Hilda, Georgina and Marie Brackenbury
Towards the beginning of the twentieth century, Peaslake in Surrey became home to a number of independent women, commonly artists. Its popularity can be attributed to the beautiful scenery, old brick cottages, streams and deep secret lanes. With the advance of the Votes for Women campaign, the village became “rather a nest of Suffragettes” and as described in the words of Edwin Waterhouse in 1912, home to “fourteen ladies there of very advanced views.” (Overton, 1998).
Among these women, at ‘Brackenside’, resided Hilda Brackenbury and her two daughters, Georgina and Marie. These names are often blurred among those such as Emmeline Pankhurst and Emily Wilding Davison, but it is vital to remember the significant role of these three women in the fight for female enfranchisement. On 3 August 1912, suffragette newspaper Votes for Women wrote, “their names are deeply inscribed on the scroll of honour. To them is due the love and gratitude of succeeding generations of British women and men.” (Votes for Women, 8 March 1912, p.3).
Hilda Brackenbury (1832-1918)
Hilda Eliza Campbell was born in Quebec, Canada, in 1832. She was fond of singing from a very early age, but her music master was later to regret that, being a female, she could not audition for the opera. Moreover, she assisted in devising daring outfits of tunics and long bloomers when crinolines became fashionable in the 1850s, making it easier for women to take part in outdoor sports. In her youth, it became clear that gender inequality hindered female progression.
In April 1854, Hilda sailed to England after marrying British Major General Charles Brackenbury. Together they had six sons and three daughters. However, the family became fragmented when Hilda was widowed in 1890 after Charles died from heart failure. Charles’ will left everything to the ladies of the household rather than his sons, since he held a firm belief that men should provide for their women first and foremost. Two of the sons were later killed in active service in India.
Becoming active members in the movement for women’s enfranchisement, Hilda and her daughters joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1907. Hilda had admiration for Emmeline Pankhurst and became increasingly involved with the Suffragettes. On 1 March 1912, during the ‘Window Smashing Campaign’, Hilda used a hammer to break two windows at the United Services Institution in Whitehall. At first attempt, no policeman appeared so she broke another and thanked the constable that came to arrest her. She spent eight days on remand and was sentenced to 14 days in Holloway Prison. In court, Hilda claimed to have protested at the “oppression, suppression and repression of women.” (Atherton, 2017). Moreover, when a doctor tried to persuade 79-year-old Hilda to go to the infirmary, she smiled and said “Doctor, if you try to remove me, I shall cling to my bars.” (Overton & Mant, 1998).
In June 1914, Hilda wrote a bold letter to The Times, highlighting that “the women have died, but that did not stop militancy.” She claims that men should not have to sacrifice their leisurely hours arresting militants and thus, should simply “give women the vote.” (The Times, 15 June 1914, p.4).
Hilda died in October 1918 – the year when some women over 30 were finally granted the right to vote. The bill was passed in February and the first election was not until December – Hilda would have been eligible to vote, but never got the opportunity.
Georgina Brackenbury (1865-1949) and Marie Brackenbury (1866-1945)
Both sisters, Georgina and Marie, studied at Slade Art School from 1888-1900, specialising in portraits and landscapes, however, they put their talent on hold to devote their energy towards the militant suffrage campaign. They believed that the peaceful methods adopted had failed for 45 years, and took inspiration from David Lloyd George who had previously said, “There comes a time when people suffering from intolerable injustice revolt.” (The Manchester Guardian, 5 March 1913, p.9)
As their first major contribution to the campaign, in February 1908, Georgina and Marie led the Pantechnicon Raid on Parliament; twenty suffragettes with petitions tried to enter the House of Commons but were found guilty of ‘using insulting behaviour and resisting police’ (Museum of London Online Collections). Marie was quoted as saying “I am a soldier in this great cause” (Crawford, 2001). Subsequently, the sisters served six weeks in Holloway Prison where they amused themselves by modelling animals out of stale bread. Hilda commented “I feel that my daughters are doing a service to their country in exactly the same way as my sons would do on the field” (Berkshire Chronicle, 31 October 1908, p.10) and Mrs Pethick Lawrence declared that they had “inherited their father’s valour and military spirit.” (Atherton, 2017) The imprisonment qualified both sisters to have a commemorative tree planted at the ‘Suffragette’s Rest’ at Mary Blathwayt’s home in Batheaston, Somerset.
Women’s Sunday took place on 21 June 1908. Over half a million people attended the demonstration in Hyde Park where both Georgina and Marie were chairing the speaker platforms. Being a confident speaker, Georgina spent her time addressing meetings all over Britain and Germany.
