Composer, suffragette, sportswoman and resident of Woking
Determined from an early age, Dame Ethel Smyth, DBE, DMus (1858-1944) overcame her fathers vehement opposition to become one of the most significant English composers of the late 19th century. Works such as her opera, The Wreckers, and her great Mass in D were received with great acclaim at their debuts. She was friends with the composers Grieg and Tchaikovsky, who advised her to study orchestration. She was made a Dame in 1922 for her services to music but as her hearing failed in her later years, she turned to writing the books Female Pipings for Eden (1933) and What Happened Next(1940), both of which were autobiographical in content.
The Suffragette Movement & war work
Ethel became interested in the Womens Social and Political Union (Suffragette movement), as a result of her friendship with the Pankhursts. In 1912, following a large scale Suffragette protest, she was sentenced to two months in Holloway prison for smashing a window of an anti-suffrage politician’s residence. Her uncompromising and energetic spirit led her to become a driving force in the womens movement and her battle song The March of the Women, was sung by suffragettes throughout London. Stories are told of how, when in prison, she conducted her fellow prisoners in a performance of this with a toothbrush through the cell window.
This incredible photograph shows Emmeline Pankhurst being re-arrested on 26 May 1913, at the garden gate of Ethel Smyth’s home in Hook Heath. Emmeline had been recuperating here following a hunger strike.
Ethel is seen sitting shielding a weary Emmeline with an umbrella, whilst Nurse Pine looks on with indignation. They are also accompanied by Dr Murray who always cared for her whilst she recovered from periods of hunger strike.
A remarkable woman, she even trained as a radiographer during the First World War and subsequently was attached to the XIIIth Division of the French army at a large military hospital in Vichy.
Evidently bisexual, Smyth had several romantic passions, mostly with women, and described her sexuality as an “everlasting puzzle”. An affair with Henry Brewster, the husband of a friend whom she had met in Italy in 1883, ended badly in a devastating break-up and she later wrote that the years 1885-1891 were “the most miserable years of my life”. She had earlier confided to Brewster that it was “easier for me to love my own sex passionately, rather than yours” and it is likely that Brewster was her only male lover.
She frequently wore male attire and at the tender age of 71 she met and fell in love with Virginia Woolf, who, both alarmed and amused by this wrote that it was “like being caught by a giant crab”. However, the two became great friends.
The other love
Dame Ethel was an active sportswoman throughout her life. In her younger days she was a keen horse-rider and tennis player. She was an enthusiastic member of the Woking Tennis Club and won a book as a tournament prize. She lived in Surrey for most of her life – first at ‘Frimhurst’ in Frimley, then finally, at Brettanby Cottage, Hook Heath in Woking, near the golf course. She was a passionate golfer and a stalwart member of the Ladies section of Woking Golf Club but, typically, was known to have marched through the Mens section on at least one occasion an act forbidden at the time. It was her proud boast that she never lost a golf ball and she would spend hours, accompanied by her dog, searching through the rough for the result of a directional error! Dame Ethel died in 1944 and at her own request, after cremation at Woking Cemetery, her ashes were scattered in the woodland next to the golf course.
One of her many enigmatic quotes reads:
“Because I have conducted my own operas and love sheep-dogs;
Because I generally dress in tweeds, and sometimes, at winter afternoon concerts, have even conducted in them;
Because I was a militant suffragette and seized a chance of beating time to The March of the Women from the window of my cell in Holloway Prison with a tooth-brush;
Because I have written books, spoken speeches, broadcast, and don’t always make sure that my hat is on straight;
For these and other equally pertinent reasons, in a certain sense I am well known.”
Ethel’s many letters and diaries record fascinating sketches of the famous people she knew and descriptions of her deep friendships with her women friends including the Empress Eug?e, Pauline Trevelyan, Princess Edmond de Polignac, Lady Mary Ponsonby, Edith Somerville and of course Virginia Woolf.
It has been argued by Rebecca Jennings, in A Lesbian History of Britain (2007), that Smyth was a lesbian and that she was probably the lover of Emmeline Pankhurst, Edith Craig (theatre director, suffragette and the daughter of Victorian era actress Ellen Terry), and Christabel Marshall (daughter of novelist Hugh Graham Marshall and Craig’s flat-mate).
A Lesbian History of Britain by Rebecca Jennings (2007), is available for research in the Heather D Hawker Room at Surrey History Centre.
For part of her life, Dame Ethel Smyth lived at Frimhurst Lodge, Guildford Road, Frimley. Read more about this interesting building.