Autograph Letter Collection: Letters of Rosa May Billinghurst and Dr Alice Ker

  • This material is held at
  • Reference
      GB 106 9/29
  • Dates of Creation
  • Language of Material
  • Physical Description
      1 A box (1 volume - 81 items)

Scope and Content

The collection contains letters, a charge for orders, and notes from, to and concerning Billinghurst from a range of writers including Alice Ker, Dora Gregory, Harriet Ker, Jessie Kenney, Beatrice Sanders, Christabel Pankhurst, Major Coates, the Home Office, Elinor Penn Gaskell, Mabel Tuke, Jane Terrero, Winifred Mayo, Henry D Harben as well as members of her family. The second section of the volume consists of letters from Dr Alice Ker, from Holloway Prison, to her daughter Margaret Ker.

9/29 - Billinghurst Letters and Dr Alice Ker Letters; Billinghurst Letters 1912 and 1913; Letters of Dr Alice Ker to her daughters, 1912 - Begin AL/5459.

Administrative / Biographical History

Rosa May Billinghurst (1875-1953) was born in Lewisham in 1875. As a child she suffered total paralysis that left her disabled throughout her adult life. However, this did not prevent her becoming active in social work in a Greenwich workhouse, teaching in a Sunday school and joining the Band of Hope. She was also politically active in the Women's Liberal Association before becoming a member of the Women's Social & Political Union (WSPU) in 1907. She took part in the WSPU's march to the Albert Hall in Jun 1908 and also helped run the group's action in the Haggerston by-election the following month. Two years later, she founded and was the first secretary of the Greenwich branch of the WSPU and that same year she took part in the 'Black Friday' demonstrations where she was thrown out of her adapted tricycle and arrested. She was arrested several more times in the next few years culminating in a sentence of eight months for damage to letterboxes ('pillar box arson') and imprisoned in Holloway Prison. She went on hunger strike and was force-fed with other suffragettes. The experience led her to be released two weeks later on grounds of ill health. She was able to speak at a public meeting in West Hampstead in Mar 1913 and took part in the funeral procession of Emily Wilding Davison two months later. She supported Christabel Pankhurst's campaign to be elected in Smethwick in 1918 and the friendship with the Pankhursts seems to have survived into the 1920s. However, she later joined the Women's Freedom League and became part of the Suffragette Fellowship. She lived for some time with her brother Henry Billinghurst, an artist, and spent the last years of her life in Weybridge, Surrey. She died on the 4 Sep 1953.

Alice Jane Shannon Ker (1853-1943) was born in 1853, the eldest daughter of Edward Stewart Ker, a minister of the Free Church of Scotland. In 1872 she attended University Classes for Ladies in literature and physiology and became a friend of Sophia Jex-Blake who was involved in a dispute with the University of Edinburgh to allow women to study medicine there. Ker eventually studied and took her degree at the King and Queen's College of Physicians in Dublin. She went on to share a practice with Jex-Blake for a year in Edinburgh before studying at Berne University, then working as a house surgeon at the Children's Hospital in Birmingham. She returned to Edinburgh in 1887 and set up an independent practice. The following year she married her cousin Edward Ker and moved with him to Birkenhead and became Honorary Medical Officer to the Wirral Hospital for Sick Children and to the Wirral Lying-In Hospital. During this time, she lectured in domestic economy as well as becoming involved in the Temperance Movement and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. In the 1890s she also became active in local suffrage work in the Birkenhead Women's Suffrage Society. In 1907, her husband died suddenly. After this point, Dr Ker's suffrage activities increased and she became increasingly involved with the militant Women's Social & Political Union along with her seventeen year old daughter Margaret. She was in contact with Lady Constance Lytton and Mary Gawthorpe as well as Mrs Forbes Robertson. In Mar 1912 she took part in a smashing raid at Harrods Department Store in London and was arrested and subsequently imprisoned in Holloway Prison for three months. She was released on 10 May 1912 and continued her suffrage activities as well as war work, in Liverpool, where she moved in 1914. She was the host of Sylvia Pankhurst when she spoke there in 1916, before moving to London, where she died in 1943. Her daughter Margaret was a student at the University of Liverpool at this time and she too took part in militant activity. She was arrested twice, the second time spending three months in Walton Gaol from Nov 1912 to Jan 1913. She died in 1943.

