Britain’s Most Historic Towns: Manchester – Channel 4

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This was one of the best programmes I’ve seen all year.  There should be programmes like this on every day.  On every channel.  At prime viewing time.  What more could anyone ask for than to watch a TV programme which says that “Manchester is as great a human exploit as [ancient] Athens” (Disraeli), talks about Manchester “pumping the rich blood of economic vitality and revolutionary identity around Britain” and points out that Frederick Douglass was “fascinated” by Manchester because of the number of people here working to change the world for the better?  And it showed a picture of Old Trafford.  (OK, OK, it also showed a picture of the Etihad, but never mind that.)  And it talked about the Cotton Famine.  The Cotton Famine was my dissertation topic.  I get very excited when people talk about it.

We got Peterloo.  We got the Anti Corn Law League.  We got the Manchester to Liverpool Railway (the Huskisson incident was not mentioned).  We got Engels and Marx meeting up at Chetham’s (the fact that Engels’ office was in what’s now Kendals, which always amuses me, was sadly not mentioned).  And, of course, we got the suffragettes.  I just need to mention for the ten billionth time that I went to the same school as Christabel Pankhurst and her sisters.  Then, at the end, we were shown a picture of Marcus Rashford.  Marcus, being a very modest young man, is probably rather embarrassed at being mentioned alongside the likes of Richard Cobden, Elizabeth Gaskell, Emmeline Pankhurst and the organisers of the meeting which sadly ended in the Peterloo Massacre, but I thought that that was rather lovely.

This really was brilliant.  Alice Roberts was so enthusiastic and so totally biased in favour of all the radicals and reformers of 18th, 19th, 20th and now 21st century Manchester.  I got all excited, like I did when I was a teenager reading books by Asa Briggs et al about the role of Manchester in the Industrial Revolution.  Yes, I really, genuinely am that sad and that weird.  Always have been, always will be.  Indulge me, OK.  Christmas has just been cancelled.  I needed cheering up.  This cheered me up.  So has United beating Leeds 6-2.   Well, somewhat.

We started off with canals, cotton mills and railways – and a drone flying over the city to take pictures.  This was obviously filmed recently, but they managed very well with social distancing – Alice Roberts met various historians, but only one at a time, and they stood well apart.  Then we heard about the difficult conditions under which the mill workers lived and worked, and then moved on to the mess which was the constituency system pre 1832, and, of course, the electorail system too.

That, obviously, brought us on to Peterloo.  We heard about the radical press here, notably the Manchester Observer, and then about the Massacre itself. If Mike Leigh hadn’t made such a mess of the film, we might hear a lot more about Peterloo: I’m still narked about that.  Anyway.  Even now, we get people saying that it wasn’t really a peaceful protest, or that it wasn’t really that bad.  This, using documents from the time, kept in the wonderful John Rylands Library, made it quite clear that, yes, it was a peaceful protest, and, yes, what happened was that bad.  We heard about the Peterloo Relief Fund set up to help the injured and the families of the dead.  And we heard about the “fake news” put out about it all.  It was all very, very much on the side of the peaceful protesters.  And quite rightly so!

Strangely, there was no mention of the Chartists.  That was a very odd omission.

However, we did hear about Richard Cobden and the Anti Corn Law League.  Possibly a teensy bit of political agenda pushing here, the only bit of the programme I wasn’t keen on.  Or maybe I imagined it.  But let’s ignore that, and focus on the fact that the Anti Corn Law League eventually succeeded in bringing down food prices – at a time when, even during the Potato Famine, landowners were only interested in keeping prices up, and never mind the fact that people were going hungry.   And, oh, how I wish that the Free Trade Hall had never been sold off and turned into a hotel!  It’s such a big piece of our history. We used to have school Speech Day in there.  It was always very boring, very hot, and at the same time as a crucial match at Wimbledon, but the fact that it was in the Free Trade Hall rather than the school hall was rather exciting.

On to Marx and Engels, and the interesting point was made that Elizabeth Gaskell probably did more to draw public attention to “the condition of the working classes” than Engels did.  Lucky Alice Roberts got to visit her house, and also Chetham’s Library: both are sadly closed to the public at the moment 😦 , thanks to bl**dy Tier 3 regulations.  Charles Dickens also got a mention, but I find Hard Times unspeakably annoying.  Mrs Gaskell’s books are much better.  And, yes, they would have reached a far wider audience than the Engels book did.  Both them were rather patronising, quite honestly, but those were different times.

