The Suffragette Bombers: Britain’s Forgotten Terrorists by Simon Webb

Dimsie Goes to School cover

The Suffragette Bombers: Britain’s Forgotten Terrorists by Simon Webb was originally published in 2014.

The author had been annoyed when Andrew Marr had implied that the suffragettes “were not terrorists in any serious modern sense”, the truth is actually very different and Simon Webb set out to put the record straight. He did repeat himself quite a bit but this is still a very informative and interesting read as well as being an eye-opener for me as I had thought I knew a fair amount about the subject, it turns out that I didn’t.

It’s often thought that the years from 1900 to the outbreak of World War 1 in 1914 were something of a golden age of peace and prosperity. The truth is that it was a time of upheaval with the WSPU led by the Pankhursts conducting a campaign of terrorism. In 1906 the non-violent suffragists had been hopeful that their campaign for universal franchise would be successful as the Liberals had won a landslide victory, but heigh-ho, the new government was busy with other things such as setting up the welfare state and Old Age Pensions. The suffragettes who were mainly upper-class people who didn’t want ‘votes for all’ only wanted votes for wealthy women, home and business owners, a very small minority of women. At the time most men didn’t have the vote either.

Emmeline Pankhurst was completely in control of her Women’s Social and Political Union which was financed by aristocratic people to the extent that it was awash with money. Her daughter Christabel skipped Britain to live in Paris in luxury. She helped her mother control things from there. The last half of this book seemed to be a long list of terrorist activities that went far further than chaining themselves to railings and breaking windows.

Historic churches were routinely burnt to the ground, many bombs were deployed causing huge damage to people and buildings, trains were bombed, houses were burnt to the ground. St Paul’s Cathedral was almost blown up. A new Carnegie library was completely burnt within less than 24 hours of it being opened, railway stations were popular targets for bombs and for some reason Scotland took the brunt of the campaigns of violence. Dundee seemed to be a hotbed of suffragette violence. In Fife where I live they burnt down Leuchars railway station and parts of St Andrews University. Historic documents went up in smoke. Golf courses and football grounds were routinely damaged, anywhere that would particularly upset men really. The beautiful Kibble Palace in Glasgow was blown up just after it was opened, the list of atrocities just goes on and on. It’s no wonder that their are photographs in existence of furious people going after suffragettes as they had no care for the lives of others and just didn’t care what happened to the general public who had to put up with all the violence.

Interestingly when there was a truce in 1911 the WSPU’s coffers were much emptier than they had been. Apparently the violence pulled in the money from donors. I couldn’t help thinking about that Qanon woman Marjorie Taylor Green who has been pulling in loads of money from donors who agree with her particular brand of madness, the more crazy her speeches are the more money they send her! It seems it was much the same for the suffragettes.

Yes some women were permanently harmed due to being force fed but that didn’t last long as the powers that be were so worried about creating martyrs for the cause that when suffragettes were sent to jail for setting off bombs they just went on hunger strike for three days and were released, no matter how long their sentence had been. Emily Davison of course ended up being their martyr and over the years there have been arguments as to whether she meant to kill herself or not. She had tried to commit suicide on two earlier occasions, breaking her skull in one attempt, she was a poor soul really who obviously had mental health problems despite being highly intelligent and having been to university, she was badly treated by the Pankhursts who refused to give her any money despite the work she did for them. She wasn’t a young woman she was 41 years old and that return ticket to Epsom to see the Derby meant nothing as on the race day the price of the single or return ticket was exactly the same and I suspect that the busy ticket clerks just gave everyone a return ticket.

One thing that did annoy me was that the author remarks at the beginning of the book that the suffragette dcolours of white, green and purple stood for purity, hope and majesty. Of course the purple stands for equality which is why it was used by the Fathers for Justice campaigners in recent years.

Anyway, that was a long one, I had a lot to say but it’s just so interesting the way history can be whitewashed over the years. We’ve always been taught that we women had a lot to thank the Pankhursts for when in reality the public at the time lived in fear of being blown up by them and their very well paid staff, and they had no conscience at all about burning down the workplaces of poor women, leaving them destitute. They never wanted ordinary people to have the vote at all never mind ordinary women. I’ve only listed a small amount of the places damaged and sometimes obliterated by them.

This book has a very comprehensive bibliography. I was sent a digital copy by the publisher via Netgalley.

10 thoughts on “The Suffragette Bombers: Britain’s Forgotten Terrorists by Simon Webb

  1. What an interesting book! I mostly remember the suffragette who was killed by the King’s horse at the Derby and not all the violence. There was a great miniseries about the Pankhursts (although I suppose, based on this book, it had a lot of holes) on PBS years ago that my mother and I enjoyed. I remember Sian Philips played Emmeline Pankhurst and we were very amused that the next time she turned up, she was the evil Livia in I, Claudius.

    I do hate that some people’s idea of suffragettes is Mrs. Banks in Mary Poppins, which I am sure is one of MANY reasons that P.L. Travers despised the movie.

    • Constance,
      The author does mention that Mary Poppins had given people a wrong idea of what the suffragettes were like.
      I don’t think I saw that Pankhurst miniseries but I certainly remember the evil Livia, it must have taken ages to get all her make-up on as she aged.

  2. I did not know either about this sustained campaign of violence. I had watched the first part of Lucy Worsley’s series on the suffragettes, which opens with them burning a house (no one was home). I should go back and watch the rest.

    • Lisa,
      They burnt down quite a few large houses and often they were described as being empty when it meant the owners weren’t there, but servants would have been in danger – but I suppose they didn’t count!

  3. Most interesting, Katrina.
    I wonder how many of the members were “useful idiots” led to perpetrate sabotage by those with other political agendas that were trying to upset the established order at the time.

    • Valerie,
      I’m sure there were a lot of women who didn’t realise they were being used to do the dangerous dirty work. It seems that Emmeline Pankhurst was just a bit of an anarchist. It said in the book that the list of names who were bank-rolling the suffragettes would have shocked people, so they must have been well known but also have been influential and feared.

  4. It’s interesting how their crimes were whitewashed for so long. At school, I was definitely taught to look on them as heroines and no attention was paid to their elitism, not to mention the strange forgiving of their often very violent actions. Mind you, plenty of people still seem to think that violence is an acceptable political tool – and not just in America!

    • FictionFan,
      Of course there’s a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst near or in the House of Commons and I now find that really annoying. Yes and I know that people who work in MPs constituency offices are fearful on a daily basis as any nutcase with a grudge can just walk in and have been known to attack them and even commit murder there.

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