Friday, June 21, 2024

Suffragist HQ honoured with London’s 1,000th blue plaque

The former headquarters of militant suffragists who chained themselves to a grille in parliament and dropped leaflets by airship has been commemorated with London’s thousandth blue plaque.

The three-storey building at 1 Robert Street, WC2 — one of the few surviving parts of Georgian architect Robert Adam’s Adelphi development — was the base of operations of the Women’s Freedom League (WFL) in its most active period from 1908-1915. 

Speaking ahead of the plaque’s unveiling this week, Anna Eavis, curatorial director at English Heritage and secretary of the Blue Plaques Panel, said: “To reach 1,000 blue plaques across London is a testament to the huge range of exceptional people and organisations who have made the capital their home over the centuries — and to the members of the public who have nominated them. The Women’s Freedom League, richly deserving of this milestone plaque, was remarkable for its campaigning methods, longevity, breadth and democratic ideals.”

Charlotte Despard, a founder of the Women’s Freedom League, leads members of the organisation in the Women’s Coronation Procession, 1911. Photo: LSE Library, via Wikimedia Commons

The WFL was formed in 1907 after disagreements within the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) over Emmeline Pankhurst’s autocratic leadership. The aim of the breakaway organisation — to secure total emancipation for women — was underlined by its motto: “Dare to be Free”. Unlike the WSPU, the league sought to bring about radical change by using only nonviolent means.

Working from Robert Street, close to the Strand, the WFL was nevertheless relentless in its campaign, including advocating non-payment of taxes and instigating the 1911 census boycott. At the opening of parliament in January 1908, members tried to present a petition to the king, reviving a traditional way to voice grievances. Later that year, two members, Helen Fox and Muriel Matters, protested in the Ladies’ Gallery in the House of Commons by chaining themselves to the metal grille that obstructed their view into the Chamber. Matters’ furious speech, before she could be removed and subsequently imprisoned, was the first by a woman to the Commons.

Prime Minister Herbert Asquith’s refusal to meet with women’s suffrage deputations led the WFL to organise “The Great Watch” that same year — a continuous picket of the House of Commons. When, in 1909, women’s suffrage was again omitted from the King’s Speech, the WFL hired an airship emblazoned with the slogan “VOTES FOR WOMEN”, and Miss Matters — released by then from Holloway Prison — dropped pamphlets over London outlining the right to petition government.

The blue plaque that commemorates the WFL’s former headquarters on Robert Street. Photo: English Heritage

During the First World War, many members were pacifists, including Charlotte Despard, the WFL’s first president and sister of the senior British Army commander Field Marshal Sir John French.

In the WFL’s heyday, its London headquarters had a library and women’s employment bureau and visitors could buy books, shoulder sashes, pin badges, and even groceries and underclothing, with proceeds going to the cause.

Eavis said: “Although the Pankhursts continue to dominate the popular imagination, there is a growing understanding of the multiple and various voices involved in the Votes for Women campaign. The Women’s Freedom League was a significant influence. Committed to securing the vote for all women, not simply those who could pass a property test, it remained active well beyond 1928, when universal suffrage was enshrined in law. Its members also campaigned more broadly for women’s rights, including the right to equal pay with men, to enter all the professions, to sit as peers in their own right and to retain their own nationality on marriage.

“The breadth of the league’s ambition in campaigning for women’s emancipation and not solely for the vote widened its appeal to its supporters; it is telling that Helena Normanton, a league member and speaker, was supported by the league in her successful bid to become a barrister. The league brought a new approach to the suffrage campaign, framing its militancy in terms of Gandhi’s principles of passive resistance and nonviolence. Its longevity and tenacity made it unique among female suffrage organisations.”

Suffragists pose with posters promoting a meeting with speakers including WFL co-founder Charlotte Despard. Photo: US Library of Congress, via Wikimedia Commons

She added: “The headquarters was a busy and sociable place, where organisers met to plan the next steps in the campaign and where sellers of The Vote and other pamphlets came to collect more copies.”

The National Union for Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) is also commemorated by a London blue plaque and, earlier this year, plaques were unveiled to fellow campaigners for women’s suffrage Emily Wilding Davison and Princess Sophia Duleep Singh. 

The London blue plaque scheme has been running for over 150 years and its plaques have long been a distinctive feature of the capital’s streetscape. The idea of erecting “memorial tablets” was first proposed by William Ewart MP in the House of Commons in 1863. In 1866 the Society of Arts founded an official plaques scheme and erected its first plaque, to the poet Lord Byron, the following year. The scheme was later administered by the London County Council and the Greater London Council before being taken on by English Heritage in 1986.

Pin badges in the WFL’s colours of white, gold and green could be purchased from its Robert Street HQ. Photo: LSE Library, via Wikimedia Commons

Despite recent efforts, English Heritage says there is more to be done to improve representation of women. Eavis explained: “London’s blue plaques celebrate hundreds of remarkable people who have made the city their home. Now, with 1,000 official plaques, still only around 14 per cent of them celebrate women. Partly this is explained — though not excused — by the long history of blue plaques. When the scheme began in 1866, men dominated public life almost completely. By 1905, just five women — one actress and four writers — had been commemorated with a plaque, including George Eliot. While the position of women in society has since changed completely, there has been a slowness to acknowledge female achievement.”

She said that, since taking on the scheme, English Heritage had honoured over 100 women, including the computer pioneer Ada Lovelace and Rosalind Franklin, the scientist who helped discover DNA. “More recently we have unveiled plaques to the likes of Special Operations Executive officer Noor Inayat Khan, dressmaker and fashion designer Jean Muir and Helena Normanton. These plaques and the many others to women that we have installed tell a story not only of the changing place of women in society, but also of how the things that contemporary society considers worthy of commemoration continues to evolve.”

As for further nominations, she said: “The scheme relies on people to suggest possible candidates. We need members of the public to get in touch if they can think of someone who might deserve to be commemorated. They should ask themselves, has this person made a great and lasting impact on society? Have they been dead for more than 20 years? And does the London building they called home still stand? If the answer is ‘yes’, we want to hear from them.”

The photograph at the top of the article shows members of the Women’s Freedom League on a speaking tour, with Charlotte Despard and Alison Neilans inside the caravan, 1908. Photo: LSE Library, via Wikimedia Commons

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