Suffragettes and Sport: Legitimate Targets?

In Britain, 6 February 2018 marked the 100th anniversary of legislation that enabled some women to vote for the first time and which paved the way for universal suffrage ten years later. This poster in support of women’s suffrage is from 1909 – though HTBS Types may not approve of a rowing boat portrayed in such a negative way.

9 March 2018

Tim Koch with another post inspired by International Women’s Day.

The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS or ‘Suffragists’) was founded in 1897 but, six years later, the more militant Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU or ‘Suffragettes’) was established, marking the beginning of a move away from traditional political pressure through petitioning and lobbying, towards direct action such as demonstrations and acts of lawbreaking: ‘Deeds not Words’.

WSPU members in peaceful mode at Henley Regatta in 1913. Interviewed in 1989, Harry Porter remembered that, during the 1912 regatta, one crew dressed their cox up as a woman and marched him through the town claiming, to the delight of the crowd, that they had discovered a Suffragette attempting to burn down the boat tents.

The WSPU’s law-breaking protests were many, varied and widespread, becoming increasingly violent and life-threatening (though no innocent people died as a result of their actions). However, the contents of letterboxes were destroyed, thousands of windows were smashed, and telephone wires were cut. Exhibits in the British Museum, National Gallery, and Tower of London were damaged. Small bombs were planted in St Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey and near the Bank of England. Empty buildings became targets for arson. Winston Churchill was assaulted with a horse whip, there was a catapult attack on Prime Minister Asquith’s car and Lloyd George’s holiday home was set on fire.

There were more than 1,300 Suffragette arrests between 1906 and 1914.

The symbols of sole male preserves were a particular target, and this included most of the sporting institutions of the time. Cricket, tennis and bowls club pavilions were set alight, a slogan near the torched Harborne Cricket Club reading ‘Down with sport, up with fair play for women’. Wimbledon tennis was a foiled target for arson. Football grandstands were burned down. Horse racing courses were attacked, a fire at Ayr racecourse causing £2,000 of damage, the equivalent of £300,000 today. When golf courses were dug up and slogans painted across the grass, the Royal and Ancient at St Andrews insured its greens for £1,000 each and enrolled 200 guards ahead of the Amateur Golf Championship.

Militant Suffragette (after long and futile efforts to light a fire for her tea-kettle). ‘AND TO THINK THAT ONLY YESTERDAY I BURNED TWO PAVILIONS AND A CHURCH!’ (“Punch”, June 1913).

The best-known act of militancy at a sporting venue was at Epsom Racecourse in June 1913 when Suffragette Emily Davison died, struck by the King’s horse while attempting to demonstrate in favour of women’s suffrage. In the month following Davidson’s death, acts of arson and destruction did damage costing £8m in today’s money.

Emily Davison lies dying, having fallen under the King’s horse. Perhaps this was not intentional, she had a return railway ticket in her pocket. There is a theory that was she trying to pin a WSPU flag to the animal so the Suffragette colours would be flying over the finishing line.

Rowing was a particularly vulnerable male sporting bastion with its isolated boat houses and open waters. Oxford’s WSPU was famously militant and, in 1913, Rough’s Boathouse at Longbridges on the Isis was burned down (in 2005, a successor boathouse on the site was set alight by animal rights protestors). There were also attacks on boat houses in Hampton Court, Birmingham, Bristol and Nottingham. After the latter, Nottingham rowers turned up in numbers at the next women’s suffrage rally in the city, shouting down the speakers and setting off stink bombs.

The Bristol University Boathouse after the Suffragette attack.
The partially burned Nottingham Boat Club.

On her website, historian, Dr Sheila Hanlon, writes on the Suffragette threat to the 1913 Oxford – Cambridge Boat Race:

Suffragettes and suffragists targeted sports institutions as part of publicity campaigns and militant action, particularly from 1911-1913……. The excerpt from ‘Votes for Women’ below describes preparations for the 1913 Oxford – Cambridge Boat race in anticipation of a suffragette attack. The race was the type of high profile spectator event that made an ideal target for the suffragettes…. Although suffragettes did not successfully interrupt the race, their presence was notable. The WSPU ran a launch of ‘Votes for Women’ banners. There were also reports of NUWSS members handing out campaign materials at rail stations before and after the race.

