ENDS AND MEANS
THE BRITANNIA PIER INCIDENT.
The burning down of Gt. Yarmouth’s Britannia Pier in the early hours of 17 April 1914 was not a one-off incident.
It is a 99.9% certainty that is
was part of an ongoing militant Suffragette campaign in general and specifically the active unit of Hilda Burkitt and Florence Tunks.
They were not charged with the offence because their next objective, the burning down of Felixstowe’s exclusive Bath Hotel, offered a much better chance of securing a conviction.
According to the very detailed reporting of the “Yarmouth Independent” newspaper (24.4. To 28.5.1914…
Hilda Burkitt and Florence Tunks arrive in Yarmouth at the M and GN Railway Station, on the 7.15 Midland train. They take lodgings for a week at 105, Wellesley Road.
The two women tell their landlady that they are
off to a (non-existent) meeting in Gorleston.
4 a.m. Loud explosion. Britannia Pier Pavilion in flames, Fire Brigade called but building doomed.
10.00 a.m. The two women return to their lodgings on Wellesley Road.
The two women leave Yarmouth via Southtown Station
Later the two engage rooms at 32, Berners Street, Ipswich.
They arrive in Felixstowe and take rooms.
Off on their (hired?) bikes.
They tell their landlady they are going to Ipswich Theatre, staying overnight with friends.
7.30 p.m. They are seen in their hired beach hut.
10.00 p.m. They are seen in Felixstowe by Commander White, (who at their trial they will accuse of trying to solicit them- in my opinion convincingly) and later by a man named Goldstein.
1-2 a.m. seen near Beach Hut 11
3.15 a.m. Bath Hotel on fire.
4 a.m. Bath Hotel burnt down
7 a.m. The couple are seen watching the fire
Two haystacks they had been seen close to on the 26th suddenly burst into flame, Suffragette literature found on site.
8 a.m. Back in lodgings
Having been arrested, the pair faced Felixstowe Magistrates Court. The evidence was overwhelming for apart from Suffragette literature, materials for creating delayed action fire bombs were found in their possession. They are remanded to appear at Suffolk Assizes in Ipswich where they are to be sentenced…Hilda Burkitt for 2 years, Florence Tunks for 9 months.
The women neither admit nor deny their guilt, taking the Clinton escape…not lying just avoiding telling the truth.
Hilda Burkett petitioned the Home Office for release. ‘I’ve been in prison since April 28th,’ she wrote, ‘and have been forcibly fed during the whole time, 292 times so far.’ She was released soon afterwards.
In my subjective view, this was one very courageous lady.
She was a veteran campaigner, convicted at Birmingham in 1909 for wilfully damaging a railway carriage by throwing stones and sentenced to one month’s imprisonment in the second division. In 1912, at the London County Sessions, she was sentenced to four month’s imprisonment for wilfully damaging plate-glass windows to the value of £20. Prisoner was also then awaiting trial for attempting to set fire to a grandstand at Leeds on November 24th 1913.
Imprisoned, Hilda immediately went on hunger strike.
At the time, attempting suicide was a crime i.e. ”Thou shalt not kill” was extended to “even thyself,” so the authorities could justify force feeding either orally or by means of a tube inserted into her stomach. The physical pain and degradation involved must have been immense. It was nothing short of torture….(the 1914 equivalent of water-boarding but disguised as medical care?) Hilda promptly vomited everything back. By the middle of July, her weight had gone down to 98 lbs, ’16 lbs below average weight for her height’.
Despite undertaking that treatment for nigh on 300 times she could not be broken.
When she petitioned for release in August 1914, there is little doubt that the authorities were glad to see the back of her. There was also the matter of the First World War in the offing and the voluntary cessation of militant Suffragette action for the duration of hostilities.
“She sits within a prison cell
Despised and splendid, great, defamed.
Shame close about her, and withall
Shameless and unashamed”.
However much we might support Hilda and her fellow
suffragettes one hundred years on, their campaign raises the ethical question of whether ends ever justify means. There is no doubt that the end of securing women’s rights to vote on the same terms as men is beyond question. With hindsight we now can
see that it was the work undertaken by women during the First World War that nudged male-only Members of Parliament into grudgingly extending the franchise.
This view was of course denied to pre-war Suffragettes. Those on the militant wing of the movement looked back over the previous 40 years of peaceful campaigning to see how little had been achieved. They concluded that their arguments needed a far more aggressive presentation.
As Hilda pointed out during her trial they targeted property, not people. However, if there had been accidental fatalities, would our attitudes to her and her comrades in arms be different? Would we see a clear line between them and the IRA/ Ulster Volunteer Force atrocities in Ulster or that of Jihadists today? They too have claimed to have ends that justify the use of extremely violent means. Can such means ever be justified and if so, under what circumstances?
Over to you.