During the 1912 Window Smashing Campaign, Marie was arrested for throwing a handful of coins to distract the police guarding Palace Yard outside Parliament and then running past them with a banner inscribed ‘Victory’. Georgina was refused admittance to Bow Street police station when trying to visit her mother but was arrested when she tried to protest. She had previously argued that “the time had come when an end should be put to such shams as speaking of the country and the people when what was meant was men.” (The Scotsman, 15 April 1910, p.6).
However, militant tactics turned the public hostile. In March 1913, the Brackenbury sisters were recognised in Oxford Street and had to be rescued by the police when a crowd swarmed ‘to tear them to pieces’ (Overton & Mant, 1998). Marie regularly suffered abuse from anti-militants; she was spat at and told she ought to be dragged around Trafalgar Square by her hair for the offence of handing out leaflets. She believed “nothing mattered except faithfulness to the Cause. We were raised to throw aside all conventions to break down the barriers of false prejudice and false conceptions of the ideal woman.” (Atherton, 2017).
Marie was a pavement artist and often used to advertise meetings by using her artistic talents chalking the details on paving stones or walls. In 1908 she produced a cartoon sketch titled ‘History Up To Date And More So’, giving the Suffragette view of Parliament. A copy is held in the Vaughan-Williams family archive at Surrey History Centre (SHC ref 6536/221). She was described as “one of the very best exponents of her cause – a lady of culture and refinement, deeply in earnest.” (Northampton Mercury, 22 October 1909, p.5).
In 1927, the Pankhurst Memorial Committee commissioned Georgina to paint a portrait of Emmeline Pankhurst, which now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. Both sisters were pall bearers at Emmeline Pankhurst’s funeral in 1928.
As well as a country home in Peaslake, the Brackenburys had a home at 2 Campden Hill Square, Kensington, which became a safe haven for many and included a studio large enough to admit 200 women for WSPU meetings.
At the peak of the militant campaign, the home became more commonly known as ‘Mouse Castle’, whereby hunger-strikers released on license under the 1913 ‘Cat and Mouse Act’ could go to recuperate but under the constant surveillance of police. With the help of disguise from the Actresses Franchise League (AFL), many of the so-called ‘mice’ were able to escape re-arrest.
In June 1914, the Kensington home was temporarily made WSPU headquarters after the Westminster office was raided by police.
Marie passed away in 1946. Georgina’s death followed three years later. An obituary in The Times praised her as one of the movement’s “most telling and eloquent speakers” (Overton & Mant, 1910). Georgina left ‘Mouse Castle’ to the Over Thirties Association for it to be converted into self-contained bed sitters, to be let at modest rates to women of thirty or over.
To pay tribute to the Brackenbury ladies, the Suffragette Fellowship in 1950 commissioned a plaque to hang in ‘Mouse Castle’. It is now on display at the Museum of London. Mary Thompson, a contributor towards the cost of the plaque, aptly wrote in a letter: “The Brackenbury trio were so whole-hearted and helpful during all the early strenuous years of the militant suffrage movement. We remember them with honour.” (Crawford, 2001).
Contributed by Hafsa Malik, ‘The March of the Women’ project volunteer.
Atherton, Kathy, Suffragettes, Suffragists & Antis: The Fight For The Vote In The Surrey Hills (Dorking: The Cockerel Press, 2017)
Crawford, Elizabeth, The Women’s Suffrage Movement (London: Routledge, 2001), pp. 75-76.
Crawford, Elizabeth, Art And Suffrage: A Biographical Dictionary Of Suffrage Artists, 2019.
Overton, Jenny, and Joan Mant, A Suffragette Nest: Peaslake, 1910 And After (Surrey: Hazeltree Publishing, 1998)
Purvis, June, Christabel Pankhurst (Abingdon: Routledge, 2018), p. 166
Museum of London Online Collections- Brackenbury Commemorative plaque
Holme Pierrepont Hall, Georgina Brackenbury
Spartacus Educational, Hilda Brackenbury
Surrey Life- Suffragettes and Surrey – from Epsom to Peaslake and further afield
Uncover your Ancestors, The Brackenbury Family and Jane Brailsford blog
Exploring Surrey’s Past, The women’s suffrage movement in Surrey
Alice Hawkins Suffragette, a sister of freedom
‘History Up To Date And More So’ by suffragette Marie Brackenbury (SHC ref 6536/221)
British Newspaper Archive
Berkshire Chronicle, 1908, p. 10
Northampton Mercury, “A Talk With A Suffragette”, 1909, p. 5
The Manchester Guardian, “Mrs. Pankhurst And “Incitements.””, 1913, p. 9
The Scotsman, “Women And The Vote”, 1910, p. 6
Votes for Women, “Prisoners Of Freedom: Mrs. Brackenbury”, 1912, p. 3