Tag Archives: Herbert Asquith

Suffragette “human letters”

This week there have been a number of commemorations and memorial events marking the 100th anniversary of the death of Emily Wilding Davison, the suffrage campaigner who famously ran on to the course at the Epsom Downs Derby and was knocked down by the King’s horse. While Davison’s was one of the most extreme acts of protest in the campaign for votes for women, other lesser-known stunts are just as noteworthy.

On 23rd February 1909 two suffragettes, Miss Solomon and Miss McLellan, posted themselves to 10 Downing Street in an attempt to deliver a message personally to Prime Minister Herbert Asquith. At this time Post Office regulations allowed individuals to be “posted” by express messenger, so the two women went to the East Strand Post Office and were placed in the hands of A.S. Palmer, a telegraph messenger boy, who “delivered” them to Downing Street. There, an official refused to sign for the “human letters” and eventually Miss Solomon and Miss McLellan were returned to the offices of the Women’s Social and Political Union.

A.S. Palmer delivers Miss Solomon and Miss McLellan to 10 Downing Street, 23rd February 1909.

A.S. Palmer delivers Miss Solomon and Miss McLellan to 10 Downing Street, 23rd February 1909.

The Royal Mail Archive holds a file on this event (POST 30/1655a), which includes a Post Office Express Service form showing that the suffragettes were charged 3d and that the recipient did not sign for the “letters” delivered by A.S. Palmer.

Post Office Express Service form for the delivery of the suffragettes, 23rd February 1909. (POST 30/1655a)

Post Office Express Service form for the delivery of the suffragettes, 23rd February 1909. (POST 30/1655a)

As per Post Office regulations, Palmer had to write a report explaining why he had not obtained a signature for the delivery of the “letters”. This is also within the file; it reads:

23 February 1909

The Postmaster,

Sir, I beg to state in reply to the above report that I took the Ladies to Mr Asquith’s house but the police would not let them go in. I went in but the butler would not sign the form because he did not have the letters to sign for, because the ladies themselves said they were the letters. And Mr Asquith refused to see them.

I am

Sir

Your Obedient Servant

A.S. Palmer

[Messenger number] 25

A.S Palmer's report explaining why he did not obtain a signature for the delivery of the suffragettes, 23rd February 1909. (POST 30/1655a)

A.S Palmer’s report explaining why he did not obtain a signature for the delivery of the suffragettes, 23rd February 1909. (POST 30/1655a)

This fascinating and little-known story of women’s suffrage was the subject of a podcast featuring Dr Katherine Rake. Listen and download BPMA Podcast #3 – Human Letters for free from BPMA Podcast, iTunes or Soundcloud.

See large scans of the documents mentioned in this blog in our Flickr set Human Letters.

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.

Human Letters: The Post Office and women’s suffrage

Earlier this year Dr Katherine Rake, Director of the Fawcett Society spoke at the BPMA about women’s suffrage and other equality campaigns. This talk is now available through our podcast. But if the connection between the women’s suffrage movement and the British postal service doesn’t seem immediately obvious, all will be explained. 

“Human letters” – Telegraph messenger boy A.S. Palmer delivers Miss Solomon and Miss McLellan to 10 Downing Street.

“Human letters” – Telegraph messenger boy A.S. Palmer delivers Miss Solomon and Miss McLellan to 10 Downing Street.

On 23rd February 1909 two suffragettes, Miss Solomon and Miss McLellan, posted themselves to 10 Downing Street, in an attempt to deliver a message personally to Prime Minister Herbert Asquith. At this time Post Office regulations allowed individuals to be “posted” by express messenger, so the two women went to the West Strand Post Office and were placed in the hands of A.S. Palmer, a telegraph messenger boy, who “delivered” them to Downing Street. There, an official refused to sign for the “human letters” and eventually Miss Solomon and Miss McLellan were returned to the offices of the Women’s Social and Political Union.

Another connection to both the Post Office and women’s suffrage was Millicent Garrett Fawcett, the wife of the political economist, suffrage campaigner, Liberal MP and Postmaster General (1880-1884) Henry Fawcett. At the time of the human letters incident Millicent was the leader of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). She and her organisation were more moderate campaigners than the Women’s Social and Political Union, but eventually they achieved their goal.

Millicent Garrett Fawcett who was honoured with a stamp in last year’s Women of Achievement series.

Millicent Garrett Fawcett who was honoured with a stamp in last year’s Women of Distinction series.

Millicent Garrett Fawcett is regarded as having been instrumental in the campaign for votes for women, in particular the Representation of the People Act 1918, which allowed women over 30 the right to vote if they were married to a member of the Local Government Register, as well as women to enter parliament on an equal basis with men.

Garrett Fawcett’s work and that of the NUWSS lives on in the Fawcett Society, which campaigns for equality between women and men in the UK on pay, pensions, poverty, justice and politics. In her talk, Dr Katherine Rake outlines the Society’s work, giving both a sobering and optimistic appraisal of what has been achieved.

To find out more about this and our other podcasts visit www.postalheritage.org.uk/podcast.

The education pack Messages Through Time (suitable for Key Stage 3 history students) contains colour facsimile archive documents related to the human letters and can be downloaded from our website.