Rosa May Billinghurst
|Rosa May Billinghurst|
31 May 1875|
29 July 1953|
London Borough of Lewisham
She was born in Lewisham, London, the second of nine children. 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, teaching in a Sunday School and joining the temperance Band of Hope.
She was a useful member of the Women's Liberal Association and later in 1907 a member of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). Despite her disability she took part in the WSPU's march to the Royal Albert Hall in June 1908. Billinghurst helped organise the WSPU's response in the Haggerston by-election in July 1908.
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 still 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 also exploited her disability leaving her in a side street after letting her tyres down and pocketing the valves. Billinghurst is thought to have been one of the suffragettes to evade the 1911 census on the night of Sunday 2nd 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 when she was sentenced to one month hard labour and gave her no extra work. She was befriended by the many other prisoners including Dr Alice Stewart Ker who got her to smuggle a letter out to her daughter when Billinghurst was released. 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. She subsequently went on hunger strike, and was force-fed along with other suffragettes. She became so ill that she was released two weeks after being force fed.
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. Though 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's 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. She had however joined the Women's Freedom League and became part of the Suffragette Fellowship.
Billinghurst stopped her activity for women's suffrage after Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918 gave some women the vote. She later attended Emmeline Pankhurst's funeral 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 (but then in Middlesex), with her adopted child, "Beth". Her brother was Alfred John Billinghurst, an artist whom she lived with after 1914.
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