Upminster’s Tragic Link to Black Friday

The so called “Black Friday” sales every November and related disturbances brings back thoughts of Upminster’s own connection to the original Black Friday of more than a century ago, which contributed to a tragic death in the village just over a month later.

The original Black Friday  was a women’s suffrage disturbance which occurred on Friday 18th November 1910, and which became a special date in Suffragette history named after the headline in the Daily Mirror the following day.

Black Friday 18th November 1910

Black Friday 18th November 1910

The government’s Conciliation Bill, which extended the right to vote to around one million wealthy property-owning women, got its second reading, but the Prime Minister Herbert Asquith said that there would be no more Parliamentary time for the Bill’s final progress through Parliament.  Furious at the government’s delay, a 300-strong crowd of Suffragettes who had been holding a conference at nearby Caxton Hall, Westminster marched on the House of Commons nearby.  The women set out peaceably in groups of 12 but as they neared the House they were met in Parliament Square by a gauntlet of policemen and were treated more roughly than at any previous protest.

Like many villages Upminster had hosted suffragettes’ rallies. On Tuesday 16th April 1907 a meeting under the title of “Votes for Women” was organised at Upminster’s Boys’ School House with the advertised speakers being amongst the most famous suffragettes in Britain at that time.  One was Mrs Charlotte Despard, imprisoned in Holloway Prison twice that year and who had the previous year left the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) and joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), formed by Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst and her three daughters, Christabel, Sylvia and Adela Pankhurst. The second speaker was to be Mrs Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, who with her husband Frederick that year started the journal Votes for Women and contributed more than £6,000 of their own funds to the WSPU. Their large home in London also became the office of the WSPU and was also used as a place of convalescence for suffragettes made ill by their prison experiences. The third advertised speaker was a Miss Macauley.  In the event it was Mrs Despard and Miss Christabel Pankhurst, described in the local press as “the pretty, rosy cheeked, young Suffragette“, who addressed the meeting which attracted such a large attendance that an overflow meeting had to be held.

A second suffragettes rally took place in Upminster eighteen months later when on 28th November 1908 the village was visited by members of the Women’s Freedom League (WFL), another of the different suffrage factions. The meeting had as the main speaker a Miss Tillard, either Violet Tillard the very active Organising Secretary of the WFL or her younger sister Irene, and another Suffragette was named as a Miss Schofield, almost certainly Alice Schofield, one of the founders and paid organiser of the WFL.  The meeting was chaired by a Miss Williams and it was to her that Upminster owes its strong historic link to the suffrage movement as this last Miss Henria Williams was among the “Black Friday” protestors and her treatment on that day quickly became a cause celebre for Suffragettes.


Suffragettes’ rally at Upminster Wednesday 28th November 1908

Born in Oswestry, Shropshire in 1867, Henria Helen Leech Williams had grown up in Willaston, Cheshire where her father Henry Williams was a Railway Signal Engineer, and her mother, also named Henria (nee Leech), was a governess and school mistress.  Her siblings also bore distinctive names – including sisters Inez, Ida and Constance and brothers Llewellyn and Owen.

In about 1905 Miss Williams had bought The Cottage, Corbets Tey, which had until 1901 been better known as The George Public House. Her large home comprised an entrance hall, a drawing room with “carved wood mantel & overmantel”, a dining room, four bedrooms, an attic and cellar. Outside there were also glasshouses and a stable, while alongside, forming part of the property, was a newly-built two bedroom cottage, which was probably where her coachman lived.

The Cottage Frith 1908a

The Cottage around 1908

As well as being within reach of Upminster station its location on a main route made it easily accessible to the passers-by.  Outside her home a large picture showing the controversial methods used to force-feed suffragettes in prison was on display. Miss Williams would frequently leave home for a few days and spend her time in London among her colleagues and canvassing on behalf of the suffrage cause.

Henria Williams was soon a recognisable and well-known figure in Upminster who was never without some symbol on her clothing of the suffragette cause, no doubt in the purple and green colours of the movement.  She was known as a “rather eccentric lady” and when in conversation “she poured forth a torrent of eloquence with great vivacity” and when listening to others in a meeting “she could not conceal her enthusiasm”.  She was obviously a distinctive presence at meetings as “her naturally excitable temperament found extensive scope in frantic enthusiasm, for which she was remarkable”.

