When her husband, Albert, became too ill to work, Christina Broom realized that she needed to earn money to support them and their teenage daughter, Winnie. It must have been a daunting prospect as employment opportunities were scarce for a woman in her forties in early 1900s London, and the Brooms had lost their meager savings after Albert’s ironmongery went bust, followed by his stationery shop. Undaunted, she decided to work for herself in a field that interested her and chose photography.
Having borrowed a box camera, Broom taught herself how to use it and how to develop and print photographs. In the next thirty-six years, she took tens of thousands of images including scenic views of London, as well as the daily life of its military barracks, church fêtes, and boat races on the River Thames. Yet her most important work is the remarkable series of photographs she took in the early 1900s of the protests and fundraisers organized by the suffrage activists in their campaign for voting rights for British women.
We do not know whether Broom supported their cause. Given the conservative nature of her other subjects, it is possible that she simply recognized the commercial potential of documenting the visual drama of the suffragettes’ deftly designed actions. Having started out as a commercial photographer in 1904 by selling picture postcards of London to tourists from a tiny booth she rented near Buckingham Palace, Broom swiftly expanded by selling her work to newspapers and magazines, and constantly searched for new subjects to photograph.
She struck lucky on June 21, 1908 when she and Winnie went to London’s Hyde Park where some 30,000 women were gathering for Women’s Day, the most ambitious event ever staged by the UK’s biggest suffrage organization, the Women’s Social and Political Union. Emmeline Pankhurst, WSPU’s leader, charged her daughter Sylvia—a former art student—with the event’s creative direction. Together with the WSPU’s principal funder, Emmeline Pethwick-Lawrence, Sylvia devised a color-coded visual identity whereby all the protesters were asked to wear white dresses accentuated by belts, hats, sashes, jewelry, and other accessories in shades of green or purple in order to create a distinctive, engaging, and unforgettable spectacle.
Broom’s images of Women’s Day were immensely popular at the time and look glorious now, but the shoot must have been tough as she was less than five feet tall and, helped by Winnie, had to haul her heavy equipment through the crowds all day, while identifying suitable subjects and persuading them to be photographed. Thankfully, she was well supported at home. Winnie worked with her to print the photos in the makeshift darkroom they built in their old coal cellar, while Albert wrote the captions in his neat handwriting. As the WSPU and other suffrage societies stepped up their activism, Broom assembled an unrivaled photographic record of their meticulously planned and executed marches, rallies, and fundraising events, as well as spectacular pageants in which each participant dressed as Joan of Arc, Queen Elizabeth I, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, or another inspiring woman from history.
No one else photographed the UK’s women’s suffrage campaigners with such sensitivity and aplomb. Broom’s images give us unrivaled insights into the courage, ambition, and sophistication of the movement in its heyday from 1908 to 1913, the year when she took her final photographs of them. The decision to stop could have been influenced by Albert’s death the previous year, or she may have disapproved of the WSPU’s growing militancy.
Broom’s career as a freelance photographer continued to flourish into her sixties, although, by then, Winnie often had to push her to assignments in a wheelchair. After Broom’s death in 1939, the devoted Winnie continued to champion her talented and resourceful mother by ensuring that her marvelous images were safely preserved in museums.
Alice Rawsthorn is a London-based writer on design. Her books include Hello World: Where Design Meets Life published by Hamish Hamilton, Design as an Attitude published by JRP|Ringier, and, most recently, Design Emergency: Building a Better Future, co-written with Paola Antonelli and published by Phaidon. She and Antonelli are co-founders of the Design Emergency podcast.