Today (April 3) in London History – a woman fighting the good fight

Suffragette Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst was sentenced to three years penal servitude on April 3, 1913. That case, her story is the subject to today’s Today in London History podcast.


Hello and Welcome to Today in London History.

 The London Walks Daily Podcast. Like our walks, we take you to places you wouldn’t have found on your own, show you things wouldn’t have seen, tell you things you didn’t know. And look, every Friday, there’s a double-header – the Today in London History podcast for that day AND a bonus podcast, a Friday Special.

And the formula we’ve got going for the Today in London History podcast is we always start with a London tip, a London recommendation. That comes under the rubric: Today in London.

Ok, roll ‘em

Today in London. Here again, I can swing from the heels, to use a bit of baseball parlance. Swing from the heels and connect.

Today’s something to do in London tip from a London Walks guide to you, dear listener – in many cases you’ll be a visitor to London. Either here already or in that happy happy state of anticipation. Planning your trip. Looking forward to it. Anyway, today’s Something neat to do in London is go to a trial at the Central Criminal, the Old Bailey as it’s popularly known. Or indeed Newgate – it’s like Prince Charles, it’s got any number of names. And I can top that recommendation up with a further charge: London Walks does a Crime & Punishment walk. It’s subtitled The City of the Gallows. Goes at 2 o’clock every Thursday afternoon. Good fit, needless to say, with a visit to the Old Bailey. 

Anyway, Today in London History.

As usual, there were some choice entrants in this beauty contest. On April 3, 1933 London said hello to that marvel of modernity, its first-ever automated traffic lights. And burrowing a lot deeper down into London history, on April 3 1676 they laid the foundation stone for Christopher Wren’s only West End church, St. James’s Piccadilly. Good entrants, both of them. But I’m going to plump for something that happened on April 3, 1913. I’ve found that as I’ve jogged along with this Today in London History series – and today’s a milestone, this is the 100th Today in London History podcast – anyway, as I’ve jogged I’ve realised that story-wise I’m drawn to London tales that stir my feelings as well as arouse my interest.

And that’s why what happened on April 3rd, 1913 has won today’s beauty contest.

Ok, let’s do the Journalism 101 number. We know the date, so the When? question is answered. Where? You might well have guessed, The Old Bailey, the Central Criminal Court. Who? A 54-year-old woman known as Mrs Pankhurst. Emmeline Pankhurst. The prominent suffragette. What? After a two day trial at the Old Bailey Mrs. Pankhurst has just been convicted and sentenced to three years’ penal servitude. She’d been indicted for counselling, procuring, inciting and commanding certain persons unknown to commit a felony by placing in a certain building in the parish Walton, Surrey, a quantity of gunpowder with intent to destroy or damage the building. 

Pronouncing sentence, Sir Robert Lush, Justice Lush.

So that’s Who, What, Where, When – the big question though, the profoundly important question – the question that packs a lot of feeling –is Why?

Let me whisk you off to Kensington for a minute. There’s a 300-year-old house in Kensington that we take a very close look at on my Kensington Walk. I say about it, “to understand London you have to understand this Kensington House.” I go further. I say to my walkers, if you understand this early Georgian house you understand Londoners.

What prompts those two remarks is something Winston Churchill once said. And of course Winston Churchill lived and died in Kensington. He said, “we make our houses and then our houses make us.”

I think that remark can probably be expanded to, we make our systems and then our systems make us. And they don’t just make us, sometimes they imprison us. They’re like those chutes that cattle walk along toward the abattoir. And that even more disquieting if we didn’t make the system, if the system was made by our forebears, perhaps hundreds of years ago. 

So applying that to what happened in that courtroom in the Old Bailey 109 years ago… It doesn’t make an iota of sense that Emmeline Pankhurst should have been sentenced to three years in prison. What’s more, Justice Lush was a fine man, a distinguished jurist. It didn’t make an iota of sense for that fine man to be sentencing that brave, principled, wonderful woman to three years in prison. We make our houses and then our houses make us. We make our systems and then our systems make us. Justice Lush didn’t have any choice. He had to do what he did. He was trapped by the system he was in. Nor did Mrs Pankhurst have much in the way of choice. She was also made by – trapped by – the system.

