Emmeline Pankhurst is considered to be one of the most important women of the last century because of the key role which she played in the struggle for women’s voting rights in Britain. Her eldest daughters Christabel and Sylvia were also leading suffragettes. All three women were born locally but there is no indication of this because the houses where they were born are long-since demolished and no memorials or plaques mark their places of birth.
Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928) was born in Moss Side, Manchester, and grew up in Seedley, Salford in a privileged, politically active household. In 1879, she married Dr Richard Pankhurst and for the first years of their marriage, they lived in his house, near Trafford Bar, where Christabel and Sylvia were born.
After Richard’s death in 1898, following years of fruitless conventional campaigning for women’s suffrage, Emmeline founded the Women’s Social and Political Union at her house on Nelson Street in 1903:
“…We resolved to limit our membership exclusively to women, to keep ourselves absolutely free from any party affiliation, and to be satisfied with nothing but action on our question. Deeds, not words, was to be our permanent motto.”
In 1905, the Liberals were set to take power after years of Conservative rule and the WSPU resolved to gain pledges from Liberal leaders that they would make women’s right to vote part of their official programme of reform.
Here, in her book My Own Story (published 1914 and now freely available on-line) Emmeline describes how this apparently straight-forward plan stirred up massive controversy:
On 13th October 1905“…We laid our plans to begin this work at a great meeting to be held in Free Trade Hall, Manchester, with Sir Edward Grey as the principal speaker.”
“…Annie Kenney and my daughter Christabel were charged with the mission of questioning Sir Edward Grey. They sat quietly through the meeting, at the close of which questions were invited. Several questions were asked by men and were courteously answered. Then Annie Kenney arose and asked:
“If the Liberal party is returned to power, will they take steps to give votes for women?”
…Sir Edward Grey returned no answer to Annie’s question, and the men sitting near her forced her rudely into her seat, while a steward of the meeting pressed his hat over her face. A babel of shouts, cries and catcalls sounded from all over the hall.
As soon as order was restored Christabel stood up and repeated the question:
“Will the Liberal Government, if returned, give votes to women?”
Again Sir Edward Grey ignored the question, and again a perfect tumult of shouts and angry cries arose. Mr. William Peacock, chief constable of Manchester, left the platform and came down to the women, asking them to write their question, which he promised to hand to the speaker. They wrote:
“Will the Liberal Government give votes to working-women? Signed, on behalf of the Women’s Social and Political Union, Annie Kenney, member of the Oldham committee of the card-and blowing-room operatives.”
They added a line to say that, as one of 96,000 organised women textile-workers, Annie Kenney earnestly desired an answer to the question.
Mr. Peacock kept his word and handed the question to Sir Edward Grey, who read it, smiled, and passed it to the others on the platform. They also read it with smiles, but no answer to the question was made. Only one lady who was sitting on the platform tried to say something, but the chairman interrupted by asking Lord Durham to move a vote of thanks to the speaker. Mr. Winston Churchill seconded the motion, Sir Edward Grey replied briefly, and the meeting began to break up. Annie Kenney stood up in her chair and cried out over the noise of shuffling feet and murmurs of conversation:
“Will the Liberal Government give votes to women?”
Then the audience became a mob. They howled, they shouted and roared, shaking their fists fiercely at the woman who dared to intrude her question into a man’s meeting. Hands were lifted to drag her out of her chair, but Christabel threw one arm about her as she stood, and with the other arm warded off the mob, who struck and scratched at her until her sleeve was red with blood. Still the girls held together and shouted over and over:
“The question! The question! Answer the question!”
Six men, stewards of the meeting, seized Christabel and dragged her down the aisle, past the platform, other men following with Annie Kenney, both girls still calling for an answer to their question. On the platform the Liberal leaders sat silent and unmoved while this disgraceful scene was taking place, and the mob were shouting and shrieking from the floor.
Flung into the streets, the two girls staggered to their feet and began to address the crowds, and to tell them what had taken place in a Liberal meeting. Within five minutes they were arrested on a charge of obstruction and, in Christabel’s case, of assaulting the police. Both were summonsed to appear next morning in a police court, where, after a trial which was a mere farce, Annie Kenney was sentenced to pay a fine of five shillings, with an alternative of three days in prison, and Christabel Pankhurst was given a fine of ten shillings or a jail sentence of one week.
Both girls promptly chose the prison sentence.”
This was the beginning of the notorious ‘militant’ suffragette campaign of the WSPU, which continued until 1914, when it was called off due to the outbreak of World War I.
The house where Christabel and Sylvia were born, 1 Drayton Terrace, was demolished shortly after World War II. Local newspaper Old Trafford News has pinpointed the location as the corner of Chester Road and Talbot Road:
“In modern terms, the birthplace of two of British historyâ€™s greatest women was the car park of the bingo hall opposite Trafford Bar.”
The newspaper is now campaigning for a blue plaque to be placed there.
I am still searching for the exact address in Moss Side where Emmeline Pankhurst was born; her birthplace also merits recognition, surely?
June Purvis’s biography sites Emmeline’s birthplace as Sloane Street, Moss Side Manchester, which no longer exists. However Sloane Street equates to the modern Sedgeborough Road, where an original building still stands – the old Great Western Pub, comprising several terraced houses – recently converted into a business office premises (and not to be confused with the Big Western, which still functions as a pub/club.)