This blog marks the start of our collaboration with the Houses of Parliament, the Parliamentary Archives, and Flower Press Social Enterprise, on the ‘Deeds not Words! Women and Activism’ project. A group of 8 women will participate in an exciting programme of trips, events and creative workshops, celebrating the strength and achievements of women.
109 years ago, two suffragettes made a daring attempt to see Mr Asquith, the prime minister, by posting themselves to his residence at 10 Downing Street.
Here at The Postal Museum, we are fortunate to have a file about this incident, ‘Express delivery service: Suffragettes conveyed to Prime Minister’s residence as express letters’ (POST 30/1655a). Using this and newspaper coverage from the time it is possible to retell the story of this audacious exploit.
On 23 February 1909, two ladies presented themselves at the East Strand post office and asked to be taken by an Express Messenger to 10 Downing Street. At the time, the Post Office offered a service where ‘Postmasters may arrange for the conduct of a person to an address by an Express Messenger’.
The form requesting this delivery has survived. As you can see, it shows that the ‘delivery’ was handed in at 2.16pm and dispatched at 2.17pm. It cost 3d to send the ladies. The messenger returned at 3.15pm having waited 10 minutes which, according to the Post Office Guide, was the usual amount of a time that a messenger would wait to deliver a package.
Staff at the post office accepted the request unaware of what was about to take place. One report within the file noted that the ladies ‘were not placarded and neither were their intentions known’. If they had known they would probably have reacted quite differently!
A messenger called A S Palmer escorted the two ladies, a Miss Solomon and a Miss McLellan, by now both carrying placards, to Downing Street. When the party reached the Prime Minister’s residence the police would not let either lady inside. The messenger went inside to try and deliver the ‘letters’ in his charge but his request was refused. As the Daily Mirror pointed out, ‘Though the regulations provide for a person to be sent as a letter there is no law or regulation which compels the addressee to accept delivery’.
According to the Daily Graphic, Miss Solomon protested that they had been paid for. ‘Well then,’ she was told ‘the Post Office must deliver you somewhere else. You can’t be delivered here’. Miss Solomon was determined. ‘The express letter is an official document and must be signed, according to the regulations.’ At which point she was told, ‘It can’t be signed. You must be returned. You are dead letters’. ‘Dead letters’ were ones that could not be successfully delivered.
As the beady-eyed amongst you may have noticed that there are spaces at the bottom of the Express Delivery form for a signature and a time of delivery. These have been left blank because the messenger was unable to deliver the ladies. Unfortunately, as you will see below, the hapless Mr Palmer had to fill out a report explaining why he had not obtained a signature.
The Dundee Courier reported that Mr Palmer accompanied Miss Solomon and Miss McLellan back to the post office. He eventually returned them to the office of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), which had come up with the idea of sending two of its members to Downing Street by Express Messenger.
Disturbances at the House of Commons
Miss Solomon and Miss McLellan may have failed in their mission to see the Prime Minister but, in terms of publicity, it was a very effective stunt. It attracted quite the crowd and was widely reported in the newspapers, even making the front page of the Daily Mirror. Miss Jessie Kenney, a prominent suffragette, told The Daily News that ‘Our idea was to give Mr Asquith [the prime minister] due notice of the deputation which will wait upon Parliament tomorrow’. The purpose of the deputation was to ask for the addition of votes for women in the forthcoming legislative programme.
While this attempt to see Mr Asquith did not result in any arrests, the deputation that Miss Solomon and Miss McLellan had wanted to publicise certainly did. Several members of the WSPU tried to enter the House of Commons resulting in the arrest of 29 of them, including one called Daisy Dorothea Solomon. She was the same Miss Solomon who tried to have herself delivered to 10 Downing Street. She was the daughter of Georgina Solomon, who was also a suffragette.
As for the Post Office a circular was hurriedly issued for the attention of London Postal Region staff stating that ‘Such a service [to Miss Solomon and Miss McLellan] should not have been accepted, and instructions should be given that such services to members of the Government, or to members of Parliament or to anyone at the House of Parliament should be refused by Counter Officers’.
The Scottish ‘human letter’
Although counter staff in London had been informed to be wary of suffragettes commandeering the Express Delivery service for their own purposes, this warning had not reached Scotland. On 11 September 1912, Winston Churchill was due to give a speech in Dundee. A suffragette called Lila Clunas was denied entry to the hall where he was to give it.
However, Miss Clunas was clearly a resourceful woman who was not going to be thwarted! According to the Aberdeen Daily Journal, ‘Fastening a card on her breast addressed to Mr. Churchill at his residence, she entered the Post Office and requested to be delivered by express messenger. The order was accepted. She paid the regulation fee of 3d and was duly despatched to the residence in charge of the telegraph boy’.
Unfortunately, just like Miss Solomon and Miss McLellan before her, she also failed in her attempt. Mr Churchill’s private secretary told her that he was ‘not at home to callers, even though they were stamped with the imprimatur [approval] of His Majesty’s postal authorities’. She left defeated.
If you would like to know more about the suffragettes trying to post themselves to 10 Downing Street visit the Parliamentary Archives website.
– Louise Todd, Archivist
The Royal Mail Archive at The Postal Museum:
Express delivery service: Suffragettes conveyed to Prime Minister’s residence as express letters, c. 1909 (POST 30/1655a)
Post Office Guide, 1909 (POST 92/122)
Norman Watson, Suffragettes and the Post (2010, printed by Robertson Printers, Forfar, Angus)
British Newspaper Archive:
Dundee Courier, 24 February 1909
Manchester Courier, 25 February 1909
Aberdeen Press and Journal, 12 September 1912
Available at The British Newspaper Archive (accessed January-February 2018)