A guest post by LH Member Anne Carwardine.
As a woman, if I had wanted to observe proceedings in Parliament two hundred years ago I would have had to crane my neck and peer down through a ventilation shaft. One hundred years ago I would have been in the Ladies Gallery, high above the Speaker’s Chair, with a heavy metal grille blocking much of my view and making it difficult to focus. (Campaigner Millicent Fawcett described this as like looking through a gigantic pair of spectacles which did not fit).
On a recent tour of Parliament, which focussed on connections with the Votes for Women campaign, the group I was in (mostly women) stood on the floor of the House of Commons looking up at the Ladies’ Gallery and wondering what it would have been like to be confined there.
In October 1908 Muriel Matters and Helen Fox of the Women’s Freedom League chained themselves to the grille, while Violet Tillard lowered a banner demanding that women be given the vote in the current session. The grille had to be removed temporarily in order to saw off the protestors’ chains; it would be another nine years before it was removed permanently and another ten before any women were able to vote.
Beyond doorways to each side of the Commons we could glimpse the division lobbies, through which MPs pass when there is a vote. In November 1910 Emily Wilding Davison, one of the more militant protestors and most famous for her death at the Epsom Derby, threw a hammer through a window between the lobby and the main chamber.
We returned through the Central Lobby, where the original grille from the Ladies Gallery has been installed as a reminder of how things once were. Opposite it is a tall bronze statue of Margaret Thatcher (apparently she was disappointed that it was not made of iron). I had the impression that there were differing views in the group as to how much she did for women.
Next was St Stephen’s Hall, with statues of Walpole, Seldon, Somers and Falkland. In April 1909 four members of the militant Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) chained themselves to these statues to advertise a rally at the Albert Hall. You can still see where the spur of the Falkland one was broken off during this incident. No longer visible is the passage from the Bill of Rights which campaigner Marion Wallace-Dunlop (the first hunger striker) printed on the wall, having smuggled in a small printing press.
In one corner of St Stephen’s Hall is a more recent memorial to the suffrage campaigners – a tall stained glass window, designed by Shona McInnes, which was installed in 2002 and incorporates symbols, such as handcuffs, connected to the movement.
Disappointingly we did not have the opportunity to see the cupboard in the Chapel where Emily Wilding Davison hid in on census night, so that her address would be recorded as the Palace of Westminster, with a plaque that Tony Benn had installed to commemorate this protest.
The talks which followed the tour were mainly concerned with art in the Houses of Parliament. Unsurprisingly, given the male bias of most of the institution’s history, representations of men predominate. However, the Speaker’s Advisory Committee on Works of Art has commissioned artist Mary Branson to create a piece to honour the women’s suffrage campaigners. Entitled ‘New Dawn’, it will consist of a sun made up of many glass circles, lightening and darkening in synchronicity with the Thames’ tides, and will be installed at the entrance to St Stephen’s Hall in 2016. Sunrise was an image used frequently by suffrage campaigners and so this seems an appropriate memorial to them.
The recent release of the film ‘Suffragette’ has drawn attention to the Votes for Women campaign, much of which was played out in London. I am currently working on a book about campaigners including Violet Tillard from my home town of Tunbridge Wells.
The Sufragette Season of tours at the Palace of Westminster runs until the end of October. You may get on if you’re quick. Look here.