Guest post by Robin Fell
The Grille in the House of Commons Ladies’ Gallery, preventing as it did all but a distorted view of proceedings in The Chamber, had always been unpopular and during the ‘Suffragette Years’ was the focus of much anger. Two suffragettes became quite attached to it – but with chains rather than with affection!
On 28 October 1908 several coordinated demonstrations took place, some men shouted slogans from the public gallery (women were not admitted to this gallery), several women demonstrated in St Stephen’s Hall, and up in their eyrie in the Ladies’ Gallery another group interrupted the debate on the Licensing Bill and dropped a banner from the hated grille. Doorkeepers rushed to eject the women, only to discover that the redoubtable Muriel Matters and her colleague Helen Fox had chained themselves to the grille, thus frustrating the usual speedy removal. On this occasion it was found necessary to unscrew two sections of grille from the stonework in order to effect the ejection, and the galleries were then closed. The following morning’s edition of the London ‘Times’ describes the scene with the two sections of grille carried behind the ladies by constables, although a subsequent sketch in the ‘Illustrated London News’ shows this task carried out by Doorkeepers.
Having left the gallery, this unusual procession made its way along the Committee Corridor to a convenient room where, the ladies persisting in their refusal to hand over keys to the padlocks, a smith was summoned to file them free of their burden.
Thus de-grilled, the Ladies were ejected from the building and promptly joined those from the other scenes of disorder in demonstrating outside. Muriel Matters was arrested but Helen Fox evaded arrest – an outcome she later stated was not of her choosing.
The redoubtable Miss Matters had many more adventures, including one involving an air ship! Further details can be obtained by a visit to the website of the Muriel Matters Society – yes there is one; it is very active and they visited The House last year. However, the security search on entry disclosed no chains!
Fast forward six months, and we can see that lessons from the previous event did not go unlearned.
On 27 April 1909, five ladies accompanied by two gentlemen arrived at the building stating that they wished to see two MPs. In accordance with the then practice, the men went into the Central Lobby leaving the ladies in St Stephen’s Hall. The next day’s ‘Times’ tells us that as the clock struck four (which ‘clock’, it does not say – it has to be very quiet to hear Big Ben from there) three of the ladies threw chains around the legs of the statues of Walpole, Seldon and Falkland and secured themselves thereto by means of handcuffs. A fourth fastened a banner to the statue of Sommers, advertising a meeting of the Women’s Social and Political Union at the Albert Hall the following Thursday. The fifth suffragette – for such these obviously were- proceeded to produce and blow a police whistle. This disruptive and unruly scene was swiftly brought to a conclusion by the prompt production of a pair of bolt clippers, by means of which the ladies were speedily freed and removed from the building, all except Margery Humes that is, who was detained whilst a decision was sought about prosecuting her.
Slight damage had been caused to the spur of the Falkland statue to which she had attached herself. The Police report tells us that the matter was laid before the First Commissioner of Works who decided that no charge would be brought. The bolt clippers had been purchased shortly after the 1908 Grille incident and the police report to the Serjeant at Arms by Chief Inspector Scantlebury ends, ‘I beg to add that the clippers turned out most valuable in this case as it was only the work of about 7 or 8 minutes from the commencement to the end of the whole proceedings.’
A note from the Assistant Serjeant-at-Arms in 1931 tells us that:
‘In 1908 a “Porter’s Easy Bolt Clipper” (large shears about 2’6″ long) was obtained through HM Office of Works to cut the chains with which suffragettes might secure themselves to portions of the building.
On 27th April 1909 this instrument was found to be very efficient in cutting chains securing persons to statues in St Stephen’s Hall.
The clipper belongs officially to the Engineer’s Department and is kept by the messenger in the Ladies’ Gallery.
The Serjeant at Arms, Deputy Serjeant at Arms, Doorkeeper, Inspector of Police and Engineer know where it is stowed.’ (Parliamentary Archives, HC/SJ/SA/10/12/67)
A handwritten addition dated 1932 reports that the clipper had been relocated to the Assistant Serjeant’s office, and I can bring the matter right up to date by reporting, from my personal knowledge, that the instrument is now kept in the office of the Principal Doorkeeper. There it sits in its original box, ready to be called into action should a further outbreak of ‘chaining’ occur. If necessary, we may rely on the Principal Doorkeeper wielding said instrument speedily and to good effect!
Robin Fell, former Principal Doorkeeper