Tag Archives: women’s rights

Broken windows theory: why suffragettes attacked the Post Office

There is an intriguing file in the Royal Mail Archive titled “Malicious damage to Post Office premises by suffragettes” (reference number: POST 30/2528A). Detailed within it are several small stories from the big fight for Vote’s For Women

On 27 June 1912 Miss Jane Short, an art student from Letchworth, broke 11 of the small leaded lights of the front office windows at Hitchin Post Office with a hammer and several stones. Mr Tully, the office’s overseer, found the woman outside being held by a man named Russell, who had taken the hammer from her. The Police then came to take Miss Short to the police station.

Miss Short gave an assurance that she would commit no more damage, but stated that she desired to be locked up. At the insistence of the Postmaster, Mr Gadd, she was not locked up but seen home to Letchworth by a police constable. Miss Short had previously broken the windows at Baldock Post Office for which she was committed for trial.

At about 3am on 28 June 1912 a different woman broke the windows at Ludlow Post Office, causing approximately £5 worth of damage. A newspaper report of her appearance before the magistrates the next morning described her as follows:

The prisoner appeared in the dock stylishly dressed in a blouse, skirt and hat, and appeared to be a young lady of superior education of about 20 years of age. She had a pleasant face and somewhat gentle bearing.

The pleasant-faced lady in question gave her name as Elsie Rachel Helsby of Shrewsbury, but there was some question over her identity as she had given the name Miss Holmes of Hampstead at a local hotel. She was granted bail but refused it, and she was remanded in Shrewsbury Prison.

A subsequent newspaper report details that Miss Helsby smashed the windows with a hammer to which was attached two labels, one reading “Votes for Women”, the other a protest against the force-feeding of suffrage campaigners on hunger strike.

In her defence at the trial Miss Helsby stated that she had been motivated to break the windows because of the treatment of women at Holloway and other prisons, and “in defence of poorly paid women and unhealthy and over-worked children”. She saw the hammer as her only weapon in this fight.

The magistrates decided that Miss Helsby could either be fined for costs and damages or sentenced to 28 days hard labour. Miss Helsby elected for the hard labour and was sent back to Shrewsbury prison.

Also detailed in the file is correspondence concerning who should cover the damages. Ludlow was a sub-post office and its premises were leased by the sub-postmaster. The landlord of the premises, Mr Chubb, was liable for the damages to the window but refused to pay arguing that it had been an institution of government (the General Post Office) which had been attacked in this instance. This argument was eventually accepted by the GPO.

A hand-drawn diagram of the broken window at Ludlow Post Office. (POST 30/2528a)

A hand-drawn diagram of the broken window at Ludlow Post Office. (POST 30/2528a)

In the early 20th Century the state-owned GPO was one of the largest businesses and employers in the world. It controlled the mail, telegraph and telephone services throughout the United Kingdom, and was vital to everyday life. With a post office branch a feature of almost every high street in the country it was one of the most visible signs of government and authority, and was thus an ideal target for suffrage campaigners. The First World War interrupted the suffrage campaign, and it would not be until 1928 that women in the United Kingdom had the same voting rights as men.

- Alison Bean, Web Officer

Fe:MAIL, Suffragettes and the Post

From pepper in the letters to postcard propaganda, the history of suffragettes has more sticky situations than a book of stamps.

US stamp commemorating Votes for Women

US stamp commemorating Votes for Women

The new foyer display at The Women’s Library, Fe:MAIL, Suffragettes and the Post, explores how suffragettes saw the Post Office as both a means of mass communication and a symbol of the oppressive male Government; as friend and simultaneously foe.

During the campaign to win women the vote, militant and moderate suffragettes alike used and attacked the postal system to increase the momentum of their campaign and to ensure frequent media coverage. And with over 32,500 pillar boxes in place by 1900, the scope for direct action was almost without limits.

Militant Tactics

A letter damaged by suffragette action

A letter damaged by suffragette action

Members of the WSPU, including the Pankhursts, smashed post office windows, poured acid in pillar boxes, set fire to post boxes and put pepper in letters addressed to anti-suffrage MPs.

The suffragettes Daisy Solomon and Elspeth McClellan even posted themselves to Prime Minister Asquith, with demands for the vote written across them like human letters.

Fe:MAIL, Suffragettes and the Post includes a fascinating selection of postcards, stamps and audio accounts from those who took part in some of the most daring postal dramas as well as the world’s first suffrage stamp, the prison diary of a suffragette charged with smashing post office windows, newspaper cuttings and the world’s earliest known suffrage postcard.

Fe:MAIL, Suffragettes and the Post is at The Women’s Library, London Metropolitan University, Old Castle Street, London E1 7NT until October. For further details please see the Women’s Library website.

