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“Cheap and easy railway traffic”: Suffragettes and the Railways, Part 1

In February 1912 the Bristol Liberal MP Charles E H Hobhouse addressed a meeting of the National League for Opposing Woman Suffrage in the city’s Colston Hall. During his speech he remarked, “In the present days of cheap and easy railway traffic they [the suffragettes] could always arrange numerous deputations or demonstrations and they could be as noisy as their funds permitted – (laughter)…” (Western Daily Press, 17 February 1912).

Hobhouse was anti-women’s suffrage and remained so even after the passage of the 1918 Representation of the People Act gave the vote to some British women. Although he had no understanding of or sympathy with the suffrage movement, his statement does show that he understood one thing: the importance of the rail network to the suffrage movement. In this three-part article, I’ll be exploring the connections between the railway system and the suffrage campaign, particularly the militant campaign.

Both militant and non-militant women’s franchise campaigners relied on train transport. Trains, as Hobhouse noted, took protesters to demonstrations and deputations. On 13 June 1908, for example, special trains to London were put on all over the country to allow women to travel to join a march from the Embankment to the Albert Hall organised by the non-militant National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). A week later, thirty extra trains were provided to carry suffragettes of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) to a demonstration in Hyde Park that attracted over 250,000 people.

Supporters travelled by train to take part in demonstrations. This one at London's Albert Hall was organised by the non-militant NUWSS.

During by elections, both militant and non-militant suffrage workers descended on contested constituencies to campaign for women’s suffrage. Militant protestors also travelled to and from London to join the great WSPU deputations to the House of Commons whenever a suffrage bill was debated – and invariably defeated. The militants used the rail network to facilitate their more disruptive acts too. When suffragettes interrupted a speech by the Prime Minister, H H Asquith, at Bletchley Park in August 1909, they went by train to Leighton Buzzard and walked to the Park from the station. Probably the most famous rail journey made with militancy in mind was that taken from London Victoria to Epsom by Emily Wilding Davison when she went to the 1913 Derby. Days later she died of her injuries after running out in front of the King’s horse.  

Emily Wilding Davison's return train ticket.

Suffragettes could also use the trains to make their campaign visible. When Lillian Dove Willcox and Mary Allen were released from Holloway and returned to Bristol they were met at Temple Meads Railway station by a procession of women wearing suffragette colours and carrying banners. From here, the two suffragette heroines were driven in decorated carriages through the centre of the town to a welcome reception.

Large national organisations with their headquarters in London relied on being able to move people easily and quickly around the country in order to function. Suffrage campaigners attended meetings large and small: Winifred Coombe Tennant often caught the train from her home in Neath, South Wales to go to London meetings of the national executive of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. Suffrage workers travelled throughout the kingdom setting up and running a network of local branches, and organising demonstrations, events, fund raising, and talks at local level. Campaigners moved around the country as they were needed, supporting local organisers when required. When Winston Churchill visited Bristol in 1909, workers were deployed from London and Exeter to help Bristol and West of England WSPU organiser Annie Kenney arrange a number of protests.

The railway system played a large part in propaganda work too. Not only did it enable the distribution of suffrage publications such as Votes for Women or The Common Cause, it also meant that workers were able to spread their message widely. Popular speakers used trains to facilitate their speaking tours. Trainers from head office travelled to the provinces to instruct local branch members in public speaking and other aspects of suffrage work. The movement’s celebrities were a tremendous boost to the cause. A visit by Mrs Pankhurst, Christabel Pankhurst, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence and other well-known figures brought publicity, new members, and much-needed cash.

Emmeline Pankhurst and Lady Constance Lytton, popular WSPU speakers, at Waterloo in 1910.

Holiday resorts were favourite settings for getting the word out. The WSPU urged its followers to volunteer to “spend their holiday…in holiday centres…paying their own expenses, and giving as much time as possible towards helping with the campaign” (Votes for Women, 23 July 1909).  In North Wales, Rhyl, Llandudno, and Colwyn Bay were amongst the most popular centres. Mrs East, honorary treasurer of Chiswick WSPU, took her holidays there every year, combining suffrage work with a change of scene. Southport in Lancashire was another attractive location. It was, said leading WSPU campaigner Mary Gawthorpe, a good place for “members wishing to take first steps in open-air work” (Votes for Women, 23 July 1909).

Travelling around organising, speaking and protesting was a life that took its toll on the women involved. In 1909 WSPU member Millicent Browne, whose biography I am writing, was sent to campaign in North Wales. She had a terrible journey: she was suffering from appalling period pains, no one met her at the station, she had nowhere to spend the night and all the boarding houses she tried were full. Eventually she managed to obtain a reviving glass of hot water and gin, and one of the landladies let her sleep in an armchair.  

Kate Parry Frye worked for the New Constitutional Society for Women’s Suffrage, which was founded in 1910 and positioned itself between the WSPU and NUWSS by advocating anti-government action but eschewing WSPU-style militancy. The diary she kept throughout those campaigning years is full of references to train travel, and amply illustrates how much campaigners relied on the network. It also shows how the constant travelling, often at short notice, contributed to the exhaustion, discomfort and difficulties the peripatetic campaigner endured. The stress of illness, homesickness, bad food, and comfortless lodgings were compounded by rushing to catch trains, over-crowded carriages, and having to lug bags around or entrust them to left luggage offices.

