• March of the Women

Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932)

Colour photograph of a red, white and green floral banner with 'Godalming' written at the centre

Banner worked by Gertrude Jekyll for the Godalming Branch of the NUWSS, nd [c.1913]
(Godalming Museum Collection).

Much has been written about the achievements of Godalming’s Gertrude Jekyll as an Artist, Gardener and Craftswoman but much less is known about her contribution to the women’s suffrage movement.

From her time spent at the Kensington School of Art in the 1860s and through her travels across Europe and North Africa in the 1870s, Gertrude became friends with a wide group of people who supported the women’s movement. One such friend was Barbara Bodichon, a fellow artist and political campaigner. A close friend of George Eliot and the cousin of Florence Nightingale, Bodichon was a passionate advocate of women’s rights in education, the law, medicine and particularly the right to vote. She formed the first women’s suffrage committee and toured the country giving speeches to promote the cause. Bodichon and Jekyll shared a love of art but in her biography of Jekyll, Sally Festing writes of Bodichon that ‘without sharing her opinions, it would have been impossible to spend much time with her’. (1) Not only did they spend time together, including a winter in Algiers, but Jekyll had six of Bodichon’s watercolours hung in her Godalming home.

Whilst at art school, Gertrude met the artist GF Watts and the subsequent friendship with his wife, Mary, was to have a significant influence. In 1909 Gertrude was elected vice president of the Godalming Branch of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) (2) supporting her friend Mary, who was President. The following year the NUWSS held a demonstration in Guildford and both women were on the platform (3) and when the Surrey, Sussex and Hants branches of the NUWSS held a “Great Sale of Plants from Famous Gardens of Surrey” fundraiser on 9 November 1912, they hired a shop at 105 High Street, Guildford, and the ever practical Gertrude provided plants (4).

The most lasting evidence of Gertrude’s support was her design of the Guildford and Godalming NUWSS banners. The Godalming banner, on display at Godalming Museum has a rose design beautifully embroidered in the NUWSS colours of red, white and green.

In his biography of his aunt, Francis Jekyll was rather dismissive of Gertrude’s support for the women’s movement (5). He writes that ‘Gertrude, though she can hardly have sympathised with its more extreme manifestation, was persuaded to supply banners to the Guildford and Godalming branches and even attend a meeting at Compton Picture Gallery under the auspices of Mrs Watts’.

This rather downplays the multiple ways that Gertrude was involved with the movement. Her highly successful creative partnership with Surrey born architect, Edwin Lutyens, lead to close connections between Gertrude and the militant suffragettes.  In 1897 Lutyens married Lady Emily Bulwer-Lytton, whose sisters included Lady Constance Lytton, a militant suffragette, and Lady Elizabeth (better known as Woking resident Betty Balfour, a friend of Gertrude who also took part in the Great Pilgrimage).

In 1909 Lady Emily started to get interested in the work of the Women’s Political and Social Union (WPSU). As well as hauling her five children up and down the beach at Southwold selling copies of ‘Votes for Women’, Emily gave a speech before Mrs Pankhurst at one of the WPSU rallies. Lutyens was dismayed by his wife’s activities, worrying that the publicity would put his clients off. (6)

Emily’s sister Constance also became involved in the militant movement and she was arrested, imprisoned and force fed. After her third incarceration in 1910 she was very ill, but by this time Lutyens sympathised with his mother-in-law who felt that the family had been disgraced by Constance’s action. In a further connection, Constance was very close to her aunt, Maria Theresa Villiers, known by her married name of Mrs CW Earle, a fellow gardener and friend of Gertrude Jekyll.

From her early days as an artist Gertrude Jekyll was part of a social circle of pioneering and successful women. Using their many creative and persuasive skills they worked together in support of the women’s movement with the ultimate aim of gaining a woman’s right to vote.

Contributed by Liz Meadon, The March of the Women project volunteer.

(1) Gertrude Jekyll by Sally Festing, 1993 (Chapter 9)
(2) Surrey Mirror, 11 February 1909
(3) Common Cause, 3 November 1910
(4) Surrey Mirror via online records at Godalming museum and Leah Taylor, ‘Baker, Isabel Noeline, 1878-1958’, Dictionary of New Zealand National Biography, (New Zealand, 2001), p.74.
(5) Francis Jekyll Gertrude Jekyll: A memoir, 1934
(6) Jane Ridley, The Architect and his Wife: A Life of Edwin Lutyens, 2003

Exploring Surrey’s Past web page on Gertrude Jekyll
The Gertude Jekyll website
Godalming Museum website

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