As this year marks a 100 years since women won the right to vote as I was reading about the suffragette I found a story about Rosa May Billinghurst the disabled suffragette and women’s rights activist she was known as the ‘cripple suffragette’ I found myself wanting to know more about Rosa may Billinghurst and how she campaigned in a tricycle.
So here’s her story
Rosa May Billinghurst was born in 1875 in Lewisham London, a well-educated woman from a middle-class family her father was a banker and her mother came from a family who manufactured pianos, as a child she survived polio but it left her unable to walk so wore leg-irons and used either crutches or a modified tricycle to get around, Rosa became active in social work in a Greenwich workhouse for the poor teaching in a Sunday school and joining the temperance band of hope.
She became a useful member of the Women’s Liberal Association, then in 1907 she became a member of the WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union) Despite her disability this didn’t seem to stop her she took an active part in the WSPU’s march to the Royal Albert Hall in June 1908. Rosa also helped organise the WSPU’s response in the Haggerston by-election in July 1908.
She even founded 2 years later the Greenwich branch of the WSPU, As first secretary she took part in the ‘Black Friday’ demonstrations (Black Friday was a women’s suffrage event that occurred on 18 November 1910) Rosa was able to attend thanks to her adapted tricycle (the olden day Wheelchair)
Her first arrest – militant campaigning in 1911 for obstructing police at a demonstration in Parliament Square, Rosa was thrown out of her tricycle in a brutal manner by the police, then had her arms forced behind her back in a painful manner bending one of her fingers right back, which would have caused anyone great pain, knowing she was helpless and unable to move as the wheels on her tricycle had been let down by the police they even pocketing the valves, even in the midst of this happening she was still quite prepared to take the added publicity to benefit the suffrage cause, whilst there were reports of police violence from other suffrage supporters, her testimony is horrifying, but this arrest didn’t make it into the Home Office’s index as a suffragettes arrested.
When Rosa was in her tricycle she would place her crutches on both sides and would charge any opposition, in a witness letter to the Chief commissioner of police about Black Friday to say that the reaction of officers was justified because Rosa “again and again drove her tricycle at their ranks”.
She was arrested several more times over the next few years, the first actual mention of her in records held at The National Archives is in relation to the WSPU’s would be the window smashing campaign.
In 1910 and 1912 Parliament considered various bills to give some women the vote, but none of them passed, In response to this the WSPU organised a window smashing campaign in March 1912 this lead to 220 arrests, Rosa was one of the arrested she smashed a window on Henrietta Street which lead to her being sentenced on 12 March to one month’s hard labour, the prison authorities were confused by this and gave her no extra work, She became Friends with many fellow prisoners including Dr Alice Stewart Ker who got rosa to smuggle a letter out to her daughter when she was released.
In 1912, Rosa was arrested and charged again with damaging letter boxes in Deptford she was sentenced to eight months in hallway prison, this is where she went on hunger strike and was forcibly force-fed rosa becoming so ill that she was released just two weeks after, even after this she it didn’t deter her to continued to support the WSPU’s leadership and carried on campaigning by chaining herself to the railings of Buckingham Palace.
It turns out Rosa may Billinghurst was not the only disabled woman to become a suffragette, Adelaide Knight was another suffragette activist with mobility issues who campaigned whilst using crutches or a stick, Adeloide Knight was a key figure in the East End women’s movement who also chained herself to the railings outside Buckingham Palace She was similarly arrested and served a prison sentence, Rosa may Billinghurst and Adeloide Knight would have had a totally differing experiences to any of the other suffrage campaigning for the right to vote, yet this didn’t hold them back one bit, I find myself in ore of both of these women they are truly inspiring examples of women who did not let their disabilities get in their way of campaigning for the right to vote in Parliamentary elections.
Rosa endured so much in her fight for women to get the vote, yet it is her experience of violent suffrage demonstrations as a disabled campaigner which remains her legacy She was branded the “cripple suffragette” by the press and her peers.