About this collection
In 1897 the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) was formed from various local women's suffrage societies. The roots of these societies in England began in the nineteenth century, after the Great Reform of 1832 extended voting rights among men. The common goal of those in the NUWSS was to achieve for women the same voting rights as held by men. They sought to achieve this goal through legal means such as peaceful demonstrations, petitions, and lobbying. Members of these societies were known as suffragists, and this suffragist movement later gave birth to a new and more radical movement - that of suffragettes.
In October 1903, Emmeline Pankhurst of Manchester, England, left the NUWSS to form the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). Mrs. Pankhurst believed, as did the rest of her new society, that more drastic means were necessary if women were to achieve suffrage. From 1903 to 1917, the WSPU was the leading militant organisation campaigning for women's suffrage in Great Britain. Law-breaking, violence, and hunger strikes were the tactics used by this society, whose members became known as suffragettes.
In 1907, the WSPU itself was split when some of its members left to form the Women's Freedom League. While these three societies (the NUWSS, the WSPU, and the Women's Freedom League) disagreed over tactics, they all believed strongly in their common goal, and regularly worked together in their efforts to achieve women's suffrage. The suffragettes became increasingly militant in the years leading up to the start of World War I, while also pursing non-militant activities like hunger striking. In response, the government brought in the notorious Cat and Mouse Act of 1913, which allowed for the release of a hunger striking suffragette who had become ill. Once recovered, they could be re-arrested. Many were returned to prison and force-fed multiple times.
Upon the outbreak of war in August 1914 some of the suffrage societies (but not all) declared a suspension to militant tactics. In response, the government granted an amnesty to all suffrage prisoners. The WSPU was one of the key societies to move away from suffrage campaigns to support Lloyd George’s government in the war effort, though they had fire bombed his house only months before. One might assume the amnesty was a cause for celebration amongst suffragettes. However, it was initially received with pockets of animosity. Correspondence with the Home Office shows various women’s groups writing in for clarification. Did it apply to women released under the Cat and Mouse Act, or to those already discharged under the Prisoners Act (a temporary discharge for ill-health)? The initial remission did not, though it was promised that this problem would be rectified. Although the WSPU continued to argue for women’s suffrage in their publication Britannia (previously called Votes for Women) it became dominated by the topic of the war.
At the outbreak of the amnesty the Home Office compiled a list of all suffrage campaigners they were providing amnesty to, and although the document is entitled ‘Amnesty of August 1914: index of women arrested 1906-1914’ it also includes the names of more than one hundred men. The Home Office actually began keeping indexes of suffrage supporters (male and female) prior to the amnesty, so that they could trace and link multiple convictions of the same person. Originally written on index cards, which were often out of order, in 1922 the records were copied into a book. Each record consists of the name of the person arrested, and the date and place of arrest. If a person was arrested more than once, the details of each arrest are documented. In the last half of the book were inserted letters, minutes, reports, and several news articles related to the activities of the suffragists and suffragettes. The value of the index was primarily for day to day office work in the Home Office. However, the clerk notes “should the history of the Suffragette Movement ever …. be written in detail, [it] would be a source of information not otherwise obtainable.”
The richness of this source is not in the story of the amnesty and the different reactions to war by many different suffrage societies. Instead, it is in the literal wealth of names to be found in the document - over 1000 male and female suffrage campaigners who were at some point arrested. It’s a document that moves away from viewing only the Pankhurst figureheads of the movement to look at the wealth of individuals who, for a cause they believed in, were prepared to risk their jobs, families, and sometimes their health by hunger striking. Though the details are brief, it provides a partial overview of the movement. Many individuals were part of varied societies that often don’t get their due attention, including the East London Federation of Suffragettes, the Artists Franchise League and the Women’s Freedom League. This index contains the names of Flora Drummond, who at the time of her imprisonment was in her first trimester of pregnancy; William Ball, temporarily certified insane after a being force fed in prison; and Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, who was at the front of the Black Friday procession when suffragettes clashed with the police. Most importantly, the index lists many largely unknown persons from across the country and argues against the London centric view of women’s suffrage. The very nature of this document’s focus on arrest naturally excludes those who campaigned by pacifist means, though ultimately this document illustrates a view of suffrage rarely seen: a mass movement of active women and men across the country from many different types of suffrage societies.