‘The brutes’: Mrs Metge and the Lisburn Cathedral bomb, 1914

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 6 (November/December 2014), Volume 22

Lillian Metge c. 1914—second wife of Captain Robert Henry Metge (1850–1900), MP for Meath and a magistrate. (NLI).

Lillian Metge c. 1914—second wife of Captain Robert Henry Metge (1850–1900), MP for Meath and a magistrate. (NLI).

The first decade of the twentieth century saw the establishment of women’s suffrage societies in nearly every major town and city in the British Isles. These organisations shared the same objective but utilised vastly different means to achieve it. The movement was split between two broad camps: militant and non-militant. The London-based National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), for example, leaned towards peaceful forms of protest—holding demonstrations, writing petitions or refusing to pay taxes. By contrast, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), founded in 1903, was militant. Its members attacked politicians, chained themselves to railings, broke windows and undertook hunger strikes. The WSPU was separate, although closely related, to the Irish Women’s Franchise League (IWFL). Formed in 1908 by the renowned Irish women’s rights campaigner Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, the IWFL gave voice to the suffrage movement in Ireland through its newspaper, the Irish Citizen.

Ulster, Lisburn and Mrs Metge
In Ulster in 1911 there was an attempt to unite militant and non-militant factions under the banner of the non-political Irish Women’s Suffrage Federation (IWSF). It grew out of the Lisburn Suffrage Society, which had been formed the year before by L.A. Walkington and Lillian Metge. A prominent activist, Walkington acted as secretary and agitator for a number of suffrage groups across Belfast. Metge, born Lillian Grubb in 1871, was a wealthy widow with family ties to the Quaker Richardsons, one of Ulster’s most important linen-manufacturing dynasties—her grandfather was Jonathan Richardson of Glenmore, Liberal MP for Lisburn (1857–63) and senior partner in the firm Richardson, Sons and Owden. She was known as an active and able agitator, and was secretary (and one-time president) of the Lisburn Suffrage Society and a treasurer for the northern committee of the IWSF.

A slide to militancy

The Temperance Institute, Railway Street, beside the courthouse—home of Lisburn Suffrage Society. (Lisburn Museum).

The Temperance Institute, Railway Street, beside the courthouse—home of Lisburn Suffrage Society. (Lisburn Museum).

From 1912 Metge became increasingly active in her campaign for women’s suffrage. She represented the IWSF at the international women’s congress in Budapest, and became a regular reporter on Ulster women’s meetings for the Irish Citizen. She was a close correspondent of its editor, Hanna Sheehy Skeffington. Indeed, Hanna’s daught-er-in-law, Andrée, recalls meeting Mrs Metge—a ‘tall, straight-backed’ and stern woman. She was struck by her commanding persona: ‘I could imagine her riding a fiery steed rather than throwing herself under the king’s horse’, a reference to Emily Davidson’s death under the hooves of George V’s horse in 1913.

Metge resigned from both the Lisburn Suffrage Society and the IWSF in April 1914, citing differences over ‘administrative work’. In her departing speech at the Temperance Institute, Lisburn, she left her former colleagues in no doubt as to her future path: ‘I have never done a militant action’ but, ‘whatever the future might hold’, henceforth the ‘only possible dishonour’ would be in having ‘seen the vision’ yet ‘turned back’. Her shift to militancy overlapped with the arrival in Ulster of one of the most infamous women’s rights agitators, Dorothy Evans. Evans had been sent to the province in autumn 1913 by the WSPU to establish a presence in the north and to lobby Sir Edward Carson and the unionists for the inclusion of ‘votes for women’ as an integral part of the planned provisional government. By March 1914 Carson had made it clear that this was not an option, and one month later Evans was in custody; police had found suspicious chemicals, wire-cutters and a coil of fuse wire in her Belfast flat. At the same time her WSPU colleagues in east Ulster were stepping up their campaign: churches and golf greens were attacked, pillar-boxes destroyed and windows in the old Town Hall in Belfast smashed.

In May Metge was part of a 200-strong deputation that charged George V as he entered Buckingham Palace. She was arrested and witnessed the police brutally beating the suffragettes with batons. The incident had a strong effect on her: ‘I see now how militants are made’. While attending the Belfast trial of Dorothy Evans and Madge Muir on their explosives charge in July Metge was again arrested, this time for smashing windows outside the courthouse. During the trial, Evans repeatedly interrupted proceedings and mocked the judge. She was eventually remanded in custody in Tullamore, Co. Offaly, before completing several days of hunger strike. Greatly weakened, she was discharged on medical grounds and released into the care of her friends, including Lillian Metge, on 26 July 1914.

The brutes!

