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“Votes for Women!” – Vera Holme’s Organ Pipe Protest

In 1918, following years of struggle and campaigning, British women (although not all) finally gained the right to vote. Tuesday 6 February 2018 marks the centenary of this significant progression in politics. But how did Colston Hall play a part in the suffragette movement at the beginning of the last century?

The Hall has long been a venue for political meetings and was often used by politicians in the early 1900s as a forum for MPs and cabinet ministers.

One memorable moment in our history occurred at one of these political meetings on 1 May 1909 where Mr. Augustine Birrell, a member of Prime Minister H. H. Asquith’s cabinet (who both opposed female enfranchisement), chaired a meeting of the League for the Taxation of Land Values. But, to the dismay of Birrell, the meeting was not to remembered for their political agenda…

“Deeds Not Words”

The woman’s suffrage organisation Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) was established in 1903 by six women including Emmeline Pankhurst with a goal to  publicly challenge the British government and its cabinet ministers who opposed their cause.

On the day of Birrell’s 1909 meeting two members of the WSPU, Elsie Howey and Vera Holme, slipped into Colston Hall unnoticed and hid themselves inside one of the large Willis and Sons organ pipes.

At 8pm, as Mr. Birrell began his address he was interrupted by a voice calling out “Votes for Women!”. The meeting disintegrated into roars of laughter and Howey and Holme saw the event as a successful protest for their cause.

“Generally hilarity ensued for the next seven minutes as the meeting’s stewards dashed wildly about looking in vain for the miscreants. The audience reacted with good humor—expressed with a mixture of cheers, boos, and raucous laughter.”

David Stone – A Savoyard Suffragette

The second auditorium when it first opened in 1901 following the devastating fire of 1898.

The Lost Chord

As well as national papers eagerly covering Vera Holme’s 1909 stunt at Colston Hall, the 7 May issue of Votes For Women gave a full account of the event along with a musical parody, written by Holme herself, of Adelaide Procter and Arthur Sullivan’s “The Lost Chord”.

Seated one day in the organ,
We were weary and ill at ease;
We sat there three hours only,
Hid, midst the dusty keys.
We knew not if they’d be playing,
And to us what would happen then,
But when we heard Mr. Birrell,
It was then we protested, then.

Our voices rang out from the twilight,
But nowhere could we be found;
They looked from the floor to the ceiling—
Then stewards came searching round.
We asked for Votes for Women,
And that justice should be done;
But Birell he could not answer,
And the audience made such fun!

He said he had come from Asquith,
And to him they must give ear;
But a voice rang out still louder,
Making our question clear.
It may be that Mr. Birrell
Daren’t speak in that hall again,
And it may be, never in Bristol,
Until the vote we gain!

Who was the woman in the organ?

Vera Holme, 1881-1969

Vera Holme was born in Lancashire and, before discovering her passion for political protest, led a career as an accomplished violinist and singer performing in London’s Savoy Theatre as a member D’Oyly Carte Opera Company’s first London Repertory Season in 1906.

Vera took up the cause for which she would be best remembered in 1908 and joined the militant Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) and was an ardent campaigner for the Union’s cause and their motto “Deeds Not Words”.

“a noisy and explosive young person, frequently rebuked by her elders for lack of dignity.”

Sylvia Pankhurst (WSPU)

After causing a ruckus at Colston Hall in 1909 she became the chauffeur to Emmeline Pankhurst and was Britain’s only female chauffeur at that time. Dressed in a smart uniform and wearing her RAC badge of efficiency, Vera drove Mrs Pankhurst around in an Austin Landaulette owned by the WSPU.

Holme did not abandon the stage when she joined the women’s suffrage movement and continued as an acting member of the Pioneer Players from 1914 to 1920. She died in Glasgow on 1 January 1969.

Hall of Memories

Last year, as part of Colston Hall’s 150th anniversary celebrations, we commissioned a limited run of interactive tours around our historic venue to shine a light on the colourful characters that have passed through out doors.

One of these characters was Vera Holme who was brought back to life by theatre company Bakehouse Factory through the recital of her satyrical song accounting her organ pipe protest.

Credits

David Stone, A Savoyard Suffragette: The Extraordinary Adventures of Vera Louise Holme, 2014
E. Sylvia Pankhurst, The Suffrage Movement: an intimate account of persons and ideals, 1931. (p. 225)

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