Sadiq Khan slammed for using peaceful women's rights activist to promote Overground line named for Suffragettes

16 February 2024, 14:44 | Updated: 16 February 2024, 14:55

Sadiq Khan has come under fire for using an image of peaceful Suffragist Millicent Fawcett
Sadiq Khan has come under fire for using an image of peaceful Suffragist Millicent Fawcett. Picture: Alamy

By Kit Heren

Sadiq Khan has been criticised for using a peaceful Suffragist women's rights campaigner to promote a new Overground line.

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The six lines will be renamed and given different colours, after previously all being referred to as the Overground, and being coloured in orange.

Sadiq Khan and Transport for London (TfL) announced the change as a measure to celebrate London's diversity and reduce confusion.

The names of the new lines are: Lioness, Mildmay, Windrush, Weaver, Suffragette and Liberty.

But in a series of tweets promoting the Suffragette line, Mr Khan used the words of Millicent Fawcett - a Suffragist who campaigned for votes for women through legal change rather than violent action.

The Suffragettes orchestrated a bombing and arson campaign between the years 1912 and 1914 as they tried to give women the right to vote.

Read more: Stop virtue signalling with renamed Overground train lines and fix the basics first, writes Susan Hall

Millicent Fawcett's saying - "Courage calls to courage everywhere" - is on a statue of her in Parliament Square in central London, an image of which was included in Mr Khan's tweet.

The post said: "The Suffragette line celebrates the working-class movement born in the East End that fought for votes for women".

The Suffragettes fought for women's right to vote through extreme and sometimes violent means, even describing themselves as "terrorists". Their bombing campaign from 1912-1914 killed at least four people and injured 24 more.

Responding to Mr Khan's tweet, journalist Helen Lewis said: "The statue here is Millicent Fawcett, who, rather notoriously, was not a Suffragette. (She was a non-violent Suffragist, which was a far bigger movement.)"

How the new maps will look
How the new maps will look. Picture: TfL

Dr Fern Riddell, a historian of the Suffragettes, said: "I’m all for this, but as the expert on the Suffragettes arson & bombing campaign, did anyone tell the mayor that they liked to put bombs on trains?"

A third person said: "Again erasing the vital role of the suffragists. Also ironic as the suffragettes bombed train stations."

Defending the rebrand decision on Thursday, the mayor of London insisted that the names have pleased “most people”.

He said: “It’s been a long process, we’ve been engaging with customers, communities, people across our city.

“We’ve announced the six names today, not everyone’s going to be happy but we think we’ve managed to please most people which is really important."

Dame Millicent Garrett Fawcett
Dame Millicent Garrett Fawcett. Picture: Alamy

The new line names are:

  • The Lioness line: Euston to Watford Junction, running through Wembley. TfL said it "honours the historic achievements and lasting legacy created by the England women's football team". It will be yellow parallel lines on the map.

  • The Mildmay line: Stratford to Richmond/Clapham Junction, running through Dalston, "honours the small charitable hospital in Shoreditch" which is notable for "its pivotal role in the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1980s". It will be blue parallel lines on the map.

  • The Windrush line: Highbury & Islington to Clapham Junction/New Cross/Crystal Palace/West Croydon. It runs through areas "with strong ties to Caribbean communities today, such as Dalston Junction, Peckham Rye and West Croydon and honours the Windrush generation". It will be red parallel lines on the map.

  • The Weaver line: Liverpool Street to Cheshunt/Enfield Town/Chingford. The line runs through Liverpool Street, Spitalfields, Bethnal Green and Hackney, which are "areas of London known for their textile trade, shaped over the centuries by diverse migrant communities and individuals. "It will be maroon parallel lines on the map.   

  • The Suffragette line: Gospel Oak to Barking Riverside, which "celebrates how the working-class movement in the East End, fought for votes for woman and paved the way for women's rights". It runs to Barking, which was the home of the longest surviving Suffragette, Annie Huggett, who died at 103. It will be green parallel lines on the map.  

  • The Liberty line: Romford to Upminster, which "celebrates the freedom that is a defining feature of London and references the historical independence of the people of Havering", through which it runs. It will be grey parallel lines on the map.
The Overground network has expanded significantly since 2007
The Overground network has expanded significantly since 2007. Picture: Alamy

Mr Khan's Conservative opponent Susan Hall is among critics of the rebrand, who said it represented "virtue signalling".

While Keith Prince, transport spokesman for the Conservatives in City Hall, labelled the rebrand a “wasted opportunity”.

Transport for London (TfL) said that the rebranding would reduce confusion, increase ridership, and celebrate "London's diverse communities and histories".

Asked how the move was a good use of public money, Mr Khan said it would help those who “find it a nightmare” to use the Overground in its current form.

The rebrand will take place over a week in the autumn and is set to cost £6.3 million. It will come out of Sadiq Khan's Greater London Authority budget.

The names were not voted on by the general public, but "through engagement with customers, stakeholders, historians, industry experts and local communities".

The Overground network was created in 2007 when TfL took control of four suburban railway lines. But it has grown significantly since then, making it confusing for some.

The majority of the rebrand money will go towards updating customer information, including redesigning and redisplaying maps across all Tube and London Overground stations, and issuing new versions in print and online. Public address announcements will be re-recorded and around 6,000 station direction signs will be updated.

Announcing the change, Mr Khan said: "This is a hugely exciting moment, transforming how we think about London's transport network.

The London mayor said: "Giving each of the Overground lines distinct colours and identities will make it simpler and easier for passengers to get around. In re-imagining London's tube map, we are also honouring and celebrating different parts of London's unique local history and culture.

"The new names and colours have been chosen through engagement with passengers, historians and local communities, reflecting the heritage and diversity of our amazing city." 

Sadiq Khan on Thursday
Sadiq Khan on Thursday. Picture: Alamy

Ms Hall said: "In typical Sadiq Khan fashion, this pointless, costly, virtue signalling project is costing Londoners £6.3m. Instead of fixing the central line, getting a grip on crime on the tube and on our streets, he’s focusing on his own PR.

"We've had enough of this, it's time for a change."

Others also hit out at the changes, with some suggesting that the money could have been spent on improving services.

One person said on Twitter: "I thought this was a joke! It’s not.

Another asked: "Why don’t you fix the Central line instead of naming the Overground line as if that were a problem?

A third said: "I really did have to double check it wasn’t 1st of April today".

But John Bull, editor of transport website London Reconnections, said giving the lines names and colours was "an overdue change".

He told the PA news agency: "One of the real benefits that the Overground has brought is the ability to drive traffic that isn't local to interesting places in Zone 2, Zone 3 and beyond.

"But if it's not a familiar journey you can't just say 'I'm going to get on the orange line'. You have to know how they interconnect."

Mr Bull predicted that "people will grumble and moan about the names" but that has happened for "every single line that has been given a name over the years".

He added: "Frankly, it's nice to have some stuff that represents things that have changed the lives of Londoners, among the references to queens that have tended to accrue up until now."

The most recent major naming of a rail line in London was the Elizabeth line after Queen Elizabeth II, which opened in May 2022.