Woman who attacked museum painting with meat cleaver to be commemorated in Birmingham

A prestigious blue plaque commemorating the life of a Birmingham suffragette is to be installed at the city’s museum and art gallery – where she famously attacked a painting with a meat cleaver.

Bertha Ryland caused £50 worth of damage and prompted a six week closure of the gallery in 1914.

However, due to the outbreak of war and delays to her trial caused by prison-inflicted illness, the Edgbaston suffragette was never convicted for the protest.

Now as part of the centenary celebrations marking the first women winning the right to vote, Bertha Ryland will be recognised with a blue plaque.

How the blue plaque commemorating Bertha Ryland will look.

There had been a spate of suffragette attacks on art galleries and museums in Britain during 1913 and 1914.

Most of them had occurred in London but museum chiefs in Birmingham were nevertheless anticipating an attack of their own and had held intense discussions around insuring the artworks.

They even had a detective regularly standing guard at the entrance and had planned to close the gallery temporarily should news break of the passing of Emmeline Pankhurst, who led the women’s right to vote movement.

Around 1.20pm on June 9, 1914, Ms Ryland arrived at the museum with the cleaver concealed within in her jacket.

She walked up to a painting of John Bensley Thornhill, known as Master Thornhill by the well-known 18th Century artist George Romney, and took out the weapon slashing it three times.

Ms Ryland left behind a note with her name and address which also contained the message ‘I attack this work of art deliberately as a protest against the government’s criminal injustice in denying women the vote, and also against the government’s brutal injustice in imprisoning, forcibly feeding, and drugging suffragist militants, while allowing Ulster militants to go free’.

The blue plaque to Bertha Ryland will be installed in the museum and art gallery's Round Room. 
The blue plaque to Bertha Ryland will be installed in the museum and art gallery’s Round Room. 

The desecration caused public outrage and she was reportedly followed by a threatening crowd en-route to the police station.

Newspapers of the day stated that as she was presented before magistrates Ms Ryland refused to go along with the proceedings and yelled ‘no surrender’ as she left court.

After she was committed for trial she was held on remand at Winson Green prison. Whilst there she went on hunger strike.

It was not the activist’s first time behind bars having spent a week in Holloway Prison in November 1911 and then four months at Winson Green after taking part in the window-smashing campaign in London in March 1912.

After refusing to eat during both stints at the Birmingham prison she was forcibly fed which resulted in permanent damage to her kidneys.

Her subsequent illness meant her trial for the attack at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery had to be postponed after a surgeon at Queen’s Hospital declared the hearing would cause her mental condition to deteriorate.

It had not taken place by the time the First World War broke out and later in 1914 the charges were dropped.

Bertha Ryland lived until 1977.

The blue plaque has been revealed in a planning application to Birmingham City Council which states it will be located on a wall in the Round Room – fittingly next to the gallery’s show-piece artworks.

It will state ‘BERTHA RYLAND (1882 -1977) Edgbaston suffragette. Member of the Women’s Social and Political Union who slashed a painting at this museum on 9th June 1914 as part of militant campaigning across Birmingham to secure votes for women.’

Visitors have often commented on the lack of suffragette history on display.

The plaque will form part of the museum’s ‘Birmingham Women: 100 years of change’ project and be launched at an event tied in with the unveiling of a ‘Women, Power, Protest’ exhibition.

It is also part of Birmingham Civic Society’s centenary programme to increase the number of plaques celebrating important women.

They have installed more than 80 plaques throughout the city recognising significant figures.

A heritage statement contained within the planning application said: “The installation of the blue plaque will positively reinforce the significance and history of the heritage asset through highlighting the history of the site’s association with national suffrage campaigns – in particular the actions of Edgbaston suffragette Bertha Ryland.”


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