Rosa May Billinghurst
Rosa May Billinghurst
|Born||31 May 1875|
|Died||29 July 1953 (aged 78)|
|Occupation||Social worker and teacher|
|Known for||Suffragette activities|
She was born in 1875 in Lewisham, London, the second of nine children of Rosa Ann (Brinsmead) Billinghurst and Henry Farncombe Billinghurst. Her mother came from a family who manufactured pianos and her father was a banker.
As a child she survived polio, which left her unable to walk. She wore leg-irons and used either crutches or a modified tricycle. She became active in social work in a Greenwich workhouse, taught in a Sunday School, and joined the temperance Band of Hope.
She was an active member of a Women's Liberal Association (fifteen of which joined together in 1887 to become the Women's Liberal Federation that ultimately grew to 942 affiliated associations) and later, in 1907, a member of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). She took part in the WSPU march to the Royal Albert Hall in June 1908. Billinghurst helped organise the WSPU response in the Haggerston by-election in July 1908, polling was on the day that twenty-four suffragettes were released from Holloway prison and came around the area canvassing to 'keep the Liberal out.'  In 1909, she was presumed by Annie Barnes to be the wheelchair user seen distracting a police horse, who laughed as another woman seemed to tip the rider off. He fell in the horse trough. The occupant of the wheelchair was the one arrested and rough handled into a waiting police van.
Two years later, she founded the Greenwich branch of the WSPU. As its first secretary she took part in the 'Black Friday' demonstrations. She was able to attend because she used an adapted tricycle. She was arrested after the police had capsized her from the trike. Billinghurst knew that she was helpless when this happened, but she was quite prepared to take the added publicity to benefit the suffrage cause. The police once exploited her disability leaving her in a side street after letting her tyres down and pocketing the valves.
Billinghurst was able to get closer to the House of Commons on another occasion in 1911, when police thought the better of attacking her trike with 'Votes for Women' banner during the rush. She is thought to have been one of the suffragettes to evade the 1911 census on the night of Sunday 2 April 1911 in response to the calls from suffragette organisations for a boycott.
Billinghurst would place her crutches on both sides of her tricycle and would charge any opposition. She was arrested several more times in the next few years.
The Glaswegian suffragette, Janie Allan, apparently worked in partnership with Billinghurst during the window-smashing campaign of March 1912, with Billinghurst apparently hiding a supply of stones under the rug that covered her knees. Billinghurst's first stint in Holloway Prison was for smashing a window on Henrietta Street during this campaign, for which she was sentenced to one month's hard labour. The prison authorities were confused regarding her sentence to one month's hard labour and gave her no extra work. She was befriended by the many other prisoners, including Dr. Alice Stewart Ker, who, when Billinghurst was released, had her smuggle a letter out to Ker's daughter.
On 8 January 1913, she was tried at the Old Bailey and sentenced to eight months in Holloway Prison for damaging letters in a postbox. Billinghurst represented herself in court to plead the case for women’s suffrage. Her defense titled "The Guilt Lies on the Shoulders of the Government" was published in The Suffragette . She subsequently went on a hunger strike and was force-fed along with the other imprisoned suffragettes participating in the strike. She became so ill that she was released two weeks after her force-feeding began.
Billinghurst had been given a Hunger Strike Medal 'for Valour'.
She spoke at a public meeting in West Hampstead in March 1913. On 24 May she chained herself to the gates of Buckingham Palace and on 14 June she was dressed in white on her trike in Emily Wilding Davison's funeral procession, after she became a martyr to the cause.
Billinghurst also took part in the mass deputation of suffragettes to petition King George V on 21 May 1914. Although she was not arrested, two policemen deliberately tipped her out of her tricycle, and another suffragette, Charlotte Drake, had to lift her back into it.
Billinghurst supported the Pankhurst lead when they decided to prioritise the war over the campaign for women's rights. She helped in Christabel Pankhurst's campaign to be elected in Smethwick in 1918. However, she had joined the Women's Freedom League and became part of the Suffragette Fellowship. She supported Jill Craigie's Equal Pay Film Fund.
Billinghurst stopped her activity for women's suffrage after Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918 gave some women the vote. She later attended the funeral of Emmeline Pankhurst and the unveiling of Emmeline's statue in 1930.
In 1911, she was residing with her parents at 7 Oakhurst Road, Lewisham.
Billinghurst lived in the garden house of her property "Minikoi", Sunbury, Surrey (then in Middlesex), with her adopted daughter, "Beth". Beth has since written a book describing her relationship with her adoptive mother. Her brother was Alfred John Billinghurst, an artist, with whom she lived after 1914.
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