Secrets of a Suffragette Exposed

Posted By: Glyn Porritt

Posted: June 03, 2013

June 4th 2013 is the 100th anniversary of suffragette Emily Wilding Davison’s efforts to intercept the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby. She died four days later of the injuries she sustained in the attempt. Emily was a lady of action and in the preceding years had also endured forcible feeding while on hunger strike and injuries resulting from throwing herself down a stairwell at Holloway Prison. 

At the end of May, Channel 4 aired the Secrets of a Suffragette, a documentary on the exploits of Davison, her fellow suffragettes and their clashes with the authorities of the day. As the title implied, the audience were provided with evidence of a much more violent and harrowing set of events than the traditional images of women “marching for votes” such as Mrs Winifred Banks in Mary Poppins and the forthcoming BBC comedy Up the Women.

Votes for Women

These “secrets” had been exposed to me over 8 years ago while I was editing the fascinating suffragette material in Women in the National Archives, the first of Adam Matthew’s Archives Direct suite of collections sourced exclusively from The National Archives, UK. 

I had generally been aware of the level of militancy, sacrifice and dedication on the part of the suffragettes but I remember being particularly shocked by the details the documents revealed about the attitude, tactics and ultimate violence of elements of the State and the Police force in opposing the more militant campaigners.

I have highlighted some of the more striking examples from the Home Office and Metropolitan Police archives here.  

1. Use of photography for surveillance and image manipulation. The Metropolitan Police employed dedicated photographers and long lenses to create photographic records of leading suffragette figures. 

Surveillance pictures of suffragettes

Evelyn Manesta was one of the two suffragettes singled out by New Scotland Yard as potential re-offenders following damage to public art treasures. The picture on the left below shows the original photograph taken under duress whilst in custody. The image used in the memorandum on the right has been doctored to remove the officer’s arm around Evelyn’s neck, replaced with a shadow on her scarf.

Evelyn Manesta mugshot


2. The augmentation of a “Special Branch” of hand-picked Metropolitan Police officers in 1909 in response to the militant threat to “protect Ministers from insult annoyance and violence” is documented in MEPO2/1310. 

3. The dramatic accounts of violence and police brutality, some of it by plain clothes officers during the “Black Friday” march in November 1910. H. N. Brailsford, the secretary of the Conciliation Committee gathered a large number of testimonies alleging that the police had lost control, had terrorised the women, and had committed acts of indecency on them (HO144/1106/200455 and HO144/1106/200455). 

Black Friday Violence

4. Forcible feeding by tube of hunger strikers including Prisoner 26351 Emily Wilding Davison. HO144/1107/200655 concludes rather tersely “evidently she does not like this process!” HO 144/1150/210696 reports she “offered violent resistance” to the application of the nasal oesophageal tube.

The image this conjures up is not a pleasant one and represents what lengths the more militant suffragettes went to in order to fight for their cause.

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Image Of Glyn Porritt

Glyn Porritt

I joined Adam Matthew in 2002. I manage our in-house development team and the integration of our technical partners. I am involved in the development of all our projects, working closely with the editors to ensure content is delivered online efficiently and effectively.

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