Ruth was late. Lost in London’s West End, she searched frantically for the address where the Women’s Social and Political Union meeting was taking place. Eventually, between a laundry and a grubby haberdashery shop, she spotted a tiny hand-painted plaque marked ‘Alan’s Tea Rooms’ with an arrow pointing upwards and she entered the shadowy doorway, climbing the steep flight of narrow stairs with relief.
From the open doorway floated a muted hum of chatter and the clatter of crockery. A tantalising aroma of home-baked sweetmeats filled her nostrils. Ruth took a step forward and her eyes were drawn upwards to a frieze of painted flowers under a cornice accentuating the high ceilings. Shoppers, surrounded by their purchases and engrossed in conversation occupied many of the tables; she even noticed one or two solitary women enjoying cups of tea. Gazing around, she didn’t recognise a single face.
Behind a long wooden counter with a glass case displaying a selection of home-baked cakes, a short plump woman wearing a starched white apron scurried back and forth serving cups of steaming tea. With her rosy red cheeks and round smiling face, she reminded Ruth of an apple-dumpling.
“Good afternoon,” the woman said, drying her hands on a damp dishcloth. “What can I do for you?”
Overawed by the sheer size of the busy oak-panelled tea room, Ruth glanced around nervously. “Hello,” she whispered. “I'm erm … I’m looking for my friends. They meet here every Thursday afternoon.”
“Oh, you’re here for the ‘weekly’, are you? You must be new. Welcome!”
She beamed and gestured to her left. “Go along, dearie. See, they’re all over there.”
Next to the windows, partially shielded by large leafy aspidistras, over two dozen women congregated around tables piled high with neatly-stacked bundles of WSPU pamphlets tied with ribbons. Ruth’s friend, Mary, was seated next to a tall arcaded window framed by heavy drapes held back with a velvet cord. A second set of shorter ruffled lace curtains diffused the sinking sun’s weak rays. Ruth waved and hurried over to join the gathering. Mary stood up.
“Everyone,” she announced, “this is Ruth, my friend from Lancashire. She's come to join our fight for equal rights.”
“Welcome, Ruth,” the woman leading the meeting said with a friendly smile. “My name’s Christabel Pankhurst. Glad to have you amongst us.”
Throughout the next hour, preparations for the following day’s demonstration were fine-tuned. Christabel related the news that the Prime Minister had informed the WSPU that the long-awaited Conciliation Bill was to be abandoned yet again. This was a bill which would have paved the way for a certain number of women to be granted the vote at last. When the suffragettes had asked about the following year, Mr Asquith’s answer had been a flippant “Wait and see.”
Around the tables, several women began muttering. Christabel held up her hand.
“Yes, you’re absolutely right to be discontent. This is the final straw! Tomorrow, in a last-ditch attempt to have our voices heard, my mother plans to head a deputation to carry another petition to Parliament.”
The woman sitting next to Ruth pursed her lips and drummed long manicured nails on the table.
“Remember, please wear white, if at all possible,” Christabel reminded them. “The more lace the better and hats are, as always, highly recommended.”
Ruth felt a fluttering of excitement tinged with anxiety. This would be a far greater event than any she had ever attended in her home town.
At five o’clock, Christabel ended the meeting with the words, “Votes for women!”
Everyone rose to their feet, fists raised and replied in unison, “Votes for women!”
The group then dispersed, filing rapidly down the steps, out to mingle with the few remaining Oxford Street shoppers below.
Caxton Hall was already packed solid with an audience of mainly white-clad women the following day when Ruth and Mary arrived. On the stage, an imperious-looking woman coughed loudly and an expectant hush settled over the hall. Gripping the lectern with both hands, Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst leaned forward and scanned the rows of captivated faces in front of her.
“Once more, we have been betrayed,” she cried, her stentorian voice booming through the hall. “Yet again, the government has broken its promise. The time has come to resume our militant tactics with renewed vigour. If this petition is not heard, our truce shall be over. Civil disobedience shall be the order of the day!”
Reaching the end of her speech, the proud leader of the WSPU waved a sheaf of papers in the air, straightened her shoulders and declared that she intended to personally head yet another deputation to the Prime Minister that very afternoon. Then, looking around the hall, she added quietly that if no one cared to follow her, she would go alone.
It was a signal for instant uproar. The audience rose as one, Ruth and Mary in their midst. Over three hundred enthusiastic female voices shouted their willingness to follow.
With a hint of a smile and an air of steely determination, Mrs Pankhurst stepped down from the stage, followed by a handful of chosen delegates. As they swished past, Mary told Ruth their names.
