Mrs Pankhurst faces down rowdy Cambridge undergraduates. 1910

“You disturb our meeting for the love of disturbing. We have disturbed Cabinet Ministers’ meetings because the Cabinet Ministers had something good to give us and would not, and went to try and make them. We went on business; you only come on pleasure. So that you are the illogical people, and we are the logical business people” (Applause).

Emmeline Pankhurst, Cambridge Guildhall, quoted in Cambridge Independent Press, Friday 03 June 1910.

The full article in the Cambridge Independent Press digitised by the Cambridge Newspaper Archive (it could do with a rescan!) is a significant one in both content and length. Reporters would take extensive shorthand notes and write them up before a type-setter painstakingly arranged the letters character-by-character ready for printing.

Above – when broadsheets were proper broadsheets in the days when photographs in newspapers were still in their infancy.

Unfortunately the text is too blurred to read the text of the first two columns. But it appears that the prepared remarks that Mrs Pankhurst had come with, were abandoned due to the disturbances from the undergraduates – historically mainly Conservative-supporting. Newspaper reports in the British Newspaper Archive have more than a few examples of left-wing students being seriously assaulted by their political adversaries – more than a few ending up dumped in the River Cam! When it came to party political violence and corruption, Cambridge’s Conservatives had form – as the General Election results of 1885 demonstrated. The leader of the Cambridge Liberals, Herbert Whibley, was lucky to have escaped injury – his house not being so lucky having every window put through by the mob.

“We want Christabel! Where is Christabel?!?”

…Shouted the undergraduates…not that they’d have stood a chance with her. Recall that the Suffragettes trained in martial arts. By 1910 Christabel had already graduated from the University of Manchester with a degree in law, and at the same time had already served a number of prison sentences and had not been put off from campaigning for votes for women. The photograph below from the National Portrait Gallery here, was taken a couple of years before her mother’s appearance in Cambridge.

Above – Dame Christabel Pankhurst in the National Portrait Gallery here. Photographed by Lallie Charles, published by Rotary Photographic Co Ltd, 1908.

Incredibly, one rare recording of Christabel in 1908 survives in the British Library. You can listen to it here.

Mrs Pankhurst tries a different approach – a Question and Answer session

Clearly getting nowhere with the hooting and zoo noises coming from the best that Edwardian-era private schools could throw at her, mindful that there were many in the audience who wanted to hear what she wanted to say going by the responses she got to her put-downs.

“I really have some interesting things to say to you if you will only make it easier for me. I am satisfied that there are some people in the hall that want to hear them. (Applause) I don’t for myself mind at all the interruptions from some of our young friends, because I am satisfied that we shall have the vote long before they are members of Parliament, and in a position to deal with this question. (Laughter and applause)”

Emmeline Pankhurst, Cambridge Guildhall

So Mrs Pankhurst started taking questions.

“There’s a gentleman over there who shouted an interjection I did not catch. (Shrill imitation of a female voice.) You see, there is absolutely no sense or humour in that interruption. (Laughter.) In the first place, I haven’t got a high, squeaking voice, and, after all, imitation of a woman’s voice is a very poor thing, and there is neither sense nor humour in it.

This is my first visit to Cambridge, and I should like to go away (applause) – to-morrow (laughter) – thinking that the women of this country have reason to be proud of the young men who are being trained as the future governors of the country, and I hope – (more singing) – at any rate that the men of the great University of Cambridge will not force me to agree with some of those who claim that women are superior to men. If you are superior to us, show it this evening! (Applause),

Emmeline Pankhurst, Cambridge Guildhall

The put-downs and comic timing from Mrs Pankhurst metaphorically burned the undergraduates time-and-again.

“There was every likelihood that this evening’s suffrage meeting was the last that would be held in Cambridge” (“Hooray!” yelled the undergraduates) …because for the first time in history there was a real probability that a Bill would be passed through Parliament during the present Session. (Applause).”

Emmeline Pankhurst, Cambridge Guildhall

After a while the police were summoned but to little effect. She then listed the names of senior politicians who she said she understood were to put their names to a Bill in Parliament in support of Votes for Women. When she read out the names of Sir Edward Grey and Winston Churchill, there were loud Boos from the undergraduates. A Proctor and two university constables then arrived and the undergraduates were described as being ‘under a spell’ as one of the ring leaders was escorted away.

