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Suffragettes and Surrey - from Epsom to Peaslake and further afield

PUBLISHED: 13:15 15 July 2013 | UPDATED: 17:43 07 October 2015

The moments after Emily Davison collides with the King's horse at the Derby

The moments after Emily Davison collides with the King's horse at the Derby

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It is exactly a century ago this month that Emily Wilding Davison was knocked down by the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby. Her tragic death helped to gain women the vote but, as Tinx Newton reports, our county’s influence on the suffragette movement did not end there

One hundred years ago this month, amidst the carnival atmosphere of Derby Day on Epsom Downs, the famous race event turned into a tragedy when a young woman ran onto the track and was knocked down by King George V’s horse, Amner.

Emily Wilding Davison, a suffragette whose protest brought worldwide attention to her cause, died from her injuries four days later. She was the only suffragette to lose her life in the Votes for Women campaign and her extraordinary bravery is now celebrated by a plaque, which was recently unveiled at the racecourse’s Tattenham Corner.

Whether Emily meant to risk her life has always been in dispute, however. At the unveiling ceremony, her many relatives discussed the event and felt sure that it was a tragic accident. Irene Cockroft, who has written numerous books on the suffragette movement, also has her doubts.

“Emily was a sensible young women, not mad or prone to impetuous acts,” she says. “She was religious and extremely fond of her extended family. I believe she intended to run onto the track and wave the flag of the militant Women’s Social and Political Union in front of newsreel cameras.

“I have seen photos of the accident taken from both sides of the tracks and I think she misjudged the width of the track and the sharpness of the bend. They also found on her person letters, envelopes and stamps... surely proving that she intended to write to family from her prison cell. She didn’t think she would be killed, it was just a ghastly accident.”

Acting on their slogan, Deeds Not Words, and protesting against the refusal of Britain’s political leaders to grant votes for women, Emily was one of a small band of women who went to dangerous lengths to spread the word.

Sadly, she died five years before voting rights were given to women over 30, and 15 years before women were granted equal voting rights with men. The current exhibition at Bourne Hall Museum in Ewell, for which Irene Cockroft is guest curator, commemorates her death and the cause for which she died.

A gathering place

Just 16 miles away in the Surrey Hills, meanwhile, a small village was proving an appealing gathering place for the suffragettes in the early 1900s. Edwin Waterhouse, a founder of the famous accountancy firm, observed from his house in nearby Holmbury St Mary, that Peaslake was becoming “rather a nest of suffragettes” in 1912 and that “there are fourteen ladies there of very advanced views.”

Local lady, Hilda Brackenbury, was a keen supporter of the suffragette movement, according to Jenny Overton, author of A Suffragette Nest, Peaslake 1910 and after. With co-author, Joan Mant, Jenny has researched the history of the Peaslake suffragettes and, as a resident herself, the stories have particular resonance. When the book was published in 1998 the authors had not been able to identify all of the 14 but when I meet up with Jenny at the Hurtwood Inn in Peaslake, she has exciting news.

“I have tracked down the last two,” she says. “Cicely B Hale and Elizabeth Gordon complete the picture.”

From our table in the Hurtwood Inn you can see Brackenside, the house above the village shop where Hilda, originally from Canada, lived with her two daughters following the death of her beloved husband Charles.

“Mrs Brackenbury frequently broke windows to get herself arrested - most of the suffragettes did,” says Jenny. “They used to smuggle flint stones in their garments to take up to London. It seems that the parks of London were so well kept in those days that there weren’t enough stones to use as ammunition. But the fields around Peaslake were full of them.”

Hilda, and daughters Georgina and Marie, were members of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), formed in Manchester in 1903 by Emmeline Pankhurst. Shortly after it opened a London office, the Brackenburys invited Emmeline Pankhurst to address a group of guests in their London home. Mrs Pankhurst, as she was fondly known, was a fine speaker, and, by the end of the meeting, Hilda Brackenbury had signed up to the cause.

She became actively involved and in 1912, frustrated by many years of broken promises by government, she tucked a hammer into her clothing and broke the window of a leading political figure in London. At the age of 79, she was sent to prison, as were her daughters.

A safe haven

Brackenside became a safe haven for many suffragettes, particularly for those in and out of jail due to the enforcement of the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’ in 1913. This brutal act meant that women who went on hunger strike in prison and then became ill were released. Once they recovered, they were re-arrested and returned to prison to complete their sentences.

In 1914, shortly before World War One, Pankhurst stayed at Brackenside to recover from the horrors of her hunger-striking. When the war was over in 1918, and women over 30 had at last won the right to vote, Pankhurst returned to live in Peaslake with her four adopted daughters. But why Peaslake? Perhaps its proximity to Gomshall station and its relatively easy links to London were particularly appealing to the female activists who also targeted politicians in Surrey.

On the morning of February 19, 1913, a group of suffragettes led by Pankhurst bombed Pinfold Manor, the Tadworth home of then Chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd George – the crack remains in the property to this day.

Evidence recovered at the scene included explosives and, intriguingly, some hatpins. Pankhurst claimed personal responsibility for the attack saying: “We have blown up the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s house, to wake him up.” She was taken to Leatherhead police station, questioned and consequently spent the night in the Police Inspector’s house. The next day she was taken to Epsom Magistrate’s Court by car – making her the first person in the Surrey Constabulary area to have been “conveyed to court in a motor car.” She was sentenced to prison and promptly went on a hunger strike.

Votes for women

The suffragettes’ cause wasn’t only fought by women. Frederick Pethick-Lawrence, who lived in Peaslake, was a strong supporter. His wife, also called Emmeline, had been a leader of the suffragette movement and as a result of his support for women’s rights, he was imprisoned, brutally force-fed, and then declared bankrupt. Together they founded the Votes for Women newspaper in 1907. A lifelong socialist, Pethick-Lawrence was awarded a peerage in 1945 and appointed Secretary of State for India. He chose the title of Peaslake.

The Pethick-Lawrences were very popular and well-respected, and on July 7, 1962, a portrait of them was given to Peaslake Village Hall, and a portrait of Frederick was unveiled at Pethick-Lawrence House, headquarters of Dorking Labour Party. The newspaper report described them as a couple who ‘never gave up, never relaxed, never despaired and are an inspiration to generations to come’. A testament to their reputation is that when a fund was raised to support memorials to the couple it attracted donations from the likes of Earl Mountbatten, Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Margaret Thatcher.

It is hard to imagine today the scorn and violence the suffragettes drew to themselves through their fight for equality. Their legacy is that every female in Great Britain over the age of 18 has the right to vote in political elections and to be treated as equals with men in the eyes of the law.

Next time I am posting my vote in the ballot box at Peaslake Memorial Hall, I shall pause and remember that I am only able to do so due to the determination and bravery of Emily Wilding Davison and this extraordinary group of women.

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