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An explosion at St Martin’s, 5 April 1914

News St Martin – Talking Points

Wednesday 26 March 2014

Whilst researching information relating to the First World War for last year’s Remembrance Sunday, the archive team found reference to a bomb at St Martin’s. At first we assumed that this occurred during the hostilities, however, further investigation revealed that the explosion took place on the 5th of April 1914 – approximately four months before the declaration of War! This fact was surprising and invited further research.

The explosion occurred by the South wall of the church at approximately 10.30 on the night of 5 April. The Verger had made his rounds an hour earlier and had not seen anything suspicious. Fortunately there were no personal injuries but two pews and two stained glass windows, one in memory of Mr W H Smith (Leader of the House of Commons 1886, and son to the man who founded the high street chain by that name) were damaged. The explosion was given worldwide press coverage at the time. The bomb consisted of a tin containing gun powder and a candle together with a time mechanism set for 10.30pm. The reported presence of a woman of approximately 35 years of age seen earlier in a pew near to the site of the explosion was thought important and led to suspicions that it was the work of a Suffragette.

The WSPU Section of the Suffragist Movement had become increasingly militant since its creation in 1903 by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters. Many acts of disruption and damage to public and private property were used by the group (Kate Adie referred to some of these in her lecture here at St Martin’s on 10 February 2014) and the St Martin’s explosion was one of a number of high profile militant suffragette activities during the first months of 1914. In March, a bomb exploded at St John the Evangelist Church, Westminster, followed nine days later by a picture at the National Gallery – ‘The Rokeby Venus’ by Velazquez – being badly damaged by Mary Richardson, who used a long narrow blade to hack at the work of art. In May a portrait of Wellington at the Royal Academy was defaced. In June both Westminster Abbey and St George’s Church, Hanover Square fell victim to the Suffragettes’ bombs.

The Suffragettes formed but a part of the social unrest which gripped the nation during the years 1910-1914. Called ‘The Great Unrest’ it was a period of great upheaval and militancy. A series of strikes were organised affecting key industries including the docks, railway and coal mines as the country’s working men and women and Trades Unions fought for improvements to often appalling working conditions and for better living standards. During these years the Trades Unions movement doubled the size of its membership to exceed 4 million members.

Although the Suffragist movement continued to campaign, at the outbreak of war Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst declared that militant activities were renounced in order to support the government ‘in its hour of need’.

Parliamentary franchise for women was achieved in stages. In 1918 voting rights were given only to women over 30 years of age who met certain criteria. It was only in 1928 that the Equal Franchise Act gave women the same voting rights as men.

Christabel Pankhurst died in February 1958. A memorial service was held for her at St Martin’s the following month.

Peggy Wylie
Volunteer, St Martin’s Archive