Beyond the Suffragettes: Rosa May Billinghurst

by Carolyn Ayers

Rosa May Billinghurst was the secretary of the Greenwich & Deptford branch of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), which was founded in Britain in 1910 to campaign for a woman’s right to vote.

Born in Lewisham in 1876, May was home-schooled, like many middle-class girls at the time. She developed a keen interest in music and storytelling. She was paralysed by a childhood illness, most likely polio, and used crutches and a three-wheeled wheelchair to get around.

May became interested in the suffrage movement following her experience volunteering at the Greenwich and Deptford Union Workhouse. This experience opened her eyes to the struggles faced by many women, and she began to think about the wider issues in society that had created the situation in which women could be treated this way.   

May was involved in many major WSPU protests. During ‘Black Friday’ in November 1910, over 300 suffragettes gathered to protest when a proposed bill on the voting rights of women was dropped from discussion in Parliament. What was meant to be a peaceful protest turned into a violent riot when the government reacted with extreme force. Many women were physically and verbally assaulted by police, including May, who was thrown from her wheelchair.

The WSPU tactics became more violent in 1912, as the group grew increasingly frustrated that the peaceful protests were not garnering results. In 1912, May was caught pouring black fluid into post boxes in Blackheath. She was arrested and put on trial at the Old Bailey.

Before she even reached Holloway Prison, she declared she would go on hunger strike. The prison authorities responded by force feeding her. Force feeding provides no nutrients, therefore the only justification for it is to torture the victim. Unsurprisingly, this experience left her very ill and she was released early when the authorities feared for her health.

With the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, the WSPU began winding down their campaign to focus on the war effort. In February 1918, women over the age of 30 were granted the right to vote. May is believed to have continued campaigning for women’s rights throughout the rest of her life, joining the Women’s Freedom League in the 1920s. She died in 1953.

Free exhibiton and event

The free exhibition, Beyond the Suffragettes, will be at Charlton House for two weeks from 18 May 2018, before going on tour around the Royal Borough of Greenwich.

Further reading

Carolyn Ayers and Dr Claire Eustance, Freedom of Spirit: Rosa May Billinghurst and the women’s suffrage campaign in Greenwich, 1907-14 (University of Greenwich, 2013).

Fern Riddell, ‘The 1910s: “We have sanitised our history of the suffragettes”’, The Guardian (06/02/2018). 

Elizabeth Crawford, The Women’s Suffrage Movement, A Reference Guide 1866-1928 (UCL Press, 1999).

Main image of Rosa May Billinghurst courtesy of LSE Library (public domain). 

Tags: charlton house, events, exhibitions, ruth britt, carolyn ayers