Skip to main content

Refusing to be counted

Yesterday (2 April 2011) was the anniversary of the women’s boycott of the 1911 Census and I marked the event by joining historians Jill Liddington and Tara Morton on their “Artists and Evaders” walk around Kensington. As a suffrage demonstration, the refusal of many militant and non-militant suffrage campaigners to fill in their Census forms was far from being the most spectacular or successful of the protests made by disenfranchised women. According to the Registrar in a letter to The Times on 1 April 1911, if the suffragists hoped that the Census would be seriously affected they would be proved wrong. Even if 100,000 women were “bold enough to defy the law”, he said, in an overall population which “will no doubt be found to exceed 40 millions” (in fact he overestimated by half a million) their absence would make little difference. In the event, many evasion attempts simply did not work: women were counted anyway.

Even so, Christabel Pankhurst hailed the demonstration as a success, and in one way at least it was: it gained publicity for the cause. “Until women count as people for the purpose of representation…as well as for purposes of taxation, we shall refuse to be numbered”, said Mrs Pankhurst. It was this message that the Census protest managed to convey to the public in newspaper articles, speeches, posters and gatherings such as that held in Trafalgar Square on Census night. As Jill Liddington and Tara Morton explained during our walk though Kensington’s magnolia-scented streets, the Census evasion had its origins in Kensington, since it was the brain child of artist and women’s suffrage supporter Laurence Housman who lived with his sister Clemence at 1 Pembroke Gardens, Edwardes Square.

Laurence Housman was a founder member of the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage and with his sister Clemence Housman a co-founder in 1909 of the Suffrage Atelier. This was a group of artists whose aim was to use their work to support the campaign for the women’s vote. The Atelier was based in the studio at the bottom of the Housman’s garden, where they produced banners, postcards, cartoons, and posters. Kensington was home to a number of artists and suffragists, many of whom produced art for the cause either independently or within the Atelier. They included jeweller Ernestine Mills who designed badges for the Women’s Social and Political Union; artist Olive Hockin whose studio equipment included hammers, paraffin, stones, and wire cutters for use in militant attacks; and Louise Joplin Rowe who let the Atelier use her studio at 7 Pembroke Gardens for exhibitions. Writer May Sinclair was Olive Hockin’s neighbour in Edwardes Square Studios, and novelist Evelyn Sharp, who was the Kensington WSPU Branch Secretary, lived in a flat in Duke’s Lane.

We had a lovely day: the weather was kind and never have the streets and squares of London looked so lovely. We stood on the corner of Phillimore Gardens and Kensington High Street with the Kensington contingent of the great suffragette procession on 21 June 1908. We wore white dresses and sashes in the colours and in front of us fluttered the banner designed by Laurence Housman and embroidered under Clemence’s direction: From Prison to Citizenship. In Pembroke Gardens we listened to the “ker chunk ker chunk” of the Atelier’s printing press as it churned out caricatures of the Liberal politicians responsible for the imprisonment and torture of unenfranchised women. Rather than stay at home and be counted on the night of 2 April, we knocked at the door of Number 1 and spent the night with other evaders while Laurence gallantly slept in the studio (though we were disappointed that only three other women joined us). And we sat on the floor of the studio labouring from dawn to dusk with Clemence, embroidering those beautiful banners behind which so many women marched in order to win for us our right to vote.

Read Sonia Lambert’s article about the Census boycott in The Guardian, 1 April 2011 -

Visit the 1911 Census site -

See some of the beautiful suffrage banners and designs from the Women’s Library collection on line at VADS: the online resource for the visual arts -

See Laurence Housman’s From Prison to Citizenship banner -


Popular posts from this blog

Spotlight On...Begbrook House, Frenchay, Bristol

On 11 November 1913, the head gardener at Begbrook House in Frenchay near Bristol discovered that the   building was on fire. The house stood in its own wooded grounds, and was said to have twenty rooms and a fine old staircase. Within a few hours the house was gutted. The fire caused £3,000 worth of damage. A copy of the WSPU newspaper, The Suffragette , was left at the site with the message, “Birrell is coming. Rachel Pease is still being tortured”.  Begbrook House Picture: Frenchay Village Museum Augustine Birrell was the Liberal MP for Bristol North, and a cabinet minister. He was frequently targetted by militants in Bristol. Suffragettes interrupted his meetings and two women once accosted him at Temple Meads Railway Station with their demand for the vote.    Begbrook House belonged to Hugh Thomas Coles, a wealthy banker. Hugh Coles was the son of   William Gale Cole of Clifton, who was also a banker, and was born in Clifton in 1856. Lik

Dickens and Chickens

On 17 April 1860, in fields near Farnborough, Charles Dickens joined an audience amongst whom were the Prince of Wales and the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, as well as a number of MPs and clergymen, to watch the American John Carmel Heenan and England’s Tom Sayers (the Brighton Titch) beat one another blind and bloody in a bare-knuckle fight that lasted nearly two and a half hours. The fight ended in a draw when Aldershot police stormed the ring, forcing the fighters and their illustrious spectators to flee the scene. It was the brutality of this match that signalled an end to the bare-knuckle era and prompted the development of the Marquess of Queensberry’s rules. Dickens’s interest in pugilism was of long standing. In 1848 Dombey and Son , which had been published in serial form over the preceding two years, came out in book form. One of many of his novels that draws on the world of the prize fighter, it introduces the unforgettable Mr Toots, a would-be man about town, an

The Bristol Boys: The Bare Knuckle Champions and The Hatchet Inn

The Hatchet Inn on Frogmore Street in Bristol is all that remains of a row of seventeenth-century timbered houses dating back to 1606 – making it one of the city’s oldest pubs. It was substantially altered in the 1960s, and these days it stands on a traffic island. But at one time it boasted extensive grounds – and amongst the facilities on offer was a bare-knuckle boxing ring. Plaque at The Hatchet Inn, Bristol The pub’s connection with Bristol’s boxing heroes is commemorated in a plaque illustrating five of Bristol’s champions – one of whom, Hen Pearce, features in Bloodie Bones: A Dan Foster Mystery. Hen Pearce (Detail) Bristol born Hen Pearce, The Game Chicken (1777 – 1809), a former butcher’s boy, became champion of England in 1805. He was a hero inside and outside the ring. In 1807 he climbed onto the roof of a building in Thomas Street, Bristol to rescue a servant girl from a fire. Always a popular figure, this courageous act inspired many eulogies in pr