Fields of battle: The Suffragettes’ fight for the vote

Emily Davison died after she threw herself under the King's horse
Emily Davison died after she threw herself under the King's horse
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A HUNDRED years ago next month the Suffragettes decided to take their fight for the vote into the sporting arena, seen then as a bastion of male preserve. At Epsom, it had tragic consequences, but Dani Garavelli says the campaign had a significant impact elsewhere, including in Scotland.

It’s the most famous moment in the suffragette movement’s history: Emily Davison runs onto the track at the Epsom Derby and is trampled by the King’s horse. Although footage of the tragedy has been analysed many times, no-one has been able to establish what her intentions were. Did she deliberately kill herself in order to draw attention to the fight for women’s votes? Or was she trying to pin a flag to George V’s horse, Anmer, so it would be flying the WPSU (Women’s Social & Political Union) colours when it crossed the finishing line?

Suffragettes marching along Princes Street in 1909

Suffragettes marching along Princes Street in 1909

Either way, at her funeral in London in June 1913, 6,000 suffragettes marched through the streets behind a banner that read: “Death or Liberty.” Though Davison’s tragic end meant she became the symbol of the movement’s campaign of direct action, she was far from the only one who engaged in subversive acts, many of them, like hers, targeted at sporting events or venues.

In fact, 100 years ago next month, the suffragettes embarked on a campaign of arson and vandalism that was to cause thousands of pounds of damage to racecourses, bowling greens, tennis courts, billiard halls and golf courses across the country.

By the time Davison died, Arabella Scott had already been jailed for attempting to set fire to the grandstand at Kelso racecourse, and the grandstand at Ayr racecourse had been burned to the ground. More attention may have been paid historically to the torching of pillar boxes and railway stations, but sports grounds were key targets, partly because they were not well-guarded, and partly because they were seen as bastions of male pleasure.

So rife were the attacks in 1913 and the early part of 1914, the suffragettes became fodder for angry newspaper editorials and cartoons, which mocked their efforts to interfere with men’s leisure pursuits and implied their actions were counterproductive.

Suffragettes set fire to Perthshire Cricket Club's Pavillion

Suffragettes set fire to Perthshire Cricket Club's Pavillion

Although details of individual incidents are patchy, it is clear many clubs took on extra security, while Lloyds of London started offering special suffragette-related policies to vulnerable venues.

Later today, academic Dr Joyce Kay of Stirling University’s School of Sport, is giving a lecture in Edinburgh about the important role sports grounds played in the suffragette campaign, particularly in Scotland, where politicians, including the prime minister, Henry Asquith, were frequently confronted as they played a round of golf.

“Sport tended to be seen as very much a masculine domain. It wasn’t strictly speaking true – women took part in all sorts of sport – but it was seen as a predominantly male arena,” Kay says.

Horse racing was one sport from which women were almost completely excluded. The most famous Scottish attack was probably the abortive one against Kelso racecourse, because the four suffragettes involved – Scott, a teacher, Edith Hudson, a nurse, and two sisters in their sixties, Agnes and Elizabeth Thomson – were captured. Scott, from Dunoon, was jailed for nine months but went on hunger strike and so was released (under the terms of the so-called Cat and Mouse Act, brought in to avoid creating hunger-strike martyrs) before being rearrested. This cycle went on for some time, until, in June 1914, Scott was brought to Perth Prison, where she was kept in isolation and force-fed.

No-one was arrested in connection with the attack on Ayr racecourse, which caused £2,000 of damage (the equivalent of £300,000 today), but in 2003 relatives of Catherine King, a cinema cashier from the Gorbals, came forward to say they believed she had been responsible.

The same month as the fire in Ayr, records show a bowling green at Bellahouston, a lawn tennis pavilion in Dundee and a cricket pavilion in Perthsire were also damaged. South of the Border havoc was being wreaked on other targets – Preston North End was attacked in April, and stands at Hurst Park Racecourse in Surrey were torched by actress and activist Kitty Marion the day after Davison’s death.

