GONE GRILLE: The removal of the Ladies’ Gallery Grilles

‘The heavy brass trellis which then screened off these galleries, and their bad ventilation, made them quite unnecessarily tiring and even exhausting,’ Millicent Fawcett, writing in 1924.[1]

Grille removal, 1917. Courtesy of the Parliamentary Estates Directorate.
Grille removal, 1917. Courtesy of the Parliamentary Estates Directorate.
On 23 August 1917, to the joy of many women, the grilles were removed from the windows of the Ladies’ Gallery in the House of Commons. Women had to watch debates separately from men in those days. In the early 19th century they had done so peering down from a ventilator in the attic above the Commons chamber; after the 1834 fire destroyed the old Palace of Westminster, a Ladies’ Gallery was created in the new Commons chamber.

The grilles deliberately screened the Ladies’ Gallery unglazed windows, partly to place women formally outside the House of Commons chamber, partly for fear of distracting the men who would otherwise have been able to see women watching them at work. Millicent Fawcett, leader of the suffragist organisation the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), complained that having to peer through the grilles made the Ladies Gallery ‘a grand place for getting headaches,’[2]  and in the early 20th century they became a target for suffragette militancy.

The Ladies' Gallery, House of Commons. WOA 3938
Women watching debates through the grilles. The Ladies’ Gallery, House of Commons. Illustrated London News, 12 February 1870. Palace of Westminster, WOA 3938
But by 1917 things had changed; the Representation of the People Bill was passing through the House of Commons, and by May 1917 it had cleared second reading in the Commons, which made it much more likely that some women would soon be able to vote. The London Society for Women’s Service took the opportunity to organise a petition asking for the removal of the grilles, stating:

‘We do not wish to attach undue importance to so purely domestic a proposal, nor to attribute to any serious principle a custom which is merely a survival of a more picturesque age; but we beg you to remember, in your deliberations, that it is a very uncomfortable thing to have to sit in a gallery from which little can be heard and still less seen. We feel this the more acutely because we are assured that the interest of these Debates, which we cannot hear, far surpasses that of any other legislative assembly in the civilized world.’[3]

Their tactic was to get support from women representing a wide variety of respectable and influential organisations, titled women and women related to MPs and peers, and women with impressive qualifications and jobs. Correspondence on the petition includes some amusing comments such as this one from Dr Jane Walker (who did sign):

‘Really men require so much patting on the head when they do anything for us! I feel it is an absurdity to petition them to do anything so trivial. We shall see that they do it when the Vote comes.’ Jane Walker, LRCPS Physician New Hospital for Women, 12 May 1917.[4]

Although most women approached signed without hesitation, a few did refuse. One such was Gertrude Gow of the League of Honour for Women and Girls of the British Empire, who wrote, ‘I much prefer sitting behind the grill, than I should do if it were taken away!…I hope however you will get your desire, as you are many and I should imagine I am alone.’[5]

Question on the Grille, Hansard 15 Aug 1917
Question on the Grille, Hansard 15 Aug 1917
The petition was sent to Sir Alfred Mond, First Commissioner of Works, who was responsible for building works in the Palace of Westminster, on 14 May 1917. Philippa Strachey informed him in the covering letter, ‘We could very easily have obtained many thousands of signatures but we believe that the representative character of those who have signed will convey even more conclusively the overwhelming demand among thinking women for the proposed action.’[6]

The Representation of the People Bill passed another hurdle in June, when clause 4 (votes for women over the age of 30 who met minimum property qualifications) cleared committee stage in the Commons. Two months later, the House of Commons finally voted on the removal of the grilles – although you would not easily guess it from the Parliamentary Debates. On 15 August 1917, Reginald Blair MP asked the First Commissioner of Works if he would give the estimated cost and number of men expected to be employed on the removal of the grille.  (Blair was an anti-suffrage Conservative MP who had even made his maiden speech against suffrage, when he had been elected over the great suffrage supporter George Lansbury back in 1913). Mond replied ‘The estimated cost is £5 and the work should require an average of two men of various trades for three or four days.’[7]

Division on expenditure to remove the Grille, Hansard 15 Aug 1917
Division on expenditure to remove the Grille, Hansard 15 Aug 1917
And then – later the same day – the House of Commons, sitting in Committee, voted ‘That a supplementary sum, not exceeding £5, be granted to His Majesty to defray the Charge… for Expenditure in respect of Houses of Parliament Buildings.’[8] No mention of the grille, but that was clearly understood what it was for! The motion passed with 164 votes in favour and 18 against. It is noticeable that one of the tellers for the Ayes was Willoughby Dickinson, one of the most dedicated MPs in favour of women’s suffrage; whereas amongst the Noes were some notorious opponents of votes for women, including Reginald Blair.

