Activism and militant suffragettes in Surrey
Women’s suffrage supporters made their views heard in a variety of different ways and Surrey saw its fair share of activism. In 1905, suffragette militancy began, comprising a campaign of boisterous protest (often leading to riot), targeted window smashing and property damage. Inevitably, this led to arrests, imprisonment and the first hunger-strike, by Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) member, Marion Wallace Dunlop, of Peaslake, in July 1908. Forcible feeding began soon after.
Surrey provided a number of safe havens for women recovering from imprisonment and hunger strike following release from prison. Hilda Brackenbury and her daughters, Georgina and Marie, were all members of the (WSPU) and participated in militant activity. Their family home, Brackenside, in Peaslake, was used as a safe haven by many women, including Emmeline Pankhurst. Interestingly, Marion Wallace-Dunlop purchased her cottage in Peaslake from suffragette Helen Gordon Liddle, author of The Prisoner (1912), an article which recounted her month-long experience of imprisonment in Strangeways and the horrors of forcible feeding. Emmeline and Frederick Pethick-Lawrence of The Mascot, South Holmwood (now The Dutch House) were key figures in the campaign, organizing weekly suffrage meetings in Holmwood from 1906 to 1912. The Pethick-Lawrences invited women to recuperate at The Mascot, including seasoned protestor Lady Constance Lytton, author of ‘Prisons and Prisoners, Some Personal Experiences’, which appeared in A Celebration of Women Writers (Heinemann, 1914).
In 1911, in line with a national WSPU coordinated protest, Woking suffragettes Mary Elizabeth Stables and Ethel Smyth defaced their census forms. Discover which Surrey suffragettes evaded the census here. Ethel’s suffragette battle song The March of the Women, written the same year, was sung by suffrage supporters throughout London and elsewhere. Her uncompromising and energetic spirit led her to become a driving force in the women’s movement and on 9 March 1912 she was arrested and taken to Bow Street Police Station for smashing the window of an anti-suffrage politician’s office; she was sentenced to two months in Holloway prison. Read more about Ethel and her window smashing campaign.
Following Emmeline Pankhurst’s release from hunger strike in prison in April 1913, she was sheltered by Ethel at her home in Hook Heath, Woking. However, the cottage was under constant surveillance by the Surrey Constabulary who, on 26 May re-arrested Emmeline under the Cat and Mouse Act (1913), as she attempted to leave; this notorious Act allowed for the temporary release of hunger striking suffragettes (‘mice’) who had become ill but also allowed their re-arrest once recovered. The Act had been rushed through parliament following the tortuous hunger strike of Lillian ‘Lillie’ Lenton, who had become seriously ill through forcible feeding. Lenton, a militant suffragette, had been arrested in February 1913 on suspicion of having set fire to the Tea House at Kew Gardens.
‘Lillie’ Lenton, features on the inside panel of chair 1, part of ‘The Jurors’ bronze sculpture by Hew Locke for the Magna Carta anniversary at Runnymede, SHC ref PX/56/116. She is depicted wearing the medals and badges reflecting the imprisonment and activism of suffragettes; the image is derived from a 1912 surveillance photograph taken of Lenton in Holloway Prison (held at the National Portrait Gallery).
Following the infamous ‘Black Friday’, November 1910, when suffragettes marched to Parliament Square and were brutally treated by police. Such militancy increased through 1913. Surrey Constabulary records include two reports of suffragette activity in the county. The first relates to an explosion in a back bedroom of a house being built for David Lloyd-George, Chancellor of the Exchequer, at Walton on the Hill on 19 February 1913. The bomb is described in detail and there are several witness statements. Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst was charged with the outrage and there is an account of her detention in the Inspector’s sitting room at Leatherhead police station and to her sleeping in one of his bedrooms because the Director of Public Prosecutions wished her to be ‘treated with due consideration as to her comfort’ (SHC ref CC98/11/3).
Transcript of the extract from the report by Superintendent Henry Coleman: “…Sir Frederick Wodehouse, of Scotland Yard, Assistant Commissioner of Police informed me that it was the expressed wish of the Director of Public Prosecutions that Mrs Pankhurst when in custody should be treated with due consideration as to her comfort, and for that reason I got Inspector Tudgay to let her stay in his sitting room and to let her sleep in a bed in one of his bedrooms.”
Pankhurst was sentenced to three years but her hunger strike actions meant that, under the Cat and Mouse Act, she was released and re-arrested on several occasions (she was never force-fed).
The second report relates to an explosion at Oxted railway station, where, during the night of 3 April 1913, a bomb was left in the gentlemen’s toilet. The records describe the construction of the device, the damage caused, and the identity of one of the suspects as ‘Miss Frida Kerry’ of Battersea (the wife of Polish academic Harold Laski), a known activist who was a friend of the Pethick-Lawrences (SHC ref CC98/11/2). The case was never solved.