Henria Williams

Henria Williams

Not long after the Upminster rally in 1908 Henria Williams took part in a series of major Suffragette protests against the Liberal Government’s delays in introducing votes for women. She was already to the fore of the movement the following summer when on 29th June 1909 she was arrested for taking part in a deputation of the WSPU to the House of Commons led by Emmeline Pankhurst.  In all 120 were arrested that day, and those charged were committed to a hearing at Bow Street Police Court on 9th July. While the cases against Henria & others charged with obstruction (including Emily Wilding Davison, killed by the King’s Horse at the 1913 Derby) were adjourned indefinitely, 14 of the protestors were imprisoned for smashing windows of government buildings.

But it was Henria’s experiences as part of the Black Friday protestors which made her reputation, for she left an account of her treatment on that day which it is worth repeating at length:

“One policeman after knocking me about for a considerable time, finally took hold of me with his great strong hand like iron just over my heart. He hurt me so much that at first I had not the voice power to tell him what he was doing. But I knew that unless I made a strong effort to do so he would kill me. So collecting all the power of my being, I commanded him to take his hand off my heart. Yet that policeman would not arrest me and he was the third or fourth who had knocked me about. The two first after pinching my arms, kicking my feet, and squeezing and hurting me in different ways, made me think that at last they had arrested me, but they each one only finally took me to the edge of the thick crowd, and then without mercy forced me into the midst of it, and with the crowd pushing in the opposite direction for a few minutes I doubted if I could keep my consciousness, and my breath had gone long before they finally left me in the crowd… Finally, I was so exhausted that I could not go out again with the last batch that same evening. Although I had no limbs broken, still my arms, sides, and ankles were sore for days afterwards.  But that was not so bad as the inward shaking and exhaustion I felt.

One gentleman on the first day rescued me three times. After the third time, he said to the policeman, who happened to be the same one each time, “Are you going to arrest this lady, or are you going to kill her?”  But he did not arrest me, but he actually left me alone for some time after that.”

The gentleman who “rescued” her was a Mr Frank Whitty who later described what he had experienced that day in a letter printed in the publication Votes for Women.

I saw, as everyone must have done, many other sights that made me feel ashamed of my country; one of the cruellest cases was that of a brave lady, whose name I did not know at  the time. I noticed that she was in a semi-fainting condition, so much so that she could hardly stand. Time after time, with a courage that should have shamed the police into doing their obvious duty and arresting her, she attempted to get through the cordon. I went to her side to do what I could to help and uphold her in her brave but hopeless struggle. At first I tried to persuade her to leave the crowd, at any rate, for a little while, and rest; but when I realised her determination to “do or die” I said no more. All I could do was to try and help her to the best of my power and to ward off the blows, kicks and insults as I could from her fainting body.

Time after time we were forced back into the crowd by the police with an amount of violence and brutality entirely unnecessary. On these occasions I had to put my arm around her to keep her from falling under the feet of the horses, or worse still, under the crowd. I was with her for about three hours. During that time, in spite of the agony she was so bravely enduring, her determination never once faltered. Determination such as hers was not to be turned by advice or pity; there was nothing for me to do but to help her in her purpose, and to shield her as far as was possible.

Undaunted by the events of “Black Friday”, the Suffragettes returned to the fray on the following Tuesday, 22nd November. Mr Asquith had made a further declaration to the House promising to bring forward a franchise bill in the new Parliament, if the Liberal Government won the forthcoming election but his statement further inflamed the Suffragettes, who considered this a declaration of war. They marched on Downing Street where they unexpectedly met the Prime Minister on his way back from Parliament. He was quickly surrounded by a crowd of Suffragettes and Henria Williams was among them.

Reports in overseas newspapers claimed that Miss Williams struck the Premier a blow in the face shouting “You tax women as heavily as men, yet women are not represented in Parliament”. However, her own anecdote of the occasion, in a later local press report, said that she told “with relish” of a fleeting “conversation” she held with Mr Asquith but “before she could say much” a Policeman whistled for a cab which came along and picked up the threatened Premier, “much to the chagrin of the discontented suffragette”. Miss Williams however managed to smash a window in the cab before it moved out of reach, before she was dragged away shouting “Traitor!” and “Coward”.  She expected to be arrested for this offence but the policeman’s attention was attracted elsewhere.

The Cottage 1912

The Cottage 1912

Just before Christmas 1910 her maid resigned and Henria Williams was left alone in her home, helped only by a local woman Mrs Lazell, who came every morning to light the fire, and her live-in coachman David Scott.  She asked the local policeman PC William Girling to keep a good look out as she was alone and nervous. On New Year’s Day 1911 with no maid to wake her she woke up late and left for St Laurence’s church without breakfast. On returning she wrote a series of letters, including one to her younger brother Llewellyn “to make myself think I’m not alone”, writing to him saying that she was “now preparing for the tax resistance. I would rather go to prison than pay them.”

