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Arson in Hampstead Garden Suburb

Arson attacks in the Suburb

By 1912, the WSPU was becoming impatient with the lack of progress in achieving the extension of the franchise. The campaign became more militant, increasing further in 1913-14; Mrs Pankhurst argued that ‘Militancy was right’ because ‘No measure worth having has been won in any other way.’ The focus of attacks widened to target things which Mrs Pankhurst deemed most valued by contemporary society – ‘money, property and pleasure’.

In 1913 the militant suffragettes began a concerted arson campaign, which included setting fire to residential houses, golf courses, schools and even churches. In March 1913, these actions reached the Suburb. In comparison to attacks elsewhere, those in HGS were relatively low key, however they generated publicity both locally and sometimes nationally.

The first attack was on 6 March. Just after midnight a policeman observed flames breaking through the roof of wooden annex at the rear of the Institute building which housed the early school. He managed to get out the Caretaker’s family (and the Rathbones upstairs – who were they??). Neighbours rushed to help with hand-pumps and buckets and to carry out furniture until the fire brigade arrived. The annex classrooms were destroyed and the main Hall suffered heat, smoke and water damage. The cost of the damage was about £400 (£55,000 today). Circumstantial evidence suggested that the attack was by suffragettes. In the case of later attacks, the evidence more definite.

On or about 27 March there was an arson attack on a house near the corner of Meadway and Bigwood Road which was still under construction. The Evening Mail reported, “Shortly before midnight a watchman saw lights in the house, and almost immediately two women came out hurriedly. holding their hands over their faces”. He was unable to stop them and they “made off over the Heath Extension”. He then whistled for help and “Dr Stedman came from his surgery with his son. Under the staircase was found a heap of papers burning, the floor was saturated with paraffin. and the flames were running along the floor. Two canisters stood near the fire, connected with it by fuses. As one of the fuses was nearly burnt out, Dr Stedman and his son left the house. and there was then an explosion which was probably caused by petrol or some other inflammable oil.  A second explosion followed, and then Dr Stedman then telephoned for the Finchley Fire Brigade. When they arrived the staircase was burning, but the flames were soon extinguished. The damage done therefore was not great. The house which is valued at £600 or £700 was insured”.

2-3 April
This time two pairs of semi-detached houses were attacked, with one home being occupied. Two were on Bigwood Road and two on Meadway, including the house previously attacked.

The Globe - Friday 04 April 1913 under the headline, ATTEMPT TO BURN FOUR HOUSES reported, “A workman entering one of the houses yesterday morning between 6 and 7 o’clock found that fires had been started in five places. This was also the case in another the buildings. The debris showed that straw and shavings had been used, but in each case these materials had burned themselves out before effectually igniting the woodwork the structure”.

There was also an attempt to burn down the Free Church on 2 April 1913. When the organist came to practise, he found the church full of smoke. He called a policeman and the fire brigade. Rags had been soaked in paraffin and placed in a cupboard in the vestry. However, the cupboard contained a lead pipe which carried water to the baptismal tank. This melted, and the escaping water stopped the fire from spreading. It was put out by the organist and policeman. Estimates of the damage caused varied between £100-£260. The door had been forced open from the inside, so it was thought that the perpetrator had hidden in the building awaiting an opportunity to set the fire. Although there was no direct evidence to connect the arson attack to suffragettes, the ministers at both churches had been warned by Scotland Yard that intelligence suggested an attack was likely.

On 8 April there was a further attack on an unoccupied Suburb house, this time at 6 Erskine Hill. This was reported in the Westminster Gazette thus: “It transpires that at an early hour in the morning a large wooden crate containing ornamental tiles, deposited in the dining-room, was found to be alight. Fortunately, the discovery was made in time to prevent much damage, and the flames were soon extinguished. Close by was a tin which had apparently contained paraffin.”

By now, tempers were running high in the Garden Suburb. According to the Westminster Gazette article already quoted, the local police were giving extra attention to the area, whilst some residents had threatened ‘reprisals’ should the culprits be ‘caught in the act’. Both The Suffragette and The Illustrated Police News claimed residents were “urging the formation of a vigilance committee to patrol the district and watch suspected persons”. The latter went on to suggest: “A house-to-house canvass is being made on the question of ejecting malignants who live on the estate”. The Hendon and Finchley Times on May 2 1903, mentions widespread suffragette attacks in the local area, including “they have worked havoc at the Garden Suburb, and their operations have caused a feeling of insecurity”. The attacks were described in the paper as “women who are agitating for the vote by unconstitutional methods”.

Many suffrage supporters outside the WSPU were concerned that these attacks were having a negative effect. In late April, an outdoor public meeting of the Anti-Taxation League was held in Temple Fortune Lane to protest the distraining (confiscation) of articles belonging to Alice Vickery for non-payment of taxes.

The main speaker, Alison Neilans, a prominent member of WFL, was asked about the militant tactics being adopted at the time and replied that they were doing the cause of Women’s Suffrage ‘no good’.

There was limited further action on the Suburb itself, although no shortage of incidents in the surrounding area. The two remaining arson attacks in HGS were at the end of May 1913 when a cricket pavilion was destroyed (assumed to be somewhere on the Heath Extension) and in September 1913 when a haystack belonging to Hampstead Golf Club was burned. The latter was reported in the Hendon and Finchley Times of 12/9/13. Whilst the fire brigade was called, it was decided to allow the fire to burn out due to the distance from water and because there were no houses nearby. The fire was attributed to suffragettes due to the discovery near the stack of “several newspapers with the words "No votes, no peace" written across the margins”.


Kate Webster January 2023


Arson in Hampstead Garden Suburb