“Look at that one!” she whispered in awe. “She’s an Indian princess.”
Over the following thirty minutes, the impatient women in the audience were given banners and divided into sections setting off at three-minute intervals. Provided each group numbered no more than a dozen, they would remain within the letter of the law.
Ruth was handed a banner sporting the words: ‘Where There’s a Bill There’s a Way’. She was in the centre of their group, walking between Mary and a tall slim woman named Emily, wearing a sleek fox fur-trimmed coat and an ornate hat. Along both sides of the street, a crowd of curious onlookers had already gathered, a few shouting their encouragement as they passed.
As they drew nearer to Parliament Square, the numbers lining the streets swelled. Excitement within the group intensified with each step and the women at the front raised their fists. With sweating palms, Ruth tightened her grip on the banner. They had almost reached the square when Ruth realised that sarcastic jibes from some of the onlookers were becoming increasingly aggressive. She was marching virtually blind, holding the banner in front of her face, so when the women before her came to an abrupt standstill, Ruth, Mary and Emily ploughed into their backs. Their orderly ranks dissolved as they were surrounded by a mob of rough-looking men barring their way and screaming obscenities.
Ruth’s banner was forcibly yanked from her grasp and brought down on the top of her head, sending her flying. Dazed, she looked up to see a man ramming Emily up against a wall, his filthy hands clutching at her throat. Her beautiful hat was nowhere to be seen.
Scrambling to her feet, she gazed around in disbelief at a scene of utter pandemonium. Police officers and civilians alike were attacking the women from all sides. Five yards away, Ruth spotted Mary struggling to escape from a uniformed policeman whilst he beat her about the head. When he punched her friend squarely in the face, knocking her to the ground, Ruth screamed.
“That’s my friend,” she spluttered. “O’er there! Help her someone, please.”
When Ruth suddenly felt her dress being lifted from behind, she whipped round to see a grubby, scruffily dressed individual leering at her. A curly-haired policeman with a bushy moustache looked on with a smirk.
“You’ll be able to have some fun with that one,” the policeman remarked, before turning away and adding over his shoulder, “Her sort are always asking for it. Bleeding northerners!”
Encouraged, the loathsome man ran his tongue over rust-coloured teeth and advanced towards Ruth, gripping her around the waist and ogling the front of her dress. He stank of whisky. With his other hand, he suddenly grabbed hold of her left breast and twisted savagely. The meaning of the policeman’s words sank in, galvanising Ruth into action and she recoiled with a squeal, kicking out with all her force. The metal studs on the front of her clog connected with the man’s knee and she heard a crack. He was evidently drunk and a little slow to react, allowing her to twist out of his grasp. Ruth staggered free but, in her haste, bumped into a burly red-faced man. He swung round and lifted her clean off her feet by the scruff of her neck. With an appalling roar, he shook her from side to side as if she were a rag doll and hurled her towards the edge of Parliament Square where bystanders observed the scene in nervous silence.
Ruth landed hard, her tooth slicing through her lip as she smashed onto the pavement. The metallic taste of blood flooded her throat, making her gag. Stunned and seeing only stars, she attempted to pull herself to her feet but was unable to support her own weight. A foggy greyness hovering at the edges of her vision grew darker and thicker until it swamped her completely.
From a distance, she gradually became aware of babbling voices over her head.
“Stand back, give the poor woman some air!”
“My Lord, isn’t this awful?”
“Loosen her collar or she'll choke.”
Ruth swam back to consciousness to find herself propped up against the wall, next to another woman in a similar groggy state. Struggling to open an eye, she made out a gentleman in a silk top hat holding a bloodied handkerchief to an ugly gash on her injured colleague’s cheek. The woman’s bodice was ripped down to her waist, and she was sobbing, desperately trying to cover herself.
“I hear they’re looking after the poor things in Caxton Hall,” Ruth heard someone say.
“Someone ought to take these two there,” replied a deeper voice. “They’re in no fit state to go alone.”
Ruth remembered little of the slow, painful trek back to safety, apart from her throbbing head and having to spit out blood every few feet. The split lip put paid to any attempts she made to thank the four kindly men half-supporting, half-carrying her and the other woman to their earlier starting point.
At the entrance to Caxton Hall, they were whisked away to a makeshift first-aid area inside, where scores of women scurried back and forth with blankets and basins of water. Ruth slumped onto a spare wooden stool and breathed a long sigh of relief as the fuzziness began to fade. Trestle tables had been installed and hastily stocked with bottles of iodine, alcohol, smelling salts and piles of clean rags and bandages to treat the women’s various sprains, cuts and bruises. Several women were lying on the floor, recuperating on blankets.
