On 6 February 1918, the Representation of the People Act received Royal Assent and all men and some women finally gained the right to vote in the UK. The fight for women’s suffrage had been an increasingly bitter and hostile battle between a stubborn Government and the women who fought for women’s suffrage.
What many people don’t know is that the Royal Albert Hall played a pivotal role in the women’s suffrage campaign. The Hall hosted 25 huge women’s suffrage meetings representing both the Suffragists (the law-abiding non militant) women led by Millicent Fawcett and the Suffragettes (the militant) campaigners led by Emmeline Pankhurst.
Emmeline, Christabel and Sylvia Pankhurst
Royal Albert Hall, a ‘Temple of Liberty’
100 years ago, the Royal Albert hall was the largest meeting place in London and became the best place for the women’s suffrage societies to spread information about the latest campaigns, rouse the women to action and perhaps more importantly to raise money to spread the word through their workers and newspapers. The hall was affectionately named as a ‘Temple of Liberty’ by the Suffragettes during this time.
“Packed from floor to roof with women bent on winning their way to freedom, the platform held by famous speakers, pointing out the straight road.”
Votes For Women newspaper
At the first Suffragette meeting in 1908, £7,000 was raised for the cause and for women who had no money of their own, it was not uncommon for the suffrage societies to receive gifts of jewellery including wedding rings.
A few weeks prior to this meeting Emmeline Pankhurst had been arrested in a protest, this is how she described that powerful meeting:
“My release was not expected until the following morning, and no one thought of my appearing at the meeting. My chairman’s seat was decorated with a large placard with the inscription, Mrs Pankhurst’s Chair’. After all the others were seated, the speakers, and hundreds of ex-prisoners, I walked quietly onto the stage, took the placard out of the chair and sat down. A great cry went up from the women as they sprang from their seats and stretched their hands towards me. It was some time before I could see them for my tears, or speak to them for the emotion that shook me like a storm.”
National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies Meeting 13 June 1908.
Suffragists march from the Embankment
In June 1908, Millicent Fawcett led a procession of 13,000 suffragists from the Embankment to the Royal Albert Hall. The women carried decorative banners, detailed and colourful works of art, bearing emblems and the names of campaigners and famous female figures and achievements. The purpose of the pageant was to showcase a spectacle of female solidarity. Millicent Fawcett summed up what many women felt when she said:
“What a blessing it would be to the country if the thousands of devoted women who were giving themselves to this great cause were set free to give their time and energy to the promotion of happiness and well-being of the community in other ways!”
When they arrived the Hall must have looked spectacular, decorated with the Suffragette colours of purple, white and green and the Suffragists colours of red, white and green. Flowers were picked to match the colour scheme and swathes of muslin in the colours hung from the balconies around the Hall, along with banners and shields representing different parts of the country.
Loggia box ticket from the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies meeting, 13 June 1908
Anger at a stubbon Government
But despite this the Liberal Government were not prepared to give women the vote. The campaign for women’s suffrage started peacefully with petitions and demonstrations but as the Government refused to even discuss women’s suffrage, the more militant Suffragettes started to become frustrated and increasingly militant. The motto of Mrs Pankhurst’s movement was “Deeds not Words” and this was followed through by direct action. As more and more women were imprisoned, hunger striking then forcible feeding became the new shocking reality for hundreds of women.In 1912, Emmeline Pankhurst angry and hostile to the Government came to the Royal Albert Hall, made one of her most revolutionary speeches yet:
“We women suffragists have a great mission – the greatest mission the world has ever known. It is to free half the human race, and through that freedom to save the rest…I incite this meeting to rebellion! Be militant each in your own way, I accept the responsibility for everything you do!”
Eventually, in 1913, the Royal Albert Hall refused to let Mrs Pankhurst’s Suffragettes use the Hall anymore because they did not want to be seen to condone a policy of damaging private property and possibly for fear of damage to the Hall itself.
Returning to the Royal Albert Hall victorious
Finally, in March 1918, Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel returned to the Hall one more time to celebrate women getting the vote for the first time but it was a rather subdued affair as Britain was still in the midst of the Great War and this was not a vote for all women. Only women over 30, university graduates or property owners could vote (about 8 million women) and many of the young women who had worked so hard in the factories or on the land during the war were still not able to vote.
At the meeting Emmeline Pankhurst called on the Government and business to cooperate in retaining women in the factories after the war on the basis of the equal right to work and equal pay for equal work – something that did not happen until 1975!