• March of the Women

Women’s Suffrage

Front cover of Ethel Smyth's composition The March of the Women, dedicated to the Women's Social and Political Union, 1911 (SHC Ref. 9180/5)

Front cover of Ethel Smyth’s composition The March of the Women, dedicated to the Women’s Social and Political Union, 1911
(SHC ref 9180/5)

The Women’s Suffrage movement was active in Surrey from the 1870s. The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) was founded in 1897 to unite a growing number of separate non-militant societies campaigning for the vote. Known as suffragists, NUWSS members favoured peaceful demonstration over violent protest. By 1914 there were affiliated societies right across Surrey.

Although women could not vote in national elections prior to 1918, they could vote in parish elections if they held the necessary property. From 1869, single and widowed rate-paying women also could vote in town council elections. Women could also serve on Poor Law Boards of Guardians which managed workhouses and later on School Boards, and by 1907 they could participate in all aspects of local government. However, many people argued that Britain could not be a true democracy whilst a large proportion of the population were unable to vote because they were female.

Suffrage leaflets, c.1874 (SHC ref 2185/BMB/7/1)

Suffrage leaflets, c.1874 (SHC ref 2185/BMB/7/1)

Impatient at the lack of progress in the fight for the vote, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) was founded in 1903, led by the charismatic Emmeline Pankhurst. The WSPU motto was ˜Deeds not Words’ and members, known as suffragettes, employed militant tactics which were impossible to ignore. WSPU meetings were held in several locations around Surrey, particularly at Dorking, where Emmeline and Frederick Pethick-Lawrence, were WSPU activists who funded the militant campaign and sheltered suffragettes recuperating from hunger-strike.

Find out more about the women’s suffrage movement in Surrey.

WSPU leaflet, nd (The Women’s Library collection, LSE Library)

WSPU leaflet, nd
(The Women’s Library collection, LSE Library)

Surrey was home to suffragists, suffragettes (militant activists) and groups on all sides of the fierce debate. Prominent campaigners resided in the county, including suffragists Lord and Lady Farrer of Abinger, Dame Ethel Smyth, the Woking composer whose WSPU suffragette battle anthem The March of the Women was sung across the country, Mary Seton Watts, wife of the famous Compton artist GF Watts, Gertrude Jekyll, the famous garden designer and suffragist who created the Godalming NUWSS banner, iconic radical Charlotte Despard, and Helena Auerbach, a wealthy Jewish suffrage campaigner who spearheaded the Reigate and Redhill NUWSS, to name just a few. The anti-suffrage campaign was also prominent in Surrey supported by Bertha Broadwood and Margaretta Lemon.

Read more about the Anti-Suffrage campaign in Surrey.

Read biographies of some of Surrey’s suffragists, militants and anti-suffrage campaigners.

Although the militant campaign had less support in Surrey, the county saw its fair share of activism. Supporters of the Women’s Freedom League’s (WFL) encouraged women to boycott the 1911 Census and many Surrey women did so. Also in this year Constance Maud, the elder daughter of Rev. Henry Landon Maud, the rector of Sanderstead, wrote and published No Surrender, probably the first Suffragette novel.

Discover which Surrey suffragettes evaded the census here.

Image of Miss Dorothy Hunter, nd [c.1890] (SHC ref 1260/84)

Miss Dorothy Hunter, nd [c.1890]
(SHC ref 1260/84)

In 1913 the Surrey, Sussex and Hampshire Federation of the NUWSS marched with fellow suffragists as the Women’s Suffrage Pilgrimage followed the route from Lands End to Hyde Park, passing through Haslemere, Godalming and Guildford, carrying banners. Haslemere suffragist Dorothy Hunter spoke at a public meeting as the pilgrims reached Guildford, thought to be the largest ever held in the town with a crowd numbering 8,000 people.

Read more about the Great Suffrage Pilgrimage in Surrey.

1913 was also a key year for WSPU activism, which saw arson, bombs and other actions carried out across the county. The house of Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George, which was under construction on the edge of Walton Heath golf course, was damaged by an explosion, for which Emmeline Pankhurst was sentenced to three years in prison. A bomb was also planted at Oxted railway station, Hurst Park Grandstand was burned down, as was Lady White’s house at Englefield Green. The ultimate activism came in June that year when Emily Wilding Davison gave her life for the cause, dying as a result of injuries she received from throwing herself under the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby.

Ethel Smyth at a WSPU meeting, 1912 (The Women’s Library collection, LSE Library ref 7JCC/O/02/005)

Ethel Smyth at a WSPU meeting, 1912 (The Women’s Library collection, LSE Library ref 7JCC/O/02/005)

Find out more about activism and militant suffragettes in Surrey.

Surrey’s women were among the estimated 2 million who replaced men in employment during the First World War by working in munitions factories and hospitals, and on the land. These efforts helped to turn the tide of public opinion in their favour and were a key factor in obtaining the vote. New Zealand born Noeline Baker, who had co-founded the Guildford branch of the NUWSS in 1910, worked tirelessly for the war effort on the Home Front.

The women’s suffrage campaign had considerable support by 1917, winning over major politicians and becoming a key voting issue for prospective Members of Parliament. Although several Bills in favour of women’s suffrage were presented in Parliament and had wide support, it was not enough to pass. The Representation of the People Act 1918 was passed in February 1918 and finally allowed some women to vote. The first national General Election in which women voted took place in December 1918. The previous month The Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act allowed women to stand as a Member of Parliament. However, it was not until 1928 that women were granted the same voting rights as men.

Image of Emily Wilding Davison, The Suffragette, 13 June 1913 (SHC Library Collections)

Emily Wilding Davison, The Suffragette,
13 June 1913 (SHC Library Collections)

Find out how women finally got the vote and the impact of the first General Election in Surrey in 1918.

Discover sources held at Surrey History Centre for researching the Suffrage campaign in Surrey .

View new online indexes for the Suffrage campaign in Surrey, including local and national newspapers and periodicals.

Find out about Surrey’s Heritage’s HLF The March of the Women project which celebrated the centenary of the Vote and read the project blog.

Discover more:

The women’s suffrage movement in Surrey

Activism and militant suffragettes in Surrey

Suffragettes and the 1911 census

Women get the vote!

Sources for researching the women’s suffrage movement in Surrey

Constance Maud

Ethel Smyth

Emily Wilding Davison

Find out about the 2018 anniversaries of the suffrage movement

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