At 2.50am that night PC Girling was on night duty in Corbets Tey when he heard groaning coming through Miss Williams’ open window. He called out to her and she replied “Fetch the doctor and come through the window. I am dying.” The constable roused Mrs Lazell and David Scott and entered through the bedroom window where they found the suffragette “in a state of collapse”. The policeman rode off on his bicycle and aroused Dr James Dunlop at his Hall Lane home, whose chauffeur drove him to Corbets Tey but by the time he got there around 3.30pm Henria Williams had died. Miss Williams had not been one of Dr Dunlop’s patients, but pills for treating angina were found in her handbag. She was known to have had two heart attacks in the past 18 months but on each occasion had been able to warn her servant as soon as she had felt the symptoms and avoid danger.

The sudden death had to be reported to the coroner and an inquest took place at The Cottage on Wednesday 3rd January 1911 with the Rev Hyla Henry Holden as foreman of the jury. The jury had little difficulty in returning a verdict of “death by angina pectoris”.   As the press report concluded, her participation in the militant demonstrations could be viewed as “conduct not at all congenial to one who suffered from a weak heart”.

Two days later Henria Williams’ coffin was transported from St Pancras on the midnight train to Glasgow for her funeral to be held at St Ninian’s Church on 6 January 1911 . Her coffin was draped in the purple, white and green colours of the suffragette movement and among the wreaths was one sent from London by the WSPU bearing the words “‘She hath done what she could”. Afterwards, Henria was buried in the imposing family grave in Cathcart Cemetery alongside her parents and other family members, who had settled nearby. Fellow suffragette Ruth Underwood attended the ceremony, placing the WSPU wreath on the grave, and  she wrote about the “touching and impressive” occasion in the movement’s journal Votes for Women.

Williams grave 1a

Henria Williams’ last resting place, the family grave at Cathcart Cemetery, Glasgow. (Credit: Friends of Cathcart Cemetery)

Henria’s death soon became part of suffragette folklore as a direct victim of “Black Friday”, one who never recovered from her brutal mauling and who died two months later.  On 15th January 1911, the prominent suffragette Annie Kenney planted a tree in Henria’s honour in ‘Annie’s Arboretum’ at Eagle House, Batheaston. 

In the aftermath of “Black Friday” and the disturbances which followed, Mr Henry Brailsford, a Yorkshire-born journalist, and Dr Jessie Murray, who in 1918 was one of the founders of the first psychotherapy clinic in Britain, collected statements from women involved in the November events. Amongst them a letter from Henria Williams written to Dr Murray on 27th December, five days before her death. The couple’s conclusions were published in February 1911 in a monograph “Treatment of the Women’s Deputations by the Police” which publicly linked Miss Williams’ death to her treatment on “Black Friday”: “There is evidence to show that Miss Henria Williams, who died suddenly of heart failure on January 1, had been used with great brutality, and was aware at the time of the effect upon her heart, which was weak.”

So, the next time you hear of a “Black Friday” event, spare a thought for Upminster’s suffragette Henria Williams and her sad role in the original disturbances.

* * *

Read Romford Recorder article which refers to Henria Williams article HERE

Main Sources:

The National Archives: MEPO 3/203 – Suffragettes: complaints against police (1911) – including “Treatment of the Women’s Deputation by the Police” – Conciliation Committee for Woman Suffrage (England) (authors – Henry Brailsford & Dr Jessie Murray).

“Votes for Women” 6th, 13th, 20th & 27th January 1911

Reports in Essex Times 4th, 7th & 11th January 1911 and Romford Recorder 6th January 1911

Dani Garavelli “A Scots grave leads to fascinating story of a forgotten suffragette” The Scotsman, 30th August 2020

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5 Responses to Upminster’s Tragic Link to Black Friday

  1. Susan McCulloug says:

    this is a most interesting history to me as Henria was my grandfather Owen’s sister.
    No one in our branch of the Williams family knew anything more than that she probably died from TB. I am amazed to find out the actual circumstances around her death, and can only wonder as to why this was.
    Her father, Henry Williams, moved to Glasgow and formed an engineering works and becoming a respected business name in the railways.
    If you can tell me anything else of Henria Williams I would appreciate it greatly.

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