Then on to the Cotton Famine.  I’ve just read an utterly ridiculous book which claimed that everyone in the Lancashire textile areas supported the Confederacy.  It also said that the Confederacy only had six states, when it had eleven, so the author was clearly pretty clueless.  And he said that Prince Albert was gay, which seemed a rather odd comment.  But it annoyed me that a supposed history textbook has gone on sale spouting such rubbish.  Yes, there was some support for the Confederacy, but the general feeling in the Lancashire textile areas (I’m saying “textile areas” because it was a whole different ball game in Liverpool) was pro-Union because of the slavery issue.  Whether the war was actually about slavery or about states’ rights is a debate for another time, but there’s that famous letter sent to Abraham Lincoln from “the citizens of Manchester”, and the equally famous reply.  And there’s a statue of Lincoln in the city centre … close to where one of the Christmas markets should currently be being held.  Given the damage done to the regional economy by the Cotton Famine, that was a very big thing.

We were also told that Frederick Douglass was fascinated by Manchester. Well, of course he was.  Anyone would be 🙂 .  But I love the fact that he was.

And then to the suffragettes.  Emmeline Pankhurst, of whom there is, finally, now a statue in town.  Alice spoke to a woman who’d actually changed her surname to Pankhurst!   That’s rather extreme fangirling, but it’s fascinating that someone does find Emmeline Pankhurst so inspirational that she’d do that.  And we saw the Manchester – First in the Fight” banner which now lives in the People’s History Museum.

First in the Fight!   “We are a city of changemakers.”  “Greatest Hits of Radical Movements.”  I actually Googled Alice Roberts to see if she had Manchester connections, but, as far as I can see, she hasn’t.  She was just being gloriously pro-Manchester.  We take all this as a compliment, obviously!   We are very proud of being involved in the Repeal movement and the Suffragette movement and everything else.  And, as I said, I thought it was rather lovely that that picture of Marcus Rashford was shown.  We’re having a tough time at the moment.  But we’ve had tough times before.  We’ve come through those and we’ll come through this.

And this programme was brilliant.  Not that I’m biased or anything …

 

 

Star by Star by Sheena Wilkinson (Facebook group reading challenge)

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I read this book because the blurb said that it was “a bold tale of suffragettes”; but it was actually more about the Spanish flu.  Strangely few books cover the Spanish flu, and, under the present circumstances, it was particularly interesting to read one that did.  The women’s suffrage movement did come into it, though, as did the granting of universal male suffrage, the mental health impact of the First World War, and the complex political situation in Northern Ireland.  As one of the characters said, it was an awful lot for everyone to try to process at once – the war, the Spanish flu, the general election so soon after the Armistice, it being the first time that all men and any women could vote, and the issue of Irish independence.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a character in a book say that before, and it was a very, very good point.

This is 180 page book for children, so obviously it didn’t go into the depths than an adult book on the same subjects would, but it packed a lot in, and all in quite a quirky way, with Our Heroine keeping imagining that she was at the centre of big dramas and playing out scenarios in her head.  She was about 16.  I still do that now!

This was late 1918 – the Armistice was announced towards the end of the book – and our heroine Stella was moving from Manchester to live at her auntie’s boarding house in a seaside resort in Ulster, following the death of her mother from the Spanish flu.  Very impressed that the book had a Manchester connection 🙂 .  Suffragette City!   I do love reminding people, for the millionth time, that I went to the same school as the Pankhurst sisters.  Who apparently didn’t like the place very much, but the school doesn’t tell pupils that!

Anyway, back to the book.  She’d lived in “Eupatoria Street”.  I wonder if that’s near Inkerman Street and Balaclava Terrace 🙂 . We learnt that she was illegitimate and that that was why her mother had left home, and that her mother had been very involved with the suffragette movement.  She was very keen on the idea of women’s rights, but, although we saw her accompanying her late mother’s best friend to the polling station on the day of the 1918 election, there wasn’t much active politics going on …. but then there wasn’t anyway, because campaigning had been suspended due to the war.

Another of the people staying at the boarding house was a soldier who’d been invalided out of the Army and was struggling to cope psychologically – and that again was something which so many books about the First World War don’t cover, and it was good to see that as a major theme here.  The complex political situation in the north of Ireland was also a central theme, with opposing views expressed by different characters.  If it hadn’t been for the House of Lords, the whole of Ireland would have had Home Rule in Gladstone’s time and a lot of bloodshed would probably have been avoided, but you can’t rewrite history.

