Rosa May Billinghurst (1875-1953)
The Tricycle Suffragette
The ‘1939 Register’ lists Rosa May Billinghurst as a resident at ‘Minikor’, 2 Fordbridge Road, Sunbury-on-Thames. The Inland Revenue valuation record, c.1915, shows that ‘Minikor’ was situated on the north side of Fordbridge Road, within what was once the ‘Sunbury House’ estate (IR Valuation Office Records – IR/58 – Book 87995 – entry 301).
Known as ‘May’, she was the second of nine children born to the Billinghurst family in Lewisham, London. As a young child she contracted polio which left her almost unable to walk. She wore leg irons and used either crutches or a modified tricycle for mobility. Her parents hired a governess to help with May’s early education, but her disability made it impossible for her to go on to university.
In 1907, at the age of 32, May joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). She quickly became a familiar face at WSPU events and demonstrations and became widely known as the ‘cripple suffragette’ by the news media. Despite her disability, May joined about ten thousand women who marched to the Albert Hall in London, on Saturday 13 June 1908, where a mass meeting was held to demand more action from the Government.
In 1910, May founded the Greenwich branch of the WSPU and as its first secretary, took part in a demonstration outside the House of Commons in London on 18 November 1910, a day which became known as Black Friday. The suffragettes faced a six hour long onslaught from the police and many were assaulted as a small delegation attempted to enter parliament.
May knew full well that her hand-propelled tricycle, decked out in the WSPU purple, white and green ribbons, gave her a special advantage in the propaganda battle they were waging, but on this occasion May was unceremoniously tipped onto the ground during the struggle. The police re-seated her before taking her down a side road where they removed the tyre valves from the tricycle to leave her stranded. Some 159 women were arrested and later that day, May, aboard her tricycle, was carried into a police station by four policemen and charged with obstruction. May faced a prison sentence or fine, but Canon Row police station records for 21 November 1910 show that she was discharged due to lack of evidence.
In November 1911 May was arrested at another demonstration in Parliament Square, but it is believed that a five shilling fine was paid to secure her release.
In 1912, the suffragettes began a shop window smashing campaign in order to draw further attention to their cause. May became very involved as she was able to use her tricycle to convey bricks, carefully concealed underneath her rug. She was arrested by the police in March and sentenced to an impractical one month’s ‘hard labour’ in Holloway prison. May was released from Holloway on 11 April.
In December 1912, 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. On 17 December, May and another suffragette were finally spotted by a bystander who saw them at a pillar box and could see black fluid coming from beneath the door. The police were informed and the two women were immediately arrested.
At the Old Bailey on the 8 January 1913, May was sentenced to eight months imprisonment after conducting her own defence. 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 Government introduced the so-called ‘Cat and Mouse Act’ of 1913 which attempted to address the issue of forcible-feeding, but it resulted in a vicious circle. Suffragettes who had been allowed to go on a hunger strike without force-feeding and had become sufficiently weakened, were then released from prison in order to recover. When they had regained sufficient strength, they were re-arrested for the most trivial of offences and the whole process repeated again.
On 21 May 1914, May took part in a large WSPU demonstration outside Buckingham Palace, when a group of women attempted to breach the Palace gates in order to present their ‘Votes for Women’ petition to the King. Once again, May appears to have been involved in a fracas with the police, during which her tricycle was overturned. The suffragettes attempted to chain themselves to the Palace railings and Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst and 56 others were arrested.
The suffragettes continued to petition the Government and on a number occasions used loud hailers from the relative security of launches on the Thames, to shout abuse at the Houses of Parliament and nearby MPs.
Undoubtedly one of the most tragic moments in the history of the suffragette movement was when Emily Wilding Davison stepped in front of King George V’s horse, Anmer, at the Epsom Derby on the 4 June 1913. She died four days later on the 8 June. It is recorded that May, dressed in white on her tricycle, joined with 6000 women who followed Emily’s cortege to a memorial service in London on the 14 June 1913.
On the 4 August 1914, England declared war on Germany. The leadership of the WSPU began negotiations with the British government and, on the 10 August, the government announced it was releasing all the suffragettes who were in prison. In return, the WSPU agreed to end their militant activities and help the war effort. Millions of men went to war, joining the Services as volunteers or conscripts. Women stepped in to play a vital role in what had previously been men’s occupations in the civil service, dockyards, arsenals, factories, agriculture and transport.
In 1918, May helped Christabel Pankhurst in her attempt to represent ‘The Women’s Party’ in the House of Commons. 1918 brought the ‘Representation of the People Act’ and the ‘Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act’. The 1918 Representation of the People Act gave women of property over the age of 30, the right to vote – therefore not all women were able to vote. It was 1928 before women were given the vote on equal terms with men at the age of 21.
In 1922 May left Lewisham to stay with her artist brother, Alfred, in Regent’s Park village. In 1928, May attended Emmeline Pankhurst’s funeral, and in 1930 the unveiling of her statue situated beside the Palace of Westminster in London.
May never married but adopted a young girl named Beth, however Beth’s record is marked ‘closed’ in the 1939 Register. May was living at ‘Minikor’, 2 Fordbridge Road, Sunbury, by 1939 and remained there until her death in 1953 at the age of 78.
Contributed by Ken Battle.
Extracted from the artcicle by Battle, Ken. ‘The Tricycle Suffragette’. Sunbury and Shepperton Local History Society Journal, No.60.