Suffrage, Arson, and the University of Bristol

By Georgia Oman (@Georgia_Oman)

Founded as University College, Bristol, in 1876, the awarding of a royal charter in 1909 allowed the University of Bristol to officially come in to being. In that time, the institution had earned a reputation as a trailblazer in the higher education of women. During the College’s first year, there were 69 women day students registered, compared to 30 men.[1] In 1882, outgoing Professor J. F. Main declared that Bristol ‘had been the first amongst the colleges of England to open its doors to all persons anxious to obtain instruction within its walls, without any distinction of sex’.[2] With this strong legacy of gender equality, it is perhaps not surprising that, in 1913, the women of the university began to think of forming a Women’s Suffrage Society. At a meeting held on the 11th of February of that year, a motion that such a society be formed was passed by 34 votes to two, and the meeting ended in the hope that ‘this Society will be formed during the present term.’[3]

However, the support of the wider University for such a society would be tested later that year. In October, the men students’ sports pavilion at Coombe Dingle was found burned down, with a note left at the scene claiming suffragette responsibility.[4] A group of students, feeling deeply aggrieved by the attack, retaliated by smashing the windows of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) shop on Queen’s Road, an incident captured in verse form by a poem in the Bristol University student magazine, the Nonesuch.

Would you hear how on a Friday,

After lectures were all over,

Rushed some students madly yelling

Rushed as one down ‘’Varsity roadway,

Rushèd to the “Women’s Vote Shop,”

Smashed the windows with their hammers,

With their brickbats and their hatchets[5]

The marauding students were evidently pleased with their efforts, writing in the Nonesuch that ‘[w]e may congratulate ourselves on the completeness of our revenge on the “Suffs”.’[6] They imagined that it would be ‘some time before the W.S.P.U attacks a University again’ and promised ‘serious trouble’ if it did, noting ‘[t]he arm of the law is just too short to reach these female fanatics’.[7]

The links between the suffrage movement and higher education are not often explored, but the relationship is an interesting one. As opportunities for university education expanded in the nineteenth century, several future WSPU members took advantage. Christabel Pankhurst herself received a law degree from Owens College, Manchester, while Rona Robinson, the first woman to achieve a first-class Science degree at the University of Manchester, was later arrested for protesting the force-feeding of imprisoned suffragettes while dressed in full academic regalia.[8] As Krista Cowman has noted of women graduates, ‘WSPU organising provided a ready outlet for their talents and the chance to feel that they were doing something to smooth out the obstacles that they faced, so that other women might have an easier time.’[9]

The Bristol Branch of the WSPU was founded in 1907 by Annie Kenney and attracted numerous volunteers from the surrounding area, with open-air meetings held on the Downs.[10] Militant violence only took place in the city for around six months, from October 1913 to April 1914, with the University pavilion attack one of the earliest.[11] C. J. Bearman argues that the targets of suffragette attack were hardly ever the most economically important or most likely to cause large-scale public disruption, but rather ‘the most easily flammable, the most accessible, and the least well defended’.[12] Sports pavilions, unfortunately for the student athletes of Bristol University, were a popular target.

The Bristol University sports pavilion arson incident may have served to prejudice a certain section of the student population against the cause of women’s suffrage, while also temporarily hampering the work of the WSPU, whose shop they damaged. The division and antipathy between the two, however, was not completely all-encompassing. Millicent Browne, a suffrage organiser working in Bristol, pictured in the photo, met her future husband, Reginald Price, when he defended her and her associates from abuse while protesting in the city… he was an undergraduate at the University at the time.

Image: Millicent Browne, photographed by Linley Blathwayte (Wikimedia Commons).


[1] D. Carleton, A University for Bristol: An informal history in texts and pictures (Bristol: University of Bristol Press, 1984), p. 100.

[2] ‘University College, Tyndall’s Park’, Bristol Mercury and Daily Post, Tuesday 27th June, 1882, issue 10645.

[3] ‘Women’s Suffrage’, The Nonesuch 2:6 (1913), p. 61.

[4] E. Crawford, The Women’s Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide 1866-1928 (London and New York: Routledge, 1999), pp. 82–3.

[5] ‘The Wrecking “Rag.”’, The Nonesuch 3:8 (1913), pp. 9–11.

[6] ‘Editorial’, The Nonesuch 3:8 (1913), pp. 2–3.

[7] ‘Editorial’, The Nonesuch 3:8 (1913), pp. 2–3.

[8] K. Cowman, Women of the Right Spirit: Paid Organisers of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), 1904-18 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007), p. 24.

[9] Cowman, Women of the Right Spirit, pp. 24–25.

[10] E. Crawford, The Women’s Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide 1866-1928 (London and New York: Routledge, 1999), p. 82.

[11] C. J. Bearman, ‘An Examination of Suffragette Violence’, English Historical Review 120:486 (2005), p. 371.

[12] . Bearman, ‘An Examination of Suffragette Violence’, p. 377.


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