However, it was really the Spanish flu pandemic that dominated events. Or maybe that’s just how it seemed to me, and I’d have felt differently had I been reading the book a year ago.  I usually get annoyed when people talk about historical events in the context of current events, but it’s impossible to read about the Spanish flu pandemic at the moment and not look at it in the context of the coronavirus pandemic.  We think things are bad now, but at least we haven’t got healthy people suddenly taking ill in the street and dying within hours, funeral parlours struggling to cope, homes of infected people being viewed by frightened neighbours as houses of contagion, and little in the way of effective treatment for those worst affected.  The death toll was just horrendous, and this in a world already reeling from all the deaths and long-term injuries resulting from the war.

Despite all the serious subjects, there was quite a light touch to it, told in the first person by a teenage girl who, as you do at that age, took herself very seriously!   As I said, it’s a children’s book, not an adult book, but, as a children’s book, it was very good, and I would have loved to have had something like this to read when I was in the intended reading age group.

 

Edwardian Britain in Colour – Channel 5 (second episode)

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Whilst the first episode focused on daily life, the second episode was more about big events – starting with tramway inaugurations and football matches (and I am so put out that, when I was expecting the Burnley v Newton Heath match, they showed Burnley v Spurs instead!), and then moving on through crime scenes and protest marches to the harrowing film of Emily Wilding Davison’s fatal injury at the 1913 Derby, and finishing with poignant scenes of young men waving cheerfully as they went off to fight in the Great War, probably thinking that they’d be home by Christmas. There was far more chat than in the first episode, which was annoying – I’m sure we all know what the First World War, the suffragette movement, the police force and the FA Cup are, without needing to have them explained to us! – but the films themselves were absolutely fascinating.

It started with the opening of the tram system in Wigan, and it was interesting to see the huge crowds there. These days, we only get excited about historic public transport, but you could see what a big thing it was for the people of the town.  It must have made such a big difference, to be able to get about your town/city without having to walk everywhere.  I remember my grandad telling me stories about him and his friend getting the tram to work, which must have been in the early 1930s: only 35 years earlier, that wouldn’t have been possible.  Changing times.

Then we got the Burnley v Spurs match, in the Cup. As I said, I am extremely put out that they didn’t show the film of the Burnley v Newton Heath match, even though I’ve seen it before!   But it was still exciting to see the players and the crowds, and to think about how incredibly important football had already become to people … and to heave a little sigh of nostalgia for simpler times, before money played such a big part in the sport.  Next up, an open water swimming gala in Tynemouth, with the commentators apparently very amused by the Edwardian swimming costumes.  Did we really need quite so much talking, though?  I wanted to see the films, not modern day presenters chatting away in a studio!

This was followed by film of the police – here in Manchester, hooray! Just like you imagine Edwardian policemen, with truncheons, notebooks, whistles and handcuffs.  It was interesting to hear that policemen had to be of a minimum height, so that they’d look imposing, and that they weren’t supposed to have more than two children and, as late as the 1980s, had to get the police force’s permission to marry – but, again, more film and less talking would have been nice!

From then on, it was mainly coverage of big news events. The Siege of Sidney Street – with Winston Churchill, as Home Secretary, turning up in the middle of it all, instead of leaving it to the police to deal with.  We think of today as being the age when everything’s captured on camera or film, but would anyone be allowed to film that sort of situation these days? The presenters focused on the presence of Churchill, possibly not wanting to go too much into the difficult subject of East End gangs and some of the more extreme press reaction at the time.

Another subject which is difficult to talk about, because you don’t want to risk saying anything that might be open to misinterpretation or misuse, is that of sectarianism in Northern Ireland. We saw coverage of Unionist marches in Belfast.  I still think that, if Gladstone’s Home Rule Bill of 1893 hadn’t been scuppered by the House of Lords, things could have turned out differently in Ireland.  By the end of the Edwardian period, it was probably too late.  And, by then, there was so much uncertainty, especially for Unionists in Northern Ireland.  Uncertainty is a bad thing.

Easier to discuss were the protests and demonstrations by striking workers calling for better wages and better working conditions, some of them holding placards demanding a reduction in working hours from their present fourteen hour day.  They were brave enough to strike even though they could well have been sacked for doing so.  This was the age of the Taff Vale case, and then the 1906 Trade Disputes Act.  It’s easy to forget how far we’ve come since then.  Trade unions and the Labour Party stood for something important and inspiring in those days.  Sorry, I seem to be in a ranty mood today!

Another area in which we’ve come a long way, but still have a long way to go, is that of women’s rights. It’s always inspiring to see film coverage of the WSPU marches.  Nice banners, like I was going on about last week.  And the hats!  I know it sounds silly, but the hats really grabbed my attention.  We also saw film of NUWSS marches, with men (nice to see that some of them were local, from Radcliffe!) as well as women holding banners in support of women’s suffrage.  And some shocking film coverage of police attacking WSPU protesters – nothing I hadn’t seen before, but it was still shocking to see it again.

