The Brunt of the Battle
Elizabeth Biling and May Billinghurst to staunch campaigners.
Elizabeth Billing was arrested on October 14th 1908 and charged with obstructing the police near the Houses of Parliament. At her first court appearance she was remanded in custody for one week. At the subsequent trial she was ordered to pay a fine and agree to be bound over to keep the peace, refusal would lead to one month’s imprisonment. She was released on November 21st alongside other women who were greeted by Mrs Pethick Lawrence and Mrs Howe Martyn and a band playing the Marseillaise. According to Votes for Women published on October 15th 1908 Elizabeth was a new recruit to the movement who had only recently addressed a crowd at her first street corner meeting. After she wrote “My great regret is to have wasted many valuable years while others have stood the brunt of the battle.”
The next two entries read Mary or May Billinghurst arrested December 26th 1912 and January 9th 1913; Rosa May Billinghurst arrested March 12th 1912. These two entries actually relate to one person Rosa May Billinghurst. Although the records do not reflect this she was first arrested in November 1910 having been a “conspicuous” presence at two demonstrations she was arrested for obstruction and discharged. The reason for her “conspicuous” appearance was that disabled from childhood she got around in a tricycle which she often adorned with the suffragette colours.
Known as May she was born in 1876 into a comfortable middle class family as a young woman she volunteered at the workhouse in Greenwich which as was often the case opened her eyes to the hardships suffered by the poor. May joined the Women’s Social Political Union early on believing as did many that the vote was the means by which women would have a say and raise issues such as poverty. It is clear from the Vote for Women newspaper that this endeavour became a family affair with her mother and sister joining and other family members giving donations.
May was a hard worker and was well aware that her appearance at rallies or canvassing at by elections in her tricycle drew attention to the cause. Her first arrest, mentioned above, followed Black Friday but such turmoil did not deter her. A year later she was arrested for her part in another demonstration outside Parliament and “was carried through the thick of the crowd by half-dozen stalwart policemen”. The reporting of this arrest shows the power of being seated in a tricycle, over one hundred and fifty women were arrested after the leaders of the movement May is singled out for special mention in many of the newspaper reports. Again this arrest is not included in the official record and it appears the charges were dropped.
May was arrested again for her part in the window smashing campaign and was this time imprisoned for one month. In December 1912 she was arrested on suspicion of attacking post boxes. On being searched six rubber tubes containing a black fluid were found on her lap. She was sent for trail in January, found guilty she was sentenced to eight months. The judge when he passed sentence observed that many supported the right of women to the vote but that might have been granted by now if it was not for the actions of a militant few to which those on trial had mistakenly adhered themselves. “..they were animated by the highest and purest motives in what they did, and that, having spent many years among the poorest class of women, they had been impressed with the miseries which resulted from the sweating system, … which often led to the degradation of women and to other results too terrible to contemplate.” A surprisingly more supportive statement than was the norm.
Despite many letters demanding that May was not force fed due to her poor health she was subjected to this degradation on several occasions. Her health declined on January 18th she was released. After a period of recuperation May spoke at events recounting her experiences and denouncing force feeding. In May 1914 May was part of the deputation who attempted to speak directly with the King refusing to move on she chained her tricycle to the railings at Buckingham Palace. She was not arrested as no doubt her notoriety meant the authorities had no intention of giving anyone the opportunity of claiming they were preying on a disabled woman.
May remained politically active until she died in 1953.
 Dundee Courier November 22nd 1911
Two Strange Stories
Someone kindly got in touch and provided further information on Blanche Bennett who was included in the last blog. She was arrested on March 5th 1912 for her part in the window smashing campaign and was sentenced to two months hard labour for smashing two windows at 1, Baker Street, London. Secretary of the Irish Women’s Suffragette Society and had travelled to London to take part.
Many protested at the harshness of the sentences in comparison to sentences metered out to men for crimes against women or children which were considered to be more lenient. As Charlotte Despard wrote in The Vote published on March 9th 1912 “Let them compare the sentences passed on men for outrageous offences against women and children with that on Mrs Pankhurst, and they will, we hope, begin to realise how low we have fallen in our-man administered justice, and how deep is the necessity for reform”.
Dorothea Benson was arrested on March 5th 1912. No further information has been found.
The next entry is for William Edward Bethell. Unusually no date for his arrest is included as has always been the case so far for every name. Searching through the newspapers a very strange tale transpired. The Votes for Women newspaper dated November 13th 1913 included a report regarding the injuring of William at a suffragette meeting, injuries that were so great he passed away a few days later. However a search through the death records did not locate any record of William dying. A report in the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, who had picked up on an article in the Times, states that the police had been trying to verify the veracity of the report included in amongst other publications Vote for Women. William’s brother was apparently informed that he had attended a meeting and been injured. When interviewed William’s father expressed surprise as William had emigrated a year before and he had received a letter from him only days before. A case of mistaken identity or something more sinister because as the police concluded there was no sign of anyone passing away who had attended such a meeting? As apparently William had never been active before that point in suffragette activities who did they arrest or was his name included because his death was being investigated?
Annie Biggs was arrested twice on March 21st 1907 and September 30th 1911. The first arrest was for her part in a demonstration and she was sentenced to two weeks imprisonment. In 1907 a book was published entitled My Prison Life and Why I Am a Suffragette written by Annie S Biggs which seems likely to be one and the same person. Although no light can be shed on her personal life not helped by the fact that she often gave a different age when she appeared in court contemporaneous newspaper reports shed some insight. The Sheffield Evening Telegraph dated April 8th 1908 reported the appearance in court of Annie who refused to give her address and described herself as an organiser. She had been charged with obstruction for sweeping a crossing between Waterloo Place and Pall Mall in Central London. Annie is described as a well dressed woman wearing a “fashionable black toque, trimmed with red flowers and white suede gloves” who spoke “in a refined tone, and was evidently well educated”. Her sweeping of the crossing had drawn a crowd which was causing an obstruction. On being requested to desist she had refused and was then arrested. In court Annie stated that she had tried to gain employment. She was a caterer and organiser of first class restaurants undertaking some of the finest work in London but had not succeeding in finding work. As, she claimed, her references were too good she had been unsuccessful in finding work as a domestic servant. She had tried to emigrate to Queensland but this had not been successful either. She had not known it was against the law to sweep crossings. The magistrate explained why she should not have been sweeping the crossing to which Annie responded “.. I think I have had enough of crossing sweeping; probably I shall not, go there again.” The magistrate discharged her. Not being a suffragette activity this arrest does not appear on her record.
Three years later Annie was arrested again. This time she presented herself at Cannon Row Police Station stating she had broken two windows at the Home Office. Annie was described as an organiser who was homeless. Annie stated that she had broken the windows to draw attention to her plight. Prior to breaking the windows she had spent the entire night sitting at the out patient’s department of a hospital hoping to be admitted as an in-patient but had failed to achieve her aim. She had been without food until the police offered her sustenance. The police informed the court that some months before she had participated in a suffragette protest being charged with resisting the police and had also appeared before the courts charged with obstruction of the highway. The first of these statements is not consistent with the arrest records as only this incident and the arrest in 1907 are included. In response to the assertion regarding the suffragette movement Annie said she was now opposed to the movement.
Annie was remanded in custody to be examined by a doctor. No newspaper reports can be found of recording what followed. It seems probable that Annie was admitted to the workhouse as Annie S Biggs, journalist, is recorded as being admitted on December 12th 1911. There the trail goes cold. It is purely conjecture but perhaps Annie’s imprisonment in 1907 disturbed the balance of her mind which would not be an isolated incident.
 The Vote March 9th 1912