Shaftesbury Hosts A Suffragette Play With A Message That’s Relevant Today

History has almost forgotten the wheelchair-bound Suffragette, May Billinghurst. But actress and playwright Phoebe Kemp hopes to change that.

Her one-woman show ‘May’ comes to Shaftesbury Arts Centre on 24th November. In telling Billinghurst’s story, Phoebe will address many issues that are still highly relevant now, over 100 years later.

“It’s a fascinating story that people haven’t heard before,” said Phoebe. “For me it’s very emotional. If you enjoy going on a journey with a character, the play will take you on that. Anybody who has an interest in the Suffragette movement, Edwardian history or who is interested in activism will enjoy the play. It describes how culture and activism have changed.”

May Billinghurst was born in Lewisham in 1876, the daughter of a banker. She was paralysed followed a childhood illness and was never able to walk unaided. Although May received private home tuition, her disability meant she could not go to university.

Her political interest developed after she volunteered at a nearby workhouse and she quickly became a key player in the Suffragette movement. May attended protest marches in her wheelchair and got involved with a shop window smashing campaign, hiding the required rocks beneath the rug that covered her knees. Her actions saw her jailed in Holloway Prison – twice.

Phoebe Kemp as May Billinghurst

When Phoebe heard May’s story she knew that she had to perform it. “I’m disabled. I am a wheelchair user and for a long time I’ve had this idea of doing a historical, one-woman show about a woman who was disabled. I actively looked for a subject for a while but I couldn’t find anyone. If you are a woman and disabled then the likelihood of you being taught to write and of you being important enough to have records kept was non-existent.”

Phoebe read an article about May, which someone had shared on Facebook. “I just suddenly went ‘that’s it! That’s who I’m looking for’,” Phoebe exclaimed. She was awarded Arts Council funding to develop her play and used libraries in London to research the activist’s experiences. “It’s like I was waiting for her to appear in my life,” Phoebe said.

Phoebe has pieced together a picture of Billinghurst’s character by reading correspondence sent between May’s family members and fellow Suffragettes. “She’s very determined. She knows her own mind. She’s very passionate and she has an almost sarcastic sense of humour. I think she cares a lot about people but doesn’t necessarily show it in the standard, affectionate way. She is very brave but I also think that tips over into recklessness. She doesn’t think that what happens to her matters.”

Phoebe says May’s sexuality also remains unclear. “I think she probably was not straight. It’s hard to talk about it historically because the language would not have been the same. People would not have necessarily used labels. From what I have read, she had same-sex relationships, which seemed very intense. We know that a lot of the Suffragettes were not straight.”

Phoebe likes the character that she has researched so thoroughly. “I have fallen in love with May Billinghurst,” she said.

Phoebe discussed her research findings with friends and colleagues working in theatre and together they decided to focus on one period of May’s life. “We found that there was one year, March 1912 to March 1913, when the Suffragette movement started ramping up in terms of militancy and May’s story parallels that. There are family things going on at this time and they tie in with her decisions. She knew that if she were caught she would go to prison and that she would go on hunger strike. We looked at what would make somebody ‘throw themselves away’ in that way. What pushes somebody to the brink?”

When Billinghurst was in prison she did, indeed, go on hunger strike. Her disturbing accounts of being force-fed were discussed in Parliament. The graphic details are very unpleasant but Phoebe says the show doesn’t recreate that violent incident. “We don’t show it happening but we show how she was affected by it, because I think it is more important. I don’t think you could show it effectively on stage in a one-person show. The doctor that perpetuated it said that he didn’t do it and that she was making it up. I think it’s a really important story. It feels timely, in how people feel when they stand up against abuse.”

Most people know about the Pankhursts’ involvement in the Suffragette movement. So why does Phoebe think that Billinghurst’s role is rarely highlighted? “The Pankhursts were the leaders of the movement. They were very rich. They were a dynasty because there was more than one of them. We have a tendency to whitewash history – so it is all white, able-bodied people – and we forget that there were people who were not white and disabled, who were involved in the Suffragette movement. There were working class people involved, too. Those stories generally aren’t told. They are not the stories we tell about any of our history,” Phoebe said.

Phoebe reckons that May would have loved being the focus of a one-woman play. “She acknowledged that she was famous at the time. She was referred to as ‘the splendid cripple’ in the newspapers.”

When watching the show, Phoebe wants her audience to realise that they too can help to bring about positive change. “You can’t change everything, but you can change some things. As an individual, you may not feel that you can change very much but when it is cumulative, you can change the world,” Phoebe said, before laughing. “That sounds a bit hippie-dippie!”

But there is a serious point that Phoebe reiterates. “I think it’s a message of hope through action. It’s hope, by saying you can’t just accept things the way they are. Everybody’s contribution to the fight helps. Get involved. I think it’s also saying that we’ve come a long way, but we still have someway to go.”

Phoebe Kemp’s show, May, is on at the Shaftesbury Arts Centre on Saturday, 24th November a 7.30pm.