The Leicester suffragettes who turned to arson

Ellen Sherriff and Elizabeth Rowley Frisby were at the heart of an arson attack on Blaby railway station in 1914.

Blaby railway station with a platform on either side of the tracks.
Blaby railway station was a railway station on the Birmingham to Peterborough Line, but closed in 1968. Photograph: Ben Brooksbank / Wikimedia Commons

In the early hours of Sunday, 12 July 1914, two local men spotted that Blaby railway station was alight. The fire brigade was called, but, despite their best efforts, much of the wooden station was burnt to the ground. No one was ever prosecuted for the crime, and the identities of the arsonists remained unknown for years.

The following day, the Leicester Daily Post reported that “two women in mackintoshes” had been seen making an escape along the towpath of the Grand Union Canal from Blaby towards Leicester soon after the discovery of the fire. The identity of these mysterious culprits remained unknown, but they certainly wanted people to know the cause they represented. They left behind copies of the suffragette newspaper, plus several other pamphlets, including one on the controversial topic of force-feeding.

The newspaper was quick to condemn the women’s actions, commenting: “They may be silly enough to imagine that their £500 damage to the property of a big and wealthy railway company will, somehow or other, help the ‘cause’… The notorious fact is that these pin-pricks merely aggravate the inseparable popular disgust, and thus delay the very boon it is desired to hasten.” The Leicester Chronicle went one step further, declaring that: “Outrages of this kind… will never win votes for women.” Yet, it cannot be denied that this incident drew much local attention to the suffragettes’ cause.

By 1914, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), headed by Emmeline Pankhurst, had been campaigning actively for the right of women to vote for more than a decade. Pankhurst and her allies originally formed the WSPU because of frustration that the peaceful means adopted by previous women’s suffrage groups had proved ineffective. Adopting the slogan of “Deeds not words,” WSPU members pledged to take direct militant action and launched a campaign of civil disobedience. Yet, despite chaining themselves to railings, going on hunger strikes in prison and carrying out headline grabbing acts of vandalism, nothing much changed.

As a result, the tactics employed by a small group of WSPU members gradually became more extreme. This was motivated not only by dissatisfaction at a lack of real progress but also by a growing sense of injustice at the brutal way in which suffragette prisoners, particularly hunger strikers, were being treated by the authorities. This escalation in violence included an orchestrated bombing and arson campaign, which proved highly controversial at the time and still divides opinion today.

In Leicester, Alice Hawkins was the first secretary of the local WSPU branch, and her legacy has been rightly commemorated in the form of a statue in Green Dragon Square. There were, however, many other Leicester women who actively campaigned for the right to vote, including those who were prepared to embrace the new, more controversial tactics introduced from around 1912 onwards.

Leicester suffragette lost to the history books
Meet the Leicester Pimpernel, Lilian Lenton. Born in 1891.

One such woman was Ellen Sherriff, who worked in the local shoe trade as a machinist. She came from a family known for their political activism. Her uncle, Amos Sherriff, was a highly respected figure in Leicester’s early Independent Labour Movement and campaigned tirelessly for the underprivileged throughout his adult life. Another was grammar school educated Elizabeth Rowley Frisby, the daughter of a prosperous local businessman who owned a chain of shoe shops. The pair came from entirely different backgrounds but are now believed to have come together that night in July 1914 to set fire to Blaby Station.

The two women knew exactly what to do, coming well-equipped with an axe, to break into the station, and wood shavings, dipped in creosol, to start the blaze. For this, they had to thank a London-based WSPU activist named Kitty Marion. The former music hall performer had already served more than one spell in prison for arson supporting the cause. In early June 1914, she travelled to Leicester with the specific intention of schooling local suffragettes in how to set a fire.

The arson attack remained on Leicestershire Police’s unsolved crimes list for well over half a century until Ellen Sherriff’s death, aged 89, in early 1966. In a scoop for the Leicester Mercury, her nephew, Henry Murby, then revealed her to have been one of the two mystery arsonists. He had been living with his aunt at the time and knew that she had slipped out that night to commit the crime, but had been sworn to secrecy until after her death.

Elizabeth Rowley Frisby died in February 1946, so predeceased Sherriff by two decades, and never admitted to having participated in the arson attack on Blaby Station. However, present-day researchers into suffragette history, like Richard Whitmore and Simon Webb, now believe her to have been the other woman “in a mackintosh.”

If Frisby was indeed involved, it is little wonder that she kept quiet about her participation, as, in her later years, she became a pillar of the local establishment. She was awarded an MBE for her voluntary work during the first world war, and subsequently became a local justice of the peace (JP) and Conservative councillor. Towards the end of her life, she even served as Leicester’s first woman lord mayor. Yet, this admirable commitment to public service in later life only tells part of the story. As a young woman, she worked for eight years as a volunteer district visitor in one of the most deprived areas in Leicester, and this appears to have first fuelled her passion for social justice.

Soon after joining the WSPU in 1910, Frisby was arrested in London after taking part in one of the most infamous of all suffragette protests. During the so-called “Black Friday” demonstration, WSPU members marched angrily on Westminster upon hearing that the latest attempt to have a women’s suffrage bill passed in parliament had been blocked. Although little reported at the time, events turned ugly that day and there were numerous complaints of police brutality from the female protestors, including accusations of sexual assault.

Frisby was arrested again the following year at another demonstration in London, and on this occasion served time in Holloway Prison for obstructing a police officer. There ends the official record of her involvement in the WSPU’s militant activities. It’s worth noting, though, that in addition to the Blaby arson attack, she may have been involved in at least one other act of vandalism. In February 1913, the message 'No Votes, No Golf' was etched into the 15th green at Evington Golf Course. It may well not be entirely coincidental that Frisby’s father was chairman of the club and that she lived nearby.

The suffragettes have been rightly celebrated for the way in which they fought for a just cause, despite their ill-treatment at the hands of the authorities. Having just voted in the general election, I am particularly mindful of the debt I owe to them. Yet, I must also confess to some modern-day queasiness regarding the increasingly violent measures taken by the more militant end of the movement in the years leading up to the first world war. The fire at Blaby station, in July 1914, was presumably timed for the middle of night to avoid loss of life. That was not always the case, however, with the fire, bomb and chemical attacks perpetrated by the most extreme WSPU militants, whose activities were at the time likened to a reign of terror.

For years, accounts of this less palatable side of the suffragettes’ activities were largely suppressed, but, for all my personal uneasiness, I believe we owe it to them to tell their full story, warts and all. Otherwise, we are in danger of distorting the past and failing to understand the depth of feeling experienced by extraordinary women like Leicester’s Ellen Sheriff and Elizabeth Frisby.

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