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
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