Dame Ethel Smyth DBE, DMus (1858-1944), composer and suffragette
Ethel Mary Smyth was born in Marylebone, London, on 22 April 1858, and moved to ‘Frimhurst’, Frimley, in 1867 when her father, General John Hall Smyth, was promoted to the command of the Royal Artillery at Aldershot. Ethel was determined from an early age to devote her life to music and to become a composer in her own right. She overcame her father’s vehement opposition to this intention and became a significant English composer in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She was also a suffragette.
By her own admission, Ethel had little knowledge or interest in politics prior to 1910 and it is interesting to speculate where her suffrage connections started. She was a close friend of the three sisters, Millicent Garrett Fawcett, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Agnes Garrett, all of whom were members of the National Union of Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), indeed Ethel lived with them for a time at Firs Cottage, in the village of Rustington, West Sussex. However, in September 1910, Ethel Smyth met, and became enchanted by, Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). Both the same age, a close friendship developed between the two women. Virginia Woolf speculated that they were lovers but Ethel, in her memoirs, tells us that that she fled to Egypt to escape the power of her feelings for Emmeline. Suffrage historian June Purvis thinks it unlikely that Emmeline and Ethel were lovers in any physical sense; Emmeline was too much the politician to risk scandal and Ethel often developed unreciprocated passions for women (and men), including Virginia Woolf.
There is no doubt about Ethel’s dedication to the women’s suffrage campaign, which led her to pledge two years of her life to the cause and compose The March of the Women (1911), a rousing choral composition which was adopted as the WSPU suffragette anthem. In response to calls from suffrage leaders, Ethel also defied the census that year by writing ‘No Vote, No Census’ across her schedule. Find out about Ethel Smyth’s boycott of the 1911 census. Locally, Ethel used her friendship with Emmeline Pankhurst to great effect and at the meeting of the Woking branch of the WSPU, on 4 October 1911, arranged for Mrs Pankhurst to speak on the subject of ‘Why women want the vote’.
In 1912, the WSPU organised a large-scale window smashing campaign in which Ethel took part and she was with Emmeline Pankhurst when they were arrested on 9 March. Ethel broke the window of Lewis Harcourt’s London home in Berkeley Square. Harcourt, Secretary of the State for the Colonies, was a fervent anti-suffragist, who had made disparaging remarks about women gaining the vote. Ethel was one of over 200 women arrested on that day and. In ‘Female Pipings in Eden’ she writes: “The Downing Street window selected by Mrs Pankhurst was duly bombarded – I think she had two shots at it before they arrested her – but the stones never got anywhere near the objective. I broke my window successfully and was bailed out of Vine Street at midnight by wonderful Mr Pethick-Lawrence, who was ever ready to take root in any police station, his money bag between his feet, at any hour of the day or night.” [Frederick Pethick Lawrence was a leading member of the WSPU and suffragist stalwart, who lived in Holmwood, Dorking, with his wife Emmeline].
Ethel was sentenced to three months imprisonment in Holloway Prison but apparently only served only three weeks. It is not known whether she went on hunger strike. Of her experience she writes: “The ensuing two months in Holloway, though one never got accustomed to an unpleasant sensation when the iron door was slammed and the key turned, were as nothing to me because Mrs Pankhurst was in with us. The merciful matron put us in adjoining cells, and at exercise, in chapel and on such other occasions as a kind-hearted matron can make for a prisoner, we saw more of each other than the protocol permitted. For instance she would often leave us together in Mrs Pankhurst’s cell at tea-time ‘just for a moment’, lock us in, and forget to come back and conduct me to my own” (Female Pipings in Eden, 1933). During this time, her friend Sir Thomas Beecham visited and witnessed her conducting ‘The March of the Women’ with a toothbrush through her cell window, helping her fellow inmates to keep time as they marched around the exercise compound singing!
