The women’s suffrage movement in Surrey
“If the law denied a vote to all but the possessors of £5,000 a year, the poorest man in the nation might — and now and then would — acquire the suffrage; but neither birth, nor fortune, nor merit, nor exertion, nor intellect, nor even that great disposer of human affairs, accident, can ever enable any woman to have her voice counted in those national affairs which touch her and hers as nearly as any other person in the nation.” – John Stuart Mill, MP, debate on women’s suffrage in the House of Commons, 20 May 1867.
The early years
The roots of the women’s suffrage movement in England lie in the aftermath of the Reform Act of 1832, which extended voting rights among men but not women. However, campaigns for equal voting rights did not become effective until the end of the century. In 1889, The Women’s Franchise League was formed with the intention of lobbying to secure the vote for married women as well as single and widowed women. In 1897 the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) was founded by Millicent Fawcett and it headed a network of local women’s suffrage societies, with a common goal to achieve the same voting rights for women as held by men. Many of these groups had been in existence and raising public awareness since the 1860s; they sought to obtain the vote through legal and peaceful means – lobbying politicians, canvassing public support, and staging protests and marches. Members of these societies were both male and female and were known as suffragists, from which the later, more radical suffragette movement developed.
In 1903, Emmeline Pankhurst left the NUWSS and, along with her daughter Christabel, formed the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), arguing that a more drastic means of action was required for women to achieve the vote. From 1903 to 1917, the WSPU was the leading militant organisation campaigning for women’s suffrage in Great Britain. Tactics used included illegal actions such as smashing windows, obstruction, violence, arson, and hunger strike following imprisonment; members became known as suffragettes.
Following a split within the WSPU in 1907, the Women’s Freedom League was formed. While the three societies (the NUWSS, the WSPU and the Women’s Freedom League) disagreed over tactics, they all maintained a common goal, and regularly worked together in their efforts to achieve women’s suffrage.
The growth of Suffrage societies across Surrey
In Surrey, the movement appears to have been active from the 1870s, with the first suffrage meeting allegedly being held in Guildford in January 1871, featuring speakers from the Central Society for Women’s Suffrage (established in 1867 and renamed the London Society for Women’s Suffrage in 1907). However, pro-suffrage meetings at Guildford seem to have been scarce until Dr Kate Mitchell addressed the meeting of the Guildford Women’s Liberal Association (WLA) in January 1890.
In November 1883, the Crosfield family in Reigate entertained the social reformer Mrs Laura Ormiston Chant and Miss Caroline Biggs (who had signed the first women’s suffrage petition in March 1867). That evening, the women spoke at a meeting in Reigate Public Hall hosted by Joseph Crosfield. The Crosfields remained prominent in local suffrage affairs, with Margaret becoming secretary of the Reigate, Redhill and District Society for Women’s Suffrage in 1913.
A branch of the Central Society for Women’s Suffrage had been formed in Reigate by 1906, with Ruth Pym as secretary, and by 1909 had affiliated to the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies to become the Reigate, Redhill and District Society for Women’s Suffrage. Helena Auerbach, who lived at Hethersett, Reigate, was the president and from its commencement the society was led by women who devoted themselves to the study of everything connected with women’s work, many of whom had been engaged in service in many branches of public activity. A branch scrapbook, c.1908-c.1913 held at Surrey History Centre (SHC ref 3266/1) give a fascinating insight into their work, including details of their meetings and letters to local, national and international newspapers concerning issues relating to women gaining the vote, the anti-suffrage movement, and tariff (tax) reform. Neighbouring Redhill had a branch of the WSPU by 1910, with Mrs Richmond of Fengates House acting as secretary; she was later replaced by Grace Hardy of Station Road.
