Shooting Suffrage: Suffragettes as Seen by Their Contemporaries

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At the beginning of the 20th century the campaign for ‘Votes for Women’, which had been already running for nearly 40 years, took on a new lease of life. With the new century came new methods, bringing the campaign to the attention of the public and keeping it there. Realising that they themselves had to become ‘news’, women developed tactics that would make headlines in the daily press and provide material for the newsreels that were now beginning to be shown in cinemas. As a corollary, their activities, dramatic and outlandish, provided inspiration for short, comic feature films that entertained cinema goers, whether or not they were sympathetic to the Cause.

You can watch clips of suffrage events on the BFI Player (see here).

One of the earliest surviving suffrage newsreel films shows a magnificent suffragette procession passing through the London streets on 18 June 1910. With between 600 and 1000 cinemas in the UK, the cinema boom was now underway; by 1914 the number was closer to 4500. The newsreel, of which this film would have been one item amongst several, formed part of the cinema programme – usually a prelude to the feature film. Newsreels showed for three or four days at each cinema and each reel would then circulate for several weeks. ‘News’ was, thus, not hot news – for that there were newspapers – and newsreel was limited to the peculiarity of the medium. It could never be just a filmed version of a newspaper story; it had to have its own cinematically interesting subject.

Obviously, the ability to show movement was the most significant advantage that the cinematograph had over the still photograph. Thus processions, in the mounting of which the suffrage societies excelled, were made for newsreel – encapsulating news, spectacle and movement.

A few days after this London procession, another was held, on 21 July, in Newcastle, again with a film camera in attendance. The resulting film was produced by the Warwick Trading Company, which had been founded at the very end of the 19th century by Charles Urban, an American who came to England and concentrated on making reality films. The company’s offices were in Warwick Court, Chancery Lane (close to the WSPU offices in Clements Inn) and its cameramen travelled all around the country.

Two years before the shooting of the Newcastle film Charles Urban had produced his manifesto, The Cinematograph in Science, Education, and Matters of State. In this he wrote of the importance of cinematograph film in the study of history, noting that ‘affairs of state, royal movements, naval and military demonstrations .. are all depicted as they are actually seen by the accurate and truthful eye of the camera, and the day has arrived when motion pictures of current events should be treasured as vital documents among the historical archives of our museums. Animated pictures of almost daily happenings, which possess no more than a passing interest now, will rank as matters of national importance to future students, and it behoves our public authorities to see that the institutions under their control become possessed of these important moving records of present events. Books, pamphlets, prints, and the like, are perforce kept for reference, but films depicting important movements with a detail verbally impossible are lost to the nation for want of a little forethought.’

Unfortunately for us, Charles Urban’s plea was not heeded and only a handful of the actuality films that were made of the suffrage campaign have survived. For instance, on 18 June 1908 a representative of the Graphic Cinematographic Company of 154 Charing Cross Road wrote to one of the London-based WSPU speakers, Mrs Minnie Baldock, confirming arrangements to ‘cinematograph’ her meeting to be held the next day during the dinner hour outside Waterlows factory in Shoreditch.  Doubtless many more such informal scenes were filmed but, not being dramatic set pieces, have failed to survive. It is possible that, rather than being intended for showing in picture palaces, such early films as that of Mrs Baldock’s meeting were used by the WSPU for propaganda purposes.  The WSPU was quick to adopt such new means of communication, for instance we know that in 1908 it projected cinematographic advertisements for forthcoming suffrage events onto sheets displayed in its shop windows. Later, newsreels, were, of course, shown in public, seen not only by the casual cinemagoer, but by suffrage campaigners around the country, who could take the viewing as another opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to the cause. For instance, on 29 March 1914 Dr Alice Ker, a leading member of the Liverpool WSPU, recorded in her diary that she went with some other WSPU activists ‘to the Picture House to see Sylvia Pankhurst leading East End women to Westminster Abbey’. This had taken place on 22 March, and, although we now have no record of it, we know from this diary entry that a film camera was there.