Too much talk, though!   I didn’t need to hear a load of different presenters going on about women “reclaiming” things and using “PR” and a load of other modern-day terms.  The pictures spoke quite well for themselves.  Especially the very powerful film of Emily Wilding Davison being struck by the king’s horse as she tried to attach two suffragette flags – it was made clear that, contrary to what’s often said, she probably didn’t intend to die – to his bridle.  The presenters, including Dr Helen Pankhurst, did a lot of talking about “bravery” and “sacrifice”.

I’m a great admirer of the suffragettes, and always going on about how proud I am of the connections of my old school and the city of Manchester in general with the suffragette cause, but I found what the programme said about Emily Wilding Davison all rather one-sided. It was tragic that she lost her life, but she could easily have caused the death of the jockey, who had nothing to do with politics, as well.  Not to mention the horse – they were all very scathing about the fact that the press seemed so concerned about the horse, but it was hardly the poor horse’s fault that the government wouldn’t give women the vote, and why should he have been put in danger?   It also showed the coverage of her funeral.   It was very impressive that 5,000 suffragettes walked behind her coffin and another 50,000 lined the streets of London to watch the funeral procession pass, but there was something uncomfortable about how stage-managed it all was.  Emily Wilding Davison was a very brave woman who played an important role in the campaign for women’s suffrage, spent time in Strangeways and was one of those subjected to the horrific process of force-feeding, but I would like to have seen more balanced discussion about the events surrounding her death.

That was in 1913. I forget the exact wording he uses, but I think RL Delderfield says something about the summer of 1914 being the end of the old world.  The outbreak of the Great War seems to have taken most people completely by surprise.  Its causes have been debated long and hard, and will carry on being debated long and hard, but there’s no way that most people could have seen it coming.  The focus switched back to Lancashire for this, and we saw happy, cheerful pictures of a sports event at a Southport college in the July, no-one dreaming of what was to come all too soon.  How many of the lads taking part in the events were to be killed or injured over the next four years?  Then we saw, in Morecambe, men marching off to war, crowds cheering them as they went, and then men on trains, excited looks on their faces, waving handkerchiefs out of the windows.  And then film of people working for the war effort, pulling together.

It can’t all have been like that, even in the early days. It wasn’t all wild enthusiasm.  Plenty of people must have realised that, as Sir Edward Grey said, “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time”.  For all the talk in this episode, they didn’t really have any proper discussions/debates about any of the issues raised.  But, certainly, all the accounts at the time talk about there being a great deal of enthusiasm, and of most people genuinely believing that the war would be over, with victory gained, in a matter of months.

The first episode and the early part of this episode focused on the ordinary lives of ordinary people, so often neglected. And it wasn’t so long ago, was it?  I’m actually getting a bit upset, thinking that it is actually over 100 years ago.  Those lives, everyone’s lives, were turned upside down by the outbreak of war.  The war to end all wars – if only it had been.  A very interesting point was made at the end – that the Edwardians are sometimes remembered as a lost generation, because of the war (slightly muddled theory, because more than one generation lived through the Edwardian era and the Great War, but you get the idea), and that, instead, we should remember everything that they fought for – women’s rights, and workers’ rights.   Very good point.  And two very interesting hours of TV.

Heaton Park on Great British Railway Journeys – BBC 2

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All right, it was only for a few minutes, but I was very excited about it!  Several generations of my family have spent numerous hours of their lives in Heaton Park.  My primary school was (and indeed still is) next door to the park.  We used to have Sports Days there.  In the second year infants, we had a “nature table” on which we proudly displayed leaves, twigs, pine cones and assorted other things which we’d carefully collected during walks there. When we were in the juniors, we went there to do “educational” things like drawing pictures of Heaton Hall, although we were far more interested in rolling down hills and throwing bits of grass at each other.  At weekends, my sister and I would sit on “the lions”.  Everyone who grew up round here remembers sitting on “the lions”!  When we were older, we took our little cousin there.  I still go there a lot: I live within walking distance.  It’s rare for me to be there for more than a few minutes without seeing someone I know.  I watch all Michael Portillo’s railway programmes, and this one felt like the series was coming right to my doorstep.

In last night’s episode, Michael arrived in our great and wonderful city at Victoria station, and then visited the Manchester Art Gallery – not so much to look at the art as to discuss the 1913 attack on the gallery by three suffragettes.  Yes, all right, all right, damaging artwork is not ideal, even though the idea was only to damage to glass casings, but campaigners for women’s suffrage had tried to make their point by peaceful means, and got nowhere.  This particular attack took place on the day after Emmeline Pankhurst had been given a three year prison sentence.

