strike since the 3rd, with no attempts made to force-feed her, while another woman, Miss Emerson, had become dangerously ill after enduring five weeks of forcible feeding.
Suffragette Prisoners, Roll of Honour 1905-1914. Images from the Manchester Central Library Archive+ collection.
Manchester’s own Strangeways Prison also held a number of suffragettes during this period, including Christabel Pankhurst, and another important figure of the movement – Emily Wilding Davison. She is remembered in history as being the ‘first martyr’ for women’s enfranchisement, after she was trampled by the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby on 4th June 1913. Emily was struck on the head after running out onto the track, trying to pin a suffragette banner on the horse. Suffering from a fractured skull and internal injuries, she failed to regain consciousness and died four days later on the 8th. In 1909, however, she spent time in Strangeways Prison after being sentenced to a month of hard labour for throwing rocks at the carriage of Chancellor David Lloyd George. Like many of her sister suffragettes, Emily starved herself, resisted force-feeding and blockaded herself in her cell. As a result of this, an angered prison guard fed a hose into the cell and began to fill it with water until eventually Davison was freed after her cell door was broken down. Following this harsh treatment, she sued the prison guards and was awarded 40 shillings as compensation. Source: BBC History.
The press and illustrations of the period were often unkind to suffragettes, mocking their cause and usually presented them as angry and violent (and sometimes older) women. Images from the Manchester Central Library Archive+ collection.
As if to demonstrate further disregard for these women, the government introduced The Cat and Mouse Act in 1913, under which those who were weakened by hunger strikes were released from prison to prevent them from dying of starvation in police custody, and were later rearrested once their health had improved, where the process would begin again. Source: Parliament
Following the outbreak of war on 4 August 1914, the militant strategy came to an end and the Government released all imprisoned suffragettes. Emmeline and many other suffragette leaders encouraged women to channel their energy into the war effort, hoping that they would be later be ‘rewarded’ with the vote. Four years later, royal assent was given to the Representation of the People Act which was passed on 6 February 1918, granting the vote to property-owning women over the age of 30. Universal suffrage was finally granted to all women over the age of 21, regardless of property ownership, on 2 July 1928, though unfortunately Emmeline did not live to see this achievement as she died due to ill-health, just over two weeks earlier on 14 June.
Emmeline Pankhurst photographed wearing her Holloway Prison brooch, c. 1909.