A night in Parliament: Militant Suffragettes and Parliament

We are delighted to post this guest blog in our Women and Parliament series from one of the public historians who has been at the forefront of activities to commemorate the centenary of the first women winning the right to vote in this country. Vicky Iglikowski-Broad, Diverse Histories Records Specialist at The National Archives (TNA) gives us an account, based on the collections at TNA, of how women from the militant suffragette movement engaged with Parliament during the campaign ‘votes for women’ in the early twentieth century…

IMAGE 2 - ZPER34-133 (4)
Muriel Matters chained to the Ladies’ Gallery Grille, 28th October 1908 (publication date 7 November 1908), Illustrated London News. The National Archives, ZPER 34/133.

Parliament – as the heart of government – was a constant focus of the militant and constitutional suffrage campaigns.

The movement to enfranchise women had been a lengthy struggle, with organised campaigns truly starting in the 1860s. While bills were regularly proposed in Parliament, it was seemingly not a government priority and they were repeatedly talked out of the chamber. From these frustrations the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), led by Emmeline Pankhurst, was born in 1903. This new society took the stance that peaceful methods alone would not achieve votes for women.

The battle for the franchise was fought from inside Parliament not only by politicians but by rebellious or sneaky Suffragettes. Their methods of campaigning were hugely varied; from the highly organised to the spontaneous, from large scale to small scale.

One of the most notorious moments was in relation to the Women’s Gallery Grille in the House of Commons. Another society, the Women’s Freedom League, was behind this visually striking moment – as an organisation they used varied forms of civil disobedience to argue for the vote. You can read more about this incident on the Vote 100 website in the words on Robin Fell, the former Principal Doorkeeper.

But other smaller acts of subversion were a common feature too, and just as brave within a building that in many ways itself stood as a symbol of male power in this era.

Emily Wilding Davison

One of the most prolific Suffragettes to interact with Parliament was Emily Wilding Davison.

Emily famously snuck into parliament on census night – eventually being recorded by the enumerator in the crypt off Westminster Hall. While other suffragettes evaded the 1911 census on the grounds that if they were not treated as citizens with a voice, they would refuse to be counted on the census, Emily instead was intentionally counted, but from inside the Houses of Parliament. Thus instigating her own unique, defiant protest at the denial of votes for women. She is listed as head of the household.

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Enter Census entry for Emily Davidson, The Houses of Parliament, 1911. The National Archives, RG 14/489.a caption

But this was just one such occasion; by census night 1911 the parliamentary door keeper was getting quite familiar with her.

A year before her census night protest she was found in Parliament by a rather surprised night watchman.

Records describe how Emily entered Parliament while it was open to visitors on Saturday 2 April 1910. Arriving via the Victoria Tower, she then managed to sneak into a ventilation shaft said to be by the Lower Waiting Hall. Despite the fact the ventilation shaft was noted to be checked hourly by a police constable she was not found. It was speculated she must have been hiding out of sight; “no doubt on a small platform at the top of the ladder, about 20 feet above the door way and out of sight” – she was to stay there for over 24 hours.

Written in pencil on the window frame of the ventilation shaft we can see an illustration of Emily’s dedication to the cause. In pencil the following words were found:

“E. W. D. April 3rd 1910 Patience 36 hours here, will they ever go. I am so thirsty nearly 26 hours have gone and I have found water thank God.”

“E. W. Davison April 1910. Rebellion against Tyrants is Obedience to God.”

Indeed it was her thirst which would give her away. On her way back from a water fountain she was caught by the night watchman as she snuck back into the shaft. When she was discovered her face and hands were black and her clothing very dirty. Emily, described as a ‘well known suffragette’, was taken straight to Canon Row, Westminster, one of the era’s most well-known central London police stations.

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In the early hours of 22 April 1910, Vera Wentworth stuck eight notices on the walls of the Palace of Westminster advertising the suffrage newspaper ‘Votes for Women’. The National Archives, WORK 11/117.

In her comments to police she describes her intentions behind hiding in the Palace of Westminster. On being asked what she was doing there Emily replied “I am a Suffragette, and my ambition is to get into the house to ask a question” She was patiently waiting for the house to sit again on the Monday morning. On being asked for her address and profession she said “4 Clements Inn Strand. Teacher.” Citing the headquarters of the WSPU as her home address, and her old profession as a teacher, but she had just been appointed as a paid organiser of the WSPU.

Emily was released from Cannon Row station by 9.30pm the same day, and not prosecuted on this occasion. A decision they may have come to regret after her repeat visits.

April 1910 saw further suffrage activism in Parliament. In the early hours of 22 April 1910, Suffragette Vera Wentworth stuck eight notices on the walls of the Palace of Westminster advertising the suffrage newspaper ‘Votes for Women’. Their campaigns were clearly novel, varied and creative. To subversively advertise a suffrage newspaper in the heart of the UK government was in itself a powerful gesture.

Not long after this incident Emily again found herself confronted by police at the Palace of Westminster.

In protest to the treatment of women at the 18 November 1910 Black Friday protests, where women faced particularly vicious clashes with the police, Emily returned the next day and broke a pane of glass at the entrance of the House of Commons. The suffragettes sought to expose that the government cared more about broken windows than a woman’s life. Emily was among a number of women to engage in such an action on or in the wake of Black Friday, including Elizabeth Annie Bell 37, who broke 8 panes of glass at Black Rods residence and Sarah Carwin 45, who broke 1 pane of glass.

All of the occasions mentioned in this blog are featured in an Office of Works file WORK 11/117, which covers ‘Damage etc. by Suffragettes’ in the Houses of Parliament between 1910 and 1911. The subfolder relating to these window smashing in parliament notes in regard to Emily; “We cannot allow Crown property to be damaged: and this woman should be prosecuted”. This was not the end of Emily’s encounters in Parliament.

IMAGE 7 - ZPER34-142 The King's horse Anmer is brought down by suffragette Emily Davison during the Derby at Epsom 4 June 1913
Photograph from the Illustrated London News after derby day 4 June 1913. Emily boldly ducked under the guard rail at Tattenham Corner and ran in front of the Kings horse Anmer. The National Archives, ZPER 34/142.

Emily is most well known for her defiant act in front of the crowds on Derby day 1913, when she was hit by the Kings horse. Historical debates continue as to whether she intended to kill herself. On impact Emily and the jockey were knocked unconscious immediately. She died on 8 June, several days later, from a fracture at the base of her skull.

This was far from an isolated moment of action, and she was far from the only individual who risked so much for her beliefs.

All over Parliament remain the traces of brave suffrage activism that helped pave the way to votes for women. Hopefully this blog post has highlighted a small snapshot of these actions, as told through the records that survive in a government archive.


Vicky has a background in women’s and gender history, and in her position at TNA she researches and promotes traditionally margionalised histories. Her recent work has focused on the 2018 Suffrage centenary.

Find out more on The National Archives records and suffrage season on their Suffrage 100 portal.

The National Archives Keeper’s Gallery is hosting a suffrage exhibition for 2018, Suffragettes vs. the State explores the militant side of the 20th century women’s suffrage movement. This exhibition will run until Friday 26 October and entry is free.


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