• March of the Women

Helena Auerbach (1871-1955)

Portrait of Helena Auerbach in costume, from the album of appreciation gifted to Helena on her resignation as president of the Surrey Federation of WIs
(SHC ref 3410/4/1)

Suffragist campaigner at home and abroad

On a ‘pleasant summer’s afternoon[1] in 1910, Helena Auerbach (nèe Joshua) and her husband, Julius, hosted a garden fete at their home, Hethersett, one of the grand houses below Reigate Hill. There were stalls with games, crafts and refreshments, while the Town Band ‘discoursed sweet music’ and two local ladies gave concerts. The newspaper reported ‘In the evening the grounds in their illuminated garb presented a most fascinating spectacle, and when the time came to say “Good Night” everyone carried away the most pleasant remembrances of a most pleasant day at Hethersett.’ This tranquil English scene had serious purpose though, for Helena was a leading suffragist campaigner. Alongside the games and dances, there were speeches advocating the suffrage cause, and money raised from the event went to the Reigate, Redhill and District Society for Women’s Suffrage (RRDSWS) to further fund the campaign.

Helena helped set up this branch of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) and as its President she chaired many local meetings at Reigate Town Hall featuring speakers such as Millicent Fawcett, Mrs Phillip Snowden, and local MP, Colonel Rawdon. She also served on the executive committee of the NUWSS as treasurer and was part of the delegation that met with Prime Minister Asquith in 1913. Her role at the national level was emphasised when she held the national banner for the society in the Coronation Procession of June 1911, where suffragette and suffragist groups marched together in a common cause.

The Reigate, Redhill and District Society for Women’s Suffrage branch scrapbook compiled by Helena Auerbach, c.1908-1913
(SHC ref 3266/1).

As part of the NUWSS she was strongly against the militant tactics deployed by the suffragettes, but she was no less active in her work for the cause. Indeed her words had power – she gave rousing speeches and wrote numerous letters to newspaper editors, giving her argument clearly, with great wit and intelligence. In defending the NUWSS policy to actively support pro-suffrage candidates of any political party at local elections, she wrote: ‘Is it logical to refuse the franchise to women and yet to expect them to recognise party obligations? … Now, putting the cart before the horse may be a perfectly pleasant and even a sensible arrangement if you are merely out to enjoy the view, but if you have a destination of your own to make for, it is not likely to help you on very far in the direction you desire to go, and without the vote our political opinions are of no use to anyone, least of all to ourselves.’[2] Helena was an active supporter of the Unionist cause so this policy led to personal attacks on her character, but throughout she considered the fight for suffrage a wider issue, eventually resigning from the Women’s Unionist Party following the failure of politicians to make good on their promises to support the Conciliation Bill.

Campaigning abroad

Millicent Fawcett’s Hyde Park address, 1913
(The Women’s Library collection, LSE Library)

Helena came from a Jewish upper middle class merchant family, so had strong links across the globe and spoke several languages. Recent translations of newspaper articles she kept as part of the RRDSWS scrapbook reveal she was able to capitalise on these connections for the cause, speaking at suffrage meetings in Germany, France and particularly in South Africa, where her husband’s family business, Dreyfus and Co. Ltd, was based. There are reports of various meetings where she spoke to large crowds for an hour at a time. One, in January 1912, even credited Helena for the suffrage movement in the country: ‘…the lady responsible for its appearance here is Mrs Auerbach, a fluent speaker, and one who has her subject at her fingers ends. She is well-known in East London [a city on south east coast of South Africa] and to her personal charm, together with the importance of the movement to which she is devoting her life and energy, must be attributed the success of the inaugural meeting held in S. Saviour’s Hall last night. The building was not nearly large enough and although extra chairs were procured a large number of people were content with standing room.’[3] This experience and talent were well used the following year, when, in June 1913, she was the first speaker at an international conference on suffrage in Germany, giving her speech in German.

Continuing her civic work

From giving stirring speeches across the globe to the minutiae of accounting and organising meetings and marches, Helena was dedicated to the cause. She never lost faith, even when times looked bleak. During the First World War she supported the Reigate and Redhill Women’s Citizens’ Assocation and the Women’s Land Army (see Surrey Mirror, 25 July 1919). Once the vote was won, her civic work didn’t end but found a new direction; she co-founded the Surrey County Federation of Women’s Institutes in 1918, serving as its president from 1919-1929.

On 24 August 1955, Helena died at her home ‘Piemede’, Rockshaw Road, Merstham, at the age of 83.

Contributed by Sarah Holloway, ‘The March of the Women’ project volunteer.

Helena Auerbach’s scrapbook of newspaper clippings relating to Reigate, Redhill and District Society for Women’s Suffrage (SHC ref 3266/1).
Research papers and photographs relating to the Auerbach family (SHC Z/709). This catalogue contains a detailed introduction to the Auerbach family.
Album of appreciation gifted to Helena Auerbach on her resignation as president of the Surrey Federation of WIs (SHC ref 3410/4/1)
1939 Register, accessible via FindMyPast.co.uk
Jane Robinson, Hearts and Minds: The untold story of the Great Pilgrimage and how women won the vote, 2018
Jane Robinson, A force to be reckoned with: a history of the Women’s Institute, 2011
Read Sarah Holloway’s ‘March of the Women’ project blog about researching Helena Auerbach https://www.exploringsurreyspast.org.uk/extraordinary-women/

Specific references:
[1] SHC ref 3266/1: ‘Garden fete at Hethersett, Reigate: interesting proceedings’ (unnamed newspaper cutting, nd – probably Surrey Mirror, June 1910 – similar to another article published in Dorking and Leatherhead Advertiser, 25 June 1910)
[2] SHC ref 3266/1: letter to editor (unnamed newspaper cutting – probably Surrey Mirror, 18 May 1910)
[3] SHC ref 3266/1: ‘Women’s Suffrage: Mrs Auerbach’s Meeting’ (Daily Dispatch, Tuesday 30 January 1912)

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