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Tour de Force: The March of Progress

It was Mary Poppins who radicalised Mary Carroll. “I remember watching the film on TV as a child and being furious,” she recalls. “It hadn’t occurred to me that there was a time when women couldn’t vote. Mrs Banks, the film’s suffragette mother, became my childhood hero – she was out on the streets belting out her ‘Sister Suffragette’ protest song and demanding votes for women.”

Mary’s synchronicity with the  suffragettes continued when she started working as an actress. “I kept being cast as Emmeline Pankhurst” she says. “I played her in street theatre shows, educational plays, community performances – Mrs Pankhurst and me were destined to keep meeting.”

When Mary qualified as a Blue Badge Guide in 2010, she once again turned to her suffragette alter ego. “As a history guide I was keen to tell the story of women’s struggle for emancipation. I wanted to bring the campaigners to life so I teamed up with two other Blue Badge Guides –Moira Dearnley and Catherine Cartwright – to develop an ‘interactive walk’ combining guiding with scenes and characters – a cross between street theatre and history.

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“Our ‘walk’ covers a decade of history in one and a half hours. We tell the story of how women won the vote, the tactics they used and the  personalities involved – all done with fast moving scenarios, songs and jokes.

“We begin with one of the most notorious incidents in women’s suffrage, unfurling a copy of the iconic painting The Rokeby Venus outside the National Gallery. In March 1914 Mary Raleigh Richardson entered the gallery and slashed the painting seven times with a meat cleaver.

“We read Mary’s defiant statement: ‘Emmeline Pankhurst is the most  beautiful character in modern history. So, I tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythology.’ Then we slash the copy of the painting. The crowd is both amazed and shocked, particularly when we tell them that that following the incident women were forbidden to enter the British Museum unless accompanied by a man!

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“The picture slashing often attracts the attention of the police. They see our costumes and banners and think we are going to start a demonstration. We ask them if they will join us for the votes for women march – our irony is not always appreciated.

“Trafalgar Square has been the backdrop to many of the great moments in political history. In 1908 Mrs Pankhurst defiantly clambered onto Nelson’s Column and urged her supporters to ‘rush the House of Commons’. We give out copies of her rallying leaflet to inspire our crowd.

“This is followed by a scene illustrating women training for protests. We ‘practise’ throwing stones at windows – something Mrs Pankhurst never mastered – and draw clandestine chalk messages on the pavement – a quick way of alerting women to a rally.

“At a post-box on Northumberland Avenue we stage an act of defiance frequently used by individual suffragettes – setting fire to a letterbox. They would pour in petrol and throw in a match – apologies to the postmen in the West End who have come across cardboard prop matches on their rounds.

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“The postal service was used to protest the Prime Minister’s opposition to the women’s movement. Two suffragettes turned themselves into ‘human letters’ addressed to Asquith, but the police blocked them from being ‘delivered’ to Number 10.

“Outside Scotland Yard we hand out song sheets so everyone can learn the Women’s March. ‘Shoulder to Shoulder, Friend to Friend’ has a very high bit in the middle – we joke that it was written so that men couldn’t sing it.

“Parliament Square is where we follow the story of the darkest moment in the fight for women’s  votes. In November 1910, a bill reached Westminster to give the vote to some one million women. Prime Minister Asquith quashed the bill and 300 women descended on Westminster in defiance. Some 200 of them were physically assaulted in a six-hour struggle with the police.

“There is evidence that the Prime Minister encouraged the police to brutalise the women. One officer pulled up a woman’s skirt and threw her into the crowd shouting ‘treat her as you wish’. The Daily Mirror featured a picture of a woman on the ground surrounded by men and police. The government demanded it be removed from the front page.

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“The protest became known as Black Friday. Three women died as a result of injuries from the police action including Mary Clark, Emmeline Pankhurst’s sister. “In Parliament Square we mark  the victory for women’s rights. In 1918 Westminster passed an act granting the vote to eight million women over the age of 30. The following year Nancy Astor became the first woman MP to take her seat in parliament. 2018 will be the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage.”

In February, this year Mary and her team donned their costumes to lead the women’s march in London. “We need to protect our rights and make sure that women across the world get the vote. What the Pankhursts did is, unfortunately, as relevant today as it was a century ago. Our walk celebrates their struggle and reminds people that the fight is not yet over.”