May Billinghurst

May Billinghurst

Rosa May Billinghurst was born in Lewisham in 1876. Her father, Henry Billinghurst, was a banker. Her mother, Rosa Brinsmead, was the daughter of a wealthy piano manufacturer. A healthy child at birth but when she was five months old, she suffered an illness which left her whole body paralysed, and although she regained the use of her hands and arms she would never walk unaided.

The Billinghurst family paid for a governess to provide her with a good basic education. However, her disability made it impossible for her to go to university. Her sister, Alice Billinghurst, was a superintendent at a local children's home, arranged for her to do voluntary work for the Greenwich and Deptford Union Workhouse. She was shocked by what she saw and later recalled: "My heart ached and I thought surely if women were consulted in the management of the state happier and better conditions must exist for hard-working sweated lives such as these."

May Billinghurst became interested in politics and the subject of women's suffrage. She later recalled: "My heart ached and I thought surely if women were consulted in the management of the state happier and better conditions must exist for hard-working sweated lives such as these... It was gradually unfolded to me that the unequal laws which made women appear interior to men were the main cause of these evils. I found that the man-made laws of marriage, parentage and divorce placed women in every way in a condition of slavery - and were as harmful to men by giving them power to be tyrants."

She attended meetings where she heard Millicent Fawcett, Charlotte Despard and Emmeline Pankhurst give speeches. However, it was Christabel Pankhurst who inspired her to become a suffragette: "I wondered how the public could ever be made to think about it. In the midst of the hopelessness of it all Christabel Pankhurst sounded the war note of militancy and was imprisoned for her boldness, and the subject of votes for women was on every tongue." May joined the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) in October 1907. Over the next few months her family donated a considerable sum of money to the organisation.

Billinghurst also left the Liberal Party in protest to the way they had dealt with the issue of women's suffrage. She wrote to the Manchester Guardian where she argued: "I feel that the present government is not acting in accordance with the first principles of Liberalism, by refusing the right of representation to women taxpayers. I have joined no other party and I still claim to be a Liberal woman but a Liberal woman on strike."

In July 1910 Billinghurst she became the secretary of the Greenwich branch of the WSPU. In November Billinghurst was one of 159 women arrested at a demonstration outside the House of Commons. Afterwards she recalled: "At first the police threw me out of the machine 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. 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."

Another suffragette later testified: "Her crutches were lodged on each side of her self-propelling invalid chair and when a meeting was being broken up or an arrest being made she would charge the aggressors at a rate of knots that carried all before her. When the police retaliated and tried to control this she ran the risk of being ejected on to the ground, where she was quite helpless. Of course she took the risk with her eyes open and when this happened, as it did on occasion, made full and unscrupulous use of her infirmities so as to obtain the maximum publicity for the cause."

Fran Abrams the author of Freedom's Cause: Lives of the Suffragettes (2003) argues that May Billinghurst became an important figure in the WSPU campaign: "May Billinghurst was no fool. She knew full well, and so did the leaders of the WSPU, that her hand-propelled invalid tricycle gave her a special advantage in the propaganda battle they were waging. It made it difficult, if not impossible, for the media to portray May as a howling harridan with little care for the safety of others. At its least effective the sight of her at a demonstration was a picturesque one, commented on lightly along with other aspects of the pageantry of the day. At best, it served to underline in bold the brutal tactics of the police and the vulnerability of the suffragette demonstrators."

In November 1911, May Billinghurst was arrested again. Henry Nevinson reported: "Just at that time as I was returning to Whitehall I met Miss Billinghurst, that indomitable cripple, being carried shoulder high by four policemen in her little tricycle or wheel-cart that she propels with her arms. Amid immense cheering from the crowd she followed the rest into the police station."

May Billinghurst
May Billinghurst

One newspaper claimed that she had "set her chair going at full tilt towards the police". May Billinghurst was charged with obstruction and sentenced to five days' imprisonment or a five shilling fine. Someone must have paid the fine because there is no record of her having gone to Holloway Prison on this occasion.

In March 1912 the WSPU organised a new campaign that involved the large-scale smashing of shop-windows. May agreed to hide some of the stones underneath the rug covering her knees. According to Votes for Women: "From in front, behind, from every side it came - a hammering, crashing, splintering sound unheard in the annals of shopping... At the windows excited crowds collected, shouting, gesticulating. At the centre of each crowd stood a woman, pale, calm and silent."

May Billinghurst was arrested and was eventually sentenced to one month's hard labour. She spent the time in Holloway Prison although the authorities found that the "hard labour" part impossible to enforce. A fellow prisoner, Alice Ker, a doctor from Liverpool, wrote to her daughter on 7th April: "Miss Billinghurst, the tricycle lady, is going out on the 11th and will take this (letter). She is quite lame, wears irons on her legs and walks with crutches when she is out of her tricycle. We shall miss her very much when she goes out."

