Emily Wilding Davison’s infamy was guaranteed when she stepped in front of the King’s horse, Anmer, at the 1913 Epsom Derby. Emily, in a long campaign of civil disobedience as a member of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), was a vociferous agitator for equal voting rights with men. In late 1911, she attempted to set fire to the contents of the pillar box outside the Post Office on Parliament Street, London, almost at the epicentre of Britain’s government. Caught red-handed with a package of kerosene soaked rags and a lit match, her arresting officer had been ordered to patrol city Post Offices. His vigilance earned Emily a trip to the Old Bailey and a six month prison sentence. Whilst serving her sentence at Holloway Prison, Emily recorded her motivation in Incendiarism, a document archived in The Women’s Library Archive at the London School of Economics, stating that ‘the next step to window breaking was incendiarism’.
Davison’s arson conviction only merited a small mention in the WSPU’s weekly newspaper, The Suffragette, yet the tactic proved popular. On the night of 28 November 1912, simultaneous attacks across London resulted in hundreds of letters being damaged, leading Scotland Yard to repeat its surveillance. The following month, the Post Office’s Weekly Circular offered a reward for the ‘person who obtains the arrest of an offender’. By the end of 1912, 5,000 letters had been damaged during attacks on letter boxes. Emily argued that her motivation was to highlight the ‘vindictive’ sentencing disparities between working-class suffragettes and those from a socially elevated background, to raise the question of Woman Suffrage in the King’s imminent speech to parliament and to escalate militancy.
The Post Office was one of the oldest institutions of the state and as the Royal Mail, continues the tradition of post boxes bearing the cipher of the reigning monarch. Pillar boxes, their royal ciphers an obvious, stationary and plentiful emblem of Crown and State, were increasing casualties in the fight for female enfranchisement. Before mass media communication, the Post Office was the conduit for crucial business and community transactions. Suffragettes used various methods of targeting the post and while some stunts amused, such as sending human letters to 10 Downing Street, others were designed to disrupt commerce and the smooth running of society. Attacks were condemned as vandalism. In targeting the post, crusading suffragettes were symbolically attacking the ruling men who denied them political agency. Their divisive campaign was not universally supported as it subverted the accepted social mores, with the perception of the suffragette as the stereotypical female hysteric.
What began spontaneously, evolved into an orchestrated policy and attacks intensified. Post Offices had windows smashed with hammers, stones or any heavy implement near to hand, often with a calling-card attached, such as a brick wrapped in suffragette colours, to emphasise suffragette agency. Attacks on post boxes proliferated and un-corked bottles of liquid were found inside envelopes marked with WSPU slogans, chemicals would be posted to ignite on opening or the contents of post boxes set on fire. In 1912, The Times reported that mail in several cities was damaged or destroyed when the contents of pillar boxes were either set on fire or doused with a black varnish. In Liverpool, oil-stained rags and spent matches were found inside pillar boxes and at Kew, permanganate of potash was used to destroy post. On another occasion, phosphorus was discovered when a pillar box was emptied and the mail inside burst into flames once air hit the chemical.
As a tactic, the arson and vandalism targeting post boxes divided public opinion; it indiscriminately impacted all classes of society. Judges who presided over suffragette trials condemned the action and warned that it could produce ‘direst mischief’; stopping a loved one saying goodbye to a dying family member, or denying someone urgent employment. Distancing the WSPU from an unpopular tactic, Christabel Pankhurst later claimed that rather than set fire to post boxes, many suffragettes deposited charred paper into the boxes to ‘give an impression of militancy’. However, high-ranking suffragette Annie Kenney endorsed the tactic and stated that she ‘gloried’ in the suffragettes’ continued activism. She implored suffragettes to ‘fire letter boxes if necessary’ and ‘attack every window and pillar box without getting caught’. The unpopular tactic appeared to contribute to a decreasing circulation of their newspaper, as their sales figures reduced dramatically to coincide with events. However, Emmeline Pankhurst refuted this and stated that they were more successful when militant.
Records show that between summer 1913 and summer 1914 around 500 post boxes were targeted, over 4,000 letters were damaged and 114 were destroyed. It was reported that three postmen had been injured on duty. One postman, Arthur Stockwell, suffered burns to one of his hands after emptying a pillar box that had been vandalised with sulphuric acid on Fulham Road, Chelsea. In attacking something as accessible as the pillar box, the suffragettes, as stated by Emily Wilding Davison, ‘might have done with perfect ease a great deal more damage’ than they did; but they did just enough, they believed, to highlight the cause of Woman Suffrage.
British Newspaper Archives
British Postal Museum and Archive
Emily Wilding Davison’s Papers, The Women’s Library Archive, LSE
Old Bailey Online,