Removal of the Ladies' Gallery grille, Parliamentary Estates Directorate
Removal of the Ladies’ Gallery grille, 23 August 1917. Courtesy of the Parliamentary Estates Directorate
The House had spoken; the grilles came down a week later, on 23 August. There was much interest in what would happen to them.  The Women’s Freedom League asked to have one for their office. The Countess of Strafford suggested the grilles be melted down to produce Braille type for poor blind soldiers. Neither of those requests were granted, but the London Museum (now the Museum of London) wrote requesting a grille on 21 August, and was duly sent one on permanent loan,[9] which it still has today.

TNA, WORK 11/227
Letter on the grille from Sir Guy Laking (Keeper of the London Museum) to Sir Lionel Earle (Office of Works). TNA, WORK 11/227
However it was decided that most of the grille should kept in the Palace of Westminster. Millicent Fawcett wrote, ‘It may be hoped that it will be put up in some appropriate place, with waxen dummies behind it revelling in the Oriental seclusion which recommended it to the Commons for about seventy years.’[10] Instead, as proposed to Sir Alfred Mond by one of his staff:

I went over to the Houses to see where it would be possible to utilize in a dignified manner the grille taken down from the ladies Gallery, and I submit the following proposal for the approval of the First Commissioner. It is my opinion the best suggestion that can be made, and will retain in the Houses of parliament the whole of the grilles in service where they can be readily seen by the public and any interested party. The proposal is to fix the grilles in the windows of the various Lobbies which open on to the Central hall. The grilles will fit the positions excellently...[11]

This was agreed, and so most of the grilles came to be placed in Central Hall, which today we call Central Lobby. Any visitor to Parliament today can admire them there. There is a small plaque by the Admissions Order Lobby that records what they are.

Central Lobby grille plaque. Courtesy of the Parliamentary Estates Directorate
Plaque commemorating the Grille in Central Lobby, House of Commons. Courtesy of the Parliamentary Estates Directorate
As recently as 2010 one grille was loaned to the South Australian Parliament, in honour of Muriel Matters, an Australian suffragette who had famously chained herself to the grille in 1908, and in 2015 another was installed in the new Parliamentary Education Centre.

Education Centre display with Violet Tillard
The Grille displayed in the Parliamentary Education Centre, with ‘Violet Tillard’
One final point: although the decision to remove the grilles was collectively made by the House of Commons, Sir Alfred Mond clearly took care to find a new home for them and to put his name on this plaque. It is good to know that Mond must have taken pride in this, as he was also a great supporter of women’s suffrage; he had spoken on the issue in Parliament, in particular seconding a Conciliation Bill in 1912, and been vice-president of the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage. It is also thanks to Mond that the Imperial War Museum included women in its collections from its inception, and he appointed Agnes Conway, an NUWSS supporter, to be responsible for the Women’s Work section.

If you’re visiting Parliament today, do look out for the grilles in Central Lobby and remember their story!

Mari Takayanagi

With thanks to Elizabeth Hallam-Smith and Robin Fell for the research for this blogpost

A grille in Central Lobby, Courtesy of the Parliamentary Estates Directorate
A grille in Central Lobby, Houses of Parliament. Courtesy of the Parliamentary Estates Directorate
Find out how to visit Parliament: http://www.parliament.uk/visit

More on the grille on Living Heritage

[1] Millicent Garrett Fawcett, What I Remember

[2] Millicent Garrett Fawcett, The Women’s Victory – and After

[3] The National Archives, WORK 11/227

[4] LSE Women’s Library,  2LSW/E/03/7

[5] LSE Women’s Library, 2LSW/E/03/7

[6] LSE Women’s Library, 2LSW/E/03/7

[7] HC Debates, 15 August 1917, col 1168

[8] HC Debates, 15 August 1917, cols 1190-1191

[9] The National Archives, WORK 11/227

[10] Millicent Garrett Fawcett, The Women’s Victory – and After

[11] The National Archives, WORK 11/227

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