It is impossible to list everyone involved in the Suffrage Movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Only fifty-nine of the thousands of supporters are named on the Millicent Fawcett statue in Parliament Square. However, looking at each of these individuals gives us a sense of the views held by the many women and men who campaigned for women’s suffrage. One such woman was Rosa May Billinghurst, popularly known at the time as the “cripple suffragette”.
Rosa May Billinghurst, or May, as she preferred, was born in Lewisham on 31st May 1875 to Rosa Ann and Henry Farncombe Billinghurst. During her childhood, she contracted polio, which left her unable to walk unaided. For the rest of her life, she relied on leg irons, crutches or a modified tricycle, earning her the unsavoury nickname. Despite her disabilities, Billinghurst involved herself with social work and taught at a Sunday School.
Passionate about the Women’s Suffrage cause, Billinghurst joined the Women’s Liberal Association, which later became the Women’s Liberal Federation. The WLF aimed to work with the Liberal Party to promote just legislation for women, particularly the introduction of votes for women at elections on the same terms as men.
In 1907, Billinghurst became disenchanted with the Liberal party, so she joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) and participated in a march to the Royal Albert Hall the following year, albeit on her tricycle. That same year, Billinghurst helped organise a protest on the polling day of the Haggerston by-election. Haggerston was a UK Parliament constituency before being incorporated into the Metropolitan Borough of Shoreditch and, subsequently, the London Borough of Hackney. The by-election occurred following the death of the Liberal MP Sir Randal Cremer (1828-1908). Rather than give the seat to another Liberal politician, a local election was held to choose a new representative for the constituency. Billinghurst and several other Suffragettes canvassed the area on polling day, shouting “keep the Liberal out.” Their efforts were rewarded when the Conservative candidate, Rupert Guinness (1874-1967), won 51.4 % of the vote.
In 1910, Billinghurst established the Greenwich branch of the WSPU and served as secretary during the Black Friday demonstrations. Around 300 women marched to the Houses of Parliament as part of the campaign for voting rights on 18th November 1910. What started as a relatively peaceful demonstration became a violent brawl when male bystanders and the Metropolitan Police began attacking and, in some instances, sexually assaulting the women.
Billinghurst attended the Black Friday demonstration on her tricycle wheelchair. She was amongst the women pulled through the streets by violent men, who assaulted her, deflated her wheels and stole the valves, leaving Billinghurst stranded. Despite this exploitation of her disability, Billinghurst determined to use the experience as publicity for the suffrage cause.
In 1911, Billinghurst participated in another march to the Houses of Parliament. This time, she came prepared to fight the police and bystanders if they attempted any assault. Billinghurst placed her crutches on either side of her tricycle and charged at any opposition. Whilst this deterred the police from attacking her, it resulted in her arrest.
Billinghurst experienced prison life on several occasions. In March 1912, Billinghurst helped the Scottish suffragette Janie Allan (1868-1968) smash windows along Henrietta Street, Covent Garden, which resulted in a stint in Holloway Prison. On this occasion, Billinghurst was sentenced to one month’s hard labour. Being disabled, prison wardens were confused about her sentence and gave her no work for the duration of her sentence.
On 8th January 1913, the Old Bailey sentenced Billingshurst to another eight months in Holloway Prison after she damaged letters in a post box. In court, Billingshurst represented herself and gave a speech titled The Guilt Lies on the Shoulders of the Government, which she later published in the WSPU newspaper, The Suffragette.
“The guilt lies o the shoulders of the Government for delaying the measure, not on the women who continue to fight for the protection of the weak and the oppressed. In our union are women doctors, nurses, inspectors, teachers — women in almost every branch of industry and station of life. We are not hooligans seeking to destroy, but we mean to wake the public mind from its apathy, and to make our cause the burning question of the day, so that something shall be done for women. Gentlemen, I have stated a few facts of my life to show you why I am standing in the dock to-day pleading “Not Guilty.” I am fighting a righteous battle with a high motive. You may think me guilty; I may be imprisoned. In that case, I shall adopt the hunger strike as a protest against imprisonment being given to women instead of the justice they demand.“
Billinghurst carried out her hunger strike threat with several other suffragettes. Fearing an outcry if the prisoners died from starvation, the prison wardens subjected the hunger strikers to force-feeding. Prison wardens restrained the women while a doctor inserted a small tube up their noses or throats into the stomach to administer liquid meals. Force-feeding was traumatic, abusive and not much more nutritious than starvation. After two weeks, Billinghurst became critically ill, resulting in an early release from prison.
Between 1909 and 1914, the WSPU awarded hunger strikers a medal designed by Sylvia Pankhurst (1882-1960). The silver medal, engraved with the words Hunger Strike, hung on a ribbon featuring purple, white and green, the colours of the WSPU. With a silver pin engraved For Valour, recipients could attach their award to their clothes to demonstrate how far they were willing to go in their campaign for women’s voting rights. Silver bars were added to the medals with the dates the recipient underwent force-feeding. Many women experienced the gruelling procedure on several occasions.
Despite the threat of imprisonment and force-feeding, Billinghurst continued campaigning. She spoke at public events in 1913 and chained herself to the gates of Buckingham Palace with a handful of other suffragettes. On 14th June 1913, Billinghurst and other members of the WSPU used the funeral procession of Emily Wilding Davison to further their cause. Davison died after being hit by a horse at the 1913 Derby when she walked onto the track during the race. The suffragettes named Davison a martyr, and 5000 women dressed in white followed her coffin through the streets of London. Several male supporters also joined the ranks, helping to carry the banners of the WSPU.
Attitudes towards the suffragettes did not change much throughout their campaign, with many regarding them as a nuisance. Billinghurst joined the crowds of women petitioning to the King on 21st May 1914, where, once again, the police used violence to disperse them. Whilst Billinghurst was not arrested on this occasion, the police tipped her out of her tricycle.
Following the outbreak of the First World War, Billinghurst followed Emmeline Pankhurst’s lead prioritising war work. Although she was restricted due to her disability, Billinghurst helped where she could throughout the war years. In February 1918, parliament passed the Representation of the People Act 1918, which extended the right to vote to women aged 30 and over who resided in the constituency or occupied land or premises with a rateable value above £5. Whilst this was not equal to men, Billinghurst felt satisfied and stopped campaigning for women’s suffrage. Instead, she helped Christabel Pankhurst (1880-1958) stand in the 1918 general election for the Smethwick constituency. Pankhurst was narrowly defeated by the Labour candidate.
Very little is known about Billinghurst’s life outside of her work with the WSPU. In 1911, it appeared she still lived with her parents, but at some point, she lived in Sunbury-on-Thames with her adopted daughter, Beth, who she adopted in 1933. Other records reveal that after 1914, Billinghurst lived with her brother Alfred John Billinghurst.
Rosa May Billinghurst passed away at a hospital in Twickenham on 29th July 1953, leaving her body to medical science. Sixty-five years after her death, Billinghurst’s name and picture appeared on the plinth of the newly-erected Millicent Fawcett statue in Parliament Square. Although information about Billinghurst is sparse, her name and determination will never be forgotten.
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