2011 marks the 100th anniversary of the 1911 census, famously boycotted by some suffragettes. One of the best-known census protests took place in Parliament, when Emily Wilding Davison hid overnight in a cupboard in the crypt chapel in order to give her residence on the form as the Houses of Parliament.
I was looking at Votes for Women, the newspaper of the Women’s Social & Political Union, recently and came across their report of her census stay from April 1911. The article is headed, ‘A Night in Guy Fawkes’ Cupboard’, and it says:
Armed with some provisions, Miss Davison took up her position in a cupboard of about five foot by six foot. What at first sight appeared to be a mere timber room was in reality a spot of great historic interest, for on the wall were written the words “Guy Fawkes was killed here”.
This is so terribly ahistorical I groaned aloud. Firstly, Guy Fawkes was not killed in any cupboard; he was executed outside Parliament in Old Palace Yard. Secondly, he was caught in Parliament with thirty-six barrels of gunpowder on 5 November 1605, but in an undercroft beneath the House of Lords, not a cupboard in the crypt chapel. And thirdly, this cupboard didn’t even exist in 1605! – almost the entire Palace of Westminster burned down in a great fire in 1834, and the present building, including the crypt chapel, was built or hugely remodelled after that date. This cupboard actually dates from around 1857.
The article went on to say she remained in the cupboard overnight until she was discovered by a cleaner, and she was overlooked by an MP pointing out the Guy Fawkes inscription to visitors, who failed to notice her hiding behind boxes! One of her census forms duly records her as ‘Found hiding in crypt of Westminster Hall’.
Emily was very fond of campaigning in Parliament and you can read about some of her exploits on the Parliament website. You can also take a peek inside the Chapel and see the plaque put up to her by Tony Benn MP on a virtual tour.
Emily’s action was only one of many taken by suffragettes across the country. The suffrage historian Jill Liddington gave a fascinating talk in Parliament last week about research by herself and Elizabeth Crawford into the extent of the suffragette boycott. You can read about Jill and Elizabeth’s findings in the spring edition of HerStoria, the upcoming spring 2011 volume of History Workshop Journal, and listen to an interview they did (in Parliament’s crypt chapel, of course!) on Women’s Hour.
Also, Emily was also not alone in being a woman in Parliament on census night 1911. My own research into women staff in Parliament shows in addition to her, sixty-five women were resident that night as family members and staff in fourteen households. I will post more about this at some point.