Riotous Assembly: Cops Storm Glasgow Women's Rally

The first wave of the worldwide struggle for women’s rights was centred on the suffragette movement in the UK. It was the activities of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WPSU) led by Emmeline Pankhurst which captured the greatest attention and which was finally dramatised in the 2015 film Suffragette. This article chronicles an equally important but little known chapter in this movement’s momentous history.

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A phalanx of police surrounded St Andrew’s Hall on all sides. With their uniform of tightly buttoned dark blue tunics, long winter coats and custodian helmets, they presented a formidable barrier for the thousands of women to pass through. It was March 9th 1914 and the British Empire was on the eve of its “Great War”. But it was the war at home which occupied the government’s attention as Emmeline Pankhurst prepared to speak in Glasgow’s premier concert hall.


Built in 1877 by an anonymous private company for a cost of £100,000 (around £3m in today’s money), St Andrew’s Halls boasted superb internal decor and an a capacity for holding 4,500 people in its main hall alone.. The facility did not quite reach the heights of Milan’s La Scala. However, it did enjoy something of a celebrity status in the pantheon of Europe’s cultural highspots. Indeed the great Italian tenor Enrico Carusso, who had performed there on two previous occasions, was amongst those who praised it for its acoustic qualities.



Modelled on ancient Greek architecture, the building featured a sturdy façade of standard Grecian columns. Its already imposing structure was reinforced by the titanic figures of Atlas, complimented by several more decorative, columns of female maidens in a supporting role. In its own way this reflected the prevailing social structure, one whose cage was being severely rattled by the militant suffragette movement.


It was one thing for this building to host great performers such as Carusso or to convene mass rallies with politicians such as Lloyd George, but having someone such as Emmeline Pankhurst address a seditious assembly of suffragettes was not just an afront to the class values of this particular edifice but to the foundations of society’s power structure itself.


The halls were built in 1877 during the reign of Victoria, Empress of India, ruler of Africa and Queen of Britain and Ireland. Victoria was little more than a figurehead, a diminuitive devotee of imperialism and its grandees of big capital. . It was scarcely suprprising then that, despite her sex, she herself was the most intransigent opponent of women’s rights.


I am most anxious to enlist everyone who can speak or write to join in checking this mad, wicked folly of 'Women's Rights', with all its attendant horrors, on which her poor feeble sex is bent, forgetting every sense of womanly feelings and propriety. Feminists ought to get a good whipping. Were woman to 'unsex' themselves by claiming equality with men, they would become the most hateful, heathen and disgusting of beings and would surely perish without male protection."


And whipped they would be! The male officers of Glasgow’s blue-coated brutes were not surrounding St Andrews Halls to protect the women. And nor was this the purpose of the dozens of plain clothes cops lurking in the lavatories and side corridors of the hall before the rally commenced. Quite the contrary, the police viewed the suffragettes as a group of seditious amazons, with Emmeline Pankhurst cast in the role of a modern Hippolyta. [In classical Greek mythology Hippolyta was queen of the Amazons. The name itself denotes “horse” and “let loose”}


The ostensible purpose of the police cordon was to prevent Pankhurst from exercising her democratic right to address the suffragette rally. This was sanctioned under the government’s Cat and Mouse Act, which allowed the authorities to release the suffragette hunger strikers from prison under temporary licence and to be re-arrested once they were deemed healthy enough to begin their prison term again.


The ostensible purpose of the police cordon was to prevent Pankhurst from exercising her democratic right to address the suffragette rally. This was sanctioned under the government’s Cat and Mouse Act, which allowed the authorities to release the suffragette hunger strikers from prison under temporary licence and to be re-arrested once they were deemed healthy enough to begin their prison term again.


Pankhurst had already been arrested prior to a rally in Covent Garden in January of that year and was subsequently released after going on hunger strike. It was a Tom and Jerry farce but one with real claws and teeth. The cat was chasing the mouse again this time in Glasgow. Against the former’s brute force, the mouse proved to be quite inventive. Rumour had it that Pankhurst was smuggled into the rally concealed in a laundry basket. Other reports say that she simply walked through police lines. Either way the indomitable fighter took her place on the rally platform alongside Scottish suffragette leaders such as Flora Drummond and Helen Crawfurd.


Knowing that the police would stop at nothing to prevent her speaking, the rally organisers set up an elaborate defence system of barbed wire fencing concealed behind the bouquets of flowers which lined the platform. A second line of defence was also provided by suffragette self-defense guards trained in jujitsu. Ultimately, both proved to be ineffective against the police assault on the platform.


Pankhurst spoke for 2 minutes and noted how the government’s response to the democratic demand of suffragettes differed so much to their capitulation in face of the the Ulster loyalists revolt against Irish Home Rule.


No sooner had she referred to “the wit and ingenuity of women [who] have overcome the power of money and the British government”, than the police charged wielding their truncheons against anyone and everyone who stood in their way.


Witnesses to the event testified to the indiscriminate cop violence and in particular to the way in which Pankhurst was manhandled and dragged headfirst down the platform stairway, her face bloodied and her shins badly bruised as a result.


