The suffragettes who chained themselves to Parliament

In Death at Crookham Hall, I refer to a real suffragette protest that took place on 28 October 1908.

Helen Fox and Muriel Matters of the Women’s Freedom League chained and padlocked themselves to the grilles of the Ladies Gallery of The House of Commons. While stewards tried to remove them, Violet Tillard dropped a banner down into the debating chamber below and delivered a speech from behind the grille.

The grilles had been designed in the 1830s to screen the ladies in the Gallery from the men below. MPs were not to be distracted by women watching them at work. The problem was, they restricted the view of the debating chamber and made the Ladies’ Gallery extremely hot. The suffragettes viewed them as a symbol of repression.

The stewards were unsuccessful in trying to unchain Helen and Muriel and had to resort to removing the grilles from their setting. Following this incident, Parliamentary authorities purchased a pair of bolt cutters, which proved useful the following year.

On 27 April 1909, four members of the Women's Social and Political Union chained themselves to statues in St. Stephen's Hall in Westminster. Theresa Garnett ran around with a whistle, attracting attention before joining Margery Hume, Sylvia Russell and Bertha Quinn in chaining themselves to statues of male dignitaries.

Ironically, they were protesting against the introduction of a law penalising anyone found guilty of disorderly conduct within the confines of the Palace of Westminster while Parliament was in session.

Margery Hume chained herself to the statue of Viscount Falkland. The bolt cutters were found and used to remove Margery. The damage the cutters did to the spur on the Viscount’s right boot during the forcible removal is still visible.

Viscount Falkland Statuejpg

Viscount Falkland Statue

Later that year, on 14 November 1909, Theresa Garnett (1888 - 1966), pictured at the top of the post, attempted to assault Winston Churchill, then President of the Board of Trade, at Bristol Temple Meads railway station.

She broke through a cordon of police and got onto the station platform and attempted to strike Churchill with a dog-whip. Some reports say she managed to lash him and cut his face. However, Theresa later admitted that her strike missed. Churchill was able to seize her and secure the whip after a struggle.

She was arrested and sentenced to a month in Horfield Prison (now HMP Bristol) for disturbing the peace. Winston Churchill didn’t press charges for the assault itself. While in prison, Theresa went on hunger strike and was force-fed. She ended her time in prison in its hospital.


Winston Churchill

On her release, the Women's Social and Political Union awarded Theresa the Hunger Strike Medal in honour of her valour for going on hunger strike. Theresa later left the suffragettes as she disagreed with their arson campaign.

In World War One, she worked as a sister at the Royal London Hospital and served on the Western Front with the Civil Hospital Reserve. She was commended for 'gallant and distinguished service in the field' in France.

Theresa stayed involved with the suffrage cause for the rest of her life. She joined the Women's Freedom League and the Suffragette Fellowship, an organisation founded in 1926 to bring former suffragettes together.

She became an honorary editor for the Women's Freedom League bulletin in 1960. She died in 1966 at the age of 78.

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