Rosa May Billinghurst was a campaigner and activist within the suffragette movement. Despite having mobility issues, she and her tricycle were common features of marches, and later direct action, as women in Britain fought against the authorities in an effort to have their votes recognised. She was arrested multiple times, imprisoned and sentenced to hard labour, and she took part in the hunger strikes which drew attention to the cause, especially when force-feeding of prisoners caused widespread outrage. She also chained herself to the gates of Buckingham Palace during another protest, and her disability was often cruelly exploited by police officers.
Born in Lewisham on 31 May, 1875, Rosa May Billinghurst had a generally unremarkable early childhood – until she contracted polio. She survived the terrible disease, but it left her with permanent damage to her legs. Unable to walk, Billinghurst wore leg irons and used crutches to get around. As her mobility worsened, a tricycle was modified for her, with hand controls. This gave the young woman her independence back, and allowed her to travel as she wished. In early adulthood, she took up a position as a social worker at a Greenwich workhouse, and she joined the Christian temperance movement Band of Hope in her spare time.
Billinghurst was also active in political circles, with a particular interest in women’s liberation and suffrage. She joined the Women’s Liberal Association, and later the Women’s Social and Political Union. By 1908, she was an active campaigner taking part in marches for the cause of votes for women, and in 1910 she formed the Greenwich branch of the WSPU, acting as the group’s general secretary.
On 18 November 1910, Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith declined to make time for a bill which would have given around one million women the vote for the first time. In response, the WSPU arranged a demonstration, led by Emmeline Pankhurst and attended by around 300 women from the union – including Rosa May Billinghurst. When the protesters attempted to break past police lines, they were assaulted by officers. Billinghurst was tipped from her adapted tricycle and left lying in the street.
Despite the actions of the authorities, Billinghurst was not deterred from taking part in direct action – indeed, she knew that police officers targeting her disability would aid the cause, not harm it. On one occasion, she was left in a side street after officers let down her tyres and stole the valves. She also made use of her mobility vehicle during demonstrations, often placing her crutches at the sides and charging the police lines to push the march forward.
She was arrested on a number of occasions, including for her part in the window-smashing campaign of 1912. She was sentenced to hard labour, though prison authorities paid no heed to this and she saw out her month’s sentence with no work duties enforced. She also took part in the hunger strikes at Holloway Prison, and was one of those prisoners force-fed by the authorities. Her treatment on this occasion made her so unwell that she was granted early release two weeks into her sentence.
After this, she was a regular sight at public meetings and demonstrations by the suffragettes, taking part in Emily Wilding Davison’s funeral procession and supporting Christabel Pankhurst’s 1918 election bid. After the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918, Rosa May Billinghurst ceased active campaigning, though she remained an active member of the Suffragette Fellowship and other women’s rights organisations.
From 1914, she lived in Surrey with her brother, the artist Alfred John Billinghurst, and her adopted daughter Beth. On 29 July 1953, Billinghurst passed away in hospital after a short illness.
Rosa May Billinghurst refused to let her disability hold her back from campaigning with the suffrage movement, and she was an active and important member of the campaign group whose actions secured the vote for some women and working class men. These actions also paved the way for full enfranchisement of all UK adults. Billinghurst is an example to us all that nothing should stop you from having your voice heard.