5 AUGUST 2015

As the Archivist at the Royal Albert Hall, part of my job is to safeguard its records but also to make the history of this great building more accessible to members of the public.

As someone with a keen history in women’s history (I used to work at The Women’s Library, which had been the Fawcett Library), I was absolutely delighted to discover the part the Hall played in the campaign for women’s suffrage.

In 1908 at the height of the fight to win Votes for Women, the Hall was the biggest in Britain which made it ideal for holding large political rallies. The hall was hired by Millicent Fawcett and the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) on six occasions between 1908 and 1914.

The first time Millicent Fawcett and the NUWSS came to the Hall was in June 1908 after a ‘Great Procession’ of 13,000 women through the streets of London from the Embankment to the Royal Albert Hall.

Sylvia Pankhurst described the procession in her biography: “It was a striking pageant with its many gorgeous banners, richly embroidered and fashioned of velvets, silks and every kind of beautiful material and the small bannerettes showing as innumerable patches of brilliant and lovely colours, each one varying both in shape and hue. Seventy of the large banners had been prepared by the Artists’ League for Women’s Suffrage. Some were blazoned with the figures of women great in history, amongst them, Boadicea, Joan of Arc and Queen Elizabeth.”

Millicent Fawcett marched with her sister, Elizabeth Garret Anderson, the first woman in Britain to qualify as a Doctor. Many women involved in the procession marched in their University gowns and under the banners of their trade or profession.

In The Times the next day they said: “The speeches made in the Albert Hall at the end of the long walk were distinguished for their dignity and reserve, and were in marked contrast to the childish and vexatious methods adopted by the more excitable advocates of the same cause.” The Times was never in favour of the women’s suffrage campaign and this was obviously a not very subtle dig at Emmeline Pankhurst and her followers!

Millicent Fawcett did not agree with the tactics used by Mrs Pankhurst and the Women’s Social and Political Union, especially when they stepped up their militant tactics with arson and bombing of houses. Millicent Fawcett never stopped believing that the fight for women’s suffrage must be a law-abiding and constitutional fight.

6 1908-06-13 NUWSS HandbillTheir next meeting at the Albert Hall, a year later in 1909 came at the end of a Pageant of Women’s Trades and Professions from Eaton Square to the Hall. The pageant included nurses, midwives, teachers, doctors, journalists, actresses, and pit workers, carrying banners representing their trades and 500 lanterns to light the way.

By 1912, at another meeting at the Royal Albert Hall, Mrs Fawcett made obvious her disagreement with the militant tactics. However she never lost her faith in the cause and the fact that women would get the vote eventually.

In 1928, when all women finally got the vote on the same basis as men she said: “It is almost exactly 61 years ago since I heard John Stuart Mill introduce his suffrage amendment to the Reform Bill on May 20th,1867. So I have had extraordinary good luck in having seen the struggle from the beginning.” Millicent Fawcett died, the next year, on 5th August 1929.

We are very proud of Millicent’s Fawcett’s association with the Royal Albert Hall and the fact that the Hall was able to play host to these great meetings that helped to change history.

Twitter: @RoyalAlbertHall

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 Suzanne Keyte, Archivist at the Royal Albert Hall ABOUT AUTHOR 

Suzanne Keyte is Archivist at the Royal Albert Hall and a keen historian of women’s suffrage history.