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“Cheap and easy railway traffic”: Suffragettes and the Railways, Part 2: The Battle to Free Mrs Pankhurst

In Part 1 of these three articles about how the rail network influenced the suffrage campaign, I looked at how trains were instrumental in facilitating suffrage campaigns, including militant activism, as well as enabling suffrage organisations to set up and run their national networks. I also explored the way that trains became arenas for sometimes violent encounters between suffragettes and politicians. You can read Part 1: "Cheap and easy railway traffic": Suffragettes and the Railways here. 

In Part 2, I tell a tale of suffragette derring-do with the story of the struggles to free Mrs Pankhurst on the train between Glasgow and London in 1914.   

By 1914, Mrs Pankhurst was protected by a suffragette bodyguard armed with clubs who tried to prevent the police arresting her whenever she appeared in public. On 9 March 1914 she was due to speak at St Andrew’s Hall in Glasgow. Heavily cloaked, she got into the hall with the audience, appearing dramatically at the back to walk up to the platform amidst resounding cheers. “I have kept my promise, and in spite of His Majesty’s Government I am here tonight”, she declared to tumultuous applause (My Own Story: The Autobiography of Emmeline Pankhurst, London: Virago, 1979, p 340).

Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst

Her bodyguard took elaborate precautions to keep her enemies at bay. When the police, led by detectives from Scotland Yard, burst into the hall and stormed the platform they discovered that the display of plants at the front of the platform hid barbed wire. As they struggled through this, the bodyguard drenched them with buckets of water and bombarded them with plant pots, chairs and tables.

One suffragette produced a revolver and fired blanks at them. Others armed with clubs, planks and poles fought with the truncheon-wielding police, and there were injuries on both sides. Some of the women tried to smuggle Mrs Pankhurst out from the side of the platform, but, amid violent scenes, the police succeeded in arresting her. She was dragged outside, flung onto the floor of a cab and taken to Glasgow police station, where she went on a hunger and thirst strike. During the evening some women attempted to storm the station, but were repulsed by the police.

On the morning of 11 March numbers of her supporters gathered at the police station. Others collected at the Central Railway Station, where they expected Mrs Pankhurst to be put on the train to London. The police, anticipating a rescue attempt, blocked the cars the women had parked outside the police station with lorries. While this was going on, Mrs Pankhurst, who refused to walk out of the prison, was carried out on a stretcher to a waiting car, and driven to Coatbridge, eight miles outside Glasgow. There the train made an unscheduled stop and she was carried on board. 

Some of her supporters were on the same train, travelling at the front, where they were probably confined deliberately, while Mrs Pankhurst was in the rear carriage. Bristol suffragette Lillian Dove Willcox, who had been at St Andrew’s Hall, was one of another group of suffragettes who boarded the train at Carlisle. She managed to speak to Mrs Pankhurst for a few minutes.

Other suffragettes waited at Euston to welcome their leader, and the police encouraged them in the expectation that she would arrive there by making preparations for her reception. However, the train made another unscheduled halt at Loudon Road Station (now called South Hampstead station). Mrs Pankhurst’s carriage stopped by the platform, but the front carriage the suffragettes were in was halted in a tunnel. Seeing Mrs Pankhurst being carried out of the train, some of them tried to climb out of the window but the train started before they could manage it. If they had succeeded, they would have faced a force of over a hundred police. 

From Loudon Road Mrs Pankhurst was driven to Holloway. Here around fifty women were waiting. They surrounded the car, but the police were able to push their way through and drive their prisoner through the gates. The suffragettes had to admit that they had been outwitted.

Trains and railway stations were also targets of suffragette militancy, and I’ll be looking at that in the third part of this blog. Arson on the Railways will be published on Friday 17 April 2010.  

Picture Credits: Emmeline Pankhurst, 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.  

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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