Women's Social & Political Union (WSPU) (1903-c.1919) was the prime mover of suffrage militancy. In Oct 1903 the WSPU was founded in Manchester at Emmeline Pankhurst's home in Nelson Street. Members include: Emmeline, Adela and Christabel Pankhrst, Teresa Billington-Greig, Annie Kenney and Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy. Several had been members of the NUWSS and had links with the Independent Labour Party, but were frustrated with progress, reflected in the WSPU motto 'Deeds, not Words'. An initial aim of WSPU was to recruit more working class women into the struggle for the vote. In late 1905 the WSPU began militant action with the consequent imprisonment of their members. The first incident was on 13 Oct 1905, Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney attended a meeting in London where they heckled the speaker Sir Edward Grey, a minister in the British government. Pankhurst and Kenney were arrested, charged with assault upon a police officer and fined five shillings each. They refused to pay the fine and were sent to prison. In 1906 the WSPU moved to London and continued militant action - with the 'Daily Mail' calling the activists 'suffragettes' an unfavourable term adopted by the group. Between 1906-1908 there were several constitutional disagreements with the Women's Freedom League being founded in Nov 1907 by the 'Charlotte Despard faction'. From 1908 the WSPU tactics of disturbing meetings developed to breaking the windows of government buildings. This increased the number of women imprisoned. In Jul 1909 Marion Dunlop was the first imprisoned suffragette to go on hunger strike, many suffragettes followed her example and force-feeding was introduced. Between 1910-1911 the Conciliation Bills were presented to Parliament and militant activity ceased, but when Parliament sidelined these Bills the WSPU re-introduced their active protests.

Between 1912-1914 there was an escalation of WSPU violence - damage to property and arson and bombing attacks became common tactics. Targets included government and public buildings, politicians' homes, cricket pavilions, racecourse stands and golf clubhouses. Some members of the WSPU such as the Pethick-Lawrences, disagreed with this arson campaign and were expelled. Other members showed their disapproval by leaving the WSPU. The Pethick-Lawrences took with them the journal 'Votes for Women', hence the new journal of the WSPU the 'Suffragette' launched in Oct 1912. In 1913 in response to the escalation of violence, imprisonment and hunger strikes the government introduced the Prisoner's Temporary Discharge of Ill Health Act (popularly known as the 'Cat and Mouse Act'). Suffragettes who went on hunger strike were released from prison as soon as they became ill and when recovered they were re-imprisoned.

Discord within the WSPU continued - In Jan 1914 Sylvia Pankhurst's 'East London Federation of the WSPU' was expelled from the WSPU and became an independent suffrage organisation. On 4 Aug 1914, England declared war on Germany. Two days later the NUWSS announced that it was suspending all political activity until the war was over. In return for the release of all suffragettes from prison the WSPU agreed to end their militant activities. The WSPU organised a major rally attended by 30,000 people in London to emphasise the change of direction. In Oct 1915, The WSPU changed its newspaper's name from 'The Suffragette' to 'Britannia'. Emmeline's patriotic view of the war was reflected in the paper's new slogan: 'For King, For Country, for Freedom'. the paper was 'conservative' in tone and attacked campaigners, politicians, military leaders and pacifists for not furthering the war effort. Not all members supported the WSPU war policy and several independent groups were set up as members left the WSPU. In 1917 the WSPU became known as the 'Women's Party and in Dec 1918 fielded candidates at the general election (including Christabel Pankhurst). However they were not successful and the organisation does not appear to have survived beyond 1919.


Arranged in chronological order.

Access Information

This collection is available for research. Readers are advised to contact The Women's Library in advance of their first visit. Available on microfiche only.

Acquisition Information

The 1970-1971 Fawcett Library annual report notes that Miss MM Nicholson gave [3 folders of] material to The Library related to Miss Billinghurst including documents and photographs. This acquisition can now be found as 7RMB/B and 9/29. At some point the correspondence was removed from 7RMB and placed in the Autograph letter collection as 9/29.

Other Finding Aids

Abstracts of individual letters in the autograph letters collection were written and held alongside the letters. This work was done from the 1960s by volunteers including Nan Taylor. In 2004 Jean Holder completed a 3 year project to list the letters, copy-type the abstracts, and repackage the letters to meet preservation needs. In 2005 Vicky Wylde and Teresa Doherty proof read and imported the entries to the Special Collections Catalogue.

The original card index of all correspondents, including date of letter & volume reference, is available on the microfiche.

Alternative Form Available

A copy of this archive is available on microfilm held at The Women's Library.

Related Material

Also held at The Women's Library are personal papers of Rosa May Billinghurst (7RMB).

Typescript draft memoirs of Dr Alice Ker, quoted in the fifth chapter of 'Votes for Women: The Events on Merseyside 1870-1928' by Marij Van Helmond (National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside, 1992) are currently held in a private collection.


Extracts from the letters of Dr Alice Ker to her daughter as well as biographical information on the pair are printed in the fifth chapter of 'Votes for Women: The Events on Merseyside 1870-1928' by Marij Van Helmond (National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside, 1992).