Oh, and you could see my favourite cafe, The Vienna Coffee House, in the background, as Michael was going into the art gallery.  Sadly, he didn’t pop in for a drink and one of their highly recommended cakes, salads or sandwiches afterwards, but I’m just giving it a mention even so 🙂 .  I’ve been going there ever since it first opened.  It’s extremely nice.

Michael also visited the site of St Peter’s Fields, where, of course, the Peterloo Massacre took place on August 16th, 1819.  The Free Trade Hall was built on the site in 1850s, and, in 1905, was the scene of the famous incident in which Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney heckled Sir Edward Grey, and were later, after refusing to pay a fine, carted off to Strangeways.  That was really the start of the militant phase of the suffragette campaign.  Michael talked about all of this, and also visited the Pankhurst family’s former home, now a museum and a women’s community centre.

With last year’s centenary of (some) women finally being given the vote, and this year’s forthcoming bicentennial of the Peterloo Massacre, there’s a lot of focus at the moment on Manchester’s history as a city – in fact, I’m going to say the city – which took the lead in the fight for democracy in the UK.  I am so, so proud of all this, and very pleased to see this part of our city’s history being covered in this lovely series.

I’d assumed that he was visiting Heaton Park – to which he travelled from town on the Metrolink – to see the Heritage Tramway, and that we’d be hearing all about how, back in the 1870s, the new Manchester to Bury line had to be diverted through an expensive tunnel because the Earl of Wilton, who owned the park and the hall before selling them to the council in 1902, refused to let it go through his land.  However, instead of focusing on selfish aristocrats, the visit to Heaton Park was all tied in with Manchester’s history as the city which promotes the rights and needs of the ordinary people.  Hooray!  (Although it was rather a shame that the tramway didn’t get to appear on TV.)

There’s a well-known local garage called Grimshaws.  Well, it’s now officially called Pentagon, but everyone still calls it Grimshaws.  I used to take my car there for MOTs, when I was in my old job.  Anyway, the garage developed from a bicycle shop owned by one William Grimshaw, who, when he wasn’t selling bikes, also sold gramophones, and was known as the “Gramophone King”.  In 1909, he heard the famous tenor Enrico Caruso sing at the Free Trade Hall. We used to have our secondary school Speech Days at the Free Trade Hall. They were horrendously boring, but being in the Free Trade Hall was always exciting.  I’m still annoyed that the council sold the Free Trade Hall off to be converted into a hotel.

Anyway, to get back to the point, the enterprising Mr Grimshaw recorded the concert (you’d never get away with doing that these days!), and then played the recording on a gramophone at Heaton Park a few days later.  This was the first time a gramophone concert had been held in the open air in this country.  40,000 people turned up!  And – despite our “lovely” climate – the idea soon caught on.  More concerts at Heaton Park, and William Grimshaw was also asked to hold gramophone concerts at other parks, first locally and then nationally.  There was no way that most people would have been able to go to concert halls regularly, and there wouldn’t have been that many tickets available anyway; but this brought music to the masses, and out in the fresh air which Edwardians were so obsessed with.  And it all started here.  Brilliant!

It was very exciting indeed – well, it was for me! – to see Michael sat on a bench on the path where you go up from the lake towards the hall and the farm centre.  And the aerial shots were amazing.  I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen aerial shots of Heaton Park before.  They looked so good!  And then he went out in the lake in one of the lovely rowing boats which are available to hire.  The far side of the lake, the wooded area, is just land, and behind it’s a car park, but, when I was a kid, I liked to pretend it was one of those islands that people got stranded on in Enid Blyton books, and that I was going to go there and have a big adventure.

I’d like to say that I used to play tennis there as well, but, being a fat and unfit kid, I was always better with imagining and daydreaming than exercise.  Oh well.  However, we heard all about the importance of the park in the changing role of women, as the Victorian era gave way to the Edwardian era, and how women would go to the park to cycle and to play tennis.  And, even better, to attend suffragette rallies held by the Pankhursts!  I’ve mentioned about fifty million times that I went to the same secondary school as Christabel, Sylvia and Adela Pankhurst, haven’t I?  We heard that crowds of up to 200,000 people (I’m sure I’ve heard 50,000, but I’ll definitely go with the figure of 200,000 given in the programme!) attended the great Heaton Park suffragette rally of 1908.  It didn’t mention the fact that suffragette activists burnt down the Heaton Park bowling pavilion … but they did.