When further shouts from the undergraduates at Suffragette tactics on interrupting meetings was made, Mrs Pankhurst responded:

“There has not yet been a Liberal Cabinet Minister who could not have kept order in his meeting by saying to the women who interrupted him, “We will put our Liberal principles into practice and give you the vote. (“He may be against it!”) What does a Liberal Minister say – taxation without representation is tyranny, that he believes in Government of the people, by the people, for the people. He says he believes government rests on the consent of the governed, and yet refuses to give women the opportunity of giving consent to the government under which they live.”


Emmeline Pankhurst, Cambridge Guildhall

Undergraduate makes for the flag

“One young man made a flying leap onto the platform and snatched up one of the flags. Before he could get away, several stewards pounced on him. Down he went. Several policemen rushed onto the platform. During the scuffle, part of the railings in front of the platform were broken and chairs went flying over onto the floor below. The platform was crowded with ladies, and there might have been serious consequences had there been anything in the nature of a panic, as the exits to the back of the platform are narrow and steep. As it was, several elderly ladies nearly fell down the stairs in their haste. Mrs Pankhurst very pluckily made her way to where the marauding undergraduate was struggling in the hands of the police and as the result of her intercession, the incident passed off quietly.

Cambridge Independent Press report, 03 June 1910

Mrs Pankurst was interviewed at the end of the event.

“”They haven’t been as bad to me as they sometimes are, I understand, to men.” She said with a smile.” [In 1907 when Labour leader Keir Hardie spoke at the Guildhall, Tory-supporting undergraduates hurled sexist and racist abuse at the Labour leader – there at the invitation of the Cambridge Fabian Society, several of whose number would go onto become prominent Labour figures in the interwar and post-WWII era]. “They are not so bad. It has been a very interesting meeting. It is a fair sample of some of the interruptions I have had to meet, but all that sort of thing has practically disappeared now, and we are getting quite orderly meetings. Of course there has not been so much work done by us latelylbut we shall not be content until every one of these young men are ardent supporters. We shall convert them in time. They have a reputation for coming for a bit of fun”

Mrs Pankhurst stayed overnight at Girton College, and left Cambridge for Manchester for another speaking event.

Journalist Catherine Tillyard slams the undergraduates

Former Mayoress Catherine Tillyard is one of my favourite historical figures in the history of Cambridge the town – yet so little seems to exist about her life outside of her newspaper columns. In the same edition of the Cambridge Independent she wrote up a column on what her experience was of the evening.

Catherine Tillyard – from Sheila Mann’s epic study of her daughter Aelfrida

One of the things she mentioned was the issue of hats – and people removing them so that as many people as possible could see the platform. But there was good reason.

“Many removed hats voluntarily, others willingly did so when asked. Indeed, it was important to get a view of both the speaker and the chairman, for no one could hear very much and some almost nothing of either”

Catherine Tillyard, Cambridge Independent Press, 03 June 1910.

Mrs Tillyard paid tribute to Mrs Pankhurst’s resilience in the face of such provocation.

“Mrs Pankhurst gained as much admiration and sympathy for what she was unable to say as for what she said. Her courage, patience, good humour, tact, and her very attractive and pleasing appearance charmed many who had gone to scoff. She was a surprise to them. I suppose they had expected to see a fierce, ill-mannered virago, with a coarse voice and forbidding style – why, who can tell? Prejudice is always inexplicable.”


Catherine Tillyard, Cambridge Independent Press, 03 June 1910.

Mrs Tillyard then tore into the entitled undergraduates – who were let in for free while those in the front seats paid.

“It was the men at the back who had been let in free, who by their silly noise cheated the peaceable folks who had paid for their seats and wanted to listen, who made such a pitiful contrast to the earnest, self-possessed woman who had worked and suffered for a cause she firmly believed in. That struck everyone. The woman had much the better of it. Who could say that the yelling, senseless males were fitter to vote than the well-behaved and serious women?

Catherine Tillyard

She then had some words of complaint about Cambridge University’s proctors and constables – the people supposed to keep discipline in the University.

Of course, in Cambridge one learns that the scuffing and shrieking mean very little, It is only the young male way of enjoying himself. Only it seemed to those who had paid for their tickets that the Proctors might just have been on the scene rather earlier and that if half a dozen of the ring leaders had been ejected as soon as they began to make themselves unpleasant, Mrs Pankhurst might have been able to deliver her speech.

Catherine Tillyard

Mrs Tillyard noted that the question and answer session was better heard, and Mrs Pankhurst effortlessly dealt with then, frivolous, ignorant, or serious. She concluded that Mrs Pankhurst’s visit had done a significant amount of good towards the cause of Votes for Women, and thanked the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage in Cambridge for organising the event.


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