On her release she took part in the campaign to destroy the contents of pillar-boxes. By December 1912, the government claimed that over 5,000 letters had been damaged by the WSPU. A fellow suffragette, Lilian Lenton, argued: "She (May Billinghurst) would set out in her chair with many little packages from which, when they were turned upside down, there flowed a dark brown sticky fluid, concealed under the rug which covered her legs. She went undeviatingly from one pillar box to another, sometimes alone, sometimes with another suffragette to do the actual job, dropping a package into each one."

May Billinghurst was eventually arrested at Blackheath preparing for a pillar-box raid. She seemed pleased about being caught as she told the police officer: "With all the pillar boxes we've done, there has been nothing in the papers about it - perhaps now there has been an arrest there will be something." May appeared at the Old Bailey in January 1913.

During the trial Billinghurst argued: "The government authorities may further maim my body by the torture of forcible feeding as they are torturing weak women in prison at the present time. They may even kill me in the process for I am not strong, but they cannot take away my freedom of spirit or my determination to fight this good fight to the end."

Billinghurst was found guilty and sentenced to eight months in Holloway Prison. The judge remarked: "No one could, I think, doubt for a moment - as mistaken as I think you to be - that you were animated by the highest and purest motives in what you did... you do not belong to the class of hysterical women, many of whom are associated with this movement, who appear to be animated mainly or at any rate in some measure by a desire for notoriety." Emmeline Pankhurst wrote from Paris: "I cannot tell you how deeply I feel your splendid courage and endurance. All my heart will be with you during the ordeal that lies before you."

May Billinghurst immediately went on hunger-strike: "I just laid on my back and endured it all - on Sunday I was very weak and on Sunday night I tried to get out to the bell because my head was swimming round so I fell on the floor and fainted... My head was forced back and a tube jammed down my nose. It was the most awful torture. I groaned with pain and I coughed and gulped the tube up and would not let it pass down my throat. Then they tried the other nostril and they found that was smaller still and slightly deformed, l suppose from constant hay-fever. The new doctor said it was impossible to get the tube down that one so they jammed it down again through the other and I wondered if the pain was as bad as child-birth. I just had strength and will enough to vomit it up again and I could see tears in the wardresses' eyes."

After protests about her treatment by George Lansbury and Keir Hardie in the House of Commons, and comments from the prison doctor, who feared she would die of a heart-attack, she was released on 18th January, 1913. While May was living at home her mother received an anonymous letter: "Do not allow your daughter to go out in the neighbourhood of Blackheath alone or she will be it worse cripple than she now is - as she will be treated as a coward (which she is considered to be) for not taking her punishment. If you can leave the neighbourhood do so as sooner or later she will be attacked (and possibly yourself as you are much disliked for being the mother of a coward)."

On 21st May 1914, May Billinghurst took part in a WSPU demonstration outside Buckingham Palace. This eventually turned into a battle between the suffragettes and 1,500 policemen. Billinghurst drove her tricycle into the police lines. Charlotte Drake was one of those taking part in the protest: "I was beside her. They threw us back, but we returned. Two policemen picked up the tricycle with Miss Billinghurst in it, turned it over and dropped her to the ground. The excitement gave me strength - I picked her up bodily and lifted her back. We straightened the machine as best we could, rested a little to rake breath and struggled on again."

On 4th August, 1914, England declared war on Germany. The leadership of the WSPU began negotiating with the British government. On the 10th August the government announced it was releasing all suffragettes from prison. In return, the WSPU agreed to end their militant activities and help the war effort.

After receiving a £2,000 grant from the government, the WSPU organised a demonstration in London. Members carried banners with slogans such as "We Demand the Right to Serve", "For Men Must Fight and Women Must work" and "Let None Be Kaiser's Cat's Paws". At the meeting, attended by 30,000 people, Emmeline Pankhurst called on trade unions to let women work in those industries traditionally dominated by men.

Billinghurst supported this change in policy and she took part in these various pro-war demonstrations. In 1918 she helped Christabel Pankhurst in her attempt to be elected to represent The Women's Party in the House of Commons.

After the passing of the Qualification of Women Act May Billinghurst ceased to be politically active. However, she did attend the funeral of Emmeline Pankhurst and the unveiling of her statue in 1930.

May Billinghurst died in Weybridge on 4th July 1953.

