Guest post by Robin Fell
In February 1918, The Pall Mall Gazette prominently displayed an item under the headline, LADIES AND THE LOBBY – OLD CONDITIONS TO BE RESTORED. This tells us that, ‘The Speaker announced that he had given instruction that in future ladies, accompanied by members, would be admitted to the Central Lobby, from which they were excluded owing to exceptional circumstances.’
Central Lobby is at the heart of Parliament, midway between the House of Commons and House of Lords: a meeting place for Parliamentarians, and a place for MPs to meet their constituents. So, when and how were women excluded from it, and what were these ‘exceptional circumstances’?
In 1906 the campaign for female suffrage was gathering pace and, frustrated by the lack of progress, the campaigners somewhat raised the tempo of their activities at the House of Commons. On 23rd October that year Inspector Charles Scantlebury, who was the officer in charge of the Metropolitan Police contingent at the House, reported to the Serjeant at Arms that having received intelligence that about 30 suffragettes had left Plaistow station on their way to Westminster. Scantlebury arranged for the manning of all the entrances to the House to be strengthened and for a plain-clothes officer to meet the train and follow the women. His report goes on to state that the women arrived at the Commons in ‘twos and threes’ and asked to see various Members. They were admitted to Central Lobby [then also called Central Hall] and having seen some of the members they had asked for appeared, ‘to be in no hurry to leave.’ At 4.20pm several of them mounted the seats by the Northcote statue and began loudly to address their fellow suffragettes. The shouted slogans reported to be, ‘Votes for Women!’ Votes for Freedom!’ and ‘We are not slaves.’ (Parliamentary Archives, HC/SA/SJ/10/12/1)
Inspector Scantlebury assured the Serjeant at Arms that he tried to persuade them to desist and leave quietly; but in this he failed and ordered his men to remove the women from the building. This, however, was not achieved without a struggle. The report in the following day’s Times tells us that, ‘…..several of the excited women shrieked hysterically and one or two who had to be carried out kicked with extreme vigour. Inspector Scantlebury was drawn down to the ground by one of the female speakers whom he had to lift from the seat which she was using as a platform.’ Having eventually been removed, several of the suffragettes continued their protests in the street and were subsequently arrested.
On 17th December 1906 they were back in Central Lobby. This time they selected the seats by the Iddesleigh statue and restricted themselves to one speaker who was replaced each time the previous one was removed. In due course they were all ejected and again several arrests took place once they were in the streets. A further report from Inspector Scantlebury to the Serjeant tells us about another incident on 20th December, this time involving just two women, who chose the seats by the Earl Russell statue for their platform. (Parliamentary Archives, HC/SA/SJ/10/12/2a) . This demonstration coincided with another incident where two women entered via the subway claiming to have an appointment with a Member at Members’ Entrance and who having been directed to the Police Officer at that location, ran into the Cloakroom where they were caught and ejected. At this time ‘Members Entrance’ was inside the east Door of Westminster Hall and ‘The Cloakroom’ was in the Cloisters; not in their present locations.
Some respite was granted to Central Lobby by the Christmas recess, but on 13th February 1907, following a meeting at Caxton Hall and an attempted ‘March on Parliament’ broken up by the police, further disturbances occurred. In the Police Occurrence book entry for that day Inspector Scantlebury described how, whilst the police were struggling with the suffragettes trying to force their way into the building, ten women who had ‘gained admittance in the usual way’ attempted to make speeches declaring’ ‘We will have our way’ and ‘Votes for women.’ They were immediately ejected from the building. (Parliamentary Archives, HC/SA/SJ/10/12/2B)
Sometime later a woman who had been quietly biding her time sitting in Central Lobby, noticing that the two constables there were busy dealing with Members’ enquiries, made a determined rush towards the Members’ Lobby. The officers shouted to alert their colleague in Members’ Lobby but an MP’s secretary saw the woman running towards him and held shut the door. Sadly this woman’s name is not recorded but Inspector Scantlebury goes on to say that the Serjeant at Arms had instructed that women other than those dining with members or having orders for the gallery should be kept out ofCentral Lobby. He notes in his report that, ‘New regulations for the admittance of women will be issued by Speaker 14th’.