The most famous act of militancy came in June that year when Emily Wilding Davison, a member of the WSPU, gave her life for the cause, dying as a result of injuries she received from being trampled under the King’s horse, Anmer, at the Epsom Derby, 4 June. There is much controversy as to what she intended that day but it is generally accepted that she was attempting to pin suffragette colours onto the horse’s reins. Whatever her intentions, there is some evidence to suggest that she was involved in the planning of the fire at the Members’ Stand at Hurst Park Racecourse, near Molesey, five days later (Davison actually died on 8 June). On 9 June 1913, militant suffragettes Kitty Marion and Betty (Clara) Giveen were arrested for the deed. Their trial was held at Guildford on 3 July and they were sentenced to three years’ penal servitude and immediately went on a hunger-and-thirst strike. Later that month, a bomb was left at Haslemere station but failed to ignite.
Causing damage to golf courses, as an attack on male dominated organizations in the county, was a popular act of militancy. Interestingly, Woking Golf Club, of which Ethel Smyth was a member of the Ladies section, received no damage. In other counties cricket clubs were also targeted.
Churches also came in for attack. On 12 June 1914 Chipstead Church was mildly damaged following an arson attempt. The next day a pavilion was destroyed at Reigate. Following the destructive fire at Hatcham Church, near Peckham, London, allegedly at the hands of militant suffragettes, it is clear that churches in Surrey were concerned that they would also be targeted. At All Saints Church, Warlingham, a short-term insurance policy was taken out by the Vicar and Churchwardens in July that year, against the possibility of wilful damage being done to the church specifically by suffragettes (SHC ref 6022/1/4/4). The policy is accompanied by an account of a conversation of Mr A C Jones with the Superintendent of Kenley Police Station about the threat of ‘a possible outrage on Warlingham Church by Suffragettes’. The police stressed they were keeping a careful watch on all the churches in the area, and advised Mr Jones to watch out for any strangers attending church services and to search the church afterwards in case they had left burning material behind them.
A postcard of St Catherine’s Church, Hatcham, South East London, the target of a suffragette bomb, 6 May 1913 (SHC ref 8511/169/1-2). The card was sent to Miss Muriel Flint in Bulawayo, South Africa, from “Blanche” of 35 Astbury Road, Peckham, 13 June 1913, and reads:
“My dear Muriel, this is the promised P[ost].C[ard] of the burnt church. The Salvage Corps afterwards found a copy of “The Suffragette” and matches and paraffin etc. in the organ chamber where the fire broke out; a suffragette attacked the King’s horse at the Derby and died last Sunday of her injuries. I expect they will make a fuss about their first martyr. Hope all are well, fondest love Blanche“. Postscript: “Weather has not been at all June-like, so windy and showery”.
The Peaceful Protest
Not all suffrage supporters were in favour of forceful protest. Helena Auerbach, president of Reigate, Redhill and District Society for Women’s Suffrage, maintained that the branch avoided all connection with party politics. She persistently wrote to the press decrying the violent tactics used by the other groups for tarnishing the reputation of other pro-suffrage societies, claiming that:
‘aggressive political coercion is as little suited to our sex as the exercise of physical force’ (SHC ref 3266/1). Click on the image to see the complete letter.
On two occasions members of the Society participated in marches to the Albert Hall in London, boarding specially arranged trains for the events – the first was on 13 June 1908 when over 10,000 women attended, and the second was on 17 June 1911 when numbers reached 40,000.
Providing a literary protest was Constance Maud, the elder daughter of the Rev. Henry Landon Maud, the rector of Sanderstead. In 1911 she wrote and published No Surrender which depicts the experiences of a Lancashire mill worker and an upper class girl, who both become involved in the suffrage movement. The novel is important for its documentation of the social and political events of the suffrage movement, arguably the first to do so.
By 1913, the NUWSS had nearly 100,000 members and launched the Woman’s Suffrage Pilgrimage to demonstrate to Parliament how many women wanted the vote. The march planned to converge on Hyde Park on 26 July 1913, with local groups passing through their own regions. The South-Western Federation, the West of England Federation, and the Surrey, Sussex and Hampshire Federation walked from Lands End to Hyde Park and the route from Brighton passed through Horley, Earlswood Common, Reigate and Redhill, where walkers and cyclists stopped for the night before moving on towards Croydon. Many had received verbal abuse and had missiles thrown at them along the route, particularly during a riot just across the Surrey/Sussex border at East Grinstead. Despite this, an estimated 50,000 women reached Hyde Park in London on 26th July.
With thanks to Elizabeth Crawford for additional content.