We have not yet made ourselves a match for the police, and we have got to do it. The police know jiu-jitsu. I advise you to learn jiu-jitsu. Women should practice it as well as men.
Don’t come to meetings without sticks in future, men and women alike. It is worth while really striking. It is no use pretending. We have got to fight.
- Suffragette leader Sylvia Pankhurst, quoted in the New York Times on August 12th, 1913.
By 1913, the sociopolitical battle that was the British women’s suffrage movement had reached a boiling point. Faced with the practice of hunger striking by jailed Suffragette leaders, the government responded with the so-called “Cat and Mouse Act“; an unprecedented amendment to the law that allowed prisons to deal with starving prisoners without resorting to the highly controversial methods of forced feeding. Under the new Act, a starving suffragette could be released from jail, allowed time on the outside to recover her health, and then be re-arrested on the original charge.
To keep their leaders free as long as possible, as well as to protect them against run of the mill assaults by irate defenders of the status quo, the Women’s Social and Political Union created a secret society known as The Bodyguard. Numbering 25 or 30 athletic and dedicated women, the Bodyguard was charged with providing security at Suffragette rallies throughout the UK.
The Bodyguard took their duties seriously and, following Sylvia Pankhurst’s advice, started training in the Japanese martial art of jujitsu, which had been introduced to London some 15 years previously by Edward William Barton-Wright, the founder of the eccentric and eclectic self defence art of Bartitsu. They were trained in a succession of secret locations by Edith Garrud, who was among the very first professional jujitsu instructors in the Western world. Journalists, delighted by this colourful wrinkle in an already juicy story, quickly dubbed the Bodyguard the “jujitsuffragettes”.
Along with their practical duties, the Bodyguard also became something of a symbolic rallying point as the Suffrage movement became ever more radical. They served an important role as agents of propaganda, ensuring that women’s suffrage stories stayed in the newspaper headlines; a necessary and valuable tactic towards winning over hearts and minds.
Many colourful stories are told of the adventures of the Bodyguard. After one window-smashing protest, Edith Garrud reminisced, she led a group of suffragettes fleeing the police through the back-alleys of London to her dojo (martial arts school), where the fugitives hid their weapons in trapdoors hidden under the mats. By the time the “bobbies” came knocking at the door, they found only a group of young women innocently practicing jujitsu.
Although vastly outnumbered by the police, the Bodyguard accomplished several truly impressive victories. On the night of February 10th, 1914, Suffragette leader Mrs. Emmeline Pankhurst (Sylvia’s mother and a fugitive under the Cat and Mouse Act) was scheduled to give a speech to the public in Camden Square. By 8.00 that evening, the Square was filled with both pro- and anti-suffrage citizens and with a large contingent of police constables. Mrs. Pankhurst appeared on a balcony high above the Square and, pulling up the veil of her hat, delivered a rousing address, finishing by taunting the police and the government:
I have reached London tonight in spite of armies of police. I am here tonight, and not a man is going to protect me, because this is a woman’s fight, and we are going to protect ourselves! I am coming out amongst you in a few minutes and I challenge the government to re-arrest me!
When the tiny, veiled woman did emerge at street level, escorted by members of the Bodyguard, the police quickly swept in. Bodyguard Katharine Willoughby Marshall rallied the crowd: “It’s Mrs. Pankhurst, friends! Don’t let her be arrested!” The crowd surged forward but the police pounced first. When the constables pulled out their truncheons, the Bodyguard responded in kind, drawing hardwood Indian clubs (bowling-pin shaped clubs intended for exercise classes) from the bustles of their long dresses. There was a short, bloody fight, but the police managed to seize their target. She was struck on the head and thrown to the ground, where several men held her down with their full body weight, causing her to pass out due to asphyxiation. Six policemen then lifted her unconscious body to shoulder height and began to push their way through the roiling crowd, as Katherine Marshall called out again, “Help Mrs. Pankhurst!”
The Bodyguard continued to batter the police as they made their way towards the nearby Ladbroke Grove station, at which point, bruised and exhausted, they discovered that the veiled women they had captured was a decoy; the real Mrs. Pankhurst was long gone, having simply waited out the excitement in the balconied house at Camden Square before being spirited away by the Bodyguard and a “smart woman driver”.
By far the most dramatic event in the history of the Bodyguard, though, took place about a month later. The “Battle of Glasgow” occurred at a Suffragette meeting at St. Andrew’s Hall in Glasgow, Scotland. As Mrs. Pankhurst had written in a letter to her friend Ethel Smyth:
Whatever happens will hit the Government. If I get away they will again be laughed at, and if I am taken the people will be roused. The fools hurt themselves every time.
The Bodyguard had travelled up from London by train, spending an uncomfortable night in a third-class carriage before booking into a local hotel under the guise of a theatrical troupe.
