A Suffragette Attack

©1999, WLHG

In the early hours of 1st June 1914 arsonists burnt down Wargrave church, before launching an attack on The Willows in Windsor. These outrages were part of a campaign of violence by the suffragettes, which began in 1910 after the Government refused to allow a Conciliation Bill which would have given the vote to about a million women. In frustration, Emmeline Pankhurst and her supporters intensified their militancy, breaking windows, assaulting prominent opponents, burning letter boxes, and setting fire to buildings. During the first seven months of 1914, 107 buildings were fired by the suffragettes, including the fifteenth-century Wargrave Church. It was completely destroyed, leaving only bare walls, the tower, and the Norman doorway.

It seems that two women were involved since two were seen riding motorcycles at 2.30 a.m. in Wargrave. They must then have ridden over to Windsor. The Willows was the home of the anti-suffrage MP Roger Ekyn, though he was not there at the time and the house was about to be auctioned the suffragettes often targeted houses when they saw sale notices. On arrival at The Willows, they scaled the 7-foot gates with meat hooks and wire. It was a Bank Holiday weekend, and materials for the fire were apparently hidden ready for use. The fire started about 3.45 a.m., around sunrise, so candles could be extinguished while they spread petrol in the mansion. No one was around but the head gardener, F H Beney, who could not sleep, saw the smoke. He stopped a cyclist carrying cans of milk, with instructions to call the Clewer and Windsor Fire brigades (Sutherland Grange, which had a telephone, appears to have been empty). He also alerted the garden and stable hands, and they fought the fire with pails of water before the Windsor fire engine arrived. Damage was luckily confined to a few hundred pounds. Cards bearing suffragette slogans were found at both sites.

Suffragettes cheered “the good news about Wargrave”, but the women were unpopular in Windsor because the royal apartments and other tourist attractions had had to be closed because of their attacks. There had previously been public meetings against the suffragettes, and the Windsor Express quoted an Establishment comment that “Votes for women stank in the public nostrils”.

No one knows which suffragettes destroyed the ancient church – melting 6 bells and nearly killing the vicar in the process – but there was a suffragette dairy and farming school in Checkenden, Berkshire, run by two Cambridge graduates, Kate Lelacheur, and Fanny Parker. A pioneer Windsor suffragette was Agatha Commins, a former secretary to Lady Edward Spencer Churchill, who might have been involved: she could have provided the arsonists with a “safe” house after the attack. She died in August 1948, aged 82, and is buried at Clewer Church. By then, of course, women had long had the vote though they had had to wait till 1929 for full female suffrage.

Gordon Cullingham