The Suffragettes in Lowestoft
During digitisation work this intriguing photograph of a women’s suffrage meeting in Lowestoft came to light.
The photograph was taken using a glass plate negative, and helpfully the date it was taken and the names of two of the women on the stage were scratched into the image before it was developed.
The image shows several women crowded onto a stage in front of a large banner for the Women’s Social and Political Union, and the shadowy figures of audience members can be made out in the foreground.
Zooming in to the photograph reveals some wonderful details of the women on stage, and the banner behind them.
The woman standing in the centre of the stage is Miss Annie Kenney, and the woman sat to the right of the table is Mrs Flora Drummond – both senior members of the WSPU. Led by Emmeline Pankhurst, the WSPU used militant methods in their campaign for votes for women.
The meeting took place as part of several days of campaigning activity in Lowestoft to run alongside the annual conference of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) which was taking place there, with over 2,000 teachers attending.
The WSPU rented a flat at 5 Wellington Road to use as their headquarters during the conference. They also ran a tea room, where refreshments were offered for teachers in the hope of tempting them in for discussions on women’s suffrage.
The WSPU held a reception for teachers at Leighton Assembly Rooms, an open-air meeting near the pier, and gathered outside conference meetings with banners. Protestors also disrupted a service at St John’s Church in Lowestoft, interrupting a sermon by the Bishop of Norwich to address the issue of women being forcibly fed in prison. Votes for Women reported that the disruptors were ‘removed by the vergers while a hymn was played by the organist’ (Votes for Women, 17th April 1914).
Debates at the NUT conference included a discussion of teachers’ pay. A proposal to advocate for equal pay for male and female teachers was voted down by a huge majority.
There was also an ‘animated debate’ on the question of whether the NUT should support the cause of women’s suffrage. Ultimately the members voted that it was outside the scope of their organisation.
The main WSPU event during the conference was the meeting pictured above at the Lowestoft Hippodrome on 15th April. Reports from the time state that the building was surrounded by detectives, and that lights were shone on the faces of everybody entering, but that the meeting was crowded and enthusiastic.
Mrs Pankhurst had been due to speak but was ultimately unable to appear; she was suffering from the effects of a recent imprisonment and hunger and thirst strike, and was anxious to avoid re-arrest before leading a deputation to the King in May.
Instead, the meeting was addressed by Flora Drummond, who was known as General Drummond, and Annie Kenney, who had recently been temporarily released from prison. Miss Kenney had not been seen in public since the previous autumn, when she had spoken from a stretcher after a period of hunger and thirst strike. By appearing in public she was risking re-arrest and a return to prison, but the WSPU managed to sneak her in and out, and described the meeting as a great success.
In the days following the WSPU presence at the NUT conference in Lowestoft, the pier pavilion was burned down in Great Yarmouth, and a quantity of Suffragette literature was found scattered nearby.