Preston suffragette went on hunger strike after bombing

Local historian Keith Johnson looks back at the case of a sufragette who planted a bomb in protest at the Government that "ignored women's rights".

Tuesday, 31st December 2019, 5:00 pm
The Liverpool Cotton Exchange building came under attack by suffragettes
The Liverpool Cotton Exchange building came under attack by suffragettes

At the Liverpool Quarter Sessions in mid-July 1913 Mrs. Edith Rigby, the wife of Dr. Charles Rigby of Winckley Square, was accused of planting a bomb in the Cotton Exchange Buildings in Liverpool on the 5th of July.

The court heard how a policeman on duty outside the building late that night heard a loud explosion and felt the ground beneath him shake.

Subsequent investigation led to the discovery of a gunpowder packed cylinder which had exploded in the basement. Fortunately, the device did not cause much damage and no person was injured.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

The search for the perpetrators had drawn a blank until four days after the explosion when Mrs. Rigby presented herself at the Dale Street police station in Liverpool to admit to the offence making a detailed confession of that crime and also took responsibility for burning down the timber bungalow known as Roynton Cottage on Sir William Lever’s Rivington estate in the same week.

Armed with paraffin she had started a number of fires around the property and the bungalow had quickly caught fire, destroying the building along with valuable tapestries and works of art.

These incidents were amongst a series of militant actions taken that summer by the national suffragette movement led by Mrs. Pankhurst.

An active member of the group Mrs. Rigby, aged 40, was taken into custody, but once in Walton Gaol she went on a hunger strike that led to her being released on bail prior to her trial. At her trial in late July there was no doubting her guilt, although she entered a plea to the contrary and was unwilling to name any accomplices, stating simply that she had been forced into her action by the government who had ignored the rights of women.

The Recorder of Liverpool, Edward Hemmerde, had little sympathy for her plight and she was sent to prison for nine months. Once again a hunger strike followed and within a fortnight she was in such a sick and feeble state that she was allowed to return home to recuperate. Once recovered she fled to Ireland for a brief spell and after returning home and leading a protest at the Public Hall in mid-October 1913 she was arrested again. Again Mrs. Rigby choose to go on hunger strike and within days she was once more released from Walton Gaol to recuperate at home.

As things turned out in August 1914 with Europe on the brink of war Mrs. Rigby penned a letter, published in the Preston Herald, stating that the Preston Branch of the Women’s Social and Political Union had suspended all militant action and were to concentrate on assisting the nation in the war efforts. With the suffragette movement taking a back seat Mrs. Rigby became an enthusiastic member of the new Land Army digging for victory in the fields of Penwortham.