Suffragettes make themselves heard at the 1910 Boat Race.

The WSPU’s Votes for Women newspaper, 14 March 1913:

The Oxford and Cambridge boat race will be rowed on Thursday, March 13, after we go to press. The greatest excitement seems to prevail both in the daily press and in the vicinity of the course as to whether the Suffragists will succeed in stopping the race, as it is reported they have threatened to do. It seems that for some time past the most extraordinary precautions have been taken to ensure the safety of the boats, a force of something like twenty men having been on continuous night and day duty near the headquarters of the London and Leander Rowing Clubs where the two boats are housed, and the doors of the boathouses have been firmly barred. The course is to be patrolled by police boats, and rowing clubs have been asked to assist with as many boats as possible. What needless trouble and expense all this entails, and how the whole country is being held up when even her sports have to take place under police protection! And how much simpler to give women the vote!

A Suffragette hired launch demonstrates in front of the terraces of the Houses of Parliament.
A sympathetic cartoon from “Punch”, ’Ulysses and the Steam Sirens’. Prime Minister Asquith is tied to the Embankment outside Parliament as a boat bearing Suffragettes approaches. In the legend of Ulysses and the Sirens, Ulysses (Odysseus) resists the bewitching song of the Sirens by having his ship’s crew tie him to the mast, while they are ordered to block their own ears to prevent themselves from hearing the song.

The outbreak of the First World War saw the abandonment of campaigning by the WSPU. With the return of peace in 1918, the law changed to allow partial female suffrage, with universal suffrage enacted in 1928.

As an aside, the high profile Boat Race remained a temptation to those seeking publicity. In 1936, the Irish Republican Army threatened the event and the famous Putney waterman, Bossie Phelps, allegedly stood guard over the Oxford boat armed with a First World War surplus rifle. Noel Duckworth, the cox of that year’s winning Cambridge crew, joked that initially they let Oxford take the lead through Hammersmith Bridge, lest it be blown up as the first boat passed under it. More recently, ‘elitism’ was ended forever when a lone protestor stopped the 2012 Boat Race.

From 1908, the WSPU adopted the pleasing colour scheme of Green, White and Violet. G.W.V. also stood for Give Women (the) Vote. Emblematically, violet symbolised ‘dignity’, white ‘purity’, and green ‘hope’.

A 1913 leader in The Times warned militant Suffragettes: ‘Attempts to spoil sport … are not likely to win favour for any cause from a sporting nation.’ Golf Illustrated denied that ‘the scratching and scraping of a few putting greens’ was proof that women deserved the vote, because ‘on the same principle we ought to give votes to worms, moles, rabbits and other green-keeping pests.’

Perhaps not all establishment figures took this sort of view. A 2013 review of a biography of Emily Davidson in the Independent by David Randall concluded that there was:

Much tut-tutting and smoking-room discontent but, elsewhere, surprising tolerance. Cricketer Jack Hobbs joined marches in support of women’s suffrage and, most touchingly, Herbert Jones, the King’s jockey up-ended by Davison, took a wreath to Emmeline Pankhurst’s funeral 15 years later. Its inscription read: ‘To do honour to the memory of Mrs Pankhurst and Miss Davison’.

We now accept that the cause of women’s suffrage was entirely right. However, did the WSPU’s campaign tactics help or hinder this noble ideal? Today, the Pankhursts and the Suffragettes are secular saints in the popular mind – but the ‘constitutional’ approach of Millicent Fawcett and the Suffragists is little known. Historians are divided about whether militancy helped the cause of women’s suffrage but, if the radical Suffragettes’ actions were in whole or in part responsible for the establishment of universal female suffrage, then did the end justify the means? Fortunately, this is a question for moral philosophers, not rowing historians.

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