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‘No more pushing around of Mrs Pankhurst’

24 August 2018

After Emmeline Pankhurst’s death in 1928 the Suffragette Fellowship campaigned and fundraised for a memorial to her with all the tenacity and effectiveness that might be expected. In 1930 the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, unveiled Mrs Pankhurst’s statue in Victoria Tower Gardens, a bronze by Arthur George Walker (also responsible for Florence Nightingale in Waterloo Place). Her hand is raised as if mid exhortation, and she stands on a plinth designed by Herbert Baker. It was the first public monument to a figure in the suffrage movement and was commissioned in the very year in which women finally gained equal franchise.

In the mid 1950s, after the redesign of the gardens in order to display Rodin’s Burghers of Calais to better advantage, the statue was moved. The (ageing) members of the Fellowship showed their enduring mettle by asking for ‘a definite assurance that there will be no more pushing around of Mrs Pankhurst’ to which they received ‘the most categorical reassurance’. The memorial now stood closer still to the Palace of Westminster, a suitably evocative background. Lest memories fail, an inscription was added to mark ‘her courageous leadership of the movement for enfranchisement of women’. After Christabel Pankhurst’s death in 1958 a low Portland stone wall with piers was added, patterned upon Baker’s original, but unexecuted, exedra. It commemorates her contribution and that of the Women’s Social and Political Union. The monument remains, appropriately enough, just outside parliamentary territory.

Just as parliament went into recess this summer, Elizabeth Crawford, a historian of the suffrage movement, drew attention to the fact that Westminster Council was preparing to consider (for the second time) a trio of related applications. One application referred to the removal of the Grade II-listed Pankhurst memorial from Victoria Tower Gardens; another to its reconstruction at the private Regents College (formerly Bedford College) in Regents Park; and the third to the installation of a new bronze statue by an unidentified sculptor on nearby Canning Green. The most curious aspect of the entire episode is the lack of coherent explanation for this time- and, no doubt, cost-consuming scheme from its driver, the Emmeline Pankhurst Trust (incorporated 2017), which is headed by Sir Neil Thorne, a former Conservative MP for Ilford (south). This trust is not to be confused with the Pankhurst Trust in Manchester, a women’s centre based on the Pankhurst family home at 62 Nelson Street.

In July this year the Curator’s Office at the Palace of Westminster commissioned a report from Donald Insall Associates. It has just been published and deals in detail with the monument itself (as opposed to the alternatives that have been proposed). The joint authors of the exemplary conservation study forcefully point out the overriding importance of the history of the memorial. They argue that it should be upgraded to Grade II* and conclude, unequivocally, that ‘the proposal to move the memorial […] should not be granted planning permission or listed building consent’. Something for Westminster Council to chew on.