A second arrest
In another incident of ‘immense sensation’ (Votes for Women, 2 Aug 1912), Smyth was arrested on 22 July 1912, at Coign, her house on Hook Heath, Woking, for her alleged part in a plot to set fire to Nuneham Courtney, Oxford, the country home of Lewis Harcourt, along with fellow suffragette, Helen Craggs. Despite being able to account for her whereabouts on the night in question, Ethel was charged at Bullingdon Petty Sessions, Oxford, and bailed for £1000. Craggs had been found in possession of materials likely to cause arson and among them was a copy of ‘The March of the Women’ and a receipt in the name of ‘Miss Smyth’. With Ethel’s previous conviction, she was presumed party to the crime. However, her case was dismissed owing to the failure of a witness to identify her and she received an apology from the magistrate. Furious at her wrongful arrest Ethel wrote to the national press and in a letter to the Daily Herald on 1 August 1912 threatened to take out a case of unlawful imprisonment against Oxfordshire police. Craggs was bailed and ironically Ethel stood surety for her but she was later convicted, along with fellow suffragette, Norah Smyth, and sent to Holloway Prison. Craggs later became the second wife of Frederick Pethick Lawrence.
First broadcast in 1937, Ethel was recorded talking to the author Vera Brittain about her activities in the window-smashing campaign https://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/suffragettes/8314.shtml
Ethel describes her suffrage activities in this article from the Woking News and Mail, 26 April 1912 (click on the image to see a larger copy):
Ethel’s uncompromising and energetic spirit led her to become a driving force in the women’s movement and her battle song The March of the Women, was sung by suffragettes throughout London and elsewhere. An anecdote is told of how, in prison, when her fellow prisoners marched around the exercise compound singing the march, she conducted them with a toothbrush through the cell window!
Ethel’s support for the cause continued and in May 1913 when Emmeline Pankhurst was released from prison she went to recuperate at Ethel’s cottage in Hook Heath, Woking, before being re-arrested under the notorious ‘Cat and Mouse’ Act.
This incredible photograph shows Emmeline Pankhurst being re-arrested on 26 May 1913, at the garden gate of Ethel Smyth’s home in Hook Heath, Woking, Surrey. Emmeline had been recuperating here following a hunger strike: she was re-arrested under the infamous ‘Cat and Mouse’ Act enacted by the government of the time. Ethel is seen sitting shielding a weary Emmeline with an umbrella, whilst Nurse Pine looks on with indignation. They are also accompanied by Dr Murray who always cared for Emmeline whilst she recovered from periods of hunger strike.
Ethel often wrote terse but impassioned letters to the press about the moral injustice of the campaign. In some instances her letters were not printed in the national newspapers despite several submissions but they were published in The Suffragette, the newspaper of the WSPU. For example, following the window-smashing demonstration in London, in 1912, the WSPU published a leaflet comprising Ethel’s statement (in a letter to the editor of The Times) concerning ‘Mrs Pankhurst’s Treatment in Prison’, March 1912. The leaflet includes the reply from the Home Office, printed in The Times, 20 April 1912. (WSPU leaflet no 94). Ethel’s letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury regarding the Church of England’s position on the voting issue and the response to the death of Emily Wilding Davison, was also published 20 June 1913. Click on the image to see a larger copy.
Although Ethel took no further part in active militancy after the end of her two years with the WSPU in 1913, she remained a powerful advocate for women’s rights as a suffragist thereafter, supporting Emmeline Pankhurst and creating a large volume of material both in her books and in her voluminous correspondence both with individuals and in publications. Ethel published ten books between 1919 and 1940, mainly autobiographical in content. Two of these, A Final Burning of Boats Etc. and Female Pipings in Eden, reveal her suffrage journey. Rather than relate a secondary narrative we feel there is no one more able to tell the story about her time as a suffragette than Ethel herself, in her own words. To read extracts of her experiences in her own words click here (pdf ).
Ethel’s exploits with the suffrage campaign are featured in the draft of the first three chapters of her last memoir, which remained unfinished at her death in 1944. For a detailed summary and extracts from the memoir click here (pdf ( ).
