The suffrage movement is a common theme when talking about achievements of women in the past, and we certainly hold a wealth of information here, from the force feeding of women on hunger strike, to 1911 census forms when women refused to provide their details to a government they had no say in electing. Although there are so many achievements of women to choose from, this wealth means there is always something more to talk about!
This file, MEPO 3/203, came to my attention while carrying out some research with colleagues on the last Maharajah of the Punjab, Duleep Singh and his family in preparation for last year’s Diversity Week.
However, it wasn’t a member of the Duleep Singh family that caught my eye during our research.
We looked at a file relating to the Maharajah’s daughter, Princess Sophia Duleep Singh and her involvement with the Suffragettes. This particular file contains police reports on ‘Black Friday’, 18 November 1910, when Suffragettes clashed violently with police in response to the apparent stalling of the Bill in Parliament which would have granted suffrage to women of the upper classes. One particular statement, given by disabled protestor Miss May Billinghust, describes the brutality and humiliation the protestors reported:
“At first, the police threw me out of the machine [a hand tricycle] on to the ground in a very brutal manner. Secondly, when on the machine again, they tried to push me along with my arms twisted behind me in a very painful position, with one of my fingers bent right back, which caused me great agony. Thirdly, they took me down a side road and left me in the middle of a hooligan crowd, first taking all the valves out of the wheels and pocketing them, so that I could not move the machine, and left me to the crowd of roughs, who, luckily, proved my friends.”
The incident became an embarrassment for the police as the press and public took the side of the Suffragettes following many similar witness reports.
This struck me as such a good example of what working with the archives here at The National Archives can show us. In so many files we discover more about the events we may be interested in, but also what can often shine through is the personal voice clamouring to be heard. For an archive which is by its very nature dominated by the official voice, here is the stronger voice of May Billinghurst’s courage; a disabled woman fighting for something she believes in.