Published: 09:10, 16 July 2015
Accused of trying to bomb a church and abused in the street by a crowd of hundreds – more than 100 years ago a group of courageous women in Gravesend rallied, campaigned and refused to give up.
Today, the idea of being denied the right to vote or get equal pay seems ridiculous, but for women in the early 20th century it was an unjust reality they were forced to endure.
However, there were groups of revolutionaries who refused to sit back and be graded as second class citizens and even put their lives on the line for the cause.
The tragic footage of Emily Davison throwing herself in front the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913, is a scene many associate with the term “suffragette”.
But all across the country women were trying to make a difference and Kent had its own groups of suffrage campaigners with particularly large groups in Tunbridge Wells and Sevenoaks.
Gravesend’s involvement had been relatively unknown, but thanks to research by the Messenger and local historian James Elford, detailed references to their presence can be revealed.
Due to the campaigning of key figures such as Emmeline Pankhurst, suffragettes gained a reputation for aggressive tactics, causing them to become targets for blame.
In Gravesend, they were even accused of an act of terrorism, after a package believed to be a bomb was planted at St Peter and St Paul’s Church, in East Milton Road.
The attack was discussed in a short report in the Gravesend and Dartford Reporter on June 17, 1913, entitled A Suffragette Scare.
It said: “The placid quietude of Milton was rudely disturbed last Saturday by an alarming incident such as is finding its counterpart throughout the country during this time of suffragette activity, being no less than finding a supposed bomb in Milton Parish Church.”
The alarm was sounded by the church caretaker, a Mr Creed, when he thought he heard a “ticking noise” coming from within a mysterious package.
A report in the Gravesend and Northfleet Standard newspaper headlined “SUPPOSED BOMB” was even more accusatory.
In an excerpt condemning suffragettes and praising the quick actions of police, it said: “Since the small section of the community known as the suffragettes have found no place too sacred and no person to innocent in seeking to destroy property and life, an examination was made with the discretion that is the better part of valour by Detective Sergt. Holt and Sergt. Bare.”
The so-called explosive device turned out to be a dud and was made up of a large tin canister with the “works of a small clock” and “dirt, stones and rags” inside. It was disposed of by a police officer with a shotgun in a nearby field.
Prior to 1913 the suffrage movement in the area appeared to have been going for some years and had a dedicated following.
In an article, headlined Crowd Stops Suffrage Meeting, in the Gravesend and Dartford Reporter on October 8, 1910, it is described how women campaigning for suffrage group the Women’s Freedom League, were attacked and abused at a gathering outside Gravesend’s clock tower.
It said: “It is doubtful whether any political event ever attracted such a crowd as blocked the roads about the Jubilee Clock. But it was a hostile crowd incensed by the recent acts of violence on the part of the militants.”
The meeting had been called to sell a “women’s suffrage publication”, but the crowd became so “threatening” that when a woman tried to do so she had to be rushed by police to a nearby house in The Grove for her own safety.
The report estimated that around 1,000 people thronged around the clock tower, and the campaigning women soon became targets.
It said: “Orange peel and other missiles were thrown in abundance, and now and again the discharge of fireworks among the crowd added to the general excitement.”
However, not all the town’s population were happy to see the campaigners punished so cruelly.
A letter in the same edition of the paper said: “We have our own opinions on the merits of the case which these ladies urge, but their sex alone entitles them to courtesy and we certainly think they should be allowed fair play.”
Another letter in the Standard also lent support to the suffragettes: “As one who attended at the Clock Tower on Monday evening to hear the Suffragette speakers, I feel that my congratulations must go out to the gallant little band of Suffragettes who was responsible for such a tremendous gathering. This is achievement they might well be proud of.”
The correspondence, by an “E. Coles”, criticised the conduct of the unruly members of the audience. It said: “In the main, the people of this antediluvian borough, like the sanitation of the town, has not advanced beyond the primeval age.”
The main suffrage group in Gravesend was the Women’s Freedom League and there was a report of a meeting held by the town’s branch, in the Gravesend and Dartford Reporter from June 4, 1910, headlined MILITANT SUFFRAGIST AT GRAVESEND.
The piece said the gathering was of a “fairly sized attendance”, at the Medical Hall Rooms in Edwin Street, and that a Mrs Cunningham “gave a vigorous and somewhat amusing speech on ‘Women’s Suffrage’”.
It read: “Speaking of the tactics of the militant suffragettes she said that revolution against tyrants was obedience to God.
“Over 400 women had been sent to prison, and treated with terrible brutality, because of their loyalty to the cause. There never had been any reform or grievance redressed without revolt and in this cause it was one of the essential points in order to gain their ends.”
Contrary to popular belief, the women’s suffrage movement was not as simple as one unified group.
In fact the term “suffragette” was actually coined by the Daily Mail in 1906. It was used to describe younger women campaigning for the suffrage movement who favoured militant tactics.
During the struggle for equality, the three main suffrage groups consisted of the Women’s Political and Social Union (WPSU), headed by Emmeline Pankhurst and her two daughters Sylvia and Christabel; the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS); and the Women’s Freedom League (WFL).
The WPSU were known for their aggressive tactics and were often blamed for attacking buildings and calling for followers to fight back using violence.
The NUWSS were considered “constitutional” and stayed away from violence.
The WFL were somewhere in between the two groups in regards to their approach.
The plight of suffrage campaigners will be covered in the film Suffragette, directed by Sarah Gavron, which will be released this October.
It will star Carey Mulligan as a young housewife who defies her husband and joins the movement.
Women over 30 were finally granted the right to vote in 1918, thanks to the Representation of the People Act, and women over 21 were allowed to vote from 1928 thanks to Equal Franchise Act 1928.
However, back in 1910 the war was very much waging for the women’s suffrage movement, a point made clear in the report, when it said: “She [Mrs Cunningham] did not know if anyone in that room was in favour of militant tactics, but she could assure them that they had to make it so unpleasant for the government that they would give them the vote.
“When the women were honoured and treated as partners of the men then the nation was going to prosper.”
Chairing the meeting was a Miss Jessie Boorman, a figure also involved in the meeting at the clock tower, who at the close of proceedings made a rallying cry to the potential supporters.
The report said: “Miss Boorman, at the conclusion, asked if any present would like to become members of the League. There were two conditions: they must agree with militant action and agree with no Parliamentary member.”
It could be argued that the campaigners did fuel change for women in Gravesend.
What is now Mayfield Grammar School, in Pelham Road, split away from its original existence as a mixed school and in 1914 was founded as a grammar school for girls.
While a definite link may not exist between Mayfield and the campaigning of the suffrage supporters, the school adopted the colours of the Women’s Political Social Union’s lilac and green for its uniform, suggesting some sort of homage to the cause.
One thing is for certain, while the bravery, determination and vision of Gravesend’s “suffragettes” has been widely forgotten, their legacy, and that of all suffrage campaigners across the country, cannot be ignored.