Many years ago, I found an amazing album of Suffragette photographs and to my astonishment I saw a fearless women staring strongly into the camera, sitting in a rather fragile-looking wheel chair. I have often wondered if I could have been brave enough to join the suffragette cause, knowing that it could lead to brutality and imprisonment, but to be disabled and to still put yourself in such danger seems outrageously brave.
(Rosa) May Billinghurst was born in Lewisham in 1875 into a comfortable middle-class family but was left paralysed by illness when only 5 months old. Although she regained the use of her arms and hands but would never walk unaided, and relied on a tricycle/ wheel chair.
In her twenties, May Billinghurst became involved in charity work in the Greenwich and Deptford Union Work House. She was shocked at the horrific conditions, but especially the women who had been the victims of violent or drunk husbands, young girls who had been raped and left pregnant and women who had been left ill and destitute by the working appalling conditions in factories. It was undoubtedly this work that turned the young May to politics and the Suffragettes. She said:
“It was gradually unfolded to me that the unequal laws which made women inferior to men were the main cause of these evils. I found that the man-made laws of marriage, parentage and divorce placed women in every way in a condition of slavery – and were as harmful to men by giving them power to be tyrants.”
May Billinghurst joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) led by the Pankhurst’s and became one of their most active members, founding the Greenwich branch. She took part in the Black Friday demonstrations of 1910 and was one of the 159 women arrested. She was an impressive sight at demonstrations in her special tricycle decorated with the suffragette colours of green, white and purple. After more arrests, she was sentenced to eight months in Holloway for damage to letterboxes and later recalled her brutal treatment while on hunger strike:
“My head was forced back and a tube jammed down my nose. It was the most awful torture. I groaned with pain and I coughed and gulped the tube up and would not let it pass down my throat. Then they tried the other nostril and they found that was smaller still and slightly deformed, I suppose from constant hay-fever. The new doctor said it was impossible to get the tube down that one so they jammed it down again through the other and I wondered if the pain was as bad as chid-birth. I just had strength and will enough to vomit it up again and I see tears in the wardresses’ eyes.”
It took three Doctors and five wardens to force feed May and her mouth was eventually forced open using iron pincers, losing a tooth in the process. The experience caused an outrage in the Press and led to questions being asked in Parliament. She was released two weeks later on grounds of ill health. She went on to become a popular speaker, and took part in the funeral procession of Emily Wilding Davison two months later.Undeterred by her suffering, in 1914, May took part in the deputation to petition the King which turned into a violent battle between suffragettes and the police. At one point two policemen actually tipped May out of her tricycle but she was helped back in by other suffragettes.
May carried on supporting the WSPU throughout the war and attended Emmeline Pankhurst’s funeral in 1928. She spent the rest of her life quietly, first in a flat near Regent’s park and then in Surrey where she passed away in 1953.