The east end of Lisburn Cathedral and the chancel window. (Lisburn Museum)

The east end of Lisburn Cathedral and the chancel window. (Lisburn Museum)

Evans and Metge travelled north through Dublin. Their destination was Belfast, but it is unclear whether they reached it. What is known is that on the night of 31 July 1914 a huge explosion was heard over Lisburn. Panicked police officers raced to the old gasworks beside the Lagan, thinking that it had ‘blown up at last’. Soon the real cause was known. At the cathedral, suffragette literature ‘danced in the air’ and masonry and glass were strewn everywhere. The chancel window of Lisburn Cathedral had been heavily damaged. Lillian Spender, diarist and wife of the UVF quartermaster, Captain Wilfred Spender, recalled hearing ‘about 3 o’clock what I thought was a big gun firing, but it proved next day to be an explosion caused by suffragettes’—‘the brutes!’ Almost immediately, Metge—the ‘mad militant’ in Mrs Spender’s eyes—was under suspicion; along with Evans, Miss D. Carson and Maud Wickham, she was arrested and arraigned at the County Antrim assizes in Lisburn, appearing for trial several days later. As the suspects were escorted from the house to nearby Railway Street Police Station, a large crowd gathered and hurled missiles, mud and glass bottles. Metge’s windows were smashed.

Dynamite in the dock

Arrested when protesting at Buckingham Palace, Metge (between two officers in the rear of the picture) was shocked at the way the police treated the suffragettes.

Arrested when protesting at Buckingham Palace, Metge (between two officers in the rear of the picture) was shocked at the way the police treated the suffragettes.

On 8 August the four women appeared for trial in Lisburn courthouse. The proceedings were a farce. It was WSPU policy to disrupt trials—Dorothy Evans had used this tactic to great effect in court in Belfast and this continued in Lisburn. The women frequently burst into long and impromptu speeches in support of the suffragette cause, spoke over the crown solicitor, Mr Moorhead, or even lunged at police officers. On one occasion it took thirteen men and several minutes to control the four women, as they stormed the dock and tried to seize his papers. They even blocked witnesses from giving evidence. As Metge’s young servant-girl gave her testimony to the court—she claimed to have been tucked up in bed at 10pm, and to have seen and heard nothing—Joan Wickham ‘gabbled’ loudly over her, forcing an increasingly frustrated Mr Moorhead to stick his fingers in his ears. Dorothy Evans even ‘bounced’ a hard green apple off the crown solicitor’s back; the quick-witted Moorhead joked that her shot ‘wasn’t bad . . . for a woman’.

Metge repeatedly called for the case to be dismissed. At one stage she stood up, ‘waved off’ the court and tried to leave the dock, remarking that: ‘Gentlemen, I know what it is. There is one law for women and another for men. A woman could not get justice here. I’m going home.’ After a brief scuffle, she was escorted from the court.

There was compelling evidence against the women. Sergeant Tilson of Lisburn reported that on the morning after the bombing he had followed footprints in the mud and dew leading eastwards from the cathedral, across Castle Gardens, through the convent and into the rear of Mrs Metge’s on Seymour Street. On searching the house he found the four infamous suffragettes fast asleep, with damp overcoats and boots covered in mud hanging out to dry. Spent fuse matches were found in the pockets of the coats, and a fine linen handkerchief, believed to belong to one of the defendants, was found at the scene. Most damning was the evidence of Hugh Kirkwood, of Kirkwood’s Hardware Store, Lisburn. He recounted a visit from Mrs Metge some months earlier. On the pretence of buying a new gas stove, she had tried to buy dynamite to ‘blow up a tree in her garden’.

Prospects for the women looked bleak. Yet dramatically, on the Wednesday of the trial and just as the last of the evidence had been heard, the four women were transferred to Belfast and released. In light of the crisis in Europe and the outbreak of war, the home secretary had remitted all suffragette sentences and approved the release of any prisoners. To celebrate their freedom, Carson and Wickham, in a final act of defiance, went straight to Smithfield and smashed windows; they were promptly re-arrested. Evans and Metge returned home.

Metge’s militancy ended in August 1914 but her campaign for women’s suffrage continued. She remained an active member of the WSPU, contributed to the Irish Citizen and worked closely with leading members of the Irish suffrage movement. After the murder of the non-combatant Francis Sheehy Skeffington during the Easter Rising of 1916, for example, Metge was quick to write to Hanna and share her ‘desolation’ and grief. Having left Lisburn, moving briefly to Shrewsbury, she eventually settled in south Dublin. By 1920 Metge’s activism seems to have ceased. Was this, perhaps, the result of the partial granting of the vote to women in 1918, or even of the loss of her youngest daughter, Gwendoline, to suicide in 1920? We cannot be sure. Indeed, Metge remains a somewhat enigmatic figure, despite being, arguably, Ireland’s most militant suffragette. She was, for example, conspicuously quiet on the Home Rule question. The quest for suffrage seems to have trumped any political allegiances, notwithstanding the fact that her late husband Robert Metge was a Parnellite MP for County Meath. Also, despite the fact that she rallied behind the ‘votes for women’ banner, it is not clear, surprisingly, whether she wanted the franchise extended to all women or to just a few, as in the 1918 Representation of the People Act.
Metge died in Dublin in 1954 and was buried, with little celebrity, in Deansgrange Cemetery.

Ciaran Toal is the Research Officer at the Irish Linen Centre and Lisburn Museum.

Further reading

E. Crawford, The women’s suffrage movement in Britain and Ireland: a regional survey (Oxford, 2008).
D. Urquhart, ‘“An articulate and definite cry for political freedom”: the Ulster suffrage movement’, Women’s History Review 11 (2002), 273–92.
M. Ward, ‘Conflicting interests: the British and Irish suffrage movements’, Feminist Review 50 (1995), 127–47.


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