Little known fact: some suffragettes were kick-ass jiu-jitsu bodyguards


In a (slightly belated) celebration of International Women’s Day, I delved into the Internet and found a little gem of a story from around 1910:

A lady, who is quite on the petite side, is returning home along a lonely country road. It is growing dark, but the lady saunters carelessly, enjoying the fragrant, health-giving summer breezes, and dangling over her arm her satchel containing her money—several pounds in silver, a diamond ring, and various other little treasures that possess perhaps only a sentimental value.

Suddenly, from behind a hedge, a rascally hooligan rushes forward. He is powerful, he is unscrupulous, he is a thief. He has cast avaricious eyes upon that satchel, which he has reason to believe contains valuables. Anyhow, he means to try his luck. But not so fast, my friend; not so fast! It is not so easy as it seems.

Rather than scream or wilt away, the lady rebuffs him with a wrist lock. Attacking again, he tries to garrote her and is thrown head over heels. Enraged, he draws a knife and is arm-locked, tripped, and tied into a pretzel for approaching authorities.

The words belong to Edith Margaret Garrud, who trained a special unit of the Women’s Social and Political Union, which was one of the leading organisations campaigning for women’s suffrage in Great Britain. The training was Jui Jutsu, which had been introduced to England a few years earlier. Journalists, delighted by this colourful wrinkle in an already juicy story, quickly dubbed the unit the “jujitsuffragettes”.

The unit functioned as bodyguards for the organisation, whose leaders and members were often accosted by not only rowdy and unruly crowds, but a police force bent on keeping them quiet.

To give an idea of what kind of odds these women were up against, here is a passage from a IO9 story about the suffragettes most famous run-in with the police, known as ‘The Battle of Glasgow’:

“The Glasgow police had taken no chances, surrounding the entire hall with a cordon and also stationing 50 constables in the basement. The atmosphere was tense, even more so when the appointed hour of 8.00 came and went with no sign of Mrs. Pankhurst. Many members of the audience doubted that she could possibly break through the cordon, no matter how many Bodyguards she might have to help her. Thus, when she suddenly appeared on the stage, the effect was like magic; though, as with the most apparently sophisticated illusions, the principle was simple misdirection. After spreading a rumour that she would attempt to breach the cordon, she had in fact arrived at the hall early and in disguise, paid for her ticket like any other member of the public, and taken a seat close to the platform.

I have kept my promise and in spite of his Majesty’s Government I am here tonight.

Very few people in this audience, very few people in this country, know how much of the nation’s money is being spent to silence women. But the wit and ingenuity of women is overcoming the power and money of the Government!

My text is – equal justice for men and women, equal political justice, equal legal justice, equal industrial justice and equal social justice!
That was as far as she got before being interrupted by the heavy tread of police boots, as the squadron in the basement made their way upstairs to the hall. Just as the helmeted head of the lead constable, a giant of a man, appeared in the doorway, Janie Allen, a Scottish Bodyguard who was wearing an elegant black evening gown, stood up from her seat, drew a pistol and fired it straight at his chest. There was a deafening blast and the constable fell back into his colleagues, believing that he had been shot – but in fact, the pistol was loaded with blanks.

As the startled and angry police struggled to climb past the panicked giant in the doorway, the Bodyguard pulled out their Indian clubs and took up a defensive formation around Mrs. Pankhurst, who continued to speak over the commotion. The police finally broke through onto the stage and a fearsome fight took place; 25 women armed with Indian clubs and jujitsu vs. 50 truncheon-wielding police constables. The audience began to jeer and boo at the police, drowning out the speech they had come to hear.

Pandemonium now reigned in the hall. Several plain-clothes detectives, who had been hiding in the crowd, attempted to blindside the Bodyguard by climbing onto the platform, but were repelled by a barrier of barbed wire that had been hidden in the floral garlands decorating the edge of the stage. Old ladies then stood up and belaboured the detectives with their umbrellas. Chairs and tables were overturned as the combatants on the stage swung and jabbed, grappled and fell. Gert Harding, the Canadian woman who was the tactical leader of the Bodyguard, was not allowed to risk arrest by being caught with a weapon and was therefore unarmed when a constable raised his truncheon at her. She later recalled being surprised when he seemed to change his mind at the last instant and, instead, threw her into a pile of toppled chairs.”

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