“[The campaign] was causing maximum disruption,” Kay says. “It’s difficult to find detailed accounts, but if you go through a bowling or tennis club’s history you stumble across bits of information. The records of Dyvours Tennis Club in Edinburgh, for example, describe how the police had suggested they might want to take precautions against the suffragettes. That sort of thing wouldn’t have made the newspapers – but it shows how clubs were having to take the threat of damage into consideration. I think people were very worried.”

Those attacks which did impact on the national consciousness included the ones on golf clubs. In 1913, members often turned up to find suffragettes had been hacking up turf or throwing acid on the greens. In Scotland, Kay says, the threat was so severe, the Committee of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club at St Andrews insured its courses for £1,000 each and enrolled 200 guards to watch the greens and patrol the links ahead of the Amateur Championship.

Physical protection of less prestigious golf clubs, however, was too costly and the size and locations of most courses meant the women could force their way in at night. In one of the few first-hand accounts of frontline action to survive, Lilias Mitchell, from Leith, decribes the fear she felt while replacing the flags on Balmoral golf course with others in the WSPU colours and painting “Votes for Women” on a nearby fountain. “Several times we lay flat on the ground, thinking we heard footsteps,” she said. Later she described the experience as “the sort of adventure that is tremendous fun once it is over.”

When the suffragettes were not vandalising the links, they were targeting politicians, particularly Asquith whose opposition to women’s suffrage had turned him into a hate figure. So threatened did he feel, he sought protection, bringing five plainclothes policemen and a Scotland Yard detective as security on at least one occasion. Most of the golf course confrontations took place on links in the North-East of Scotland, where Asquith spent his holidays. He was confronted twice on the Royal Dornoch Club, once while with his home secretary, Reginald McKenna, and then again the following year when a woman who ran out of a nearby house, shouted at him and knocked his hat off.

But the most publicised assault took place in August 1913 when Asquith was playing with his daughter at the Moray Golf Club, Lossiemouth. Two “well-dressed young ladies” rushed on to the 17th green, seized his arms, tugged at his clothes, knocked his hat off and hit him over the head with a magazine. The women were arrested by the protection officers and charged with assault and breach of the peace, but the charges were later dropped to spare Asquith a court appearance.

Golf clubs were the target of so much attention, Emmeline Pankhurst explained, because they were the place opinion-formers and legislators spent their spare time. However many people believed that, far from strengthening the suffragettes’ position their emphasis on direct action was turning people against them.

According to Kay, even at the height of the suffragette movement there were no more than 100-150 women involved in illegal acts, with most women preferring more peaceful means of getting their message across.

The establishment exploited this division and portrayed the minority of vandals and arsonists as “wild women” who had proved themselves unworthy of suffrage. The editor of Golf Illustrated said he did not regard “the scraping and scratching of a few greens” as evidence women should be given the vote. “On the same principle we ought to give votes to worms, moles, rabbits and other pests,” he said.

In the end, whether or not the campaign of arson and vandalism was furthering the cause of suffrage could not be properly tested. In July 1914, the First World War began and all action was suspended.

The important role women played in the war meant that, in 1917, the clause in the Representation of the People Bill which extended suffrage to women over 30 who met minimum property requirements, was passed by 385 votes to 55. Truly equal suffrage eventually arrived in 1928.

Today, of course, women take part in all sports. This sea-change was marked when a group of ordinary women led by Helen Pankhurst, the great-grand-daughter of Emmeline, took on the role of suffragettes in Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony for the London 2012 Olympics. The very women who waged war against sports venues were being honoured at the world’s most prestigious sporting event. But the story doesn’t end there. Ironically, those involved bonded and used the experience as a springboard into activism going on to take part in the UK Feminsta march in October. Almost a century on, sport and feminist protest were linked once more.

• Dr Kay is giving her lecture at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh at 12.45pm today.