Yesterday I visited the House of Commons for the first time in my life. It was wonderful to see the site of so many important historical events, such as Westminster Hall, where state trials used to take place, including those of Guido Fawkes and Warren Hastings.
I was there to watch an awards ceremony that had been made as a tribute to a family member who had spent many years pioneering Access to Higher Education courses. After the ceremony, we were taken on a short tour of the building by Nick Dakin, Labour MP for Scunthorpe, who had presented the awards. He was extremely kind and we even managed to get into the amazing and highly-decorated Chapel of St. Mary Undercroft http://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/building/palace/estatehistory/the-middle-ages/chapel-st-mary-undercroft-/
We’d been promised a cream tea in Portcullis House, so were slightly puzzled when Nick Dakin stopped outside a cupboard which seemed to contain electrical or computer equipment and asked us to step inside. We could only go in pairs and I went in first with another woman. On the inside of the door was a rectangular plaque which had been secretly put up by Tony Benn MP to commemorate the fact that on Census night, 1911, a suffragette called Emily Wilding Davison hid in the cupboard – then a broom cupboard – as a simple act of protest at not having the right to vote. She was able to register as being resident at the House of Commons and here is the evidence:
Emily Wilding Davison was born in 1872 and brought up in Blackheath, Surrey. She achieved First Class honours at Oxford University in 1895. Although women could by then study for degrees, they were not allowed to graduate so she left without a degree. She began a career teaching in girls’ schools and later became involved in the militant wing of the Woman Suffrage movement, the Women’s Social & Political Union (WSPU). She went to prison several times for fairly minor offences, such as attempting to give the Liberal Prime Minister, Asquith, a petition. During a later prison term, she went on hunger strike and was force fed. I don’t know if any research has been done on the psychological effects of force-feeding, but it certainly proved to harden the suffragettes’ campaign.
Emily Davison is, of course, more famous for her final act of protest when she threw herself under the King’s horse at the Derby in 1913. She was badly injured and died in hospital four days later. No-one knows if she intended to die. She had a ticket to a dance for that evening so it’s possible she only wanted to make a protest.
Tony Benn had tried to have a memorial put up to record Emily Davison’s protest for some time. In the end, he took a hammer and put the plaque up himself. He said: “It is a modest reminder of a great woman with a great cause who never lived to see it prosper but played a significant part in making it possible.”
Women over 30 were given the vote in 1918 and in 1928, this was extended to women over 21, making them equal with men for the first time.
It was a privilege to be able to see it.