South east Surrey had traditionally been an area of non-conformism and reform and by the late nineteenth century was home to radical but wealthy residents, particularly in the villages around Dorking. These included Frederick and Margaret Pennington, who lived at Broome Hall, Coldharbour, and Emmeline and Frederick Pethick-Lawrence of The Mascot, South Holmwood (now The Dutch House). Weekly suffrage meetings were held in Holmwood from 1906 to 1912. The Pethick-Lawrences invited suffragettes who had been imprisoned and on hunger strike 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). Mascot was seized by bailiffs in November 1912 to pay the Pethick-Lawrences’ court costs following prosecution for their part in the WSPU’s window-smashing campaign. After Emmeline’s death in 1954, Frederick married Helen Craggs, another stalwart of the suffrage movement. Caroline Aspland Lawrence, Frederick Pethick-Lawrence’s sister, was also a suffragette and lived at Hatchetts, Newdigate, with Marion Leighfield, an activist who was arrested after a protest in Westminster, in October 1908.
Leith Hill and District Women’s Suffrage Society was formed in 1908 with Mrs Jocelyn Bray as secretary. Isobel Hecht, branch chair, wrote to a local newspaper in c.1910, complaining that no member of the National League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage would engage in discussion with their meetings at Holmwood; Bertha Broadwood, who was a staunch anti-suffrage supporter, was asked several times but declined (SHC ref 2185/BMB/7/-). A large contingent from Leith Hill NUWSS branch took part in the Suffrage procession in London on 13 June 1913; the secretary by this time was Bessie Rawlings of Dorking, a cousin of Millicent Fawcett. Brockham and Betchworth also had a branch of the NUWSS and in 1913 the secretary was noted as Miss Paquerette Forrester of Red Gables, Brockham Green.
In Abinger, Thomas Cecil, 2nd Baron Farrer, and his second wife, Evangeline, were active supporters of women’s suffrage and other women’s movements. Their papers, held at Surrey History Centre (SHC ref 2572), include letter books and correspondence to various prominent members of the NUWSS and its supporters, such as Millicent Fawcett, Sandra Bray, and the Crosfields.
By 1909, the Godalming branch of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) had been established, with Mrs Mary Watts (the widow of artist G F Watts), the president. Her secretary was Theodora Powell, who later co-founded the Guildford NUWSS in 1910 with their secretary, Noeline Baker, a New Zealander, who in 1905 had moved to Warren House, Guildford. Baker, who was later appointed MBE for her war work, organized the stewards for a suffragist demonstration in Guildford on 29 Oct 1910 and later took charge of the London Society for Women’s Suffrage register of voluntary women workers (SHC ref Z/361). Through her suffrage work in Godalming, Baker became acquainted with Gertrude Jekyll, Surrey’s famous garden designer, who was also a supporter of the NUWSS, designing and working on banners for both the Guildford and Godalming branches.
The Guildford branch had a shop in the High Street from 1913-1919 at which the Guildford Trades and Labour Council held their meetings. By far the largest meeting in Guildford was in July 1913, when, in preparation for the Suffrage Pilgrimage to London, meetings were held both afternoon and evening in North Street. The evening meeting on 22 July was deemed to have been the largest public meeting held in the town with 8,000 attendees. Dorothy Hunter, of Haslemere, gave a half hour speech at the meeting which was closed by the police for fear of riot. Dorothy was the daughter of Sir Robert Hunter, and co-founder of the National Trust. She was also a firm supporter of the suffrage campaign. She had a highly successful career as a ‘girl orator’ between 1904 and 1910, speaking for the Liberal Party on behalf of Free Trade and Women’s Suffrage. Dorothy later worked both nationally and locally for these causes and her papers which include correspondence with Millicent Fawcett, are held at Surrey History Centre (SHC ref 1260).
Cranleigh and Woking branches both formed in 1910. Woking also had a branch of the militant Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), which was established by 1911 partly due to the most prominent local campaigner Ethel Smyth, composer and author. As a result of her friendship with the Pankhursts, Ethel decided to suspend most of her musical activities to devote her energies to assisting and promoting the movement. Mrs Horace Barrett was the Woking WSPU secretary; in June 1912, member Mrs Skepwith, also a member of the Tax Resistance League, had her goods sold at auction to pay for her overdue tax.
In the west of the county, a branch of the NUWSS was established in Farnham, in 1908 by Mary Milton, secretary, and Teresa Wilson, chair. By 1913, the vice-president was Ellen Clarke, headmistress of Farnham Girls’ Grammar School. The NUWSS Haslemere branch had also formed in 1908 and for the 1910 election, the branch, under Miss Rees, secretary, had opened a shop promoting their cause. Margaret Marshall, of ‘Tweenways’ (now Hindhead School of Music), was chair of the branch and also a friend of Millicent Fawcett.
