Surrey’s Suffragettes: Surrey women and men who fought the cause
PUBLISHED: 17:04 05 February 2018 | UPDATED: 11:05 06 February 2018
This year marks 100 years since women were given the right to vote. We look at the women (and men) in Surrey who passionately fought the cause
It was Derby Day, June 4, 1913, at Epsom Downs racecourse and the horses roared around Tattenham Corner at 35 mph before a slight figure emerged from the crowd and ran across the course, to be hit by one of those powerful beasts motoring at full-tilt. It was the King’s horse, Anmer. Four days later Emily Wilding Davison had died from her injuries.
No-one was able to establish what Davison’s precise motivation had been. Did she target the King’s horse? Had she intended to commit suicide in the most dramatic fashion? The official verdict was misadventure, her death due to “wilfully rushing on to the racecourse” and being “accidentally knocked down by a horse”. What was undeniable, however, was that a tragedy on Epsom Downs gave a movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries its most famous martyr. That movement was the Suffragettes’ fight to obtain the vote for women, a basic human right denied until the 1918 passing of the Representation of the People Act. The term Suffragette became particularly associated with the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), of which Emily Davison was a WSPU member.
Ethel Smyth, who spent a lot of her life in the Frimley Green area, was a prominent member of the Woking WSPU. Ethel was a pioneer, one of the fist female composers, who wrote the music that became the WSPU battle-hymn (yes, the fight for women’s suffrage was viewed as a war by people on both sides). Smyth, who would become the first female composer awarded a damehood, was a courageous lady who sacrificed her own musical career for two years as she supported what was known as the cause, spending two months in Holloway prison for smashing the windows of opposing politicians.
Not all campaigners avowed militancy. The Suffragists, or the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), had been around a lot longer and advocated a democratic approach through peaceful and legal methods. The NUWSS, led by Millicent Fawcett, dated to 1897, but had been created from even older groups. The cause of women’s suffrage was not some five-minute flash-in-the-pan.
In fact, the women’s suffrage movement had been active in Surrey from the 1870s. The fist meeting of campaigners within the county was allegedly held in Guildford in 1871, with speakers from the Central Society for Women’s Suffrage (which became part of the NUWSS). Croydon held meetings from 1873 and would be home to all flavours of agitators, including, later, the more militant WSPU.
Ellen Clarke and Dorinda Neligan
The NUWSS movement gathered momentum in the early years of the 20th century. Reigate was certainly active by 1906, and in conjunction with Redhill, had linked up with the NUWSS by 1909. The previous year saw some 40,000 women march on the Royal Albert hall with the ladies of Reigate and Redhill represented.
An NUWSS branch had also been established in Farnham. One of its vice-presidents would be Ellen Clarke, the headmistress of Farnham Girls’ Grammar School. The movement never had any difficulty attracting influentialsupporters. Dorinda Neligan, head of Croydon high School for Girls, was another high-profile Surrey resident supporting the movement in its early years.
Theodora Powell and Noeline Baker
Godalming’s NUWSS branch started in 1909. The following year, its secretary Theodora Powell, co-founded Guildford’s branch with New Zealander Noeline Baker, a redoubtable lady who organised stewards for a demo in Guildford in October 1910 and would be awarded the MBE for her war work. The more militant WSPU was making its presence felt in Surrey too. Redhill had a branch by 1910 and Woking in 1911.
If Ethel Smyth contributed the WSPU battlehymn, Constance Maud provided what was probably its fist Suffragette novel, No Surrender, which was reviewed by Davison in census year. “It is a book which breathes the very spirit of our women’s movement,” she said. Maud was the eldest daughter of the rector of All Saints’, Sanderstead (a village in Croydon) and joined the WSPU in 1908. The church often supported the campaign, for example, the Rev Algernon Creed, vicar of Ewshot, worked with the Church League for Women’s Suffrage, attempting to bring the disparate groups together.
Emmeline Pethick and her husband Frederick Lawrence
The WSPU maintained a loyal band of influential followers, in-spite of upping the ante. Frederick Lawrence, a Labour MP, had married Emmeline Pethick in 1901, a women’s suffrage campaigner, who joined the WSPU.
Adopting the joint name Pethick-Lawrence as a sign of their equality, they maintained separate bank accounts and provided a safe haven for Suffragettes from 1906, their home in South Holmwood hosting weekly suffrage meetings for the next six years. Courageous ladies who suffered imprisonment and went on hunger-strike headed to the Pethick Lawrences for recuperation. One of the most famous visitors was Lady Constance Lytton, another WSPU authoress, who had been in Holloway in 1909 (one of four spells in prison). Whilst there she self-harmed, scarring her own body with the letter V (Votes for Women). The cost of openly supporting the WSPU was often high though: the Pethick Lawrence home was seized by bailiffs in 1912 to pay court costs following Suffragette window smashing. Frederick served a nine month prison sentence.
Other high-profile supporters of women’s suffrage included Thomas Cecil, 2nd Baron Farrer, and his second wife Evangeline Knox, who resided in Abinger hall. Gertrude Jekyll, Surrey’s famous garden-designer and artist, supported the NUWSS and worked on banners for Guildford and Godalming branches.
Peaslake, in the Surrey hills, was another hive of Suffragette activity. Brackenside, the home of Hilda Brackenbury and daughters, Georgina and Marie, was another sanctuary for women recovering from the rigours of imprisonment and hunger-strikes. Marion Wallace Dunlop, the fist WSPU hunger-striker in 1908, also resided in Peaslake.
Ultimately, the First World War was a game-changer. The campaigners declared a truce and supported the war effort. Having been granted the right to vote in February 1918, ladies went to the polls in a UK general election for the fist time in December. It would be a further decade before ladies received the vote on equal terms with men.
Whether we criticise or condone some of the more militant methods women used to take on the Government, the establishment and the system, we cannot dispute the rightfulness of their cause. In honour of those brave Surrey ladies, and their supporters, today’s women’s electorate should vote in droves. It is the debt that is owed.