I’m not going to say anything about burning down a bowling pavilion 😉 , but, had I been around in 1908, I’d like to think that I’d have been at that rally.  Had I been around in 1909, maybe I’d have been at the gramophone concert.  I did go to an Oasis concert at Heaton Park a century later, in 2009!   I have spent so much time in that park over the years!  Very, very exciting to see it featured in this lovely series.

Suffragettes with Lucy Worsley – BBC 1

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As I’m fond of reminding people 🙂 , I went to the same school as Christabel Pankhurst and her sisters Sylvia and Adela.  We used to have Speech Days in the Free Trade Hall, the iconic building where, in 1905, Christabel and her friend and fellow suffragette Annie Kenney heckled politicians at a Liberal Party rally, whereupon they were arrested and carted off to Strangeways.  (Strangeways was unisex in those days.)  I’m trying and failing to resist making the old teenage jokes about how being carted off to Strangeways would have been preferable to having to sit through school Speech Day, which, in my day, was usually held on the first Monday in July, generally very hot and stuffy and often fourth round day at Wimbledon.  We so did not want to be there!

Sorry.  Back to the point.  The Free Trade Hall incident in 1905 marked a turning point in the campaign for women’s suffrage, and it was the starting point for Monday night’s hour and a half long programme on the suffragettes, presented by Lucy Worsley.  It also summed up the suffragette movement very well.  The brilliant PR machine run by the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), founded in 1903: Christabel, as a law graduate – although, as a woman, she wasn’t allowed to practise – knew that spitting at the police would get them arrested on charges of technical assault, and that that would get them far more publicity than just being dragged away.  The contempt shown to campaigners for women’s suffrage by the Establishment.  The wide range of backgrounds amongst the suffragettes: Christabel was from a middle-class family from the city of Manchester, Annie from a working-class family from one of the semi-rural mill villages of Saddleworth.  And the extent to which women were prepared to go to – at this stage, arrest and imprisonment.  Later, it would be what can only be described as torture; and, whilst I honestly don’t think Emily Wilding Davison meant to lose her life, women did say that they were ready to die for The Cause.

I do find Lucy Worsley’s bossy prefect style of presenting a bit irritating, and her obsession with dressing up rather infantile.  However, that’s become quite a clever PR machine as well: every time one of her programmes is on, it’s all over the TV reviews as pundits argue over whether her dressing up is entertaining or just plain silly.  She certainly gets attention.  It’s unlikely that, had anyone else been presenting this programme, it would have been on BBC 1 rather than BBC 2 and in a prime time slot straight after EastEnders.  So take a bow, Lucy.  You might be annoying, but you get the media talking about history, and that can only be a good thing!

It was presented in docu-drama style.  That again can seem quite infantile sometimes, but in this instance it worked extremely well.  Seeing women with the clothes and hairstyles of the period, reading out the suffragettes’ own words, especially about the horrors of force-feeding and of sexual assault by the police, was very evocative and very effective.  The roles assigned were those of Annie Kenney and several other leading suffragettes who were… well, most of the names were familiar, but they were certainly far less well-known than those of the Pankhurst women, and the idea was to show that it wasn’t all about the big names.  I would have thought that was rather obvious, TBH.  With any sort of movement, you’re always going to have the big names, but surely everyone realises that the big names didn’t do it all by themselves.  But, OK, it made the point that there were a lot of people involved.

Lucy also made the point that this was an effective home-grown terrorist organisation.  I’m not very comfortable about the use of that expression to describe the WSPU. OK, yes, they were.  They used violence.  But the word “terrorism” has come to mean the murder of innocents.  Slashing paintings, smashing windows, setting fire to empty houses, and even letter bombs, vandalising public buildings and attacking politicians with catapults can hardly be compared to that.  So may we stick with “militant” rather than “terrorist”, please?

Just wandering off topic a bit, it’s interesting that the campaign for universal male suffrage at this time was so low profile, compared with the campaign for female suffrage.  Despite the reforms of 1832, 1867 and 1884, millions of British men did not have the right to vote until 1918.  So why weren’t they doing all this militant campaigning as well?  This never gets asked.  It wasn’t mentioned at all in Lucy’s programme.  Well, those who still didn’t have the vote were those at the lowest end of the socio-economic scale, who wouldn’t have had the time or funds for campaigning – but you could say the same about a lot of the men, and women, who’d attended the large-scale rallies of the first half of the 19th century.  Think Peterloo.  Think the Chartists.  There were major developments taking place in trade unionism at this time, so were the blokes putting their attention into that, rather than into campaigning for the right to vote?  I wish someone would do a programme on that.  This year marks the 150th anniversary of the founding of the T.U.C. – in Manchester, of course!! – but that hasn’t had even a fraction of the attention that “Vote100” has.  Hmm.