It was not long before Ruth’s split lip and collection of bruises had been cleaned, dabbed and fussed over with kind words and she walked gingerly to a chair nearer the door. Her left eye was now virtually closed despite holding a compress soaked in fresh cold water to it. Every now and then, a cool draught wafted into the hall from outside, helping to clear her head.
Mary! Ruth thought with a sudden gasp. Where was Mary? A constant stream of women still trickled into the hall in varying states of distress, but there was no sign of her friend. Struggling to her feet, she stared around; she had to find her! The two cups of sweet tea they had given her had worked miracles, probably as much for her bruised morale as the shock.
The woman who had cleaned Ruth’s injuries rushed past with a stock of clean bandages.
“How’re you feeling now, dearie?” she called with a cheery smile. “Are you ready to get back at them?”
She cocked her head towards a motley crew of women preparing to leave the hall.
“When you’re feeling well enough, pop over there and join a group though. Best stick together.”
Slightly taken aback, Ruth realised she was right. The women by the door were busily trying to make one another more presentable before leaving the premises, smoothing down clothes and straightening hats and hairdos. Amongst them she recognised Emily, the one she had marched with earlier. Many of them had torn garments hastily pinned together. On every single face, she saw defiance and determination.
With renewed resolve, she shouted, “Hey, wait for me!”
“Hello again. It’s Ruth, isn’t it?” Emily asked as they set off. “Are you alright? That lip looks painful.”
“Aye, I’ll be grand, thanks. But what about you? I saw a bloke holding you by your throat. It looked like he were throttling you.”
“Don’t worry, he soon let me go when I kicked him.”
She turned towards Ruth, the hint of a mischievous twinkle sparkling in her eyes. “Hard. Right between his legs. Not very ladylike I know, but sometimes, you know … needs must.”
Ruth was speechless. Emily looked so refined. She attempted to return the woman’s friendly grin, then winced as her lip began to bleed again.
“By heck, Emily. I’d never have thought…”
“Oh, you’d be surprised Ruth, you’d be surprised,” Emily replied, passing her a white lace handkerchief to dab her mouth.
The mood on this second march from Caxton Hall to Parliament Square was drastically different to the first. There was a resoluteness in the air, yet nervous tension was palpable as they hurried on their way. Emily and another woman chatted loudly in an attempt to bolster everyone’s confidence.
“Mrs Pankhurst and the others have made it to the entrance to Parliament. They’re waiting for us there. We’ve got to join them one way or another.”
“Yes, and if civil disobedience is the only way, that’s what they’ll get.”
“Deeds not words!”
“She says we’re so near to victory. We’ve got to keep going.”
“Well, I’m not stopping, I can tell you.”
As the women approached the scene of the riot, spectators beginning to mutter their disapproval of the police force’s illogical behaviour hurriedly cleared a narrow passageway in front of them. It was most bizarre! Now, it seemed that bystanders were joining the fray in defence of the women as they were repeatedly knocked back from reaching Parliament.
“Why aren’t the police arresting all these women if they’re breaking the law?” a man in a top hat muttered to his friend.
Ruth heard someone else ask, “If they aren’t breaking the law, why are they being so brutally treated?”
“The situation is just not acceptable,” his companion replied. “This is going too far.”
Ruth suddenly froze. On her right, not far away, she spotted a policeman with a bushy moustache kicking a woman as she cowered at his feet, shielding her head. It was the officer who had insulted her earlier and then left her in the clutches of that awful drunk fellow.
A rushing pulsed through her head, drowning out the surrounding shouts. Bright red fury surged through her body. Uttering a ferocious yell, she elbowed her way past her friends and threw herself at the police officer, clawing at his eyes in a frenzy. He looked up from his victim, his face distorted with rage.
“Why, you little…”
The mayhem was, at that point, interrupted by the thunder of heavy wheels and hooves on macadam, and a battalion of black square-shaped wagons, each drawn by two profusely sweating horses, came to a disordered halt at the edge of the square. The doors at the back of the narrow wooden carriages crashed open and hordes of police officers leapt out. Within minutes, they were dragging struggling women towards them. An officer grabbed one of Ruth’s flailing arms, and with her moustached enemy twisting the other roughly behind her back, they manhandled her towards the second of the waiting Black Marias.
This is a fictitious account of the iconic suffragette demonstration, known as Black Friday, which took place in London on 18th November 1910. It was a protest march in which over three hundred women marched on Parliament. 115 women and 4 men were arrested, although every single charge was inexplicably dropped the following day.