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Rona Robinson and the WSPU

John Simkin

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Rona Robinson studied at Owens College and in 1905 she became the first woman in the United Kingdom to gain a first-class degree in chemistry.

Robinson went to work at the Altrincham Pupil-Teacher Centre where she taught Science and Mathematics. A fellow teacher was Dora Marsden. The women were both interested in women's suffrage and eventually joined the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU).

In March 1909 Robinson and Marsden resigned from the Pupil-Teacher Centre to become paid organisers of the WSPU. Later that month she was arrested with Emily Wilding Davison, Patricia Woodlock and Helen Tolson, at a demonstration outside the House of Commons. It was reported in The Times: "the exertions of the women, most of whom were quite young and of indifferent physique, had told upon them and they were showing signs of exhaustion, which made their attempt to break the police line more pitiable than ever." Robinson was sentenced to a month's imprisonment.

On 22nd September 1909 Rona Robinson, Charlotte Marsh, Mary Leigh and Laura Ainsworth conducted a rooftop protest at Bingley Hall, Birmingham, where Herbert Asquith was addressing a meeting from which all women had been excluded. Using an axe, Leigh removed slates from the roof and threw them at the police below. Sylvia Pankhurst later recalled: "No sooner was this effected, however, than the rattling of missiles was heard on the other side of the hall, and on the roof of the house, thirty feet above the street, lit up by a tall electric standard was seen the little agile figure of Mary Leigh, with a tall fair girl (Charlotte Marsh) beside her. Both of them were tearing up the slates with axes, and flinging them onto the roof of the Bingley Hall and down into the road below-always, however, taking care to hit no one and sounding a warning before throwing. The police cried to them to stop and angry stewards came rushing out of the hall to second this demand, but the women calmly went on with their work."

As Michelle Myall has pointed out: "The police attempted to move the two women by, among other methods, turning a hosepipe on them and throwing stones. However, Charlotte Marsh and Mary Leigh proved to be formidable opponents and were only brought down from the roof when three policeman dragged them down."

Robinson, Mary Leigh, Charlotte Marsh and Laura Ainsworth were all sentenced to two weeks' imprisonment. On arriving at Winson Green Prison, on 22nd September, she broke the window in her cell in protest, demanding to be treated as a political offender. "Accordingly at nine o'clock in the evening I was taken to the punishment cell, a cold dark room on the ground floor - light only shines on very bright days - with no furniture in it." The four women decided to go on hunger-strike, a strategy developed by Marion Wallace-Dunlop a few weeks earlier. Wallace-Dunlop had been immediately released when she had tried this in Holloway Prison, but the governor of Winson Green Prison, was willing to feed the three women by force.

Mary Leigh later described what it was like to be force-fed: "On Saturday afternoon the wardress forced me onto the bed and two doctors came in. While I was held down a nasal tube was inserted. It is two yards long, with a funnel at the end; there is a glass junction in the middle to see if the liquid is passing. The end is put up the right and left nostril on alternative days. The sensation is most painful - the drums of the ears seem to be bursting and there is a horrible pain in the throat and the breast. The tube is pushed down 20 inches. I am on the bed pinned down by wardresses, one doctor holds the funnel end, and the other doctor forces the other end up the nostrils. The one holding the funnel end pours the liquid down - about a pint of milk... egg and milk is sometimes used."

On her release from prison, Rona attended a meeting at the ballroom, White City, Manchester, when along with Dora Marsden and Emily Wilding Davison she received the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) Hunger Strike Medal from Emmeline Pankhurst.

In October 1909, Robinson, Dora Marsden and Mary Gawthorpe decided to take part in another protest. According to Les Garner, the author of A Brave and Beautiful Spirit (1990): "Dressed in University gowns they entered the meeting and just before Morley began, raised the question of the recent forced feeding of women in Winson Green. There was an uproar, and the three were quickly bundled out and arrested on the pavement." This time they were released without charge.

Votes for Women reported on 8th October 1909: "No one who knows these three women graduates, or who glances at the numerous photographs which have appeared in the Press can fail to be struck with the pathos of the incident. Mary Gawthorpe, Rona Robinson and Dora Marsden are all slight, petite women who made their protest in a perfectly quiet and gentle manner... They are women moreover, who have done great credit to their respective Universities... Yet they are treated as "hooligans"; treated with such roughness that all 3 had to have medical attention, and hauled before a police magistrate and charged with disorderly behaviour."

In 1910 Robinson became a Gilchrist postgraduate scholar in Home Science and Economics at King's College for Women in Kensington Square. She later wrote for The Freewoman and gave lectures at their meetings.


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