On the recommendation of a friend, Ethel decided to travel to Egypt, arriving in Alexandria on 8 December 1913. She continued to Helouan, near Cairo, immediately commencing work on her fourth opera The Boatswain’s Mate. At the end of May 1914 she travelled to Vienna to arrange production of her operas The Wreckers and The Boatswain’s Mate. By 1 July 1914, Ethel had moved to the French coast at St Brieuc, where she Emmeline Pankhurst had arrived in a weak state having been temporarily released from prison. However, the outbreak of the war saw all performances of Ethel’s works in Germany cancelled, a disastrous setback for her career as a composer. Ethel wrote that “…by midnight on August 4th all Europe was at war” but eventually both she and Emmeline got back to England. For her part in the war effort, Ethel worked in an ambulance outfit on the Italian Front and trained as a radiographer in Paris, attached to the XIIIth Division of the French Army at Vichy. Later she commented that “…early in January 1918 the vote was at last given to women. At that time I was still in France and after the pushing back of the British line in March 1918 it was only with difficulty that I managed to get back to England”. After a short spell as an interpreter for the Red Cross in Italy at the end of the war, Ethel returned to the promotion of her concerts with full vigour.
Dame Ethel Smyth was a truly remarkable woman. She died in 1944 and at her own request, after cremation at Woking Crematorium, her ashes were scattered in the woodland next to the golf course by her brother, Robert.
One of Ethel’s many enigmatic quotes reads:
“Because I have conducted my own operas and love sheep-dogs;
Because I generally dress in tweeds, and sometimes, at winter afternoon concerts, have even conducted in them;
Because I was a militant suffragette and seized a chance of beating time to The March of the Women from the window of my cell in Holloway Prison with a tooth-brush;
Because I have written books, spoken speeches, broadcast, and don’t always make sure that my hat is on straight;
For these and other equally pertinent reasons, in a certain sense I am well known.”
Contributed by Lewis Orchard, Smyth Archive volunteer, Surrey History Centre, and Di Stiff, for The March of the Women project.
The Lewis Orchard Collection at Surrey History Centre contains research papers relating to Ethel Smyth’s life and works (SHC ref 9180/-). Click here to see the catalogue of Lewis Orchard’s research papers relating to Ethel Smyth.
Read Dr Chris Wiley and Dr Amy Zigler’s article written for The March of the Women project: The Suffragette Movement and the Music of Ethel Smyth: The String Quartet and The Boatswain’s Mate
For a copies of Ethel Smyth’s correspondence with St Andrew’s University, see SHC ref Z/699. Read a blog about them at https://standrewsrarebooks.wordpress.com/2018/03/08/international-womens-day-dame-ethel-mary-smyth/
For copy manuscript chapters of Ethel Smyth’s final unpublished memoir, ‘A Fresh Start’, c.1941, p.1-46, see SHC ref Z/711.
Ethel Smyth is featured in the following articles in Women’s History, the journal of the Women’s History Network, Special Issue 1918-2018, vol 2 Issue 11, including:
Dr Chris Wiley, ‘Ethel Smyth, Suffrage and Surrey: From Frimley Green to Hook Heath, Woking’;
Rosie Everritt and Holly Parsons, ‘The March of the Women: Surrey’s Road to the Vote’;
Dr Chris Wiley, ‘A Fresh Start and Two (More) Portraits: Theatrical shows on the life and work of Ethel Smyth’.
Papers relating to Ethel Smyth are held at The Women’s Library based at the London School of Economics, including (Ref.NA501). The catalogue can be consulted online at http://www.lse.ac.uk/library/collections/featuredCollections/womensLibraryLSE.aspx
The British Library acquired letters of Ethel Smyth in 2014, read more about them here.
For a definitive account of Ethel Smyth’s life, music, writings and passions, with a timeline, bibliography, family history, and links to other sources, please see the Exploring Surrey’s Past web page on Ethel Smyth.
Ethel Smyth is featured in ‘The March of the Women’ project online exhibition
For an interview with Dr Chris Wiley from the University of Surrey about Ethel Smyth click here.
To read more about Dame Ethel’s experiences in the First World War click here