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

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