Census Night in a Caravan

Angela Willis – Curator, Caravan and Motorhome Club Collection

Before the First World War the caravan took a pivotal role in supporting the campaign to gain votes for women. Tours in horse-drawn caravans were a popular way to spread the message of women’s suffrage far and wide, yet they were also used as a means to disappear. We take a look at how an ingenious group of suffragettes took to the road in caravans to evade completing the Census in 1911 as a form of protest.

While researching the role which the caravan took in supporting the suffrage movement I came across the incredible story of a group of suffragettes who spent the night in caravans on Putney and Wimbledon Commons. Their aim was to evade the 1911 Census as part of a widespread protest encouraged by the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), one of the organisation’s many militant campaigns designed to cause disruption. My research led me to scour Votes for Women, the official publication of the WSPU, which gave an insight into the activities of the suffragettes on Census night, Sunday 2nd April 1911, and the planning which took place leading up to it.

The Census Song published in Votes for Women on 24 March 1911. Courtesy of the Women’s Library at LSE.

For members of the WSPU, the forthcoming the Census return offered a clear opportunity to organise widespread protest. A letter written by the organisation’s leader Emmeline Pankhurst to The Times highlighted some of the reasons behind her displeasure: ‘The Census is a numbering of the people. Until women count as people for the purpose of representation in the councils of the nation aswell as for purposes of taxation and of obedience to the laws, we advise women to refuse to be numbered’.

It was argued by some of the press that a refusal to provide this information would have a detrimental effect on the government’s decisions going forward, yet this was exactly what the suffragettes were trying to prove. They felt strongly that the statistics gathered by the Census return were vital in forming the basis of legislation which affected women, yet they were unable to have a say on such legislation, being denied the vote.

In the lead up to Census night the WSPU went to great efforts to organise widespread disruption. In Votes for Women there are many details of how women could take part, either by resisting completion of the document or by evading the census altogether by not being at home that night. The publication contained details of a huge array of events and gatherings designed to ensure that anyone wishing to take part could avoid being at their address when the Returning Officer knocked on the door. In the Capital, events included roller skating at Aldwych Skating Rink, a special dinner at the Gardenia Restaurant in Drury Lane plus a number of theatre productions. The homes of suffragettes and public halls were also thrown open up and down the country as a place to gather, from London to Cambridge and Birkenhead and Torquay.

Yet some women looked to more ingenious methods of disappearing for the evening such as Emily Davison, who was later tragically killed when she was knocked down by the King’s horse at the 1913 Epsom Derby. She spent Census night in a cupboard in the crypt of the House of Commons only to be discovered the following day by a cleaner. Equally ingenious was the procession of three Pullman caravans which set out across London at 11pm the evening of the 2nd April. The journey was led by Mrs Marshall and it took them along Edgware Road through Oxford Street and Regent Street before arrival in Trafalgar Square around half an hour later. They then headed down Whitehall, via Victoria and Chelsea to reach the Fulham Road arriving at Putney Heath where they set up camp. On arrival, the women stabled the horses and enjoyed supper, making a toast to the success of the cause with teas and coffees warmed from a thermos. Like many horse-drawn caravans, they were luxuriously furnished and the women settled for the evening on beds with sprung mattresses. They were disturbed from their sleep in the early hours by two policemen who knocked on the caravans to enquire why they were there, but were soon persuaded to leave.

An example of how a Census form could be completed in protest produced by the WSPU. Courtesy of the Women’s Library at LSE.

Around seven o’clock in the women woke to find a growing crowd which included a police inspector, a detective, keepers and interested passers-by. There was friendliness between the parties and the women then set about displaying banners on the ʼvans which included the slogan ‘If women do not count, then neither should they be counted’. It was then that they began their journey back home by police escort, having successfully avoided completing the Census, meeting great support along the way. They made a point of stopping en-route at Downing Street to deliver a copy of Votes for Women to the Prime Minister Herbert Asquith.

The widespread evasion of the 1911 Census was heralded as a great success by the WSPU, and was testament to the extraordinary ability of the suffrage movement to organise and promote such large scale national protests.

For the suffragette caravanners however, this was not the last that they were to hear about their night spent on Putney and Wimbledon Commons. The following week the Head Keeper of the Commons appealed to the South-Western Police Court to bring a summons against the drivers of the three caravans. He was questioned whether he would have had any objection if the party was formed of anti-suffragists, or whether he plainly objected to them in their capacity as suffragettes. He replied that his sole complaint was that they drove across the turf of the Common. His plea was granted to take summons against the drivers, but for the women this was probably a small price to pay for the huge success of their journey.

Throughout 2018 the Caravan and Motorhome Club Collection will be commemorating 100 years of votes for women by exploring the theme of the caravan and the suffrage campaign in a series of blogs. Keep up to date with the Collection on Twitter @CAMCCollection


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