In the 19th century women weren’t allowed to vote. Organised suffragist campaigns began to appear in 1866 and campaigns continued for many years, with some members becoming more militant when their views were ignored. It wasn’t until 6 February 1918 that legislation allowed all women over 30 who owned a property the right to vote. […]
Prisoners at HMP Bristol (Horfield Prison) have been exploring suffrage and women’s rights by engaging directly with historical artefacts and documents from 1909, when five suffragettes were imprisoned in Bristol.
Working in collaboration with feminist Bristol based street artist Rozalita, they have created a mural on the wall leading to the prison wing in which the Suffragettes were held.
The Horfield Five
In November 1909, five women were imprisoned at Horfield Prison: Theresa Garnett, Ellen Pitman, Vera Wentworth, Mary Sophia Allen, and Jessie Lawes. They were campaigning against Churchill, who had come to Bristol to deliver a speech opposing votes for women.
Theresa Garnett was an active Suffragette involved in a number of protests in London and Liverpool. This included chaining herself to a statue in the Houses of Parliament and gate crashing a reception at the Foreign Office to celebrate King Edward VII’s birthday. However, her most notorious action took place at Temple Meads Railway Station in Bristol in November 1909, when she was accused of assaulting Winston Churchill with a horsewhip. Dressed in a ‘merry widow’ hat, and while surrounded by detectives, she lashed out at him, calling out:
“Take that in the name of the insulted women of England!”
She refused to give her real name when arrested, declaring her name to be ‘Votes for Women’.
She was found guilty of disturbing the peace. Interestingly, although all the newspapers of the time feature similar accounts (and even Votes for Women in November 1909 mentions that she struck him several times), Garnett herself was later adamant she had not touched him. Her sentence was a month’s imprisonment in Horfield Gaol. She was later awarded the ‘Hunger Strike Medal for Valour’ by the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU).
Four other Suffragettes were imprisoned for their protest actions during Churchill’s visit to Bristol in November 1909. Nurse Ellen Pitman sent a message to Churchill on a brick, through the plate glass window of the Post Office on Small Street. Vera Wentworth broke windows at the Liberal Club in Bristol. During her imprisonment she was force fed twice a day. Mary Sophia Allen and Jessie Lawes broke windows at the Board of Trade Office in Bristol. This was Mary’s third sentence of 1909. Whilst mending men’s shirts in prison, she embroidered ‘Votes for Women’ into the shirt tails.
Churchill’s visit to Bristol
Churchill came to Bristol to deliver a speech opposing votes for women in November 1909. Theresa Garnett became nationally famous for confronting him at Temple Meads Station.
The Daily Western Press reported, “The assault on Mr Churchill created a considerable sensation, not only in Bristol, but also through the country.” The London evening papers thundered “Winston Churchill flogged in Bristol”. The New York Herald of November 14, 1909 even featured an article with the heading “Mr Winston S Churchill Lashed by Suffragettes”.
She was arrested for assault but was found guilty of disturbing the peace. A contemporary report stated that she had not actually hit Churchill. Her sentence was a month’s imprisonment in Horfield Prison. She was later awarded the ‘Hunger Strike Medal for Valour’ by the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU).
Following the incident, Churchill’s speech at Colston Hall (now Bristol Beacon) was disrupted and he was subjected to severe heckling by male supporters of votes for women. Bouncers were posted outside to prevent women from entering the meeting. A man was ejected for asking why the Liberal Government didn’t give votes to women. Another man was beaten by stewards, causing a great disturbance with chairs sent flying in all directions, for highlighting the torture of imprisoned women, saying
“They have tortured female political offenders during the past six months – why doesn’t the Liberal Government put its principles into practice?”
The Suffragette Education Project
A Blue Plaque at HMP Bristol to suffragette Theresa Garnett was unveiled in October 2021. Bristol Civic Society facilitated the installation of the Blue Plaque on the old prison gate. It’s believed to be the first Blue Plaque to be placed on a working prison.
The Horfield Five is a collaborative project between HMP Bristol, Weston College, Bristol Civic Society and Bristol Museums. The project has been led by Emma Lilwall, resident artist and lecturer for Weston College.
As part of the Suffragette Education Project prisoners have explored the stories of the Suffragettes who were imprisoned at Horfield, and connected Theresa Garnett’s story with present-day women’s rights issues. They have looked at the history of mural art and particularly street art in Bristol. Working in collaboration with feminist Bristol based street artist Rozalita, they have created a mural on the wall leading to the prison wing in which the Suffragettes were held. There have also been creative writing workshops, a T-Shirt design competition, a presentation from author Lucienne Boyce (author of The Bristol Suffragettes), and display material has been brought into the prison from Bristol Library Service.
Suffragette poetry by prisoners at HMP Bristol
Not Much Has Changed
Don’t force feed me.
Not your opinions on what I should wear,
Or “you can’t go there”
Not your reasons to silence my voice,
Or to take away my choice
Not inadequate measures to make me feel safe,
Or to manipulate me into place.
Don’t force feed me.
Not your outdated ideas,
Or blaming me for your fears,
Not that I am the cause of your behaviour,
Or that I need you to be my saviour,
Not that I deserve to be punished
Because you feel diminished.
Don’t force feed me!
The weight of my actions,
Come with heavy consequence,
Responsibilities cannot be taken lightly,
Buoyant with the commitment to change,
Through the crimson fog,
A lash strikes.
Step closer to suffrage,
Sentinels of the state,
Thwart her night.
Sat in her cell,
She’s done for the night.