Ethel Smyth, 1913 (SHC ref 9180/9/2/17)

An accomplished composer, militant suffragette and avid golfer – Dame Ethel Smyth, DBE, DMus (1858-1944) is one of those characters in history who never fails to intrigue us. She lived in Surrey for most of her life – firstly at the family home ‘Frimhurst’ in Frimley Green, and finally at ‘Coign’ (now renamed Brettanby Cottage) at Hook Heath in Woking. After meeting Emmeline Pankhurst, Ethel put her successful career as a composer on hold for two years to dedicate herself full-time to the suffragette cause. She composed the suffragette anthem, The March of the Women (adopted as our project title), and is said to have practiced throwing stones on Woking Golf Course in preparation for the window-smashing campaign. There is a popular anecdote that when imprisoned in Holloway for a window smashing incident, she conducted her fellow prisoners through her cell window with a toothbrush, as they marched around the exercise compound singing The March of the Women!

The Suffragette, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) publication edited by Christabel Pankhurst, remarks of Ethel’s work: ‘this music is brave music. In this its strength lies. It would rouse rebellion in a sheep’ (The Suffragette, Friday 27 June 1913, p. 612, British Newspaper Archive).

Woking Choral Society marching in Woking town centre, 26th April 2008

Woking Choral Society marching in Woking town centre, 26th April 2008

My first talk for the project was delivered to the Woking branch of Soroptimist International, at Gorse Hill Conference Centre, a stone’s throw (no pun intended!) from Woking Golf Club and Ethel’s former residence. At this meeting I was delighted to meet a member of Woking Choral Society (WCS). Ten years ago next month, on 26th April 2008, Woking Choral Society marched through Woking town centre, where celebrations were held for the 150th anniversary of the birth of Ethel Smyth. The group sang The March of the Women, conducted with a toothbrush in honour of Ethel!

Here at Surrey History Centre we hold the records of the Woking Choral Society (WCS). ‘Tutti’ the Society’s newsletter reads ‘On Saturday 26 April the ladies will march and sing; maybe the men will come and cheer us on’ (Spring 2008, SHC ref. 8890/6/3). You can look back on the celebrations that took place here:

The March of the Women music score, circa 1911, from the Lewis Orchard Collection

The March of the Women music score, c.1911 Lewis Orchard Collection (SHC ref. 9180/5)

It is particularly fitting that Woking Choral Society (founded in 1896) should have chosen to commemorate Ethel Smyth in this way as she guest-conducted WCS in a concert of her own works in 1922. Next month we will be able to celebrate the 160th anniversary of Ethel’s birth in the centenary year of some women gaining the right to vote.

Surrey History Centre also holds the research papers of Ethel Smyth expert, Lewis Orchard, which cover many areas of her life and works (SHC ref. 9180). Lewis is volunteering with our project and is now working on her suffrage memoirs and the Smyth family tree. His papers include the front cover of The March of the Women music score. A number of the pupils who took part in our school workshops in the early phase of the project were learning to read music at the time and they enjoyed having a go at singing along to this undeniably catchy marching anthem!

Recently, we have kindly been sent copies of Ethel Smyth’s correspondence held in the archives of University of St Andrew’s. Ethel received an honorary degree from St Andrew’s in June 1928, and in the visitor book, which survives in the archive, she signed her name with a bar of music from The March of the Women. Of all the musical compositions that she could have chosen to illustrate her signature it speaks volumes that she chose to use this one. You can read more about this, with accompanying pictures, on the St Andrew’s blog about Ethel written in celebration of International Women’s Day:

A poster for 'Ethel Smyth: Grasp the Nettle', a play at Rhoda McGaw Theatre, Woking, 11th March 2018

A poster for ‘Ethel Smyth: Grasp the Nettle’, a play at Rhoda McGaw Theatre, Woking, 11th March 2018

Today, Woking continues to celebrate its famous former resident and this centenary year has seen a number of focused events. Earlier this month, Ethel was the subject of a play called ‘Grasp the Nettle’ at the Rhona McGraw theatre in Woking, and we enjoyed a fantastic talk at The Lightbox by Dr Chris Wiley of the University of Surrey which gave us an insight into her achievements as a female composer.

Ethel is someone who continually attracts interest and fascination as a pioneering woman of her time, and yet at the same time, she doesn’t quite have the public attention she deserves – I’m told that contestants on a recent episode of University Challenge were stumped when presented with a picture of Ethel. But the tide is turning as interest in this extraordinary woman reawakens -enabled by this centenary year. In February, we celebrated Ethel at our LGBT coffee evening, in celebration of LGBT history month. Her eventful life, including her love for Emmeline Pankhurst and, later, Virginia Woolf, continues to intrigue and inspire, and leaves us wanting to know more. Later this year Celebrate Woking’s Party in the Park event on 7th July will celebrate Ethel Smyth and we will be there to share our project, with craft activities to introduce young learners to a local heroine. We hope to see you there – and don’t forget your toothbrush!


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