Back to the subject of PR.  It’s a modern term, but the suffragettes were bloody good at it!  As Lucy pointed out, the image of women chained to railings is one that everyone knows, the iconic image of the suffragette movement – but it’s not something that actually happened very often.  It just got brilliantly publicised.  And then there are the suffragette colours – white for purity, green for hope, purple for dignity.  Everyone knows those colours.  Theresa May wore those colours on the centenary of the passing of the Representation of the People Act – a day which she marked by visiting Manchester, of course (just had to get that in!).   And this was turning the tables on the mockery shown by the Establishment, including sections of the media, which presented suffragettes as unfeminine, and made fun of them.  Being criticised, you can take.  Being made fun of, not being taken seriously – that’s horrendous.  It still happens now, with the so-called “liberal elite” and the scorn which they pour on anyone who doesn’t agree with them, but it was even worse at the time of the suffragettes.

What summed it up brilliantly was a bazaar featured as part of the docu-drama –selling the sort of things which Edwardian ladies were supposed to make, and sell, but also featuring a mock-up of a prison cell, so that visitors could see what suffragettes who’d been imprisoned for their activities were having to endure.  What a superb juxtaposition.  And a lot of women were being imprisoned, even before the really militant period of the campaign began – but, as Lucy explained, this actually boosted the movement.  What does the suffragette song in Mary Poppins say?  “Take heart!  For Mrs Pankhurst has been clapped in irons again”.  Lucy used the word “radicalised” – and that’s another modern term which fitted the events of the time perfectly.  Suffragettes bonded with each other during their time in prison.  When they were released, they were greeted by cheering crowds.  We’ve all seen the pictures of that.   Less well-known are the huge banquets which were held afterwards, to honour the suffragettes who’d done their stints in prison, and the medals – “For Valour”, the words used to accompany the Victoria Cross – presented to them.

It wasn’t all of the media.  One photographer hid in a cupboard so that he could jump out and take a photo when policemen came to arrest Emmeline Pankhurst (again) – another clever PR coup for the WSPU.  It wasn’t all of the Establishment, to be fair.  But it was enough of them.  The suffragettes tried doing things peacefully, in the tradition of those who attended the rally at St Peter’s Fields – and look how they were treated – and the Chartists.  They held huge rallies.  And even the more militant activities, such as the planned “rush” on Parliament, over which the arrest with the photographer in the cupboard took place, weren’t violent.  60,000 people attended that.  Sixty thousand.  Still, nothing was done.  And this wasn’t some sort of ultra-conservative government.  This was the reforming government which introduced Old Age Pensions and National Insurance.  And showed some sympathy for Irish Home Rule.

And this same government, the great Liberal reforming government, was the one which force-fed women on hunger strike.  Marion Wallace Dunlop, who deserves to be better-known than she was, was the driving force behind hunger striking – and it was really the first time that this tactic had been used.  It’s used a lot now, but it was new then.  And it’s horrible, but it’s very clever.  What do the authorities do?  Let people die?  Create martyrs?  Be seen as murderers?   They didn’t want to do that, so, instead, they fed them by force.  The descriptions of this, and they’re pretty well-known even if the name of Marion Wallace Dunlop isn’t, are horrific.  The bravery of the women who endured it, some of them over and over again, was incredible.  Doctors protested.  Public sympathy for the suffragettes increased.

And a truce was called.  At last, Parliament addressed the subject of women’s suffrage.  In came the first Conciliation Bill, which would have granted some women the vote.  It passed its first reading.  It passed its second reading.  But that was as far as it got.  Asquith refused to allow it any more parliamentary time.  Lucy said that it got lost amid all the chaos of the People’s Budget.  Two general elections in one year.  Reform of the House of Lords – and what a great shame that they didn’t just abolish it.  I’m not sure that I entirely agree with that, though.