Sometimes the way out of a god awful mess is so obvious nobody can see it. It’s right there and nobody can see it. What happened that morning in that Old Bailey courtroom needn’t have happened. It shouldn’t have happened. It wouldn’t have happened if women had had the vote. And indeed had had equal rights and equal opportunities, equal pay, etc. with their male counterparts. It’s just so obvious, so right. The house Mrs Pankhurst and Justice Lush were in – the house that was making them – had things that were badly out of kilter. There’s something profoundly wrong with a house that has built into it a restriction that says women can’t vote, women shouldn’t have the same opportunities and rights that men have. That house needs to be knocked down and rebuilt. Put right. Do so and the lives of Justice Lush and Emmeline Pankhurst never intersect in a courtroom. Justice Lush is never in a position to sentence Emmeline Pankhurst to three years penal servitude. And Emmeline Pankhurst is never in a position to have that done to her.  The house that made them – the system that made them – was badly flawed.

Ok, a couple of final points. And then we’ll give the last word – it’s the right thing to do – to Mrs Pankhurst. 

She was born in Lancashire, the daughter of a small-time manufacturer and his Manx-born wife. She was the eldest of ten children. She was a precocious child. She learned to read at an early age and was set the task of reading the daily newspaper to her father at breakfast. That gave her an interest in politics. Her brothers called her ‘the dictionary’ because of her command of language and accurate spelling. That said, she soon learned that the education of girls was considered of less importance than that of the boys. She and her sister went to a school where the prime aim was learning how to make a home comfortable for men. Emmeline found that difficult to comprehend.  One evening, in her bed, pretending to be asleep, she heard her father say, ‘What a pity she wasn’t born a lad.’ 

Her first impulse was to raise her head and say she did not want to be a boy. She didn’t act on that impulse. But for many days to come she pondered what her father had said. the remark for many days to come. 

As she put it in her autobiography, ’It was made quite clear that men considered themselves superior to women, and that women apparently acquiesced in that belief’.

Well, that’s enough to get you started on the Mrs Pankhurst story. Let’s jump to the prison sentence. It was her sixth conviction. Her fourth time behind bars. She served less than six weeks of her sentence between the time of her conviction and August 1914 when militancy ended because of World War I. Repeated hunger strikes and sleep strikes got her out so she could be nursed back to health. 

And look, as a Yank, I have to mention in passing that on a trip to America she was detained as an undesirable alien. President Wilson intervened and got that ruling overturned. She told an enthusiastic audience in New York that “nothing has ever been got out of the British parliament without something very nearly approaching a revolution.”

But let’s leave the last word to Mrs Pankhurst herself. She addressed the courtroom – the jury, the judge, the lawyers, the clerks, the spectators – after sentence had been pronounced. I’ll just give you her opening remarks.

Speaking directly to the jury she said, “When you were empanelled it came into my mind that I might, in justice, object to each of you as. you took your place. In this country it is an accepted axiom that every Englishman is tried by his peers. No woman is tried by her peers. You are of one sex, I of another. I decided not to challenge you, not because I for a moment expected my objection to be upheld, but because, after all, these trials offer us, at a very big price, an opportunity of trying to get into the minds of men something of what women feel about their difficulties about the laws to which they have to submit, although they have had no part in making them; and what they feel about the administration of those laws if, unhappily, they are brought into conflict with the law…

And then further on, Mrs Pankhurst said, “It is a serious thing when a number of respectable people come to hold the law in contempt, and come seriously to make up their minds that they are justified in ignoring it. The whole of good government rests on the acceptance of the law, and I say to you seriously that women of intelligence and brain and upright life have for many years past ceased to respect the laws of this country. It is an absolute fact; and when you look at the laws of this country as they affect women it is not to be wondered at.”

She closed by speaking of her fellow women. She said, “They will go on with this fight, whether I live or whether I die. This movement will go on and on until women have rights of citizenship in this country as they will have over the civilised world.”

Me, David, again. Nothing to add except April 3rd…special anniversary. Mrs Pankhurst…special human being. 

That’s all from London Walks for tonight. See you tomorrow. 

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