Primary Sources

(1) May Billinghurst, speech to the jury at the Old Bailey (10th January, 1913)

My heart ached and I thought surely if women were consulted in the management of the state happier and better conditions must exist for hard-working sweated lives such as these...

It was gradually unfolded to me that the unequal laws which made women appear interior to men were the main cause of these evils. I found that the man-made laws of marriage, parentage and divorce placed women in every way in a condition of slavery - and were as harmful to men by giving them power to be tyrants.

(2) May Billinghurst, Manchester Guardian (21st April 1908)

I feel that the present government is not acting in accordance with the first principles of Liberalism, by refusing the right of representation to women taxpayers. I have joined no other party and I still claim to be a Liberal woman but a Liberal woman on strike.

(3) The Daily News (14th October, 1908)

One quaint sight was that of a lady flying the colours in an invalid cycle-chair, wheeling herself through the cheering mass near Caxton Hall. Pickpockets seized their opportunity and one was chased and arrested amid great excitement at the corner of Great Smith Street.

(4) Fran Abrams, Freedom's Cause: Lives of the Suffragettes (2003)

May Billinghurst does not feature prominently in the histories of the suffragette movement. She is not mentioned among its leaders, nor is she celebrated as one of its most notorious militants. Yet her image will be familiar to those who have studied the many photographs taken at suffragette parades and demonstrations. Partially paralysed since childhood, she is often placed at the forefront of the picture with the purple, white and green colours flying proudly from her wheelchair.

May Billinghurst played two important roles within the movement to which she devoted her life for seven years. First, she was one of the many workers who kept the local branches of the Women's Social and Political Union running from day to day. Her duties ranged from organising bazaars and acting as assistant in the local WSPU shop to ensuring a good turn-out for all-important national demonstrations. In later years they even extended to pouring noxious substances into letter-boxes. But her second and perhaps more intriguing function was the one for which she was known to her comrades, in the parlance of the times, as "The Cripple Suffragette". May Billinghurst was no fool. She knew full well, and so did the leaders of the WSPU, that her hand-propelled invalid tricycle gave her a special advantage in the propaganda battle they were waging. It made it difficult, if not impossible, for the media to portray May as a howling harridan with little care for the safety of others. At its least effective the sight of her at a demonstration was a picturesque one, commented on lightly along with other aspects of the pageantry of the day. At best, it served to underline in bold the brutal tactics of the police and the vulnerability of the suffragette demonstrators.

A close look at the way May Billinghurst's disability was used by the WSPU, with her full and informed acquiescence, can tell us much about the movement's skill with spin. For although her appearance of physical frailty was accentuated by her wheelchair, the message she carried was essentially the same as those of other suffragette demonstrators: "Look at us. We are compromising both our delicate physiques and our ladylike demeanour for our cause. We are doing this because we have been left with no alternative." In committing acts which were socially unacceptable the suffragettes asked the public to recognise their desperation, their vulnerability.

(5) Henry Nevinson, Votes for Women (24th November 1911)

Going to Cannon Row between 9.30 and 10.00 I found arrested women being brought in there every few minutes. The numbers in that station alone had reached 180 by 9.50. Just at that time as I was returning to Whitehall I met Miss Billinghurst, that indomitable cripple, being carried shoulder high by four policemen in her little tricycle or wheel-cart that she propels with her arms. Amid immense cheering from the crowd she followed the rest into the police station.

(6) Lilian Lenton, The Women's Bulletin (11th September 1953)

She (May Billinghurst) would set out in her chair with many little packages from which, when they were turned upside down, there flowed a dark brown sticky fluid, concealed under the rug which covered her legs. She went undeviatingly from one pillar box to another, sometimes alone, sometimes with another suffragette to do the actual job, dropping a package into each one.

(7) May Billinghurst, speech to the jury at the Old Bailey (10th January, 1913)

The government authorities may further maim my body by the torture of forcible feeding as they are torturing weak women in prison at the present time. They may even kill me in the process for I am not strong, but they cannot take away my freedom of spirit or my determination to fight this good fight to the end.

(8) May Billinghurst, account of being force-fed in Holloway Prison in January, 1913.

I just laid on my back and endured it all - on Sunday I was very weak and on Sunday night I tried to get out to the bell because my head was swimming round so I fell on the floor and fainted... My head was forced back and a tube jammed down my nose. It was the most awful torture. I groaned with pain and I coughed and gulped the tube up and would not let it pass down my throat. Then they tried the other nostril and they found that was smaller still and slightly deformed, l suppose from constant hay-fever. The new doctor said it was impossible to get the tube down that one so they jammed it down again through the other and I wondered if the pain was as bad as child-birth. I just had strength and will enough to vomit it up again and I could see tears in the wardresses' eyes.