The Lancashire roots of suffragette movement founder Emmeline Pankhurst
PUBLISHED: 00:00 07 October 2015 | UPDATED: 12:59 08 February 2018
As a new film exploring the evolution of the suffragette movement opens this month, Amanda Hodges delves into the Lancashire roots of founder Emmeline Pankhurst
‘Put me upon an island where the girls are few
Put me amongst the most ferocious lions in the Zoo
You can put me upon a treadmill and I’ll never, never fret
But for pity’s sake don’t put me near a Suffragette’
These lines from an old music hall song pithily convey the scepticism and often the plain fear that many men at the turn of the 20th century felt towards the suffragette movement, which is the subject of a feature film starring Meryl Streep and Helena Bonham Carter.
Streep plays Lancastrian Emmeline Pankhurst, who came from a prosperous family steeped in radical causes. She would spearhead the Votes for Women campaign for many years and prove to be an ideal leader - eloquent, tenacious and utterly formidable.
Born in Moss Side, her father was a prominent member of Manchester’s Liberal Party and a keen supporter of the anti-slavery cause. Her mother was equally fervent politically and even at a young age Emmeline would collect pennies to help the abolitionist cause.
At 14 she attended a local meeting promoting women’s suffrage with her mother and she later dated the awakening of her political awareness to this moment, recalling that ‘the speeches (from Lydia Becker, from Altham, near Accrington, at the Manchester National Union) interested and excited me..and I left the meeting a conscious and confirmed suffragist.’
After finishing school in France, Emmeline met pioneering lawyer Richard Pankhurst at a Liberal Party rally in Manchester. Richard was a nonconformist and anti-imperalist, a pivotal figure in the formation of the Manchester Women’s Suffrage group. His principles proved irresistible and the couple married in 1879.
In many ways Emmeline, always immaculately dressed and the epitome of elegant conformity, was a traditional woman of her time but she longed for greater scope than simply being a wife and mother and, unusually for the era, Richard wholeheartedly supported her in this.
He was an idealist and his often contentious views meant the family remained perpetually short of money so when his second bid to become an MP failed in the mid 1880s, Emmeline decided the family should move to London, hoping for a better reception in the capital. Here she opened a shop - the first of several unsuccessful retail ventures - and established herself as an impressive hostess, welcoming many radicals of the era to her Russell Square home.
The expiry of the house’s lease in 1893 prompted the impecunious family’s move back to Manchester as this is where the majority of Richard’s work remained. Ensconced in a large house in the Victoria Park area their two older daughters, Christabel and Sylvia, attended Manchester High School for Girls and Emmeline re-established her links with Manchester Women’s Suffrage, being voted onto its executive committee that year.
When a new law was passed in 1894 allowing married women to stand for local office Emmeline quickly became a Poor Law Guardian, a post designed to help the neediest members of the community in Chorlton. Convinced that women could play a greater role in social reform if enfranchised, Emmeline later reflected: ‘I thought I had been a suffragist before I became a Poor Law Guardian but now I began to think about the vote in women’s hands not only as a right but as a desperate necessity.’ Emmeline flourished, radically overhauling the system, improving conditions for many inmates and helped to organise local soup kitchens as well as persuading the recalcitrant local authority to create vital projects for employment. Her respectability combined with her reforming zeal made her very popular locally.
She and Richard were among the first to join Keir Hardie’s new Independent Labour Party upon its formation and when Manchester City Council banned political gatherings in public places in 1896 (including that of Boggart Hole Clough where the ILP regularly met) Emmeline’s renown spread further as she ignored the ban, risking prison in the process.
Her husband’s untimely death in 1898 prompted a move to a smaller house in Nelson Street and, desperate for income, Emmeline gave up her voluntary position as a Poor Law Guardian and obtained a paid job as a local Registrar of Births and Deaths. As the years progressed the Pankhursts saw their faith in the ILP eroded, the final straw being when a Salford hall named in Richard’s honour and built for ILP meetings, was declared off-limits to women.
Enraged, Emmeline and colleagues decided strong action was necessary and in October 1903 the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) was launched from Nelson Street with the motto ‘Deeds not Words.’ Women’s suffrage at this time was rather a limp affair and badly needed revitalisation, something it received from Emmeline and her eldest daughter Christabel, both somewhat dictatorial figures and each pivotal within the organisation.
Realising that the Liberal Party was heading for election victory in late 1905, Christabel and a friend attended the Free Trade Hall in Manchester where politicians including Winston Churchill were speaking and protested about suffrage, finally unfurling a ‘Votes For Women’ banner. Chaos ensued and both girls received prison terms after refusing to pay fines incurred. Suddenly women’s suffrage was high profile news once again.
Emmeline herself never directly advocated the hunger strikes of ensuing years but her talent lay in realising which tactics were the most effective, her timing superb and her public speaking reputedly very persuasive. As the years progressed the WSPU’s actions became more confrontational as they saw that protest alone did not generate results and that militant action was inevitable. In her autobiography, My Own Story, Emmeline reflected: ‘Our task was to show the government it was expedient to yield to women’s just demands. In order to do that we had to make...English life insecure and unsafe..to hurt business, destroy valuable property and upset the whole orderly conduct of life.’
Having returned to London in 1906, Emmeline was first imprisoned in 1908 and, as more and more women swelled the ranks of the WSPU, there were growing hunger strikes often met by the barbaric act of force-feeding. In 1910 Prime Minister Asquith had promised a vote on suffrage but betrayed women by suddenly dissolving Parliament. Violent outbreaks became commonplace - windows were broken, property destroyed, even the Albert Hall’s organ was flooded. Only the outbreak of the First World War caused a halt to proceedings.
By 1918 change was inevitable since women had proved their innate equality in the war effort and a bill was finally passed giving the vote to all women over 30. Emmeline herself would live to see universal suffrage granted in 1928 and today the Pankhurst Centre, occupying the space where the family once lived in Nelson Street, pays tribute to her long affiliation with the area. Emmeline said of her birthplace: ‘Manchester is a city which has witnessed many stirring episodes, especially of a political character. Generally speaking, its citizens have been liberal in their sentiments, defenders of free speech and liberty of opinion.’ She certainly epitomised that ethos.
The film Suffragette opens at the London Film Festival on October 7 and it will be a poignant moment for one of its stars.
Helen Bonham Carter, who plays one of the Suffragettes, is the great-granddaughter of Hebert Henry Asquith, the Liberal prime minister accused of reneging on a promise of universal suffrage.
The film explores the lives of early members of the movement in the late 19th and early 20th century with lead roles for Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, Meryl Streep, Ben Whishaw, Brendan Gleeson and Anne-Marie Duff.
It is the first film in history to be shot in the Houses of Parliament, done with the permission of MPs.
Preston’s Edith Rigby was a contemporary of the Pankhursts and is credited with planting a pipe bomb in the Liverpool Corn Exchange on 5 July 1913 and two days later setting fire to Lord Leverhulme’s bungalow at Rivington Pike.
The Pankhurst Centre is at 60-62 Nelson St, Manchester, open Thursdays only. www.thepankhurstcentre.org.uk