Yes, there was a lot going on at the time.  Social reform.  The Irish Question.  Concerns about Germany.  But many of the leading Conservatives and Liberals just weren’t prepared to give women the vote, and that wasn’t just about misogyny – that women weren’t intelligent enough to understand politics, or were ruled by their emotions and couldn’t make sensible decisions, or were so soft that they’d oppose declaring war if it came to it -, it was also about self -interest and both parties believing that they’d lose out if women got the vote.  The Liberals had won by an absolute landslide in the “free trade” election of 1906.  After the second of the two elections in 1910, they could only hold on to power by forming a coalition with the Irish Nationalists, but they were still the biggest single party.  Some Conservatives, believing that women would vote as their husbands or fathers told them (seriously), thought that giving the vote to women would just double the Liberals’ advantage.  Some Liberals, on the other hand, thought that women were “conservative” by nature and that giving the vote to women would boost the Conservatives.  And some amongst both the Liberals and Conservatives thought that giving the vote to women would lead to universal male suffrage and boost the rise of the Labour Representation Committee.

Whatever the reason, the bill got chucked out – but it had got a lot of support from MPs.  That was the first bill, in 1910.  The second Conciliation Bill, introduced as a Private Members’ Bill, in 1911, passed its first reading.  Asquith tried to change things by proposing a bill to introduce universal male suffrage, and the whole thing got dropped.  In 1912, the third Conciliation Bill was narrowly defeated, and this seems to’ve been because the Irish Nationalists voted against their Liberal coalition allies because of fears that it’d take attention and parliamentary time away from the issue of Home Rule.

So what was going on?  Did MPs think that other issues were more important?  Or were they just making excuses because they weren’t prepared, when push came to shove, to see any women get the vote.  A bill to introduce universal male suffrage was also introduced in 1912, but got nowhere either.  But the first two Conciliation Bills did get passed, as far as they were allowed to, and the third one came close.

Was it all about Asquith?  The WSPU certainly seem to have blamed Asquith.  Whatever the truth of it, and it’s hard to assess, the mood turned more militant – especially after the disgraceful events of “Black Friday”, in November 1910, when, after the abandonment of the first Conciliation Bill, hundreds of suffragettes protesting outside Parliament were “kettled” – a controversial procedure still in use – and treated very brutally by police brought in from the East End.  There were tens of serious injuries.  Two women, including one of Emmeline Pankhurst’s sisters, died as a probable result of their injuries – which the programme didn’t actually mention.  Others were sexually assaulted by policemen who pulled their skirts up and twisted their breasts.  There were calls for a public inquiry.  They were ignored.  It’s beyond appalling that something like this should have happened in Westminster, and it says so much about the attitude of men towards women who defied convention, and about the attitude of the Establishment towards those who challenged their authority.  It’s well-named “Black Friday”: it’s a very black day in British history.

Is it any bloody wonder that the suffragettes turned militant after that?  You’re supposed to make your feelings known at the ballot box.  But how do you do that if you aren’t allowed to vote?  Peaceful protests hadn’t worked.  Even with support from MPs, no progress had been made.  But violent protest is wrong.  It has to be.  Smashing shop windows might not have hurt anyone, but it caused thousands of pounds’ worth of damage to the property of people who had nothing to do with the government.  Vandalising letterboxes and telegraph wires caused widespread disruption, and, again, most of those affected had nothing to do with the government.  And it swung public opinion against the suffragettes.  It also lost the support of many MPs – it’s a problem that existed then and a problem that continues to exist, that you do not want to be seen to be giving in to violence.  And it split the WSPU: some of its members thought that things had gone too far.

But else was there to try?  It was an impossible situation.  It is an impossible situation, when those excluded from power are treated in such a way – and it’s why lack of reform has so often led to civil war and or revolution, when that hasn’t been the original aim of those calling for reform.   There aren’t really any answers.  Just the arrogance of the Establishment – towards women, towards working-class men, towards nationalists in Ireland and India.  Sorry, but it’s hard not to go on a rant when you think about all this!   As Lucy said, the militant phase of the suffragette campaign – and she did use the word “terrorism”, and she justified doing that, but I just don’t like it – was wrong, but you can see, and how understand, how it came to that.  Especially the attacks on property, given that the society at the time seemed to value property more than it valued women.

The next part was the phase of the suffragette campaign which is best known.  Arson attacks, letter bombs, vandalism, and, of course, Emily Wilding Davison dying under the hooves of the king’s horse at the Derby.  By this time it was 1913.  Then came the Great War, and then, finally, in 1918, some women were given the vote.  Only in 1928 were women given the vote on equal terms with men.  How long would it have taken for women, and for all men, to be given the vote, had war not come?  We’ll never know.

Lucy summed it all up brilliantly at the end of the programme, saying what an important chapter in British history this was, and how the violence cannot be excused but how it raises crucial questions about who should have a say in running society, how far you should go to get that say, and to what extent does the end justify the means.  Those questions apply to a lot of struggles for civil rights.  They aren’t easy questions.  This programme really made the viewer think about them.  Very, very well done.