Bermondsey suffragettes 100 years ago!

// 28 October 2009

WFL.jpgOne hundred years ago today, two suffragettes poured ink and chemicals into two polling boxing during the Southwark by-election, reports London SE1, in a bid to disrupt an election in which women were not given the right to vote.

But it was not only the erosion of the Liberal government’s big majority that made the by-election news in such papers as The New York Times but an incident at Boutcher School in Grange Road.

At 11am Alice Chapin, a 45 year old supporter of votes for women living in the West End, entered the polling station at the school. She broke a glass test tube on the ballot box and at that moment the presiding officer George Thorley felt the liquid on his face.

The chemical splashed one of Mr Thorley’s eyes. Although examined at once by a doctor who happened to be present it was the view a month later of Guy’s opthalmic surgeon Arthur Ormond that there might be a slight permanent haze to Mr Thorley’s sight.

However, the victim believed that the injury to him was “purely accidental”. Although his clothing was burnt he maintained that Mrs Chapin did not intend to hurt him.

“The first thing I did on receiving the splash was to go to a cupboard in the polling-room where there was some ammonia, used for chemical experiments in the school, intending to apply it to my burns. One of the polling clerks tried to dilute it for me, but I found his solution was too strong to use.”

The 83 ballot papers in the box were later found to be damaged but all decipherable.

The Times reported that the ‘suffragists’ had “struck out a new form of annoyance” which was “childish malice characteristic of suffragette methods”.

At the Old Bailey the following month Mrs Chapin was found guilty of interfering with the ballot box and sentenced to three months imprisonment. In addition she was found guilty of a common assault for which she received four months to run concurrently.

Also sentenced in the same court was Alison Neilans who tried to pour fluid into the ballot box at the Long Lane polling station. There were no injuries but two papers were rendered undecipherable and Miss Neilans was sentenced to three months in Holloway Prison along with her fellow conspirator.

Both women were members of the Women’s Freedom League (WFL) which was a breakaway from the Women’s Social & Political Union (WSPU).

The protest in Bermondsey was a direct response to the refusal of Prime Minister Herbert Asquith to receive a WFL deputation. Days later the League launched The Vote newspaper which declared: “We shall make a protest where our right is denied – in the polling booth where women ought to be voting.”

(links added by me)

This one is local history for me; both of these incidents happened down the road from my flat.

Photo from Parliament, of a banner unfurled at another WFL protest – more info here.

Comments From You

Kez // Posted 29 October 2009 at 11:58 am

Fascinating stuff.

I’ve been wanting for a while to read more about the women’s suffrage movement – can anyone recommend any books?

sianmarie // Posted 29 October 2009 at 4:05 pm

Kez – i cn’t recommend any books but the BBC archive has now released the suffragette archive, i heard some of the interviews on woman’s hour the other day and they were amazing, really inspirational, passionate and moving.

MsChin // Posted 31 October 2009 at 4:33 pm


As a starting point, try Olive Banks’ classic, ‘Becoming a Feminist: The Social Origins of ‘First Wave’ Feminism’. It’s an interesting study.

There’s also the Women’s Library:

And I’m very proud that the first women’s suffrage organisation was set up in my home town, Sheffield, in 1851:

I’ll zoom over to the BBC now & check out the archives.

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