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Votes for women

Saunderton (Bucks) station destroyed by fire in March 1913. Photo: Great Western Trust.

What has this got to do with railways? A lot as it happens. The suffragist movement in Britain started in the late 19th Century. Campaigning was relatively peaceful at first, but from about 1904 onwards “outrages” were committed such as breaking windows, flour bombing, daubing paint, cutting telegraph wires and setting postboxes alight.

Winston Churchill, who in 1908 was President of the Board of Trade and opposed to women’s suffrage, was attacked at Bristol Temple Meads station by a woman clutching a riding whip who had broken through a police cordon. Years later, a large crowd shouting “Votes for Women” surrounded his train during a stop at Dundee station, outnumbered police and ran after it as it set off. Factions in the suffrage movement disagreed on tactics, but lack of progress was leading to more violent and illegal action.

In 1912, a signalman on the night shift in the signal box at Potters Bar on the main line out of King’s Cross suddenly found that all his levers were jammed. A night express to Scotland was due, and after a lot of tugging he managed to pull the lever to signal the train through. Another signal on another line proved hard to operate and an engineer was called. The signal engineer found that signal wires and equipment had been tied up with window sash cord to which was tied a note reading, “If you want to prevent this kind of thing, the remedy is votes for women.”

In 1913 acts of arson became a common feature of Suffragette action. Public buildings, seaside piers and homes of the rich were set alight. That March, the railway station building at Saunderton on the line between Paddington and Birmingham was completely burnt out, and placards reading “Votes for Women” and “Burning to get the Vote” were found on the platform. On the same night, a new timber station building near Watford 16 miles away was also burnt down. Around the country, railway coaches in sidings were targeted with bombs, and seats were piled up, doused with paraffin and set alight. Luggage rack netting and coach upholstery was slashed, and Suffragette messages were scratched on varnished and painted coach interiors. Then bombs with timers were left in railway station waiting rooms and left luggage offices, usually with Suffragette leaflets and postcards nearby. On one day, stationmasters at all the main London railway termini received hoax letters saying that highly explosive bombs were going to be left at their stations that day. In Plymouth, timber was piled up on both lines in a railway tunnel in an attempt to derail an express train from London: fortunately, it was noticed and removed. A freight train from London to the north had a Suffragette bomb consisting of gunpowder, gelignite and iron bolts dropped from a railway bridge into an open wagon: it was noticed by a vigilant signalman at Wellingborough and removed before it exploded.

With the declaration of the Great War in August 1914, Suffragette action was largely suspended in the national interest. Many women took jobs on the railways to fill gaps created by railwaymen joining the colours, and by the end of the war 16% of railway staff were women. In 1918 Prime Minister Lloyd George and the government’s “Representation of the People Act” finally gave women over 30 who were householders the right to vote. It took another ten years to extend the vote to women over 21. It had taken time, and railways had played their part albeit at a cost.

Mike Peart

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This was published by the Pankhurst Centre in Manchester. The full version was in the FNRM (Friends of the National Railway Museum) “Review” magazine a few years ago.

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