Even the The Glasgow Herald, the paper of the local establishment , was forced to give a flavour of the police attack:


“Unparalleled scenes of disorder took place. Police stormed the platform, and for several minutes a fierce struggle ensued.between them and Mrs Pankhurst’s supporters, several persons being injured.”


The struggle was fierce but nevertheless quite one-sided as the cops gave no quarter in their determination to enforce their masters’ instructions. One woman who protested the brutal treatment of Pankhurst was herself the recipient of several blows from a policeman’s truncheon before being kicked down the stairs and trampled over by the arresting officers. As one observer put it:


“it is perhaps not wonderful that the Glasgow police, feeling themselves to be employed on a degrading mission, and irritated, as will happen, by the very feebleness of the handful of women who put up nevertheless such a spirited resistance, lost their heads, and did deeds of which right thinking men can only be ashamed


But the women were not quite so feeble!


Amongst the defence guard for Pankhurst was a Glaswegian suffragette named Janie Allen. She herself had been incarcerated in Holloway prison in London and went on hunger strike. Released under the Cat and Mouse Act, she returned to Glasgow and took her place alongside Pankhurst. Some of the defence guard had batons but Janie carried a revolver with blank rounds which she fired in an effort to divert the police assault.


It caused a bit of excitement but not enough to deter the police charge and the bloodiness of their assault. Pankhurst’s own account of the meeting bears witness to that.


“The bodyguards and members of the audience vigorously repelled the attack, wielding clubs, batons, poles, planks or anything they could seize while the police laid about right and left with their batons, their violence being far the greater. Men and women were seen on all sides with blood streaming down their faces, and there were cries for a doctor.


"In the middle of the struggle several revolver shots rang out, and the woman who was firing the revolver - which I should explain was loaded with blank cartridges only - was able to terrorise and keep at bay a whole body of police. I had been surrounded by members of the bodyguard, who hurried me towards the stairs from the platform. The police, however, overtook us and in spite of the resistance of the bodyguard, they seized me and dragged me down the narrow stair at the back of the hall. There was a cab waiting. I was pushed violently into it and thrown on the floor, the seats being occupied by as many constables as could crowd inside”


However, it was one thing to arrest Pankhurst and get her out of St Andrew’s Hall. It was quite another to get her back to Holloway Prison in London. This too involved a devious game of cat and mouse to avoid militant women’s efforts to free Pankhurst from her captors.

Even outside the hall, the police didn’t have it all their own way as dozens of suffragettes attempted to block the car’s getaway. As the Chicago Tribune reported:


“A strong body of mounted police surrounded the taxicab and defeated all attempts at rescue. Mrs Pankhurst was then hurried to Central Police station where she will spend the night”


The New York Times of March 10 added a bit more detail but confirmed the determination of the state to arrest and imprison her.


“A big body of women made a desperate and ferocious attempt to rescue Mrs Pankhurst when the police got her in the street and while she was being dragged across the pavement to the waiting motor; but the police, headed by London officers, succeeded in getting her to the station. She will be taken to London tomorrow.”


As the sufragettes mounted pickets at major transport outlets, this was easier said than done. After storming the rally and bundling Pankhurst into the awaiting taxi cab, the police mounted an equally clandestine and immensely elaborate operation to transport her from her jail cell in Glasgow to a more secure cell in Holloway. The mechanics of this furtive endeavour were reported by The Times as follows:


“The Glasgow police succeeded in getting Mrs. Pankhurst away without any demonstration. It was expected that she would be removed by the 10 o’clock train from the Central Station, and sympathizers gathered both at the police office and at the station. By drawing two lorries up against the women’s motor-cars at the former point, however, the police prevented any interference with the removal of the prisoner from their headquarters. Mrs. Pankhurst refused to walk from her cell, and she was accordingly strapped to a stretcher and carried to a motor-car, in which she was taken, not to the Central Station, but to Coatbridge, eight miles out of Glasgow, where the train was specially stopped and she was carried into it. Officers from Scotland Yard were in charge of her.”


It was the end of the chase and shorttly thereafter the end of the suffragettte movement.

In August that year the very same rulers who had waged war on Pankhurst and her army of freedom fighters, turned their guns against Germany. Pankhurst responded as a loyal class patriot by suspending the women’s campaign and transforming it into recruiting sergeants for the killing fields in France and Belgium. It was a betrayal of all women fighting oppression and in particular of working class women who suffered the most from their second class status, whether in Britain or Germany.


However, alongside the young Sylvia Pankhurst in London, Glasgow’s socialist-feminist Helen Crawfurd, who had shared the platform with Pankhurst, continued to keep the banner of women’s emancipation flying high. In the midst of helping to lead the Glasgow women’s rent strike of 1915, she fought vigorously for the interests of working people - both men and women – against the warmakers and exploiters who continued to oppress them. In the aftermath of the war, these class cleavages within the feminist movement became even more acute as many of the WPSU leaders became guardians of a social order trembling from the shock waves of the Russian revolution.


However, that as they say, is another story.

[For anyone interested in discovering more about this period, Glasgow has it’s very own women’s library which is the only accredited museum in the UK dedicated to women’s lives, histories and achievements. Their online address is: https://womenslibrary.org.uk/ ]