8 Dec 2011

Bodleian treasures: Suffragettes demand the vote


“What struck me was the sheer scale of that 1908 Hyde Park rally” – Channel 4 News presenter Cathy Newman on documents from a Suffragette march, on display at the Treasures of the Bodleian exhibition.

Treasures of the Bodleian graphic

The movement for female suffrage was little more than a decade old when, on Sunday 21 June 1908, London’s Hyde Park saw a huge Suffragette demonstration.

Estimates put the size of the crowd that day at between 200,000 and 300,000. The women were campaigning for voting rights on equal terms with men – an ambition they did not achieve until 1928.

“What really struck me was the sheer scale of that rally in Hyde Park,” says Channel 4 News presenter Cathy Newman. “The numbers even shocked the ‘queen bee’ of the Suffragettes, Emmeline Pankhurst.”

Indeed, in her autobiography Pankhurst writes: “Never had I imagined that so many people could be gathered together to share in a political demonstration.”

‘Dainty and elegant and charming’

The Treasures of the Bodleian exhibition at Oxford’s Bodleian Library contains a variety of souvenirs from the 1908 demonstration.

In addition to an official programme, suggesting the rally was well organised, the display includes tickets to the event in the Suffragette colours of purple, green and white – purple for dignity, white for purity, and green for hope (see image below).

London department stores are reported to have sold out of white dresses, as well as purple, white and green accessories, ahead of the protest.

The Bodleian also holds several postcard photographs from the demonstration, including one of Flora Drummond, a prominent Suffragette, apparently haranguing MPs from a boat on the Thames outside the House of Commons. A banner on the boat reads: “Cabinet Ministers Specially Invited”.

Although the rally was widely reported at the time, some of the newspaper articles appear patronising to a modern audience.

One piece in the Daily Mail four days after the event, for example, noted: “A great many people never realised until yesterday how young and dainty and elegant and charming most leaders of the movement are.”