Photograph of Harriet Costelloe, College Archivist at Royal Holloway, University of London

Harriet Costelloe

Guest blog: Harriet Costelloe, College Archivist, Royal Holloway, University of London


As a result of being an early women’s higher education college, Royal Holloway College in Egham has many illustrious female alumnae, including some who took an active role in the suffrage movement after leaving College and many who interacted with the issues surrounding women’s rights and suffrage whilst completing their studies. The College had both an Old Students’ Women’s Suffrage Society and a current student’s Women’s Suffrage Society, and both invited speakers to talk at College on suffrage, including the founder of the Women’s Freedom League Charlotte Despard who came in 1909.

Winifred Seville was a student at Royal Holloway between 1906 and 1910. She kept a detailed diary during this time, now kept in our archives. The diary provides an insight into how the suffrage movement was received at College. In November 1906 Seville recorded in her diary that she had been to Political Society where the debate surrounding the for- and against-women’s suffrage positions had become so heated that time had to be extended. The final vote was 109 for and 40 against, of which she was one, demonstrating that the enfranchisement of women divided opinion at Royal Holloway.

In May 1908 Seville records that the chief item to discuss at the Student’s Meeting was whether a Holloway contingent should go up to the Women’s Suffrage procession in London. The passing resolution forbid the use of the name Holloway in the matter at all. This characterises how the College approached the movement: they encouraged intellectual debate and engagement but discouraged active demonstration and protest.

In April 1913 Royal Holloway College’s Picture Gallery’s curator, Charles William Carey, reported that the Picture Gallery would be closed to the public until further notice ‘in consequence of the Suffragette disturbances’. This is likely in response to attacks by suffragettes on property in nearby Englefield Green and Walton-on-the-Hill and makes evident that the College felt that they may be targeted.

Handwritten notice of Picture Gallery Closure at Royal Holloway

Archives, Royal Holloway, University of London RHC AR/500/228/2 Royal Holloway College Picture Gallery closure notice

The term ‘suffragette’ refers to militant campaigners whose radical acts sometimes broke the law. The suffragette Emily Wilding Davison joined Royal Holloway College in January 1892 but had to leave after only 5 terms because her family could no longer afford her education after her father’s death in July 1893.

Education was clearly important to Davison – after she had left, she worked as a governess to support herself and saved the money to finish her higher education at St Hugh’s College in Oxford. Despite passing her course she was unable to fully graduate as women were not able to take full degrees at Oxford until 1920. She later gained a degree from London University – which granted women degrees from 1878 onwards – as an external student in 1908.

Handwritten student register entry page with details of Emily Wilding Davison

Archives, Royal Holloway, University of London RHC AR/200/1 Emily Wilding Davison’s entry in the first Royal Holloway College Student Register

From 1906 Davison became very active in the suffrage movement, joining the militant Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). She was arrested nine times, went on hunger strike seven times and was force-fed on forty-nine occasions. She died after being hit by King George V’s horse at the 1913 Epsom Derby, having walked onto the track in a demonstration during the race.

Another suffragette and Royal Holloway alumna, Rose Lamartine Yates wrote a tribute to Davison in the commemorative issue of The Suffragette newspaper the WSPU produced after Davison died. In it she refers to Davison as her ‘old college friend’. This term of endearment is interesting because Davison and Yates were not at Royal Holloway College at the same time. Despite this, Yates wanted to share an affinity with Davison and chose to do this through relating their relationship to both their time at Royal Holloway.

Front cover of The Suffragette newspaper dated 13 June 1913 in memory of Emily Wilding Davison following her death. Includes an illustration of an angel.

Archives, Royal Holloway, University of London 324.342 SUF FOLIO The Suffragette 13 June 1913

When the Representation of the People Act was passed in 1918, the Royal Holloway College Women’s Suffrage Society stated that the Bill had to a ‘certain extent’ changed the ‘character’ of the Suffrage Societies since their objective had been partially realised. However there was still a need to ‘extend franchise’ and to supply women with ‘a political education which will enable them to make a more intelligent use of their vote’. It was only with the Equal Franchise Act of 1928 that women gained equal voting rights to men.

Royal Holloway Archives and Special Collections holds the institutional records of two early higher education colleges for women, Bedford College and Royal Holloway College, as well as editions of the Votes for Women and The Suffragette newspapers and pamphlets disseminated during the suffrage movement. To find out more or arrange a time to visit us, please email [email protected] or call 01784 443814.


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