Spring 1906

To the casual observer we must appear a most incongruous army of recruits. The proximity of so many men, all tweed-caps and rolled-up shirt-sleeves, I find rather unnerving; as is the earthy, almost sour aroma that permeates their space. There’s something – I sense myself blushing – uncomfortably arousing about the scent, a musky base-note that calls to an instinct; a deep-buried instinct that shall remain so. I adjust the angle of my parasol, so to deflect one particularly ripe specimen, a morose, ferrety-looking chap with week-old stubble and an unfortunate twitch who has sidled up beside me. I flinch as his shoulder brushes mine; but in doing so lose grip on my banner. I struggle to regain hold before the wooden pole makes contact with my companion’s forehead.

‘Watch out woman, you nearly brained me,’ she chides, but in good humour. And that’s the thing. Looking around at the thousands that’ve joined, not just us ladies, but working men; mothers with children and dogs in tow; sneery anarchists, desperate to look sour, but in actuality rather obliging; Marxists; socialists; the residents of Latchmere – put all together, a motley bunch of comrades. But they seem so positive, cheery almost, despite the sorry circumstances that’ve led to this.

The atmosphere is febrile; but contained, for now. It’s noisy though; too loud for polite conversation. All clashing tunes and cloth-eared harmonising. I pick out anti-government chants; raucous sea shanties; and, at a higher pitch, faint strands of our battle song, sung to the tune of Onward Christian Soldiers. It makes me smile. I join in, for once not shy of my inability to hold a note.

But then, inevitably, it begins.

We pass by the lions – all glinty and serene, enjoying the hazy spring sunshine – when our nostrils are assailed by an all-too-familiar stench. Reminiscent of rotten eggs, but much, much worse. The sulphur waters the eyes and causes retching all about me. I gag, hold my breath, fumbling for a handkerchief to stem the worst of it. The air tinged mustard yellow. Then we hear it. As one, disciplined, rehearsed – unlike our lot – chanting their war cry. A bastardised version of that innocent nursery rhyme Little Brown Jug. The words spat out, dripping with vitriol.

As we go walking after dark

We turn our steps to Latchmere Park

And here we see, to our surprise

A little brown dog that stands and LIES

Ha ha ha, hee, hee, hee

Little brown dog, we don’t love thee

Ha ha ha, hee hee hee

Little brown dog, how we hate thee

If we had a dog that told such fibs

We’d ply a whip about his ribs;

To tan him well, we would not fail,

For carrying such a monstrous tale

Then they appear; left and right. At their head, a typical foot soldier. A stiff, poker-faced young gentleman, dressed, as if for church, in morning coat and black-silk top hat. He holds aloft, on a six-foot-high pole, a crudely stuffed effigy of a dog – its fur skinned from a coarse-haired terrier by the looks. Behind him a mass of ruddy-cheeked, suited student types, exclusively male, intermingled with rougher specimens, bought for the day for a shilling no doubt – an unholy alliance in normal times; but these were anything but normal times.

Loutish, sweating testosterone, itching for trouble, they’ve been biding their time, amassing out of sight. Along Northumberland Avenue, lurking down the Strand. Now dangerously fired up after too long waiting; naught to do except swig from flasks and goad each other. They, too, have their placards and banners, and children’s toy dogs, speared through on sticks, to taunt us with.

A flash. A crack, like gunfire. Then several more. The students are lobbing Chinese crackers at us. Panic. Our tight-knit battalion broken. Ladies and anarchists scatter, shrieking in terror. Mothers scream and yell, panic-stricken, yanking their kids from danger.

The dogs are frantic, driven crazy by the sparks, barking, straining their leashes, some breaking free. Those that do, lunge at the students, all bared fangs and spittle. I gasp in horror as they are kicked, beaten with rods and stamped on. Many lie injured or dead in the gutter. I try to block out their dying yelps and the sound of children screaming for their beloved pets.

Our men, incensed, charge the enemy, their wooden banners now make-shift weapons. I watch from the side as pandemonium grips what had been a tranquil, sunny, spring afternoon.

The police arrive, but they provide sparse comfort. They are, as ever, hopelessly outnumbered. Their feeble whistles drowned out by the cacophony. Small groups pile in to separate the warring factions. As soon as they break up one fight, three more start in its place. They look on, resigned – they’ve witnesses this so many times they appear nonchalant. I want to scream at them, but what’s the use?

I scan the crowd, now a blur of fists, blood and boots. Where the devil are they? A rising sense of dread. What if they’re caught in the middle of this madness? But then I spot one, then another. They’ve not scattered far. I signal to move back, away from the violence. We regroup in a recessed doorway off the Mall. ‘Okay ladies, head for the Gallery. Skirt ‘round the Square and let’s get these banners hung.’ Once we’d left the violence behind, we even felt brave enough to resume singing. I glance over; she smiles at me. A warm, encouraging smile that spoke to things maybe being normal between us again. I do so hope it could be; but, there again, as we know, hope’s in short supply these days.

