by Olivia Smith
Rosa May Billinghurst was branded the “cripple suffragette” by the press and her peers after a bout of childhood polio left her unable to walk. Known as ‘May’, she wore leg-irons and used either crutches or a modified tricycle.
Her visibility attracted a lot of attention to the movement, and unlike many of her middle-class peers, she was particularly concerned with gaining voting rights for poor women. As a young woman, she participated in social work in a Greenwich workhouse, as well as teaching in a Sunday School and joining the Band of Hope. Her work in a workhouse led her to believe that if women had the vote, they would use it to end poverty.
Undeterred by her disability, Billinghurst was a regular at suffrage demonstrations and used her adapted hand-tricycle to propel herself. Her tricycle was brightly decorated with flowers and in WSPU colours. Joining the militant Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1907. She took part in the WSPU march to the Royal Albert Hall in June 1908. Billinghurst helped organise the WSPU response in the Haggerston by-election in July 1908,polling was on the day that twenty-four suffragettes were released from Holloway prison and came around the area canvassing to ‘keep the Liberal out.’
In 1910, she founded the Greenwich Branch of the WSPU. In November 1910, as its first secretary, May took part in a suffrage demonstration that became known as ‘Black Friday’ because of the violent treatment of women by police. May was arrested after the police had capsized her from the trike. She knew that she was helpless when this happened, but she was quite prepared to take the added publicity to benefit the suffrage cause. On one occasion the police exploited her disability leaving her in a side street after letting her tyres down and pocketing the valves.
In 1911, May wasn’t going to give up without a fight and was arrested in Parliament Square for obstructing the police and sentenced to five days in prison. Apparently May would place her crutches on both sides of her tricycle and would charge any opposition. She meant business.
This wasn’t the first of May’s arrests. In March 1912, she partnered up with Glaswegian suffragette Janie Allan during the window-smashing campaign. It is said that May was very tactical, hiding a supply of stones under the rug that covered her knees. This campaign led to 220 suffragette arrests. The prison authorities were confused regarding her sentence to one month’s hard labour and gave her no extra work. May was one of them and was sentenced to one month’s hard labour at Holloway Prison. The window smashing campaign and subsequent arrests were reported widely in the press. Whilst many of the women involved are mentioned by name within the newspaper cuttings kept by the Home Office, Billinghurst is not. Her disability is however noted in an article from The Times, where she is referred to as ‘a cripple’.
1912 was the year of prison sentences for May, as she was handed an 8 month sentence for her role in the attacks on pillar boxes in Deptford. Why, what could she have possibly done to pillar boxes you ask? Well May became regularly involved in pouring black sticky substances into London pillar boxes, travelling from one box to another with bottles hidden beneath her rug. The intention was to destroy all the contents of the pillar boxes. It became so widespread that the Government claimed over 5000 letters had been damaged by the WSPU. Whilst in prison, she went on hunger strike and was forcibly-fed, which left her in poor health with facial wounds and damaged teeth. As a result of an appeal to the Home Secretary she was released on the 18 January.
The tide changed, when May in her tricycle marched with 6000 women who followed Emily Davison cortege to a memorial service in London. I’d like to think this evoked May’s next act for the movement. When in May 1914, The Suffragette reported that the police had again attacked her and destroyed her tricycle after she chained herself to the gates of Buckingham Palace.
When Britain declared war on Germany in August 1914, May supported Pankhurst’s decision to prioritise the war over the campaign for women’s rights. She did help Christabel Pankhurst’s campaign to be elected in Smethwick in 1918. However, she had joined the Women’s Freedom League and became part of the Suffragette Fellowship. May stopped her activity for women’s suffrage after Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918 gave some women the vote. She later attended the funeral of Emmeline Pankhurst and the unveiling of Emmeline’s statue in 1930.
May really proves that nothing is a hindrance if you believe in it enough. If anything she maximised her disability to the suffragette cause. A true inspiration.
Fran Abrams, Freedom’s Cause: Lives of the Suffragettes, (London: Profile Books, 2003)
About the Author:
Olivia is a public historian with an extensive historical research background in academic, television and guiding industries.
Having once been described as a ‘history nut’, Olivia’s passion for history drove her to excel in both Undergraduate and Postgraduate degrees at the University of Essex.
Her drive for public history stems from her experience as a Commonwealth War Graves Commission intern during the final months of the First World War centenary. Since then, Olivia has worked with Women of London, guiding and researching historical tours focussing on all aspects of female history and is currently working as a historical advisor in the television industry. Olivia is striving towards her careers goal of “the positive promotion of historical education for everyone”