Today (November 21) in London History – “the unfitness of men to be in charge”

November 21st (1911), the day the Suffragists raised the ante in their struggle for enfranchisement. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

Facts first.

There were 223 arrests. 220 women and three men.

Over 150 of the arrests were made in the vicinity of Parliament Square.

The arrested women came from all over the country, including Reading, Liverpool, Dublin, Bath, Newcastle, Glasgow, Bristol, Edinburgh, Cambridge, Manchester, Brighton, Bradford, Coventry, Galway, Ipswich and Sidcup, to name but a few. Indeed, they were joined behind bars by a woman from Brussels.

The suffragists’ intention was, in the words of one of their leaders, Mrs Pethick Lawrence, “to go straight to the House of Commons and to pursue their way until they stood on the floor of that building to offer their protest to the deep insult that had been perpetrated on their cause.”

When they were thwarted by a very heavy police presence they broke into small commando units and indulged in wholesale window smashing along Whitehall, the Strand, Fleet Street and well into the City. One woman turned off at Horse Guards Parade and ran along by the back windows of the Board of Trade, smashing 15 of them with a hammer. She was arrested before she could do further damage.

More arrests were made at the National Liberal Club, where considerable damage was done. 

Other militant suffragists moved further afield. They carried out guerrilla actions – what the papers called “similar outrages” – against the private house in Battersea of cabinet member John Burns and the private house in Queensgate of Secretary of State for War Viscount Haldane.

A quick aside here: Burns is a very interesting character. He often plays a cameo role in my Old Westminster  Walk. There’s a piece of sculpture – a Greek god, who’s modelled on Burns. So that’s a light-switch moment for that walk, pointing out that sculpture and explaining the Burns connection and indeed getting Burns into focus. He was a Londoner bred and borne. Working class. It’s been said that he was the first member of the working class to join the Gods of the cabinet – which is why he’s there, sitting for the portrait of a certain Greek God, in a bas-relief that shows a clutch of Greek Gods. In fact, he wasn’t the first workingman to make it into the innermost sanctum of the Cabinet, that was Henry Broadhurst. More importantly, in my warts and all portrait of Burns, he was a vile antisemite. He once described “the Jew as the tapeworm of history.” It’s disgusting. But it gives you an idea of how rife anti-semitism was a century ago. On the credit side, after he left parliament he became an expert on the history of London and indeed, it was John Burns who coined the phrase, “the Thames is liquid history.”  As the story goes, an American, in 1929, compared the River Thames unfavourably with the Mississippi. John Burns wasn’t going to let that pass. He responded, “The St Lawrence is water, the Mississippi is muddy water, but the Thames is liquid history.” Not bad, eh.

Anyway, back to our Suffragists – London that night wasn’t just peopled with legions of police and hundreds of militant Suffragists – there were thousands of onlookers, spectators, there to watch the drama, watch the action unfold. 

It was heartening to read that – I’m quoting here from the Daily Telegraph’s coverage of the night’s events – it was heartening to read that “as the earlier window-smashers passed on their way to the lock-up many men amongst the crowd raised their hats to them.”

Add it all up, you’ve got a trail of destruction, including many shop windows in the Strand. To say nothing a clear demonstration of the determination and fearlessness and resourcefulness of the suffragists. They weren’t going quietly – the fight was on. And they were a serious problem for the police. The suffragists set out to provoke the police, to be arrested. And indeed, to damage property to highlight their aims and their struggle. And for once the police did not have recourse to their usual strong-arm tactics. The police simply couldn’t wade into the groups of women billy clubs flailing precisely because they were the so-called “weaker sex”, they were women. 

And so the scenes that ensued looked like this. Well, this was one of them but I think it was probably representative. And it was Act One of what happened that night. The window smashing was of course Act Two.

Here’s a newspaper account of the police blunting the suffragists’ attempts to break through their cordons and get into Parliament.

“A small group of women rushed aggressively at the half-dozen policemen standing in the gateway. At their head was a tall, green-hatted young woman, with the others at her back. She made direct for the defending constables with the dash – and futility – of a dummy torpedo ‘attacking’ a Dreadnought. Repelled by the impassive, but nonetheless effective attitude of the custodians of the gate, she and her companions again and again hurled themselves forward. Not for an instant was the defence in danger, but, as the raiders persisted, the crowd at their backs surged forward, and there was an ugly scrimmage. It looked as if the weight of numbers might carry the besiegers through, but before the possibility became anything more a reinforcement of constables was marched from New Palace yard, and quickly made a clearance of the Suffragists and their supporters. For a few minutes there was a lull, and then sporadic attacks were renewed. The green-hatted lady appeared once more, and with her an elderly woman with a delicate lace shawl over her head. These two, with three or four others, strove with astonishing persistency to pierce the lines but each time they were forced back into the crowd. Eventually the lady of the shawl, who seemed to renew her youth as the struggle proceeded, had to be arrested, and her colleagues retired from the hopeless assault.”

What’s not to like about that elderly woman? What’s not to like about her giving her all and in so doing appearing to renew her youth? What I wouldn’t give to be seated next to her at a dinner party and get her talking about her part in the events of November 21st, 1911. 

Anyway, let’s bring this to a close. Make the point first that universal suffrage was a long way off. The suffragists had a long hard march ahead of them Indeed, even the partial victory women eventually won – women over the age of 30 and men over the age of 21 being permitted to vote – was seven years in the future. 1918 in other words. And it wasn’t until 1929 that women over the age of 21 voted in their first general election.

So, yes, bears repeating, the suffragists, as they were called, had a trail of tears and frustration and many defeats ahead of them – a long, struggle. How many roads must a woman walk down before you call her a voter. That word suffragists, by the way, the formulation suffragettes doesn’t come along until later. 

Anyway, the events – the mayhem and chaos and turmoil – I’ve set out before you in this podcast took place on this day in London history, November 21st, 1911.

The immediate trigger for the demonstration was Prime Minister Asquith’s announcing a manhood suffrage bill. Manhood – it doesn’t get much more gender-specific than that. It was seen as a betrayal of the women’s suffrage campaign. The WSPU’s – that is, the Women’s Social and Political Union’s response – was the November 21st march on the House of Commons, the attempt to get in there, get on the floor of the House of Commons, and failing that, which of course was bound to happen, the back-up plan of a mass window-smashing campaign. Which the authorities were powerless to head off. At a stroke, on this day in London History, November 21st, 1911, the Suffragists raised their game and upped the ante. The heightened militancy continued into 1912 and before long it spiralled to include arson attacks.

Prime Minister Asquith was an avowed anti-suffragist but the gauntlet of deeds not words that the militant suffragists threw down before him worked. It brought him round. It took five years but in 1916 Asquith made a declaration of allegiance to women’s enfranchisement. 

I think we’ll end, though, with a searing remark made, three years later, by one of the leaders of the London Kristallnacht, if I can use that phrase. Obviously a night of broken glass of an entirely different order from the vile Nazi one that was undreamt of in 1911. Anyway, yes, let’s meet Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, one of the leaders of the WSPU and indeed, one of the arrestees that night.

Come the Great War in 1914, Emmeline Pethick Lawrence said it, the war, was ‘the final demonstration of the unfitness of men to have the whole control of the human family in their hands.’

Game, set, match I’d say. 

And a Today in London recommendation. Well, let’s pair this podcast with a recommended visit to the Florence Nightingale Museum. No explanation needed.

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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