On the evening of March 9th, St Andrew’s Hall was packed to capacity with a crowd largely sympathetic to the Suffragettes’ cause. The Bodyguard carefully surveyed the crowd from their vantage point, a semi-circle of chairs set up on the stage directly behind the speaker’s podium. Garlands of white and purple flowers decorated the edge of the stage and banners bearing the Suffragette mottoes, “Deeds Not Words” and “Votes for Women” were strung high above them.
The Glasgow police had taken no chances, surrounding the entire hall with a cordon and also stationing 50 constables in the basement. The atmosphere was tense, even more so when the appointed hour of 8.00 came and went with no sign of Mrs. Pankhurst. Many members of the audience doubted that she could possibly break through the cordon, no matter how many Bodyguards she might have to help her. Thus, when she suddenly appeared on the stage, the effect was like magic; though, as with the most apparently sophisticated illusions, the principle was simple misdirection. After spreading a rumour that she would attempt to breach the cordon, she had in fact arrived at the hall early and in disguise, paid for her ticket like any other member of the public, and taken a seat close to the platform.
I have kept my promise and in spite of his Majesty’s Government I am here tonight.
Very few people in this audience, very few people in this country, know how much of the nation’s money is being spent to silence women. But the wit and ingenuity of women is overcoming the power and money of the Government!
My text is – equal justice for men and women, equal political justice, equal legal justice, equal industrial justice and equal social justice!
That was as far as she got before being interrupted by the heavy tread of police boots, as the squadron in the basement made their way upstairs to the hall. Just as the helmeted head of the lead constable, a giant of a man, appeared in the doorway, Janie Allen, a Scottish Bodyguard who was wearing an elegant black evening gown, stood up from her seat, drew a pistol and fired it straight at his chest. There was a deafening blast and the constable fell back into his colleagues, believing that he had been shot – but in fact, the pistol was loaded with blanks.
As the startled and angry police struggled to climb past the panicked giant in the doorway, the Bodyguard pulled out their Indian clubs and took up a defensive formation around Mrs. Pankhurst, who continued to speak over the commotion. The police finally broke through onto the stage and a fearsome fight took place; 25 women armed with Indian clubs and jujitsu vs. 50 truncheon-wielding police constables. The audience began to jeer and boo at the police, drowning out the speech they had come to hear.
Pandemonium now reigned in the hall. Several plain-clothes detectives, who had been hiding in the crowd, attempted to blindside the Bodyguard by climbing onto the platform, but were repelled by a barrier of barbed wire that had been hidden in the floral garlands decorating the edge of the stage. Old ladies then stood up and belaboured the detectives with their umbrellas. Chairs and tables were overturned as the combatants on the stage swung and jabbed, grappled and fell. Gert Harding, the Canadian woman who was the tactical leader of the Bodyguard, was not allowed to risk arrest by being caught with a weapon and was therefore unarmed when a constable raised his truncheon at her. She later recalled being surprised when he seemed to change his mind at the last instant and, instead, threw her into a pile of toppled chairs.
Eventually, the constables overwhelmed the Bodyguard resistance and hauled Mrs. Pankhurst off to a waiting police cab, her clothes torn to shreds during the struggle. The audience was outraged, particularly when the detectives attempted to break up the meeting, and angrily shouted them down; the meeting was, in fact, legal and they carried on with it, hearing speeches by other Suffragette leaders. Afterwards the crowd marched to the Central Police Station in St. Andrew’s Square, forming a mob of protestors that was estimated to include some 4,000 people, chanting their support for Mrs. Pankhurst until they were dispersed by police on foot and horseback.
The “Battle of Glasgow” changed the course of the Suffrage movement. As Mrs. Pankhurst had predicted, her arrest at St. Andrew’s Hall roused her supporters to a new pitch. The next day, a Suffragette named Mary Richardson protested the arrest by taking a meat cleaver to the Rokeby Venus, a famous and very valuable painting hanging in London’s National Art Gallery, later saying:
I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the Government for destroying Mrs. Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history.
Thereafter, the Suffragettes’ protests by arson and vandalism became more frequent and much more destructive, provoking a backlash both from within the WSPU and from the general public as well. The Bodyguard continued their duties, however, including an infamous street fight with the police outside Buckingham Palace on May 21 that left one constable knocked unconscious and many people injured.
The outbreak of the First World War, though, put an end to the Bodyguard and to most radical Suffragette activity, as Mrs. Pankhurst decided that “votes for women” would be meaningless if England was conquered by Germany. Instead, she urged her supporters to throw their strengths and skills into supporting the government for the duration of the crisis, including many activities that were formerly considered to be strictly “men’s work”.
In March of 1918, the Representation of the People Act was passed, granting voting rights to some eight million British women.