The 1908 Suffragette Riot

Suffragette Riot (10 October 1908)
Corner of Cookridge Street & Portland Gate, The Coliseum
On this day Prime Minister Herbert Asquith was due to speak at the Coliseum on Cookridge Street. The police were worried the Suffragettes would try to disrupt the event. Jennie Baines, a suffragette from Stockport, was addressing the crowd who had gathered outside to call for women’s suffrage. At the same time, a meeting of unemployed men had been called by the Leeds Permanent Committee on Unemployment, with Mr Alfred Kitson as chair. Around 600 men marched from Victoria Square to Cookridge Street, where the two groups met. Baines is reported to have encouraged the large crowd to make a rush on the Coliseum. Several were arrested – including Kitson and Baines – but police stopped the riot from getting out of hand; the only reported damage was a broken window.

On the 10th of October, 1908, Prime Minister Asquith visited Leeds to speak at a meeting held at the Coliseum on Cookridge Street (now the O2 Academy). Authorities in Leeds were aware that the Suffragette movement were attempting to disrupt the meeting and challenge the Prime Minister, as they had on several occasions previously, so were on high alert. Tickets for the meeting were strictly controlled with ‘men only’ stamped on many. There were markedly less women in attendance than normal at such an event.

1946. View showing Gaumont Cinema on Cookridge Street. (c) Leeds Library and Information Service, www.leodis.net

Mrs Jennie Baines was a suffragette organiser and hailed from Stockport. Before the meeting she had chalked the pavements declaring a protest for women’s suffrage would be taking place that afternoon outside the Coliseum.

During Asquith’s speech a crowd of up to 1500 people assembled outside the Coliseum. they were addressed by several speakers including Mrs Baines and Mrs Swales, who had gained entry to the meeting but had subsequently been ejected. The women stood in a carriage on Vernon Street to speak to the crowd about women’s freedoms.

At the same time a meeting was taking place in nearby Victoria Square, called by the Permanent Committee of the Unemployed and attended by some 600 unemployed men. The chairman was Mr Alfred Kitson and it was decided that the meeting would march to the Coliseum to try to gain an audience with Asquith.

The two protests merged outside the venue and the arrival of the unemployed men unnerved the police who sent more mounted officers and resulted in a police presence of around 70 men.

Various speeches followed by speakers from both protests and at some point a call was heard to ‘break down the barricades’. The Leeds Mercury newspaper reported that Mrs Baines made the call but it is open to interpretation whether she meant the words to be acted on that instant. This cry certainly encouraged the crowd to rush towards the doors of the Coliseum but it was not quite the riot that was reported.

Yorkshire Post, 12 October 1908

The Yorkshire Post reported that after Asquith had finished his speech ‘an attempt was made to rush the Coliseum and the crowd pressing forward came into contact with the mounter police’. It reported stones being thrown and several arrests were made. However there were no records of injuries and the only damage was a broken window (later attributed to Leonora Cohen).  Mrs Baines and Mr Kitson were both arrested alongside several other suffragettes, including Bertha Quinn who would go on to be a city councillor 1929-1943.

On Thursday 15 October Mrs Baines and Mr Kitson were charged with disorderly conduct and unlawful assembling. Mr Kitson was also charged with assault upon the police. Mrs Baines conducted her own defence and both were committed to trial at the next Assizes. Both were allowed bail. Mrs Baines made a speech to the court explaining that she had refused permission for Kitson to mount her carriage to speak to the crowd and did not wish the two protests to unite, but she was ignored.

In November 1908, Baines became the first member of the WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union) to be tried by jury. Refusing to be bound over she was convicted to six weeks imprisonment in Armley Jail because she ‘did not recognise the laws of this Court administered by Men’.

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