All these events were widely reported in the press. As well as the main London papers, reports were contained in such geographically diverse papers as the Brighton Mercury, the Fife Free Press & Kirkcaldy Guardian, the Eastern Daily Press and the Exeter & Plymouth Gazette, along with many others.
On 14th February the Speaker gave the nation’s women a Valentine’s Day present by banning them from Central Lobby. Although the London Times is silent on the ban, the following day’s edition of the Leeds Mercury reports the ban under the headline, THE SPEAKER’S ORDER – LADIES REQUIRE ESCORT IN THE HOUSE. ‘No unescorted lady’ the article reports, ‘may enter the Central Lobby until further notice. She must wait in St Stephen’s Hall until a Member of Parliament appears and tacitly vouches for her good conduct, and as she moves about the precincts of the dining room it must be under the Member’s escort.’ The full text of the new regulations was :-
“Till further orders, no Ladies will be admitted past the door between St Stephen’s Hall and the Central Hall unless accompanied by a Member.
Any Lady desiring to see a member will be requested to remain in St Stephen’s Hall when she will be furnished with a card, by the Constable on duty, which will be delivered at once by an attendant from the Serjeant at Arms Department to the Card Messengers.
During the sittings of Committees Ladies having business in the Committee Rooms will be allowed to proceed to the Committee Room corridor but will not be permitted to remain in the Central Hall (unless accompanied by a Member).
Any Lady left unaccompanied by a Member in the Lobby, or elsewhere, will be requested to return to St Stephen’s Hall.
Lady-Secretaries of Members wishing to proceed to the room set apart for their use in the Old Crown Office will be permitted to do so.
These regulations are to take effect ¾ of an hour before the Meeting of the House.”
This new arrangement may have prevented further demonstrations in Central Lobby, but the demonstrations simply moved to St Stephen’s Hall. Previous blogposts have recorded the endeavours of the suffragettes in this location.
Nine years later, almost to the day Walter Erskine, the Assistant Serjeant wrote to the Serjeant in the following terms:
‘……..The Regulations have worked most satisfactorily and have been of great assistance to House of Commons Police in dealing with Suffragette disturbances which have occurred from time to time since 1907 in St Stephen’s Hall.
No formal objections have been received as to the Regulations, but it is undoubtedly invidious for a Lady to have to remain in St Stephen’s Hall while a gentleman, perhaps accompanying her, is permitted to pass on into the Central Hall when wishing to send cards into a members.
I beg to submit for consideration of the Speaker whether it would not be advisable, before the matter is raised and in view of the passing of the Representation of The People Act whereby disturbances by Suffragettes are less likely to occur in the immediate future, to rescind the Regulations and revert to the former practice of allowing all visitors to enter Central Hall when desiring to send a card into a Member.
It should be remembered that all visitors are challenged by Police at St Stephen’s Porch.
I have mentioned the matter to Captain Butler who informs me that the Lord Great Chamberlain sees no objection to the Regulations being cancelled. The Inspector of Police, House of Commons, also offers no objection.’
(Parliamentary Archives, HC/SA/SJ/10/12/63)
The Speaker was in agreement and, following consultation with Lord Great Chamberlain, on 19th February 1918 Admiral Kepple, the then Serjeant at Arms, issued the following:-
Notice from SAA to Police readmitting Ladies to central Hall 19.2.1918
19th Feb. 1918
ADMITTANCE OF LADIES BY ST STEPHEN’S HALL
The Regulations of 14th February 1907, as to the above, are cancelled on and after tomorrow.
Serjeant at Arms.
The Inspector of Police
House of Commons.
Robin Fell, Vote 100 Volunteer