Fe:MAIL Event: Suffrage Postal Campaigns
Tuesday 11 May, 7pm (60 minutes)
£8/£6 concessions

Norman Watson, postal historian and co-curator of Fe:MAIL, Suffragettes and the Post, explores one of the most extraordinary episodes in the history of the post: how the suffrage movement exploited the mail service. Using postcards, letters and photographs he examines the insightful and sometimes curious ways in which Edwardian campaigners embraced this new mass communication system.

For further information on this event please see the Women’s Library website.

International Women’s Day

Today is International Women’s Day (IWD), a global day celebrating the economic, political and social achievements of women past, present and future. The theme for IWD 2010 is “Equal rights, equal opportunities, progress for all”, so in celebration here’s a look at how female equality campaigners have been represented on British stamps. 

50th anniversary of Votes for Women stamp (1968)

50th anniversary of Votes for Women stamp (1968)

Fittingly, the first woman commemorated on a British stamp was suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, as part of a 1968 commemorative celebrating the 50th anniversary of Votes for Women.

Within our Archive we hold all artwork submitted for the 1968 Votes for Women stamp. The issued stamp was designed by Clive Abbot, and is based on a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst which was erected in Victoria Tower Gardens, near the Palace of Westminster. However, the instructions to the artists invited to submit designs for this stamp (Abbott, M.C. Farrar-Bell, David Gentleman and Jeffrey Matthews of Harrison & Sons) had something very different in mind.

It was suggested that the stamp have “a shadowy background of the House of Commons with a pictorial representation of two women, one in 1918 dress, the other in 1968 dress, dropping their votes in a ballot box”. Two designs along these lines were submitted by M.C. Farrar-Bell, but were rejected.

Unadopted design for Votes for Women stamp by M.C. Farrar-Bell

Unadopted design for Votes for Women stamp by M.C. Farrar-Bell

Jeffrey Matthews submitted a design which differed slightly from the instructions, incorporating the House of Commons and a ballot box, but also a laurel wreath, a symbol of the Women’s Social & Political Union and of victory, and a scroll motif suggestive of the banners, flags, and sashes of the suffragettes.

Clive Abbott and David Gentleman both submitted designs based on this famous photograph showing Emmeline Pankhurst’s arrest at a protest. Gentleman also submitted another design, based on a photograph such as this (there are many similar photographs showing suffragettes with sandwich boards), but this was also rejected. (We’ll be making more of the artwork from this issue available in the future as part of the Stamp Artwork Project.)

Unadopted design for Votes for Women stamp by David Gentleman

Unadopted design for Votes for Women stamp by David Gentleman

Emmeline Pankhurst and the theme of women’s rights have been celebrated several times more on British stamps, in 1999, as part of The Citizen’s Tale issue, in 2006, when a portrait of Emmeline Pankhurst was used as part of the National Portrait Gallery issue, and, as long time readers of this blog will remember, in 2008 when Millicent Garrett Fawcett, suffragist and wife of former Postmaster General Henry Fawcett, appeared on the Women of Distinction issue.

A trio of women's suffrage stamps

A trio of women's suffrage stamps: Votes for Women stamp (1999), Emmeline Pankhurst portrait (2006) and Millicent Garrett Fawcett stamp (2008)

The Women of Distinction issue also featured Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the first woman to become a Doctor in Britain and the first female Mayor in England, family planning pioneer Marie Stopes, Member of Parliament and women’s rights campaigner Eleanor Rathbone, black political activist Claudia Jones, who organised the first Notting Hill Carnival, and Barbara Castle who piloted the equal pay act.

Women of Distinction presentation pack (2008)

Women of Distinction presentation pack (2008)

Elizabeth Fry stamp from the Social Reformers issue (1976)

Elizabeth Fry stamp from the Social Reformers issue (1976)

Hannah More stamp from Aboltion of the Slave Trade issue (2007)

Hannah More stamp from Aboltion of the Slave Trade issue (2007)

Other female equality campaigners who have been represented on stamps include the champion of women prisoners Elizabeth Fry, whose work was commemorated as part of the Social Reformers issue of 1976 (designed by David Gentleman), and poet and campaigner Hannah More, who appeared on a stamp released in 2007 as part of the Abolition of the Slave Trade issue. More’s anti-slavery poems are considered to some of the most important written during the abolitionist period, and part of one of them, The Sorrows of Yamba, can be seen in the background of the Hannah More commemorative stamp.

The most recent female equality campaigners to appear on British stamps were pioneering feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and Judy Fryd, founder of Mencap and campaigner for mentally handicapped children, who both appeared in last year’s Eminent Britons issue.

From the Eminent Britons stamp issue (2009): Mary Wollstonecraft and Judy Fryd

From the Eminent Britons stamp issue (2009): Mary Wollstonecraft and Judy Fryd