Flora McKinnon Drummond (18781949), by unknown photographer, after 1907
Drummond [née Gibson; other married name Simpson], Flora McKinnon (18781949), suffragette, was born on 4 August 1878 at 12 Elizabeth Ann Street, Manchester, the daughter of Francis Gibson, a tailor, and his wife, Sarah (née Cook). In her early childhood, Flora's family returned to the Isle of Arran where she attended high school. She left at fourteen and took up a summer post as telegraphist, returning to study at a civil service school in Glasgow in winter. There she qualified as a postmistress, but was unable to follow this career owing to new regulations which raised the height standard to 5 feet 2 inches, an inch above her height. Instead, she took further classes in shorthand and typing, funded by her father's relatives. She achieved a prestigious Society of Arts certificate, but remained bitterly disappointed at the loss of her chosen career and angry at the regulation which she felt discriminated against women because of their lower height average.
As a young woman, Flora Gibson was a keen athlete and a leader among her peers. On 26 September 1898 she married Joseph Percival Drummond (b. 1876/7), a journeyman upholsterer from Manchester who was a local celebrity in her small community following his fall from a steamer during a holiday trip to Arran. The couple settled in Manchester, and became involved with the socialist culture surrounding the Independent Labour Party (ILP), the Fabian Society, and the Clarion newspaper. Flora Drummond took several short-term posts in local factories to share and understand the conditions of local women workers, but stopped when poor trade left Joseph unemployed and herself the main wage earner; she then worked as manager of the Oliver Typewriter Company.
In October 1905 Manchester socialists organized a series of indignation meetings to protest at the imprisonment of Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney, ILP activists who, as members of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), had been arrested following their interruption of a local Liberal rally. Flora Drummond attended one of these meetings in Stevenson Square, where she joined the WSPU. She quickly became part of its leadership, forming an especially close friendship with Annie, whom she followed to London in 1906. There, Flora Drummond put her secretarial talents at the disposal of the WSPU. From December 1906 the WSPU employed her as a salaried organizer.
Flora Drummond proved popular and innovative in this role. Her small, rotund figure and her Scottish origins gave her the nicknames Bluebell and the Precocious Piglet, and her consistently cheerful manner won a sympathetic audience as she worked to build the WSPU's London branches. Supporters and opponents consistently praised her witty speeches. Outdoor meetings in working-class districts, to which she was used from her socialist work, were her forte. She initiated a group of suffrage bicycle scouts as a mobile propaganda corps who paraded and delivered leaflets on bicycles, a technique borrowed from the Clarion movement. She also demonstrated a talent for original forms of protest, bursting into 10 Downing Street, finding subterranean entrances to parliament, and dancing a highland fling outside Holloway prison. Once she hired a motor launch and moored on the River Thames opposite the terrace of the House of Commons to harangue members taking afternoon tea.
In June 1908 Flora Drummond was placed in charge of organizing processions for Women's Sunday, the largest franchise demonstration to date. Her flair and enthusiasm earned her the nickname General, which she proudly adopted. From this point, she was rarely given any other name, and completed her military persona by regularly sporting a peaked cap, epaulettes, and a sash embroidered general, all in the WSPU colours of purple, white, and green. A skilled horsewoman, she often rode at the head of WSPU processions in her regalia, or reviewed her suffragette troops on horseback.
Flora Drummond's central role in the WSPU was acknowledged when she was summonsed along with Mrs Pankhurst and Christabel in October 1908 for distributing a leaflet urging the general public to help the suffragettes to rush the House of Commons. She and Mrs Pankhurst received heavy sentences of three months, but Flora was released after nine days when it became apparent to the authorities that she was pregnant, and not in good health. The child was named Keir Hardie Drummond in honour of the Labour leader and of his parents' socialist beliefs. Motherhood did nothing to curb Flora's frantic public schedule, but as militancy became more violent her role was increasingly one of organizer rather than participant. This was not unusual; it was essential to retain a core of experienced workers to direct suffragettes in campaigns which became daily more dangerous. Flora's flair for organizing working women made her more valuable in the field than in prison, and she conducted several national tours to recruit women workers. She remained close to the Pankhursts and was again summonsed on conspiracy charges as one of the WSPU leadership in June 1913. This time ill health and an urgent, unspecified operation saved her from a lengthy prison sentence. She remained willing to face arrest, however, and also undertook a hunger strike in 1914.
When war broke out in 1914, Flora Drummond's loyalty to Christabel and Emmeline Pankhurst meant that she stopped suffrage work and joined their anti-German crusade. Working women still remained her favourite targets for propaganda. She toured the country reviewing lines of female munitions workers in her general's regalia, often accompanied by former adversaries including Lloyd George, whom she now enthusiastically supported. However, as the WSPU became increasingly anti-Bolshevist, she rejected the last vestiges of her socialist past which she now dismissed as sentimental. When the war ended she was one of the few former suffragettes who attempted to continue the popular, jingoistic campaigning which the WSPU had followed from 1914 to 1918. With Elsie Bowerman, another former suffragette, she founded the Women's Guild of Empire, an organization aimed at furthering a sense of patriotism in working-class women and defeating such socialist manifestations as strikes and lock-outs. The guild, which continued working throughout the Second World War, claimed 40,000 members in more than 30 branches at its peak in 1925. In 1926, in an echo of her WSPU work, Flora led 20,000 of its supporters through the streets of London to a meeting at the Albert Hall against a barrage of jeers from socialist protesters. Yet despite the size of the guild, it was as a suffragette that Flora remained best-known. She presided at the unveiling of Mrs Pankhurst's statue in March 1930 where she proved her famous wit remained intact, informing the prime minister that half the women here are gaol birds! (The Guardian, 18 Jan 1949).
Although a very public figure, Flora kept her private life concealed. In 1922 she and Joseph Drummond divorced, and later the same year she married Alan Simpson, a marine engineer, but she retained the name Drummond in public life. Simpson, about whom little is known, was killed by a bomb in 1944. Flora herself died on 17 January 1949 at Carradale, Argyll. She was determined and independent to the last: her death followed a stroke, brought on by the effort of attempting to build herself a new house, single-handed, on the shore at Carradale.
The Times (18 Jan 1949) · New York Times (18 Jan 1949) · Daily Herald (18 Jan 1949) · E. S. Pankhurst, The suffragette movement: an intimate account of persons and ideals (1931); another edn (1935); repr. of 1st edn (1977) · D. Mitchell, The fighting Pankhursts (1967) · O. Banks, The biographical dictionary of British feminists, 1 (1985) · A. Raeburn, The militant suffragettes (1973) · b. cert. · m. cert.
Women's Library, London, biographical clippings
BFINA, news footage
photograph, after 1907, Museum of London, Suffragette Fellowship collection [see illus.] · F. Lion, oils, 1936, Scot. NPG · photographs, Museum of London, Suffragette Fellowship collection; repro. in D. Atkinson, The suffragettes in pictures (1996)
Wealth at death
£780 11s. 6d.: confirmation, 6 Sept 1949, CCI