In 1908, a branch of the NUWSS had been established at Royal Holloway College, Englefield Green. A year later, Agnes Gardiner, who lived in Weybridge, had formed the Weybridge and District branch. By 1913, Egham branch had also been established.
In the east of the county, there was a NUWSS branch at Epsom by 1913, with Mrs Garrido acting as secretary. A branch also existed at Oxted by 1909, when the secretary was Agnes Jacomb Hood; by 1913 the branch also included Limspfield, by which time the secretary was Mrs Melita Seyd of Spinney Meade, Rockfield Road. Further east, the towns bordering London (now London boroughs) were as politically active as the city itself. Croydon, in particular, had early connections with the movement through high-profile residents such as Mrs W T Malleson, Dorinda Neligan, headmistress of Croydon High School for Girls, and Mrs Grace Cameron-Swan, of Sanderstead, whose husband, Donald, was parliamentary secretary to the Men’s Political Union for Women’s Enfranchisement. The area also held early meetings of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage (1873), and had branches of both the WSPU and the Women’s Freedom League.
Safe havens and sympathisers
Many suffragettes had homes in the Surrey hills and Peaslake, in particular, became something of a hub. The village was described in 1912 by Edwin Waterhouse, who resided in nearby Holmbury St Mary, as ‘rather a nest of suffragettes’ and that ‘there are fourteen ladies there of very advanced views’. One of these was Hilda Brackenbury, who along with her daughters, Georgina and Marie, were all members of the WSPU and participated in militant activity. Their family home, Brackenside, was used as a safe haven for women recovering from imprisonment and hunger strike, including Mrs Pankhurst. Marion Wallace-Dunlop, the first member of the WSPU to hunger strike after imprisonment in July 1908, also lived in Peaslake. Harry Daley, who worked as a delivery boy for Kingham’s around the Dorking area recalls visiting her in Peaslake in his memoirs:
“Miss Wallace Dunlop, the suffragette, impressive in tweeds and a no-nonsense manner, with her pretty niece and comparatively dim companion, all painting on their easels at the edge of the sunlit common outside their cottage, became a well-known sight and a vivid memory” (‘Dorking 1916-1925’, p.11, draft for This Small Cloud SHC ref 7832/3).
Interestingly Wallace-Dunlop purchased her cottage 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.
The church in Surrey provided sympathizers to the suffrage cause. Church League for Women’s Suffrage, was an organization that, by devotional and educational means, aimed to ‘band together, on a non-party basis, Suffragists of every shade of opinion who are Church people in order to secure for women the vote in Church and State, as it is or may be granted to men.’ The League had a branch in Godalming by 1913 which counted Mrs Theodore Williams, chairman of the Women’s Local Government Society, as a member.
Other suffrage campaigners who resided in Surrey included Evelyn Atkinson (Camberley), Mrs Edith Hoskyns-Abrahall (West Byfleet), Amy Klein (Reigate), Mrs Laird-Cox (Woking), Miss Davies-Colley (Woking), Miss A M Leake (Egham), Mrs Holland (Egham), Mrs Marshall (Haslemere), Miss P Brockham (Cranleigh), Cicely B Hale (Peaslake) and Elizabeth Gordon (Peaslake) to name but a few.
With thanks to Elizabeth Crawford for additional content.
Sources at Surrey History Centre:
A full history of the beginnings of the Suffrage Movement in the county and the names of those involved can be found in Elizabeth Crawford, The Women’s Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide (Routledge, 2006), from which much of the above information comes. A reference copy can be found in the local studies library collection.
Kelly’s Directory of Surrey and other local directories list a number of the above-named women involved in the Surrey NUWSS and WSPU branches, as private residents.
Local newspapers such as the Surrey Advertiser also carry stories of Surrey suffrage branches, along with reports and notices of meetings and the people attending.
For a full list of sources for researching suffragettes in Surrey click here.