A DISUNITED KINGDOM – DIVISION IN BRITAIN BEFORE THE FIRST WORLD WAR.
The years running up to the First World War are sometimes thought of as a time of innocence when Britain was bathed in the airy light of an Edwardian idyll, at peace with itself, gently slumbering through a golden era, an era that the looming horror of the trenches was about to obliterate forever. A closer look at the period reveals this view to be wildly inaccurate. In fact, the country was in the grip of widespread political and social unrest.
In 1910 and 1911 there were a series of strikes by workers angry at their low pay and poor conditions, The following years saw the union movement grow in power and strength, rising to challenge the status quo. Meanwhile, opposing views over the question of home rule for Ireland, then still a part of the UK, meant there was a real threat of civil war. The authorities were also troubled by the presence of anarchists and other radicals who had fled more oppressive regimes in Tsarist Russia and the Kaiser's Germany and had taken refuge in London's East End. The so-called Siege of Sidney Street saw the demise of one-such gang. All of this led to the government becoming so fearful of a socialist uprising that armed troops were permanently stationed at a camp in Hyde Park.
And then there was the Suffrage Movement, which was many thousands strong but hardly united in its various aims and the methods it chose to try to achieve them. It wasn't only women who were denied the vote, a great many working class men were still similarly disenfranchised prior to1918. This was why the Independent Labour party and other socialist groups campaigned for universal suffrage, rather than focusing on women's suffrage only.
The movement concentrating on seeking votes for women was itself riven by divisions. The National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies was by far the largest group, being around 50,000 strong at their height. They held a great many marches and protests, but they were moderate in their methods and kept within the law. The Women's Social and Political Union, a much smaller group, with about 3,000 to 5,000 members, were more radical in their approach. They believed in direct action - deeds not words - and were not afraid to break the law to advance their cause. This is the group that became known as Suffragettes, a name coined as an insult and then reclaimed by the W.S.P.U. and made their own.
But even within the ranks of the Suffragettes divisions arose. Originally aligned with the Socialist movement, the Women's Social and Political Union moved to the right as time passed. The leadership became more and more dictatorial, going so far as to dissolve the management committee and abandon their constitution to avoid all possibility of a challenge from the membership. In 1907 the Women's Freedom Movement was formed by former WSPU members who had been expelled from the group. Mainly based in the north this group included many working class women, while the WSPU became more exclusively middle and upper class.
It was the Pankhurst family who led the W.S.P.U.; Emmeline Pankhurst, her daughters Christabel and Sylvia, and their close circle of friends. But Sylvia became disenchanted with the increasingly right-wing approach taken by her mother and sister. Clashes within the family came to a head in early 1914, when Sylvia was herself expelled from the group. She had founded the East London Federation of Suffragettes, initially as a branch of the WSPU, with its headquaters in the the Roman Road, a particularly deprived area of East London. The East Lon don Suffragettes included many local working class women in its membership. Christabel is said to have told her sister that working class women's education was “...too feeble to equip them for the struggle. We want picked women, the very strongest and most intelligent.”
Sylvia and the East London Federation stuck to their socialist principles and campaigned for a vote for all women. This was in contrast to the WSPU, who pressed for equality with men, which meant votes only for those women over thirty who owned property. The latter, of course, left the vast majority of working class women still without a vote.
Our play The Flower Maker's Tale is set in July of 1914, just prior to the outbreak of the First World War. I wanted the story to reflect the multiple splits and divisions that afflicted the country at that time. All stories set in the past tend to say as much about the times in which they are written as they do about history. This piece is no exception. The Britain of 1910 to 1914 was riven by disunity. Sadly, a little over a century on, it seems we are once again, in many ways, a deeply divided nation.
Books I read for my research for The Flower Maker's Tale included the following:
East London Suffragettes by Sarah Jackson and Rosemary Taylor.
A fascinating study of Sylvia Parkhurst's break-away group.
The Suffragette Bombers by Simon Webb.
Subtitled Britain's Forgotten Terrorists, Webb's book presents a highly critical view of the W.S.P.U.
The Perfect Summer by Juliet Nicolson
Vinettes of Britain in the summer of 1911, by a popular social historian.