Being a suffragette was not for the faint-hearted. In the fight for freedom these women often had their own liberties curtailed; in the bid for equality, they were treated as anything but. The Suffragette City Immersive Experience, a participatory historical re-enactment piece currently being run by the National Trust seeks to tell the stories of the brave women whose work led to the Representation of the People Act of 1918, and the vote for women over 30 who held £5 of property, or had husbands who did.
Taking place London Pavilion at Piccadilly Circus, which was one of the original historical meeting places of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), and now home to a money exchange and rather distracting bakery, participants are invited to walk some of the steps that suffragettes did one hundred years ago. Behind a green door we are tasked to design banners, paint rocks, make rosettes, and go on secret missions – that may see them getting ‘arrested.’ Depending on the length of sentence you are willing to risk, and the means at your disposal, you are set certain tasks, some of which take you out on to the streets of Picadilly.
Designers by Helen Scarlett O’Neill and Harry Ross have recreated the Union HQ, Gardenia Café, and a prison cell where some of us end up. It’s all based on letters and documents from the National Archives, and particularly the testimony of Lillian Ball, a mother and dressmaker from Tooting, who was arrested for smashing a window in 1912. One of many brave and passionate women, it’s her experiences that the event centres around, but imprisonment, cross examination and the risk of being force fed were by no means unique to Ms Ball.
A highly enjoyable but also emotive way to spend a couple of hours (don’t believe the hour duration that is given as guidance), the Suffragette City Immersive Experience is a great way to learn more about the trials and traumas that took place a century ago. But it’s telling that whilst out on one of our missions, we come across a modern women’s march. Even now, in 2018, there is important work to be done.
The Suffragette City Immersive Experience runs from Thursday 8 to Sunday 25 March 2018, and tickets are available from the National Trust.
Image – Surveillance photographs of Suffragettes imprisoned in Holloway. The National Archives Catalogue Reference: AR 1/528 Suffragettes 11-18, 1914