Speak Out volunteer Jill Allbrooke shares some discoveries from the archives.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that when you’re researching original documents you’ll inevitably spend more than half your time reading the bits that are unrelated to whatever it is you’re supposed to be studying.
Last week I was looking through the Bow Street Magistrates Court records for 1971 searching for gay-related cases and marvelling at the rich variety of crimes listed. My heart went out to the person charged with stealing a packet of Vesta curry, a mainstay of my student diet until a room-mate taught me some rudimentary cooking. Turning the next page I found something far more exciting.
Most people reading this blog will probably know that on 20 November 1970 the Miss World contest at the Royal Albert Hall was disrupted by dozens of feminist demonstrators who let off smoke bombs, blew whistles and threw leaflets at the stage.
On 12 February 1971 four of them – Sally Alexander, Jennifer Fortune, Catherine McLean and Jo Robinson – appeared at Bow Street. Presumably they’d originally appeared in court the previous November and been remanded to return at a later date. The charges against them included using insulting/threatening behaviour with intent to provoke a breach of the peace; assaulting a police constable; having various offensive weapons at the Royal Albert Hall including a DDT stick, a smoke bomb, a stink bomb and a paper bag containing flour; and my favourite, “Wantonly throwing a missile, viz, a smoke bomb, to the danger of the Miss World contestants”.
The court records show that the defendants pleaded not guilty to all the charges, most of which were dismissed, leaving them only having to pay fairly modest fines, though I believe they had originally spent the night after the demonstration in Holloway.
Unbelievable as it seems now, back then the annual Miss World contest was one of the most popular TV shows of the year and drew audiences in the tens of millions. I can remember watching it with my parents as a child, as it was considered appropriate family viewing. The 1970 demonstration did not stop the contest taking place in future of course, but it was hugely successful in terms of the amount of publicity it generated around the world for the incipient women’s movement. I was thrilled to find the raw material relating to this iconic moment in feminist history at the LMA.