The ‘dramatic arrest’ of Emmeline Pankhurst in Plymouth

Emmeline Pankhurst

On the 5 December 1913, The Times published the headline ‘Mrs. Pankhurst’s Return: Arrest in the Majestic at Plymouth’. The article described how the suffragette leader, Emmeline Pankhurst, had been arrested on the steam ship Majestic before it had docked at Plymouth. [1]

Many readers may be familiar with the name Emmeline Pankhurst, the militant suffragette and leader of the Women’s Political and Social Union (WSPU). The WSPU advocated the use of political violence in their campaign for women’s suffrage, and many suffragettes served time in prison for their militant activities. However, few people are aware of Pankhurst’s arrest in Plymouth by Chief Constable Joseph Davidson Sowerby of the Plymouth Borough Police Force. Sowerby was Chief Constable and Chief Fire Officer of Plymouth Borough Police from 1892 to 1917.

Pankhurst had been on a speaking tour in America and was travelling back to Britain from New York on the steam ship Majestic, which was due to arrive in Plymouth on 4 December 1913. By travelling to America, Pankhurst had breached her bail conditions, which were set on her release from Holloway Prison under the Cat and Mouse Act, so that she could recover from her hunger strike. Many suffragettes went on hunger strike when imprisoned in the hope of forcing a response from the authorities. (The Cat and Mouse Act allowed the early release of prisoners who were so weakened by hunger striking that they were at risk of dying. They were to be recalled to prison once their health was recovered.)

The prominent suffragette Norah Dacre Fox announced that Plymouth would be most sympathetic to any attempt to arrest her and ‘there were dockyard men prepared to support them in any action they might take.’ [2] Over 5,000 people gathered in Plymouth to welcome Pankhurst, although there was a growing concern that she would be arrested for breaching her bail conditions. Suffragettes from around the country travelled to Plymouth to welcome Pankhurst on her arrival. The plan was for Pankhurst to be met by twenty suffragettes who were all trained in ju-jitsu (known as ‘the bodyguard’), and were ready to defend their leader if needed.

These general orders from the 2nd and 3rd of December 1913 show Chief Constable Sowerby giving instructions to all members of the force who were on duty. Sowerby orders those on duty to arrive at the Central Police Station where they will receive further instructions on their duties.

General orders signed by Chief Constable Sowerby regarding the arrival of Pankhurst in Plymouth
Image reference PA/1/6/1/2/1

In the hope of preventing a riot, police officers (including Chief Constable Sowerby) and a wardress sailed from Bull Point (west of the Port of Plymouth) to arrest Pankhurst on board the ship, rather than arresting her once she had arrived to Plymouth Port. Pankhurst asked Sowerby to produce the arrest warrant, to which he replied that the police did not require one for arresting her. After her arrest, Pankhurst was driven across Dartmoor by motor car and taken to Exeter prison, accompanied by Scotland Yard detectives. Sowerby was praised for his handling of Pankhurst’s arrest. Pankhurst spent four days in Exeter prison before she was released and travelled back to London.

Newspapers from across the country reported Pankhurst’s arrest in Plymouth including the Dundee Courier which ran the headline ‘Dramatic Arrest of Mrs Pankhurst’. [3] In response to Pankhurst’s arrest, the WSPU’s magazine, The Suffragette, declared ‘Such was the enthusiasm and sympathy that had been aroused in Plymouth by the Suffragettes that the police did not dare to arrest Mrs. Pankhurst on landing, but were forced to adopt a carefully thought-out plan’. [4]

Portrait photograph of Chief Constable Sowerby
Image reference PA/3/2/1/11

Whilst the militant votes for women campaign is often thought to be London centered, it’s interesting to see the city of Plymouth making the headlines, and provides a glimpse into the suffrage history present in the Museum’s archive collections.


  1. ^ ‘Mrs. Pankhurst’s Return: Arrest in the Majestic at Plymouth’, The Times, 5 December 1913, p. 8.
  2. ^ ‘Mrs. Pankhurst’s Return: Preparations to Prevent her Arrest’, The Times, 2 December 2013, p. 5.
  3. ^ ‘Dramatic Arrest of Mrs Pankhurst’, Dundee Courier, 5 December 1913, p. 5.
  4. ^ ‘Mrs. Pankhurst Re-Arrested’, The Suffragette, 12 December 1913, p. 195.

Words by Lisa Berry-Waite