Suffrage activity in Ulster peaked in the spring and summer of 1914 when thirteen women were arrested for militant suffragette activity. Local suffragettes, and those who had travelled to the province from England, targeted property. They were determined in their efforts and set post-boxes alight, caused damage to local sites including the teahouse at Bellevue Zoo, the wooden pavilion and lawn of the Cavehill Bowling and Lawn Green, and the Lisburn Cathedral, which lost a large stained-glass window in the amateur bomb explosion.

The suffragettes, the term apparently first-coined by the Daily Mail in 1906 to describe women who used illegal means in the campaign for women’s right to vote, also attacked properties belonging to several prominent individuals. A house in Richmond, Derry/Londonderry, was set alight in April 1914. Suffragette literature found in the vicinity indicated culpability and read: ‘Fair play for women and no drill. Apply to E. Carson for damages. Vote for women and stop torture.’ [1] The reference to Edward Carson pointed out the hypocrisy of ignoring militant activity of the Ulster Volunteer Force while prosecuting militant suffragettes. In June, Mary Larmour and Madge Muir, members of the Belfast branch of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), founded in England by the Pankhurst family, were caught by local policemen setting fire to a property at Fortwilliam Park. Muir was reportedly dressed in men’s clothing. According to the Belfast Newsletter, the sergeant found in her coat pocket a copy of the WSPU’s publication, The Suffragette, along with a piece of paper noting: ‘For damages apply to the King and those who differentiate between men and women militants.’ [2] Muir also participated in the hunger strikes that became synonymous with militant suffragists and along with Dorothy Evans was released from Crumlin Road Gaol after going on hunger strike and then rearrested shortly afterwards under the notorious Cat and Mouse Act. [3]

Suffragette activity was also suspected but not proven when Lady Dixon and the late Sir Daniel Dixon’s Ballymenoch House, near Holywood, County Down was gutted by fire in July 1914. By the time that the firemen and engine had reached the house from Chichester Street in Belfast, the fire had progressed significantly. Local residents, who including members of the Ulster Volunteer Force, attempted to save the furniture from within and ‘Very soon the smooth lawn, with its borders of shrubs and flowers, was covered with articles which had been recovered from the flames, amongst them being some valuable oil paintings and a large billiard table.’ A journalist reporting for the Belfast Newsletter noted: ‘No explanation can be given for the origin of the fire, but two copies of the “Suffragette,” the organ of the militant women, were found in the grounds, and on the windows of the conservatory, which are painted white, the words “Votes for women” had been written’. [4]

The agitation for women’s suffrage in Ulster occurred within a wider context in other parts of the western world. Those accused in Ulster frequently used their court appearances to draw attention to the campaign for women’s suffrage and gender inequality. They would also try to disrupt court proceedings; at one appearance, while on trial for possession of explosives, Dorothy Evans refused to stop speaking for forty-five minutes and then tried to leave. She had to be restrained by four policemen for the remainder of her hearing. [5] At a previous hearing, forty female supporters had been ejected from the court for disruption, following which a satchel was thrown at the Court Clerk and Evans knocked a policeman’s cap off with an umbrella. [6]

The suffragettes often experienced a great deal of public opposition, and in many cases this turned violent. Following the arrest of Lilian Metge for the Lisburn Cathedral bomb, all the windows of her house were smashed by an angry mob. [7] Suffragette meetings were often disrupted and many of the women treated ‘roughly’ and violently.

The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 put a stop to most suffragette activity in Ulster. In 1918 the Representation of the People Act gave the vote to women over thirty years of age who met certain property qualifications or were graduates voting in a University constituency. However, it was not until 1928 that women in Northern Ireland were granted the vote on the same terms as men, several years after the vote had been given to women in the Irish Free State.

[1] Irish Independent, 4 June 1914.

[2] Belfast Newsletter, 4 June 1914

[3] Belfast Evening Telegraph, 21 April 1914.

[4] Belfast Newsletter, 4 July 1914

[5] Freemans Journal, 24 April 1914.

[6] Irish Independent, 9 April 1914

[7] Irish Independent, 3 August 1914.

This article was co-authored with Dr Leanne McCormick, Senior Lecturer in Modern Irish Social History at Ulster University.