It is unlikely that Dr Ker went often to the Picture Palace, cinema-going still having infradig associations, a hangover from its early gestation in the fairground and music hall. Needless to say the short ‘suffragette-related’ feature films that were produced, such as ‘Milling the Militants’, revel in the slapstick opportunities offered by the idea of women stepping outside their gendered role. Such films were designed to appeal to the cinema-going public, not to serious suffrage campaigners such as Dr Ker. Although a few dramatic feature films centring on the suffrage movement were made in the UK, none, as far as I know, still exists.

Still from a lost 1913 film, The Suffragette (Britannia Films)

It was not only the militant WSPU that welcomed the presence of the movie camera at its demonstrations. For one was there at a NUWSS demonstration held in Trafalgar Square on 9 July 1910, a week before the grand procession. The banners in this clip show the number of local electors who had signed a petition organised by the NUWSS at the January 1910 general election. You can watch the demonstration here.

However, despite the staging of many more rallies, it became clear that the government was not prepared to include ‘Votes for Women’ in any forthcoming legislation. Thus, on the opening of Parliament on 18 November, a deputation of 300 members of the WSPU set out, in groups of ten, from a meeting in Caxton Hall to walk the short distance to the House of Commons. You can see  here something of the resulting melée. What is clear from the film is that, in what is captioned as ‘Suffragette Riots at Westminster’, men are in the overwhelming majority. The two placards that we see rising and falling in the midst of the crowd were presumably carried by women. They are clearly being mobbed. The day, known to the suffragettes as ‘Black Friday’, became notorious for the brutality with which women were treated, both by the police and by men who clearly thought that women demonstrators were fair game for physical molestation.

Militancy alternated with periods of calm and the following year, in June 1911, 28 suffrage societies, militant and constitutional, combined to stage a spectacular procession on 17 June 1911 to mark the coronation of George V. This ‘Coronation Procession can be seen here. The Historical Pageant, as described in the film’s caption, related to only one small part of the long procession. Its purpose was ‘to illustrate the great political power held by women in the past history of these Isles – beginning with Abbess Hilda and attendant nuns’.

However, the government was not swayed by such spectacles and in the autumn of 1911 once again dashed the hopes of the suffrage campaigners. In retaliation the WSPU adopted the tactics of guerrilla warfare, conducting a campaign of bombing and arson. A newsreel photographer found it worthwhile to film the ruins of Levetleigh, at St Leonards in Sussex, the home of the local MP, Arthur du Cros, which was set on fire by suffragettes on 13 April 1913.

A couple of months later, on 4 June 1913, a newsreel camera witnessed Emily Wilding Davison on 4 June 1913 stepping onto the Derby racecourse and attempting to hold the bridle of Anmer, the King’s horse. The camera was, of course, set up to record the race – with no knowledge that such a dramatic event was to be enacted in front of it. Was it possible that Emily Davison chose to position herself at that point at Tattenham Corner so that the camera, which would have been obvious to her, set as it was at a level well raised above the crowd, could not fail to capture her action? You can watch the race here. 

Emily Davison was thrown to the ground, suffering a serious head injury. She never regained consciousness and died on 8 June. On 14 June she was accorded a martyr’s funeral. The long, impressive procession made its way through the streets of London to St George’s Church in Bloomsbury. From there the coffin was taken to King’s Cross, and on by train to her home town, Morpeth in Northumberland. You can watch both funeral processions here.

Through the first few months of 1914 the damage escalated. Suffragettes attacked churches, mansions, grandstands, and even paintings in the National Gallery and Royal Academy. On 21 May, Mrs Pankhurst was arrested while leading a deputation to Buckingham Palace. She had hoped that the King would receive them. The palace gates were kept firmly closed, but the Pathé cameraman had been alerted and recorded the resulting ‘Pandemonium at the Palace’. This is the last extant reality film of the pre-war suffrage campaign. With the outbreak of war on 4 August 1914 this stage of the suffrage campaign came to an end.

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Elizabeth Crawford is the author of a number of books on the women’s suffrage movement, including The Women’s Suffrage Movement: a reference guide. Do visit her website https://womanandhersphere.com/

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