From nowhere, our path is blocked by a mob of about a dozen men wielding sticks, bars, cricket bats. Course-looking, brutish, definitely not students. We stop dead and instinctively form a tight knot. My blood runs cold.

One particularly unsavoury looking fellow, the ringleader I guess, breaks rank and lurches towards our group. He oozes a disquieting menace that sends a collective shiver through us. Gaunt, chest inflated with machismo, he towers over us, observing, leering. A sneer splits his harsh, pinched face, a flaccid roll-up dangles from parched lips. He sniffs the air, as if savouring this atmosphere his mob has created, feeding off it. He takes a final, drawn-out drag on his cigarette, flicks the butt and slowly grinds it into the cobbles with a hobnailed toe. Seconds pass before he speaks. It feels like an hour. It’s a low, menacing growl.

‘That’s quite far enough ladies.’ He steps closer, closer still. ‘A word to the wise, if I may?’ His searchlight eyes scan us, undressing us. ‘I’d totter off home to yer menfolk where you belong, if I were you…’ His contorted grin a parody of childish innocence. He clicks his fingers. The gang casually push back their coats, revealing an assortment of knives and coshes tucked into belts. ‘… so’s we avoid these pretty faces of yers getting slashed in all the chaos we’ve got going on.’

A unified gasp. Sensing, almost tasting, the terror of the surrounding women, I struggle to contain the rising tide of vomit my gut is eager to expel. I feel their agitation through my back. Some turn to flee. The ringleader, drinking in our distress, lapping it up, taunts.

‘Though, for some of you hags it would be an improvement, ain’t that right, lads?’ The mob snigger, and as one, take a step closer.

A sudden sharp cut of stale sweat and alcohol overlays the lingering odour of rotting eggs; I swallow bile. We stumble as the support behind us falls away; the women scramble in their desire to flee. There are only the two of us left now; the others cowering, observing from a distance. I feel for her hand; she squeezes mine but doesn’t take her eyes off him. As if she’s willing him to see her; really see her.

It works. The ringleader double-takes, his eyes narrow, moves closer. She lets go of my hand; steps toward him. A chilling premonition grips me. They’re now almost nose to nose. I can smell his beer-soaked, rancid breath from here. It must be nauseatingly overpowering that close up, but she doesn’t flinch, her face unreadable.

A sudden flash of recognition. He snarls. ‘Hold a bleedin’…, I know you! I’ve seen yer in the papers. You’re the demented tart that started this effing nonsense, aren’t yer?’ He steps back and, with casual disdain, spits; yellow-tinged phlegm splatters just below her left eye. It meanders down her cheek. She refuses to wipe it away. To my eternal shame I remain rooted to the spot, struck dumb with revulsion and fear. I do nothing to help my dearest friend.

She stares straight back at him, her beautiful, innocent face a mask of defiance and loathing. I’ve not seen her like this before, ever. She says nothing for what seems an age; everything becomes supernaturally quiet. I stare, impotent, not daring to take a breath. His mob as still as the statues surrounding them; paralysed by anticipation. When she speaks, I don’t recognise her. Her voice emotionless, her tone calm, her pitch low, enunciating each word, as if talking to a particularly stupid child. She holds his eye with a provocative glare.

‘Yes, that’s me.’

Her smile acid-sweet, she steps back and raises an arm, as if to wipe away his spittle, but, in a lightning streak, lands a most impressive left hook square to his face.

’And I’m the demented fucking tart that’s going to finish it.’

I gasp in disbelief, my first breath in minutes; aghast at what I’m seeing, hearing. Aghast, but so fearfully proud. Caught unawares by the unexpected force of the blow, he stumbles over a loose cobble and drops like a sack of potatoes. As he falls his nose erupts, a fine spray of blood coating her. There’s an almighty crack as his head connects with the kerbstone. Finally, I regain the power of speech.

‘Nooo, stop! For heaven’s sake, stop.’

Moments later a squadron of mounted police, truncheons aloft, whistles screeching, blunder in – too late, as ever. Confronted by the bewildering spectacle of a primly dressed young lady – crinolines and bonnet splattered crimson – standing over an unconscious male, blood obscuring his features. They come to a clattering halt; bemusement writ large across their flushed, sweaty faces. I turn to see the last of the ruffians melt into the crowd of dumbfounded by-standers – drawn by the noise and novelty of the unlikely tableau unfolding before their wide-as-ha’-penny eyes.