In 1911, Kate Parry Frye travelled to the Women’s Coronation Procession in London. There were, she wrote, “So many people travelling…at Norwich, where I had to change, it was quite a pandemonium, and so hot. The train was half an hour late” (Campaigning for the Vote: Kate Parry Frye’s Suffrage Diary, ed. Elizabeth Crawford, Francis Boutle Publishers, 2013, p 66). On a later journey, “I lost my luggage. Two porters were very rude…I told an official I had been travelling since the early morning and had come to the conclusion that the Railway companies made it as difficult as possible for people” (Diary, p 71). By 1913 it had all become too much for her. After a journey to Dover she declared, “I simply cannot bear these journeys and arrival in places. And such a pouring wet night and such a filthy station” (Diary, p 137).

While trains were valuable resources enabling the carrying out of militant and non-militant campaigns, the administration of organisations, and the dissemination of the suffrage message, they were also sites of activism for the militants. In 1907 Mary Gawthorpe and Annie Kenney were invited to the Riviera by Emmeline and Frederick Pethick Lawrence for a holiday. They found themselves travelling on the same train to Cannes as the prime minister, Henry Campbell Bannerman, when they went into the dining car for tea. They immediately seized on the opportunity to talk Votes for Women to him and plonked themselves down beside him. “The dear old man”, as Mary Gawthorpe called him, was puzzled put polite, though when they told him who they were he refused to be drawn on the issue. He would only advise, “You should adopt different tactics” (The Guardian, 3 April 1907).

Trains were also good places for deliberately tracking down VIPs. In March 1909 Bristol Liberal MP Augustine Birrell was approached at Bristol Temple Meads Railway Station by suffragettes Elsie Howey and Vera Wentworth. He refused to speak to them. John Redmond, MP, had two bags of flour thrown at him by a suffragette on a train to Newcastle in November 1913.

In 1912 King George visited Bristol to open the King Edward VII Memorial Infirmary, named after his father. The home secretary, Reginald McKenna, accompanied him. McKenna was accosted by Helen Cragg when he got down from the King’s carriage at Llandaff. She jumped over a wall, ran towards him, grabbed his arm, and was immediately arrested. The King and Queen were standing only a few feet away.

Helen Cragg later told the arresting officers that McKenna should not have been “jaunting about the country while women were starving in prison” (Bristol Times and Mirror, 27 June 1912). In Bristol, Miss Billings, who was waiting for the royal carriage, was recognised and prevented from carrying out any protest by being detained in one of the station offices until the end of the King’s visit, when she was put on a train back to London.

The speed with which the police pounced on Helen Craggs and others is understandable given that these encounters often degenerated into violence. When Winston Churchill visited Bristol in 1909 he was attacked at Temple Meads Railway Station by Leeds suffragette Theresa Garnett. She broke through the cordon of detectives surrounding him and lunged at him with a whip crying, “Take that you brute!” In 1910 Churchill was assaulted in a train travelling to London from Bradford by male supporter, Hugh Franklin.

In 1912 Emily Wilding Davison whipped a clergyman at Aberdeen station, having mistaken him for Lloyd George. In 1914 Lord Weardale, a joint president of the National League for Opposing Woman Suffrage, was also assaulted with a whip at Euston station having been mistaken for the prime minister, H H Asquith. He was struck on the back of his head, fell to the ground, and was repeatedly hit. His wife, Lady Weardale, was also struck during the scuffle.

Asquith had several violent encounters with suffragettes, many of which occurred at railway stations or on board trains. In 1910 he was greeted at Burnley station by what his daughter Violet called a “Suffragette mêlée” (Mark Bonham Carter and Mark Pottle, eds, Lantern Slides: The Diaries and Letters of Violent Bonham Carter 1904-1914, Phoenix, 1996, p 223). After a crossing from Boulogne in 1912, Violet reported that her father was “abordéed by a Suffragette…At Charing Cross…a horrible mêlée with Suffragettes ensued – I had the pleasure of giving one an ugly wrist-twist!” (Lantern Slides, p 304). In April 1914 while he was travelling to his East Fife constituency, a woman jumped on the footboard at the front of his carriage and threw a letter protesting about forcible feeding through the window. She was still clinging to the train when it set off, but a railway police officer pulled her off. On the prime minister’s return journey from Cupar, two women jumped off the opposite platform, ran across the lines, and scrambled up to shout “woman torturer!” at him.  

Find out in Part 2 about the battle to free Mrs Pankhurst on the Glasgow to London train following her arrest in 1914. Part 2 will be published on Tuesday 14 April 2020.

Picture Credits: All images Women’s Library on Flickr, No Known Copyright Restrictions

“Women and Transport: Historical Perspectives”

Circumstances permitting, the West of England and South Wales Women’s History Network Annual Conference will be looking at more aspects of women and transport. “Women and Transport: Historical Perspectives” will take place on Saturday 3 October 2020 from 10 am to 5pm at Central Community Centre, Emlyn Square, Swindon SN1 5BL. Deadline for Call for Papers is 24 April 2020. For further information see the WESWWHN website.

Read Elizabeth Crawford's fascinating blog – 'Emily Wilding Davison And That Return Ticket' – at

The Bristol Suffragettes available in paperback from Amazon UK and SilverWood Books. For other buying links and further information see my website








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