The move for women to have the vote had really started in 1897 when Millicent Fawcett founded the National Union of Women’s Suffrage. Millicent Fawcett believed in peaceful protest. She felt that any violence or trouble would persuade men that women could not be trusted to have the right to vote. Her game plan was patience and logical arguments. Fawcett argued that women could hold responsible posts in society such as sitting on school boards – but could not be trusted to vote; she argued that if parliament made laws and if women had to obey those laws, then women should be part of the process of making those laws; she argued that as women had to pay taxes as men, they should have the same rights as men and one of her most powerful arguments was that wealthy mistresses of large manors and estates employed gardeners, workmen and labourers who could vote – but the women could not regardless of their wealth.
However, Fawcett’s progress was very slow. She converted some of the members of the Labour Representation Committee (soon to be the Labour Party) but most men in Parliament believed that women simply would not understand how Parliament worked and therefore should not take part in the electoral process. This left many women angry and in 1903 the Women’s Social and Political Union was founded by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia. They wanted women to have the right to vote and they were not prepared to wait. The Union became better known as the Suffragettes. Members of the Suffragettes were prepared to use violence to get what they wanted.
In fact, the Suffragettes started off relatively peacefully. It was only in 1905 that the organisation created a stir when Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney interrupted a political meeting in Manchester to ask two Liberal politicians (Winston Churchill and Sir Edward Grey) if they believed women should have the right to vote. Neither man replied. As a result, the two women got out a banner which had on it “Votes for Women” and shouted at the two politicians to answer their questions. Such actions were all but unheard of then when public speakers were usually heard in silence and listened to courteously even if you did not agree with them. Pankhurst and Kenney were thrown out of the meeting and arrested for causing an obstruction and a technical assault on a police officer. Both women refused to pay a fine preferring to go to prison to highlight the injustice of the system as it was then.
The Suffragettes refused to bow to violence. They burned down churches as the Church of England was against what they wanted; they vandalised Oxford Street, apparently breaking all the windows in this famous street; they chained themselves to Buckingham Palace as the Royal Family were seen to be against women having the right to vote; they hired out boats, sailed up the Thames and shouted abuse through loud hailers at Parliament as it sat; others refused to pay their tax. Politicians were attacked as they went to work. Their homes were fire bombed. Golf courses were vandalised. The first decade of Britain in the 20th century was proving to be violent in the extreme.
Suffragettes were quite happy to go to prison. Here they refused to eat and went on a hunger strike. The government was very concerned that they might die in prison thus giving the movement martyrs. Prison governors were ordered to force feed Suffragettes but this caused a public outcry as forced feeding was traditionally used to feed lunatics as opposed to what were mostly educated women.
The government of Asquith responded with the Cat and Mouse Act. When a Suffragette was sent to prison, it was assumed that she would go on hunger strike as this caused the authorities maximum discomfort. The Cat and Mouse Act allowed the Suffragettes to go on a hunger strike and let them get weaker and weaker. Force feeding was not used. When the Suffragettes were very weak, they were released from prison. If they died out of prison, this was of no embarrassment to the government. However, they did not die but those who were released were so weak that they could take no part in violent Suffragette struggles. When those who had been arrested and released had regained their strength, they were re-arrested for the most trivial of reason and the whole process started again. This, from the government’s point of view, was a very simple but effective weapon against the Suffragettes.
As a result, the Suffragettes became more extreme.
In the first decade and a half of the twentieth century, the Suffragette Movement became increasingly powerful, but the fierce lobby against it was equally determined to resist women’s right to vote. Emily Davidson’s fatal injuries during the Epsom Derby on 4th June, 1913 was a dramatic turning point, making the issues of suffrage more prominent so that it was hard for any British person not to have an opinion one way or another. But, of course, it was WW1 that actually resulted in voting rights for women. In a display of patriotism, Emmeline Pankhurst instructed the Suffragettes to stop their campaign of violence and support in every way the government and its war effort. The work done by women in the First World War was vital for Britain’s war effort. In 1918, the Representation of the People Act was passed by Parliament.
The more vocal Suffragettes were rich women: in the strict class system of the day, only upper class women had any chance of being heard, especially by parliament. The All-Black Golden Sunbeam for Ladies was one of the most expensive ladies’ bicycles of the era, a model much favoured by those who could afford it. As you can see from the illustration above, women of the Edwardian era were encouraged by the cycle manufacturers to perform simple maintenance tasks on their own bicycles. In the early years of the century, many women had taken cycle maintenance classes to keep them up to date with basic servicing techniques. During the war at home, bicycles became the most popular form of transport, and many women used them for shopping or getting to work. After the experiences of women during the war years doing men’s jobs to free them for active service – as well as becoming nurses, drivers etc in France – spanners and screwdrivers were no longer the preserve of men, and many women were able to change a tyre or repair a puncture on their bicycle.
1915 All-Black Golden Sunbeam for Ladies
2 Speed Epicyclic Gear
Brooks Leather Saddle
Frame No 131131
With a shortage of cars and motorcycles – all required for the war effort – ladies’ bicycles became sought-after during World War One. As well as buying new bicycles, the new female workforce, many of whom made munitions in factories around the country, purchased second-hand machines, forcing up their prices.
This example is a typical World War One Sunbeam, with its gear trigger on the handlebar, as illustrated below. All the important (irreplaceable) parts are original and intact. The only items that deviate from the original specification are the pedals, Brooks saddle (newer model), and the right-side handlebar grip which is a reproduction; the left side grip has a stripped thread, making it difficult to screw its end cap on, though it’s otherwise functional. Apart from these minor issues, the machine rides well, and it’s two-speed epicyclic gear works fine.
It’s in excellent unrestored cosmetic condition, with the Sunbeam transfers (decals) intact, both on the oilbath chaincase and the steering head. The maker’s transfer has also survived on the top of headstock and it retains its box lining on most of the paintwork.
GOLDEN SUNBEAM REMOVABLE HANDLEBAR GRIP CAPS
1914 SUNBEAM CATALOGUE EXTRACTS